Grey Matters

MACHINES WITH LEGS

Posted by Johnny on April 15th, 2016

1956 in a terraced house in Kensington and my mother decides she needs a proper-sized fridge for her growing family (three at that point, soon to be five). In post-war Britain fridges were small, furniture-like. They had legs and were pretty expensive. My dad spoke to a patient who was a chef at the Dorchester and from his inspiration a large shiny new Frigidaire turned up a couple of months later. It stood tall and modernly rectangular, though with rounded corners on top. It was creamy yellow. A pair of four-inch- thick doors – three foot high, with ridged chrome handles, lined with white enamel and fixed with chrome screws and rubber seals onto chunky steel hinges – closed with a soft clunk. Inside, the chambers had wire racks, a light came on when the doors opened and a well at the bottom caught any liquid spills. The locked-off space below housed a little motor and eventually quite a lot of dust and cobwebs. It let your ears know it had work to do on a regular basis. This fridge took up approximately 25% of the kitchen floor space. Visitors hrdly noticed the small low-ceilinged basement kitchen, as all they saw was this monstrous futuristic metal box.

On occasions the vibrations of the motor made it walk into the middle of the room. My father was usually home late from work, so when this happened we had to struggle around the skewed object all day until he returned from his rounds. We would then unload the contents to prevent spills. He would push hard, cursing, half lifting it and trying to avoid scratching the red, hand painted concrete floor, finally bullying it back into position. All this was done with us watching, still not in bed and rather hopelessly trying to be helpful. There was one good thing though: the fridge did not flood, unlike…

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A Thor washing machine was delivered, all the way from Chicago, to replace the Rolls Razor twin-tub. Our American friend, Dorothy next door, had endorsed this because of its single tub. And did it flood! Out would come the pots and mops. My mother laughed it off: at least the floor got a wash. Outdoing the fridge, our washing machine rocked and rolled in its corner and moved out into the room, swaying speckled black tub swinging around full of clothes. It was the high-end model, top-loading and chosen for the new technology of its built-in spinner; after eight rotations in one direction it would go into reverse. Other models followed over the decade, sometimes looking like TV sets. They also were full of marketing promises.

When my parents bought a farm cottage in the South Downs, my mother went to Harrods to choose a stove, the ‘incredible’ Creda Comet. In white enamel with well-spaced rings and chrome detailing, it was American, ie modern, in style and well appointed with chrome detailing. Raymond Loewry would have been proud of the design, its wings and chrome dials referencing aeroplanes and automobile tailfins. The hell of this stove was spectacular. A huge let down, its ‘advanced’ timer was so dysfunctional, miserable and out-of-control it was a dinner-wrecker with a child- baiting function as an extra feature. The oven turned itself off without warning, the grill and rings were a law unto themselves. No one understood or could work out how to override these advanced features. Strangely though the Incredible Comet never quite stopped working.creda3

Some years later after my mother died we ran the Sussex cottage as a kind of commune. Sitting at the kitchen table I came across a tabloid newspaper story about a woman in Grimsby and her Creda Comet. She’d put it in a wheelbarrow and paraded it for several miles with the sign ‘My Incredible Comet’ before pushing it off a cliff. Channelling this spirit, we booted out and replaced our Comet. Its spell was never really broken though. Its fifties style had added eccentric glamour to our cottage kitchen with its patched and worn terracotta tile floor. We had spent so much time alongside the Comet, on Welsh chairs with hard seats, eating family meals full of laughter, well and badly cooked. We’d sat next to it reading Tintin and Asterix and swapping silly stories, the Comet almost one of us, or a witness to our growing up. We became in tune with it by default and the kitchen lost part of its meaning without it.

When I was about five I was obsessed with Hoovers. Known as the Hoover Man, I took myself down Earls Court Road to visit the vicar and his wife specially to have a go with their new machine. I walked along several streets, past slightly dodgy shops and bomb sites. A strange interest this now seems as I’m no petrolhead and my mechanical skills are not up to much, though others in the family have mechanical sympathy. But domestic appliances have always been my bag.

In 1962 I was in Petersfield, the town near our weekend cottage. Walking past a little electrical goods shop in the market square, my twelve-year-old eye was caught by an unusual-looking TV in the window, white enamel with a sunken panel but no screen. Realising that this was in fact a dishwasher and exactly what my mother with her mountains of washing up needed, I stopped and shouted to my dad who was several paces ahead to come and look. I managed to get him into the shop where the man behind the counter did a sales pitch that worked completely on me but not him, for reasons not unconnected with the £60 price tag. We left with the impression that he was not at all on board with this and I nagged him further at lunch with no result.

Next weekend he suggested we go into town; we often used to shop there together, he buying materials and tools at the timber merchants, me happily by his side. That day we picked up the dishwasher and installed it immediately! Actually, it needed no installing, just draining-board space. From first use it was a hit, such that we took it back to London after the weekend and very soon my mother would not travel without it. One of my jobs when we went off for the weekend was to haul this dishwasher up our narrow basement stairs, through the equally narrow hallway, past the surgery and along the garden path with uneven paving stones and moss trapped in the cracks and edges. Getting soaked by residual water trapped in the grey rubber hoses and tripping over the dangling electricity cable that slipped out of your hand, the plug catching a crack in the stone or on a baluster on the stairs, were hazards. I lugged it across the street and onto the back of the car. This was a 1937 Rolls Royce, our family wagon. In lieu of a boot it had a dropdown platform which formed part of the sweeping S-shape of its back end and when horizontal was easy to slide the washing machine onto. We would then arrange any suitcases, boxes and other travelling paraphernalia around it, finally roping it all up together. This was complicated if there was any rain, in which case a canvas sheet had to be worked around the arrangements with rope and straps. The car looked like a hearse taken over by gypsies but all we thought about was getting everything on board. Road safety and dropping loads weren’t in our minds as we worked, who could strap on the most a family competition among the elder boys. (In the next millennium when my brother Rupert took this same car on a journey around India he worked out the answer: a custom-built roof rack.)
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Richard Lee’s illustration of my father’s 1937 Rolls Royce.

The travelling dishwasher, or Rolls-Colston as was its real name, was the brainchild of John Bloom and Sir Charles Colston. Entrepreneurial Bloom was an inventor and marketer of household machines. He was a new breed of celebrity businessman, a forerunner of Richard Branson, popular with 1950s ladies including my mother. He had a flat in Mayfair where he threw parties, entertained the Beatles and gave David Bowie his first break. Sadly he went bankrupt when he lost a price war with big manufacturers. In the Times Ralph Harris, Director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, wrote, ‘Mr Bloom has already done more for economic growth in Britain than many of its verbal champions in the NEDC and elsewhere’: the kitchen as an engine of economic growth!

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My mother and our household certainly benefited from his energy and while I am not sure the technology quite lived up to its promises he did help the modern kitchen was on its way.

Current appliances are dependable, if boring. I do miss the character of their predecessors. I like machines with personality, even if that comes with added stress or calls on our forbearance. Our eldest son is a mechanical engineer who loves old vehicles, not just because he can fix them himself. It’s their character he relates to. The Internet of Things, I discovered at the Smart Kitchen Summit, is bringing appliances more and more under our control at the touch of an app, responding to voice commands, anticipating our health and food desires. This new generation of appliances won’t have legs in the physical sense but could feel uncannily like extensions of our minds and therefore alive. Robots without legs.

Johnny and Becca Grey 22/02/2016

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Tidyings of comfort and joy

Posted by Johnny on January 25th, 2016

 


 

Chandelier in recent outdoor kitchen, by Aline Johnson.

It’s tough being stuff in 2016. IKEA have come clean: in countries like ours there is just too much. We should mend and recycle rather than buy more stuff willy-nilly, and IKEA plan to help. For followers of Marie Kondo, clothes, miscellany and even mementoes and documents are viewed in a radical way. Instead of deciding what to discard, consider what to keep based on whether or not it ‘sparks joy’. There’s a real buzz around her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organising.

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Lightweight, portable storage ‘drawers’ in a recent utility room; DIY tools, light bulbs, sowing gear and a whole lot more can be moved around the house. 

How does a furniture designer respond to this minimizing mood? There’s a seasonal post Christmas element, a dry-January desire for purity, order and less. I welcome Kondo’s emotional relationship with stuff, her conversations with, and blessing of, objects based on Shinto animism. The decision to shed something is softened with messages of gratitude towards it and hope for a new appreciative owner. This last turns guilt into virtue.

The spark-joy test is a severe one but let’s do it. Let’s make sure the furniture we use is beautiful and make us feel good. I’ve always promoted that as an ideal. Crucially though there is another dimension of design that is the opposite of stuff anyway. Kitchen design looks at how a whole space works. It is the manipulation of space, the thinking that avoids mistakes. The result might be new French doors for access to a garden or a window with a view above the washing-up bowl, designs that complement furniture and appliances without taking up any space at all.

I wonder how workable Kondo’s recipe for a perfect home environment really is. How do we know when buying whether things will spark joy sustainably? No one sets out to waste money on mediocre objects that end up as clutter. It is very difficult to gauge while purchasing whether something guarantees long-term satisfaction. Antiques have a bit of a head start as their value has been proven by not ending up in landfill (yet).

It is possible though to put together a lastingly feel-good kitchen, mainly through the use of furniture. Curves and flexibility are both pleasurable things. A Spine Island in the middle of a kitchen lets people cook, work on laptops, perch and chat together. Narrow and long, with raised height elements, it accommodates more people and allows slide-able chopping blocks with edge guides for channeling prepared food that bring satisfying smoothness to routine tasks. It also fits well into narrow rooms.

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Spine Island, 4 metres long allows cooking, prepping and ‘laptoping’ mixed up together with pivoting tables and stools at the far end  

Lighting has the capacity to boost mood dramatically. We can now embed a SAD treatment into a piece of furniture. The Light Dresser emits a healing spectrum of light from its surfaces, spreading wellbeing at the same time as displaying jars, fresh produce in bowls and much loved family paraphernalia.

Another kind of joy comes from contact with handmade things. Pottery, artisanal tiles, a glass chandelier, a pierced stainless steel drum made into a spice cupboard – all these can lift our mood and become friends.

pottery

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Making and/or doing: kitchen design 40 years on

Posted by Johnny on January 11th, 2016

The robots at Linked-In found me out pointing out there was an anniversary of 40 years designing kitchens. Well wishers sent in their congratulations and I write this in response.  I built my first kitchen for my mum at fifteen years old. Her vision was to restore our farm cottage’s authentic furnishing and this, combined with her love of the Georgian period, gave me some clear design guidance. When my father suggested – to my slight horror – that I build a new wooden wall to cut down the draught from the entrance door opening straight into the room and build a dresser, my first attempt at making a kitchen was launched. My dad offered to help and stepped in occasionally, mostly to offer moral support: he was a doctor and an amateur carpenter. The work quickly grew to include remodelling the whole kitchen as the walking washing machine (as we called it) was replaced with a modern, compact, front loader, freeing up space and work surface. We hoped it might wash the clothes better and not the floor as the walking washing machine regularly did.

We lived in the kitchen after my carpentry efforts were complete, and for five years until she died my mum especially treated the kitchen as her base. My favourite photo of her is smoking a cigarette outside the kitchen door, whistling and surveying the garden.

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My first commissioned kitchen came ten years later in 1976 from a neighbour and friend, Sam Chesterton, and was a similar learning experience. I discovered the possibilities of well organised furniture in forming an effective kitchen, with some thoughtful ergonomics thrown in. In the spirit of punk (in tune with the times) every piece was inspired by a different historic or ethnic style – Georgian, Chinoiserie Islamic – and given a gothic inflection. Aiming to create something historical and rebellious at the same time – my personal rebellion against the aesthetic orthodoxy of the time I felt that the curiosity of gothic could count in its way as an alternative International Style. It was also the perfect antidote to the fast-growing hegemony of the then new ‘fitted kitchen’.

Sam's kitchen copy

I made these pieces with two friends, also trainee woodworkers, in the same threshing barn as my mum’s kitchen was constructed in. Light came from opening the giant barn doors, benches stood on the earth floor, placed strategically away from holes in the thatched roof. This time I had two new tools, a router and power jigsaw. Mouldings, curved shapes and better jointing were suddenly possible and over indulged. Solid ash planks were slowly, amateurly and enthusiastically turned into furniture. Hours disappeared into days full of tremendous excitement and satisfaction…there was never enough time. One piece I was particularly proud of was a tall settle that stood at right angles to the wall. It turned the table into a cosy enclave, its back and side panels of gothic tracery giving eating in this kitchen a strong sense of intimacy. It was also something my American clients taught me later was a key requirement in a kitchen, a breakfast nook.

Shortly afterwards I realised that the gap between making and designing was too wide for me to breach in terms of financial investment. I had to choose between being a designer and a maker. The barn workshop, such as it was, badly needed professional woodworking machines, proper insulation and investment. My in-born impatience is better suited to design because others can help with making more easily than the other way round, thinking generally easier than doing and ideas executed faster than solid furniture. My journey to kitchen designer was happening, in hindsight was not so much accidental as inevitable. The scale of kitchens is suitable for a designer who wants to exceed the proportions of individual furniture, stay below that of an entire building but enjoy the scope of planning a room that affects the way its users live in a holistic way. The holy grail for me is to impact on my clients senses and emotions on an everyday basis.

 

Today I remain happy with the choice of being a designer not a maker but I’ve never forgotten how hard and pleasurable it is to make things and my respect for artisan makers remains huge. I still make simple furniture, do household maintenance and fiddle around in my workshop but there is no way I could match the high standard of the cabinet makers I work with. GK Chesterton, Sam Chesterton’s great uncle, once commented that ‘if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly’, in other words, just get on with it and stop being held back by perfectionism. The spirit of this helped me find my direction and an empathy for the whole process of making kitchens in its oblique way. This has to be combined with putting in time, refining what you do and getting the thinking in line with the making.

Today I am passing this experience on to students in my new role as educator at the Kitchen Design Course at Bucks New University, in my research programme on the 3G kitchen and to private clients who are still commissioning my kitchens, both large and small.DSC_1890

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this blog was inspired by the Linked-In robot and has been posted on my page

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