Grey Matters


Posted by Johnny on July 30th, 2014

The enhanced flavour of food eaten al fresco, dappled shade, open skies… at this time of year the urge to cook in an outdoor kitchen is irresistible.  First we had to build one though, bearing in mind also the marginal weather we often experience in southern England.  But actually an outdoor cooking set-up adds to the appeal of garden living by facilitating warmth and companionship well after the sun goes down.  I think a cooking device on its own is not enough: you need flames - a real hearth – and a place to sit or lounge.  Neither should an outdoor kitchen try to be a replica of one indoors as it has a wholly different raison d’être.
Keeping people outdoors requires an instinct-based approach. I keep in mind (body) warmth, comfort, eye contact with companions, some wind protection and lighting that supports intimacy as well as the various tasks needed, with a cob oven the perfect centrepiece.  Big enough to cook a few pizzas, this has real presence.  It is like a cross between an architectural object like a chimney-breast and a substantial piece of furniture; it can be shaped to suit the scale of your garden and the area you wish to define as your outdoor virtual kitchen room. There needs to be a table nearby. A portable fire pit is a alternative to this, though it is worth bearing in mind that pizza ovens are also perfect – once the heat dies down – for roasting vegetables, and can even be used like a hob with frying next to the door opening an option.

Design for our outdoor kitchen, with concrete counters, copper roof, artisan tile band and shell background

There are great creative opportunities with an outdoor kitchen but first you need to have a brief, your goal – what, exactly, will you use it for?  I see these spaces as both sociable kitchens and outdoor living rooms, rather than barbecue areas.  Our family is mostly vegetarian so barbecues have slightly less appeal anyway. We do our cooking at a low physical level, taking off the legs of the barbecue our eldest son made at school.  It does a great job.  We sit around it to cook as well as to linger afterwards on beanbags.  These may look a bit unstylish but, seriously comfortable, they allow us to use the terrace as a table and also act as a body-shaped insulators – meaning you can out for longer.

Gus, Henry and Amelia mixing clay and sand with their feet

Last week our family made a bread/pizza oven. We chose cob (clay and sand) as the main material because we could do it ourselves, it was low cost and wholly natural – though I cheated by asking our builder to make the piers and supporting frame (later), and our countertops were cast by an artisan who does the concrete structures for our indoor kitchens.  As a family we have built a cob oven before, but under supervision (see Blog Fired Up September 2011)… this time we were on our own.  With eldest son Harry, an engineer, the chief technical officer, we had fun with all the stages: picking up clay from a local brickyard in our old Land Rover (it had been dug out of the ground the day before), and laying the surface with heatproof fire bricks over insulation board… meanwhile Felix and I laid out the firebrick hearth with a layer of insulation sandwiched between it and the concrete counter base.

Johnny working out sizes for the hearth - using local and high density fire bricks

After building up the inner oven dome with dry logs and kindling, we filled the gaps with sand to sculpt a smooth shape. Three layers formed the shell of the oven, the first being clay and sand mix (cob).  It is a fast process as long as many hands and feet are available, so best as a group/family activity.  We then lit the dry logs to cure the first layer and left it to burn out overnight.

Action, contemplation and lots of sand

The next day we added a layer of sand and sawdust to act as insulation, followed by another covering of sand and clay.

Felix adding sawdust and clay mix in brick shapes

Three hours later came the final layer and the finishing touch: the date. The stone arch looks burnt out but it’s still there, just smoky-looking like a well-used oven.

Gus celebrates just before firing up for cooking

By 6 pm we finished building and layed the first fire for pizza-baking. Within 90 minutes a temperature of 400 degrees C had been reached. A pizza took less than two minutes to cook!  The first was a little gritty and burnt of crust but with chewy dough and a delicious taste of Italy came though – fresh basil, tomato,- in seven customized home made pizzas.  Afterwards we lingered round the glow of the oven, drinking red wine talking and watching the sky through the now black shadows of the trees.


The spaces in between

Posted by Johnny on May 19th, 2014

A space that people really enjoy being in is has always been the aim of my work. Alongside that is furniture that people find pleasurable to use. But furniture always needs to furnish a room rather than dominate it, to facilitate the lives that go on around and alongside it. For this, the spaces around the furniture matter a great deal. Furniture must fulfill its designated function and look good but it must also facilitate practical circulation around the room and, crucially, provide space for users’ imaginations and emotions to play an active role. Problematically, much mainstream kitchen design focuses on filling the space with as many units as possible, providing excessive work surfaces and invading every corner with cabinetry.

Colour, curves and pattern showing the way for Post Modernism.

Leaving some corners free and room for people’s own items in the kitchen – their pictures, computers, shelves of pottery, paraphernalia that might even include a rocking chair – is vital here, but so is furniture design that actively considers and creates space. Colour and curves are my favourite ways to do this. I always liked them but now understand that this preference for curves in particular is backed by neuroscience research that connects sharp corners with a part of the brain that deals with threat and activates fight-flight mental mechanisms. The study of eye movements also leads directly to curves, as interiors that include them allow users to flow around often-tight spaces. On the sensitive level of felt experience curves help create a kitchen in which people express their feelings about being at home, rather than an exercise in fitting around standardized cabinetry.

How does all this connect with a journey I made in the early 1980s to Milan? A colleague and I, having heard about exciting developments in the epicentre of the furniture world, drove all the way there in my Citroen GS. We arrived but had no tickets to the launch of a new furniture collection designed by Ettore Sottsass and his group Memphis (named after the Dylan song ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’ – a pun on the Italian for furniture, ‘mobile’?). After emergency phone calls – no mobiles then! – we managed to talk our way in through a fashion contact who let us use her name at the door. We entered the exhibition as others were leaving and our first impression was of the scale of the emptying room. There were only four or five pieces of furniture in it, with much openness around them. They were classic Memphis pieces: kitsch and brightly coloured and patterned. A bookcase, strangely shaped and leopard-spotted, appeared ugly, more of a protest (getting unstuck) than a serious item of furniture. But these people knew what they were doing and we recognized that. The furniture was the decoration.

Afterwards as we sat on a wall with a glass of cold Italian wine, my mind was full of colour, pattern, curves and space. I did not quite realize then what the impact of Memphis would be worldwide, how it would become so synonymous with Post-modernism or how much impact it would have on me. Rowan Moore reviews a new book on Sottsass in The Observer and comments that ‘his primary concern [as an industrial designer] was not the technology of the machinery inside it, but the physiology and feelings of the person who would use it. When he designed furniture, he was thinking less of the perfection of the object than of the room in which it might sit and of the life that might be going on in that room’. Hooray for this expansive, humane approach that fully accounts for the relationship between things and life!


Stand up for your health

Posted by Johnny on April 23rd, 2014

It seems that one of the reasons we in the West live longer but with the extra years blighted by ill-health is that we spend way too much time on our backsides.  A programme on Radio 4 (, presenter Chris Bowlby) interviews people who sit for 20 hours a day – not unusual for office workers who commute.  This amount of sitting takes years off our healthy life expectancy by, eg, interfering with metabolism and compressing the kidneys.  Workplace designers are devising modifications like desks that rise to standing height.  Another solution is individuals’ awareness.  Think: walk.  Bowlby conducts an interview on the move, observing the side effect of the leveling off of the usual interviewer-interviewee relationship.  If office desks were replaced by mobile meetings, he says, office politics would be transformed.

As the kitchen is a place in which we tend to work standing up, I view the central island as key for healthy living.  When standing at it - chopping, reading a recipe, kneading dough - we exercise the thighs and glutes at the same time.  Clearly this does not replace more vigorous workouts but it’s a start and a good one.  So instead of watching MasterChef, cook real food in a decently designed environment.  To make walking around our kitchens smoother we use curved shapes on any central island or peninsula; to encourage standing up we transform the breakfast bar to a counter that runs the entire length of the island.  This can be used a servery, drinks bar, for plating and limited cooking activity or even eating standing up.  Our family often does this at lunchtimes where we also serve ourselves from the multi-purpose counter. ‘Active ergonomics’ is a phrase I use for more thorough and dispersed use of the entire kitchen involving sustained movement throughout the space.  By carrying out functions facing into the room cooking is turned into a sociable process that gives everyone a chance to participate in preparing a meal, with far less likelihood of one person being left with all the work.  Dedicated or carefully minimized work surfaces make the planning of tasks more effective and also generate movement around the kitchen.

Walking and standing produce higher levels of happiness as well as improved health.  Bowlby speaks to the BBC presenter Trevor Nelson who notes that listeners unknowingly benefit from his new work habit of standing instead of sitting on the job: ‘standing gives me more energy when I talk on air’, he says.  It is also very true that our thinking powers are boosted by walking, going for a walk being the ideal way to unblock the mind and come home inspired.  Nietzsche even says, ‘Only ideas won by walking have any value’.  I was reminded of this reading an amusing interview in the weekend’s Observer by Carole Cadwalladr.  In this she meets, Frédéric Gros, a French philosopher with a special, unpretentious take on the relationship between walking and thought.  I bought his new book, A Philosophy of Walking, online.