Grey Matters


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!


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