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The spaces in between

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!


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