Grey Matters

Liquid Gold

Posted by Johnny on June 2nd, 2015

Blog as told to Becca Grey by Johnny…..

Tea is one of life’s pure pleasures. It’s even good for you. Becca and I start the day with a shared pot of tea every day we are at home. Our favourite variety is Chinese Keemun, sometimes known as Russian Caravan. There is nothing so wonderful as the first cup of the day, a natural gently aromatic brew that comforts and stimulates (mildly) the happy drinker. Late afternoon, whether at home or on the road, is another point in the day for a ritual and extremely welcome pot of tea. Accessing good brew outside of home is not nearly as easy as it should be though in a country famous for its love of tea.


Pouring some Keemun

We prefer China to Indian, clearly swimming against the tide since the most popular teabag tea, ‘builders’’, is Indian. (I like this label but find ‘lesbian’ for herbal teas a bit Clarkson, though hard to resist at certain moments like the end of a dinner party.) The discovery of a proper tea merchant with a large range of loose-leaf teas is always a relief then as well as a pleasure. Cardew’s in the Covered Market in Oxford is one of these, another favourite the excellent stall in Cambridge market. Imagine our delight when taking a walk through the old centre of York this month we came across Hebden Teas. In a medieval shop in the Shambles, Okan Ok the proprietor has a truly amazing range, including special cakes of aged compacted tea that you gouge leaves off with a small knife. The first thing we noticed was a couple of steaming pots for passers-by to sample displayed on the broad wooden shelf that once fronted all the old shops under their windows onto the street. Inside we found an oriental treasure house, a revelation and education in the human relationship with camellia sinensis in all its varieties. You can visit the shop online at Nothing beats going to York though and talking tea with Okan. His collection of teapots and cups and glasses is impossible to resist, but why try: isn’t it an innocent pleasure to drink tea out of a new cup made of china or fine glass, maybe decorated with some hand-drawn cherry blossom, maybe elegantly plain?


Inside Hebden Tea in York

Tea is of course the ultimate sociable drink, sharing a cuppa at the kitchen table a timeless expression of friendliness and homeliness. Tea comforts and revives us, even possibly protecting against cancer. It is herbal and also ordinary, democratic. You can enjoy it with food or on its own, with milk and/or sugar or without, milk in first or last (an important issue in the past for people exercised about social status). A global product with a fascinating history, it also provides another precious connection for me, with Fu- Tung Cheng, an architect colleague who runs Teance, a teahouse in Berkeley, California. Fu-Tung, who has written a book on concrete and designed specialized furniture for tea making and serving, draws a parallel between tea and wine. The Chinese, he told me, drink tea just like the French their wine. Terroir is crucial, then cultivation, artisanal production and the culture and practices around tea’s preparation and serving. Just like the grape, the tea leaf is a plant product from which we create one of the blessings of life.


Johnny outside Hebden Tea


The decade that style forgot

Posted by Johnny on February 27th, 2015

Blog, as told to Becca Grey by Johnny……

That is what people used to call the seventies, but with a widespread reawakening this amnesia now seems to be over. Clothes that evoke the decade are apparently right back in fashion: the flares, fringing, tucked in shirts with pointy collars… Style never forgot Bianca Jagger or Jerry Hall, we suddenly remember. As often happens it’s the same with design and architecture, as people start appreciating Brutalism with Tumblr sites such as this:

Seventies space age inspired room set

It’s also difficult not to be a bit nostalgic for ’70s society. The Three-Day Week was hardly feel good, but there was much more of a sense that we were all in this together then than now. Social mobility was at its best ever in this country then and the pay gap between top and bottom was never smaller, before or since. In America and Britain the very end of the ’70s saw the arrival of ‘neoliberal’ economic policies and the rise of the banks and shadow banking, a development we no longer view through rose tinted specs. A good moment then to reevaluate the ’70s. While my career began in the last years of the decade, a seminal event for me was an exhibition at Allied Maples in Tottenham Court Road in 1973. To drawn customers in, the furniture store displayed a collection of high concept modern design in a large open plan location within the store. Tall square foam pillars divided the space, virtual walls you could move at will. There was an uninspiringly anonymous kitchen, but the rest of the furniture was extremely cool. I was most excited by two chairs, one called the Comfort Explosion, the other a suspended pod like an upholstered egg that you climbed into. Once inside this, you were enveloped by the output of an integral music system, a forerunner of the private consumption of music we take for granted now through high quality headphones. This hanging pod chair felt to me like the cockpit of a plane or a luxury driverless car. It was narcissistic, sensual and thrillingly new.

A recent kitchen made of solid stainless steel (see UK portfolio – Alresford)

Big flowing curves characterized this furniture, its bold shapes closely related to pop art and graphic design. Unable to resist, I ordered a Comfort Explosion. This was a curved block of foam covered in soft jumbo cord. You lay back in it, weight spread evenly down the spine and legs, with the calves providing an unusual and helpful amount of support. It was a slacker’s chair, perfect for communing with the Dark Side of the Moon (and a spliff). Mine was delivered in person to my house by the designer Rupert Oliver. He’d put it in his Citroen, a new CX with amazing rise and fall suspension. Oliver himself, slightly rumpled looking in his corduroy suit, would now be called a hipster. I was interested to hear how he ran his independent design business and had his furniture custom made. He sold the Comfort Explosion both to university halls of residence and retirement care homes.

Rupert Oliver still makes exciting furniture mostly for children (see link below)

With all this innovation going on, I started experimenting with making my own furniture in our family’s barn in Sussex. A router was the best tool for creating shapes as it enabled the molding of pieces of wood into interesting curves. I made a filing system that was the genesis of my first (‘gothic’) kitchen project; in the market generally kitchens lagged well behind furniture in terms of innovation and inspiration. It actually took me some time – a decade and a half – to bring the curves I first saw at Maples into my kitchen design practice. When I became my own client at the beginning of the ’90s I started seriously revisiting this exuberance through the use of curved shapes and a more sensual approach to design. Our own kitchen is made of curved ’70s inspired shaped furniture combined with antiques, an infinitely variable recipe that has proved popular with clients ever since. The pleasure seeking pod chair that blew me away in 1973 does continue to inspire, along with the Comfort Explosion (sadly long tattered and perished). These days however the ideal is convivial pleasure, not so much the self-involved kind – though actually that is completely fine too.

To see Rupert Oliver Ideas Factory



Last Tango kitchen culture

Posted by Johnny on January 28th, 2015

Posted by Becca Grey.
Like many viewers of the Last Tango in Halifax on the BBC, I cannot help noticing the extent to which kitchens feature in this series, almost to the point of being characters in their own right. In the complicated lives of the two leads Gillian and Caroline, the kitchen is the social hub for their large extended families. Gillian’s is a ‘4D’ family – four generations sharing the space – and Caroline’s a fine example of the ‘blended’ family that includes steps and exes.

Both the programme’s kitchens are large and characterful spaces. Caroline’s is elegant and aspirational, a good match for her wardrobe and her status as a high-achieving woman in charge of a private school. The floor is new gleaming wood, there’s an Aga of course, an island with a tall stalk of a mixer tap that nicely mirrors all the tall stalked glasses of wine characters drink to signify their sophistication and their stress. A chandelier sparkles over the island where people perch on stools. Otherwise they pace about the room, iPhone clamped to ear. French windows provide access to the garden and a route round the side of the house to Celia’s quarters. A lot of this design is very much in line with Johnny Grey Studios’ work, but not all of it. Johnny immediately spotted the way the stools around the island do not provide comfortable seating, the knees of the characters pushed to one side, unable to fit under the counter – a classic design mistake. Some of the cabinetry is clearly standard units so cannot be classed as bespoke – a possible reason for being unable to accommodate, in this case, multi-tasking functions.

Gillian’s kitchen is pure farmhouse, an open plan living space, presumably made from two rooms where one end is relatively cobbled together kitchen units, clothes washing machine included. The family spend much of their time in here, Gillian maybe the exception due to her bed scenes, mechanical work on the tractor and employment in town. The soft seating is key, the sofas and fire making this a true living room-kitchen.

If the substance of this kitchen is right though it does not match Caroline’s luxury for obvious resources-related reasons. The ideal kitchen would be a blend of the two, both down to earth and spacious with lots of wood, a well planned central island, softer in shape and easy to walk around, with a raised height food bar and place to perch. A sofa, wood burning stove, and French doors into the garden. This would take care of a deficit of both kitchen and give the characters a chance to pace up and down in the garden too. Bonding with nature is known to help calm you down.

I wonder whether the designers at The Red Production Company, the programme makers, considered any of this? How much does it matter to make kitchens on TV work?

I have a feeling we will never know if Cheryl (the offensive blond policewoman) gets the new kitchen she wants as her relationship with Robbie founders – but my guess is not.