Grey Matters

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.



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.