Grey Matters

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.


Back to the ’50s. Minimalism RIP.

Posted by Johnny on April 16th, 2014

In the last few days I have been lucky enough to visit Milan 2014, two design shows that set the year’s interiors agenda: Salone del Mobile and Eurocucina.

There really isn’t anything like these adjoining trade shows in England, or maybe anywhere else in the world.  Approaching them on a metro line with thousands of others as if we were travelling to a football match, I emerged into full sun, dazzled first by the light and then the exhibits.  Incidentally, as an English speaker you feel most of the time that your home environment is advanced enough technologically.  But Milan, apparently one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, provides its underground users with excellent wifi (like Shanghai – more to come about that city later…).

Heading first for Eurocucina, it was a pleasure to see imaginative 1950s-inspired kitchens – making for a more interesting show than last year’s.  It seems that the minimalist look– often an excuse for boring reductive designs with no emotional appeal - is now exhausted, jettisoned in favour of much more exciting ways of communicating with customers.  On display in Milan was a contemporary Italian version of steam punk that uses roughened industrial surfaces combined with rusticity, some modern materials and a bit of New York warehouse ambiance.  A key expression of this is Scavolini’s collaboration the fashion brand Diesel (subtitled ‘social Diesel’), a laid back kitchen with draw handles evoking ’50s office filing cabinets, hammered metal finishes as on old machinery, wire mesh reinforced glass, and rubbed oak surfaces subtly distressed and greyed off.  More obviously nostalgic, kitchens from the Marchi Group are complete interior design concepts, their remit extending beyond cabinetry to cover the feel, colour and texture of whole rooms.  Nostalgia really works when given a new injection of energy, its references put together in a fresh way.  As it happens, I too am developing a collection for industry that draws on my long-standing affection for the ’50s and an unbuttoned approach to designing domestic spaces.

In Milan, the innovation continued in the contemporary furniture halls of Salone del Mobile, where Zanotta (through their collaboration with Maserati) showed highly crafted chairs like seats out of classic sports and saloon cars only more capacious.

Outside the shows, the Brera district (Milan’s design quarter –like Clerkenwell perhaps) is a metro ride away.  Here designers have a coordinated voice.  The industry’s local paper publishes a manifesto – proof of the way Italians love debating design, treating it as a philosophical as well as practical profession.  Brera’s old streets full of restaurants, small shops and cafes, bordered by La Scala opera house, have two design academies at their heart.  So as history encases modern ideas, the district is thriving, a great place to shop and meet people, and above all a friendly scene.

I’d like to bring some of the glow of this design culture here by giving students at Bucks New University the chance to enjoy the same kind of excitement and depth of thought about the possibilities of kitchen furniture and home design.  Our designers need to inform themselves not just to see the kitchen as sales opportunities but as creative experiences that unite many aspects of life – food, design, history, cabinetry – and their design a discipline that connects directly with architecture and culture.  Tellingly I hardly spotted a single British product or company at the Milan shows.