Grey Matters

Tidyings of comfort and joy

Posted by Johnny on January 25th, 2016



Chandelier in recent outdoor kitchen, by Aline Johnson.

It’s tough being stuff in 2016. IKEA have come clean: in countries like ours there is just too much. We should mend and recycle rather than buy more stuff willy-nilly, and IKEA plan to help. For followers of Marie Kondo, clothes, miscellany and even mementoes and documents are viewed in a radical way. Instead of deciding what to discard, consider what to keep based on whether or not it ‘sparks joy’. There’s a real buzz around her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising.


Lightweight, portable storage ‘drawers’ in a recent utility room; DIY tools, light bulbs, sowing gear and a whole lot more can be moved around the house. 

How does a furniture designer respond to this minimizing mood? There’s a seasonal post Christmas element, a dry-January desire for purity, order and less. I welcome Kondo’s emotional relationship with stuff, her conversations with, and blessing of, objects based on Shinto animism. The decision to shed something is softened with messages of gratitude towards it and hope for a new appreciative owner. This last turns guilt into virtue.

The spark-joy test is a severe one but let’s do it. Let’s make sure the furniture we use is beautiful and make us feel good. I’ve always promoted that as an ideal. Crucially though there is another dimension of design that is the opposite of stuff anyway. Kitchen design looks at how a whole space works. It is the manipulation of space, the thinking that avoids mistakes. The result might be new French doors for access to a garden or a window with a view above the washing-up bowl, designs that complement furniture and appliances without taking up any space at all.

I wonder how workable Kondo’s recipe for a perfect home environment really is. How do we know when buying whether things will spark joy sustainably? No one sets out to waste money on mediocre objects that end up as clutter. It is very difficult to gauge while purchasing whether something guarantees long-term satisfaction. Antiques have a bit of a head start as their value has been proven by not ending up in landfill (yet).

It is possible though to put together a lastingly feel-good kitchen, mainly through the use of furniture. Curves and flexibility are both pleasurable things. A Spine Island in the middle of a kitchen lets people cook, work on laptops, perch and chat together. Narrow and long, with raised height elements, it accommodates more people and allows slide-able chopping blocks with edge guides for channeling prepared food that bring satisfying smoothness to routine tasks. It also fits well into narrow rooms.


Spine Island, 4 metres long allows cooking, prepping and ‘laptoping’ mixed up together with pivoting tables and stools at the far end  

Lighting has the capacity to boost mood dramatically. We can now embed a SAD treatment into a piece of furniture. The Light Dresser emits a healing spectrum of light from its surfaces, spreading wellbeing at the same time as displaying jars, fresh produce in bowls and much loved family paraphernalia.

Another kind of joy comes from contact with handmade things. Pottery, artisanal tiles, a glass chandelier, a pierced stainless steel drum made into a spice cupboard – all these can lift our mood and become friends.



Making and/or doing: kitchen design 40 years on

Posted by Johnny on January 11th, 2016

The robots at Linked-In found me out pointing out there was an anniversary of 40 years designing kitchens. Well wishers sent in their congratulations and I write this in response.  I built my first kitchen for my mum at fifteen years old. Her vision was to restore our farm cottage’s authentic furnishing and this, combined with her love of the Georgian period, gave me some clear design guidance. When my father suggested – to my slight horror – that I build a new wooden wall to cut down the draught from the entrance door opening straight into the room and build a dresser, my first attempt at making a kitchen was launched. My dad offered to help and stepped in occasionally, mostly to offer moral support: he was a doctor and an amateur carpenter. The work quickly grew to include remodelling the whole kitchen as the walking washing machine (as we called it) was replaced with a modern, compact, front loader, freeing up space and work surface. We hoped it might wash the clothes better and not the floor as the walking washing machine regularly did.

We lived in the kitchen after my carpentry efforts were complete, and for five years until she died my mum especially treated the kitchen as her base. My favourite photo of her is smoking a cigarette outside the kitchen door, whistling and surveying the garden.

pdf1 copy

My first commissioned kitchen came ten years later in 1976 from a neighbour and friend, Sam Chesterton, and was a similar learning experience. I discovered the possibilities of well organised furniture in forming an effective kitchen, with some thoughtful ergonomics thrown in. In the spirit of punk (in tune with the times) every piece was inspired by a different historic or ethnic style – Georgian, Chinoiserie Islamic – and given a gothic inflection. Aiming to create something historical and rebellious at the same time – my personal rebellion against the aesthetic orthodoxy of the time I felt that the curiosity of gothic could count in its way as an alternative International Style. It was also the perfect antidote to the fast-growing hegemony of the then new ‘fitted kitchen’.

Sam's kitchen copy

I made these pieces with two friends, also trainee woodworkers, in the same threshing barn as my mum’s kitchen was constructed in. Light came from opening the giant barn doors, benches stood on the earth floor, placed strategically away from holes in the thatched roof. This time I had two new tools, a router and power jigsaw. Mouldings, curved shapes and better jointing were suddenly possible and over indulged. Solid ash planks were slowly, amateurly and enthusiastically turned into furniture. Hours disappeared into days full of tremendous excitement and satisfaction…there was never enough time. One piece I was particularly proud of was a tall settle that stood at right angles to the wall. It turned the table into a cosy enclave, its back and side panels of gothic tracery giving eating in this kitchen a strong sense of intimacy. It was also something my American clients taught me later was a key requirement in a kitchen, a breakfast nook.

Shortly afterwards I realised that the gap between making and designing was too wide for me to breach in terms of financial investment. I had to choose between being a designer and a maker. The barn workshop, such as it was, badly needed professional woodworking machines, proper insulation and investment. My in-born impatience is better suited to design because others can help with making more easily than the other way round, thinking generally easier than doing and ideas executed faster than solid furniture. My journey to kitchen designer was happening, in hindsight was not so much accidental as inevitable. The scale of kitchens is suitable for a designer who wants to exceed the proportions of individual furniture, stay below that of an entire building but enjoy the scope of planning a room that affects the way its users live in a holistic way. The holy grail for me is to impact on my clients senses and emotions on an everyday basis.


Today I remain happy with the choice of being a designer not a maker but I’ve never forgotten how hard and pleasurable it is to make things and my respect for artisan makers remains huge. I still make simple furniture, do household maintenance and fiddle around in my workshop but there is no way I could match the high standard of the cabinet makers I work with. GK Chesterton, Sam Chesterton’s great uncle, once commented that ‘if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly’, in other words, just get on with it and stop being held back by perfectionism. The spirit of this helped me find my direction and an empathy for the whole process of making kitchens in its oblique way. This has to be combined with putting in time, refining what you do and getting the thinking in line with the making.

Today I am passing this experience on to students in my new role as educator at the Kitchen Design Course at Bucks New University, in my research programme on the 3G kitchen and to private clients who are still commissioning my kitchens, both large and small.DSC_1890



this blog was inspired by the Linked-In robot and has been posted on my page



Posted by Johnny on August 4th, 2015

Despite many futurologists over the years making twits of themselves I still believe in projecting oneself into the future and imagining how it will look and feel. It can also make good sense. Kitchens are big investments, whether designer or luxury kitchens or from the ‘big sheds’. To choose right we need to develop our skills at scenario-planning and this is a key part of what we do. It is prudent to think how your new kitchen will be used in the future, ensuring the overall design in a practical sense, durable emotionally. This will help ensure a long life span.


360 degree for those who cook

360 degree vision while you cook

Cool but not long term loveable?

Cool but long-term loveable?

The students on Bucks New University’s Kitchen Design course and I were recently lucky enough to host a futurist from Manchester, Tom Cheesewright. As an engineer Tom is practical and grounded. His focus on where technology meets social behaviour provided us with insights that avoided clichés. He explained how the flow of online information is making us all more open about who we are as technology lowers the barriers to ideas and fashions and allows them to spread rapidly over time and space. A long time ago (the 1950s and 60s) fashion-conscious British youth could choose between Mods and Rockers for an assumed identity. Now in contrast, they or we can evaluate large numbers of social tribes around the world and piece together unique blended identities from the information, Tom said. We have all noticed the ways people express who they’d like to be through the purchase of fashion, cars, home décor, garden plants, literature, music (maybe not always purchase) and other cultural products.

The drivers for behavioural changes are economic as well as cultural. Home ownership is on the decline in this country after decades of rises, down 5% last year. In our largest cities 50% of homes are rented, for an average of three years. Singles, especially the young, increasingly live in multiple occupancy homes. So designers need to think about easily customisable interiors using updateable skins or surfaces and items that can be moved between houses – freestanding rather than built-in. I see this happening with, for example, fridges. Once everyone aspired to an American Sub-Zero. Now it’s all about a freestanding fridge in a vintage colour from Smeg.

What this demands from designers is agility (Tom’s word) in responding rapidly to changing trends. The risk of not doing so is clear. We are used to seeing organisations wrong-footed by a lack of foresight and flexibility (one example is the rapid death of HMV as they failed to spot digital music coming towards them). Current kitchens often suffer from rapid irrelevance: Howdens’ figure for the average life of a kitchen, not one of theirs, is a shocking 5.7 years. To prevent this waste, furniture and fittings must be able to be smoothly reconfigured and restyled using modular design, new materials and integrated digital components.

The ubiquity of computer chips – the way they are no longer just found in recognizable computing devices like laptops, tablets, phones – was a key theme of Tom’s talk. Increasingly, these devices are being embedded in the environment around us: clothes, accessories, walls, floors and furniture – and we walk around in exercise bands. The cost of connecting any object to the internet is now less than £1, the technological problems of doing this largely overcome. The big challenge for designers is finding decent uses for this capability, assuming these exist. So far the search for a killer app eludes them as items such as smart watches suffer from over-engineering. Crystal ball prediction from Tom: in the home this will be simple reliable functions that add real pleasure and utility, rather than gimmicks. We do not know what these are yet but they will come, trust in that. For now there is no technology that gives as much benefit as a window onto a garden…

Perhaps for your garage?


Perhaps for your garage?

Food and eating habits are fertile grounds for scenario-planners.

The growth of home-based food production is one of Tom’s predictions as climate change puts pressure on traditional supplies. Hydroponic herb and vegetable cultivators are already available for domestic kitchens [details and pic to follow]. The grocery market is expected to continue diversifying, as large supermarkets struggle to

Nearly ready for your kitchen. Courtesy Electrolux

Nearly ready for your kitchen.
Courtesy Electrolux

maintain their grip and our loyalties drift to and from farmers’ markets, organic box suppliers (we use Riverford), farm shops, online specialist suppliers like Ottolenghi and – randomly picked – the Japan Centre.

Or, Tom again: ‘how about fresh bread and pastry deliveries by drone? They’re nice and light… [you could order from your bed] and a bag of fresh croissants arrives at your door five minutes later’.


For those interested in back to the future visions from the past of how we might be living now. Enjoy watching this future flick!