Grey Matters

Back to the ’50s. Minimalism RIP.

Posted by Johnny on April 16th, 2014

In the last few days I have been lucky enough to visit Milan 2014, two design shows that set the year’s interiors agenda: Salone del Mobile and Eurocucina.

There really isn’t anything like these adjoining trade shows in England, or maybe anywhere else in the world.  Approaching them on a metro line with thousands of others as if we were travelling to a football match, I emerged into full sun, dazzled first by the light and then the exhibits.  Incidentally, as an English speaker you feel most of the time that your home environment is advanced enough technologically.  But Milan, apparently one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, provides its underground users with excellent wifi (like Shanghai – more to come about that city later…).

Heading first for Eurocucina, it was a pleasure to see imaginative 1950s-inspired kitchens – making for a more interesting show than last year’s.  It seems that the minimalist look– often an excuse for boring reductive designs with no emotional appeal - is now exhausted, jettisoned in favour of much more exciting ways of communicating with customers.  On display in Milan was a contemporary Italian version of steam punk that uses roughened industrial surfaces combined with rusticity, some modern materials and a bit of New York warehouse ambiance.  A key expression of this is Scavolini’s collaboration the fashion brand Diesel (subtitled ‘social Diesel’), a laid back kitchen with draw handles evoking ’50s office filing cabinets, hammered metal finishes as on old machinery, wire mesh reinforced glass, and rubbed oak surfaces subtly distressed and greyed off.  More obviously nostalgic, kitchens from the Marchi Group are complete interior design concepts, their remit extending beyond cabinetry to cover the feel, colour and texture of whole rooms.  Nostalgia really works when given a new injection of energy, its references put together in a fresh way.  As it happens, I too am developing a collection for industry that draws on my long-standing affection for the ’50s and an unbuttoned approach to designing domestic spaces.

In Milan, the innovation continued in the contemporary furniture halls of Salone del Mobile, where Zanotta (through their collaboration with Maserati) showed highly crafted chairs like seats out of classic sports and saloon cars only more capacious.

Outside the shows, the Brera district (Milan’s design quarter –like Clerkenwell perhaps) is a metro ride away.  Here designers have a coordinated voice.  The industry’s local paper publishes a manifesto – proof of the way Italians love debating design, treating it as a philosophical as well as practical profession.  Brera’s old streets full of restaurants, small shops and cafes, bordered by La Scala opera house, have two design academies at their heart.  So as history encases modern ideas, the district is thriving, a great place to shop and meet people, and above all a friendly scene.

I’d like to bring some of the glow of this design culture here by giving students at Bucks New University the chance to enjoy the same kind of excitement and depth of thought about the possibilities of kitchen furniture and home design.  Our designers need to inform themselves not just to see the kitchen as sales opportunities but as creative experiences that unite many aspects of life – food, design, history, cabinetry – and their design a discipline that connects directly with architecture and culture.  Tellingly I hardly spotted a single British product or company at the Milan shows.



Posted by Johnny on March 14th, 2014

I’m always interested in what people are doing in their kitchens. Here is something new (or new for many of us: it’s actually been around for millennia).

I was in NSW last month seeing family and had a chance to attend a session at Sydney University with ‘fermento’-in-chief Sandor Katz, who travels the world from his San Francisco base spreading the word about this exciting and healthy branch of food culture. He ran a very enjoyable collaborative session. Sydney chefs brought samples of their own fermented foods for the group to sample, and there was much helpful information for beginners like myself. Fermenting porridge - porridge was once fermented for at least two days as a matter of course - breaks down the nutrients, making it more creamy and digestible, and should always be done. Soaked in water for two days, oats increase their flavour, becoming mildly umami in taste. This process is fermentation at its simplest, entry-level. More minerals in the food become nutritionally available with an alkalising effect that is excellent for people looking to reduce the acidity of their diet.

Sandor had a very quiet, open presence and was willing for people to share their stories. Mustachioed, he has fine posture, almost military bearing, and he lives on a self-proclaimed ‘fairy commune’. He brought along a hot plate, cutting boards, and a large collection of jars containing ingredients of various subtle hues - too-bright colours are warning signs of harmful rather than beneficial bacteria. Fermented rice made from a starter was passed around. This tasted medieval, with honey-roasted flavours that seemed both new and slightly familiar, unheimlich (uncanny) even, and surprisingly delicious. Millet porridge also had a richly complex flavour.

We heard stories from all over the world of unusual ways of preserving food that took advantage of seasonal gluts. In South Sea islands, custard fruit buried in pits with a small sprinkling of top soil is known as famine protection food and lasts up to 10 years. Quite a lot of fermentation sounds scary and you need to change the way you think about aged food. What was apparent is that a whole community is rebuilding knowledge about this fascinating approach to food preparation. I queried Sandor about designing or adapting kitchens for fermentation work at the end of the talk. Beyond a good sized end-grain cutting board and plenty of jars, we devised a checklist that includes different temperature zones, in particular incubation chambers that you can either build into your own furniture or buy as standalone appliances, with temperatures of 13-15 degrees for faster fermenting and 17-18 degrees for slow, hotter for Natto – but this has be done by adapting an oven. Lots of shelves would enable the watching of contents of glass jars changing state, part of your kitchen looking like an old-fashioned pharmacy store (or an edible Damien Hirst installation), with condiments brewing to add to any meal that needs a boost with umami, sweet, sour or salty flavours. I can’t wait to do this with the help of Sandor’s new book, The Art of Fermentation.

See the Guardian article by Tony Naylor on fermenting vegetables this week:

Check out The Ethicurean restaurant, Bristol’s answer to Noma’s Redzepi. Fermented food is definitively on the menu.

Sandor Katz’s website “” He is visiting The Wild Festival in Somerset on 4th May and Ballymaloe Literary Festival on 18th May.



Posted by Johnny on January 27th, 2014

The relationship between cooking, creativity and the kitchen environment is one of my big interests, not surprisingly. I love experimental cooking (my family aren’t so sure… home fermented sauerkraut, anyone?) and view food as a vehicle for bringing other cultures into the home kitchen. The effects of a holiday can and should be prolonged by the simple trick of food shopping while away and then recreating dishes with the ingredients you enjoyed, eg, spices from Sri Lanka, or Spanish ham, French cheeses and Greek herbs.  The foreign wrappers are exotically pretty too. To describe these experiences I coined the term ‘food travelling’ in the introduction to my book Kitchen Culture.

So Jonathan Jones’s art blog in the Guardian in which he makes a case for cooking as the first, the original, art form set me thinking,

Could cooking be the first art, as opposed to a pragmatic survival strategy?  What about cave paintings and Ice Age fertility figures? Wasn’t early cookery mainly meat scorched on a fire with some boiled seeds or grains?  But Jones makes a compelling case for cooking as an art form by linking Renaissance painting with the rise of food culture. 16th century paintings show complex and beautiful arrangements of food, cutlery, glasses, crockery and tablecloths. Leonardo da Vinci, a vegetarian, left behind notebooks of jottings on food shopping and cooking.

Modern art offers us an extraordinarily wide context. Illustration from Leonard Koren, The Art of Arranging things

Are we creative enough with our cooking today?  We want to be - Jones suggests that the artistry involved in following recipes aims to create a gap between our cooking and eating behaviour and the crude appetites of the body or the moral failing of gluttony. Maybe that’s true, and it’s one more ingredient in the complicated relationship we have with food, cooking and food politics.

Art on the grid cupboard by Lucy Turner

But a useful message to take from all this is that humankind has an extremely long history of finding pleasure in beauty and creativity in the kitchen. I personally reckon this is on the increase as kitchens play an ever greater role in our lives, creating a welcome virtuous circle. So enjoy.