Archive for Design

Curiouser & curiouser (FT How to Spend it)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , on June 27, 2013 by markcoflaherty

Window dressing is largely about storytelling. The festive displays at New York and London department stores are grand static theatre, while fashion designers have risen to fairy‑tale acclaim following debuts behind the glass at Browns on South Molton Street. One of the most influential window spaces in the world is at Dover Street Market, the London offshoot of the avant-garde Comme des Garçons style empire. The store is a barometer for design and visual culture: fashion aside, it was ahead of the curve by showcasing Victorian-style taxidermy years before it colonised the city’s bars and lounges. When the imposing four-storey space gave over its window display to the team behind pop-salvage company M Goldstein last June and July, it was an endorsement of much more than just the company’s approach to art direction. It pointed to a growing popularity for incorporating mainly 20th-century curios, with unique narrative resonance, within interior design projects. These are pieces that tell bold, evocative tales. They are less about the magpie’s capricious eye, more about the modern collector’s gaze.

Simon Costin's home, London

Simon Costin’s home, London

Entitled Scale & Distortion, the Dover Street Market installation – by M Goldstein owners Pippa Brooks and Nathaniel Lee Jones – included an 8ft robot called Cygan, built in Turin in 1957, a pair of supersized, perfectly detailed Balmoral leather boots from Rhodes Rawling of Halifax, a miniature raincoat by Wetherdair from the 1930s, and sets of concave and convex mirrors. They are typical of the pieces in the company’s shop on Hackney Road. “We want to avoid the word ‘vintage’,” says Brooks. “We believe it’s more accurate to say that we sell art, antiques and attire.”

The style of M Goldstein brings to mind some of the antiques stores in Clignancourt Market in Paris; many of the smaller pieces look like curios that have surfaced at street markets. For Brooks and Lee Jones, running a shop is crucial. “It’s about having a permanent showroom, rather then setting up a beautiful stall and then packing it all away again,” says Brooks. It also dictates their kind of customer. “We are a little out of the way here,” she says, “so people really have to want to seek us out.”

Visitors to M Goldstein are drawn to the atmosphere of the space, which is filled with old commercial lettering, paintings, flags and neons, displayed around and on the rescued Victorian mahogany shop fittings. Alongside these sit paintings and ephemera belonging to the late “outsider” artist, recluse and hoarder Reginald Alan Westaway, who died in 2008. Part of the collection includes the single set of clothes that he wore and repaired time and time again, until the individual items became overstitched sculptures in their own right.

Whether placed in a stark and modern interior, or an artfully decorated one, there is a growing demand for the salvaged objects on display at M Goldstein. “The ‘curiosity’ trend is popular,” says Lee Jones, “but our interest is to do with pieces that are more useful or decorative than just a stuffed squirrel playing cards, which I find boring. I’d rather sell a pair of second world war aircraft seats that look like they originated in Rodchenko’s studio.” Many pieces started out life as shop or commercial fittings; their battered edges speak of decades of robust use.

Circus Antiques in London’s Kensal Rise recently sold a gigantic pair of metal spectacles – originally the signage for an optometrist in France – for £1,400. “There’s always been an interest in high-end architectural pieces,” says the store’s owner, Mark Slade. “Now it’s about a more eclectic approach. People in the creative industries, in particular, appreciate the graphic qualities of these objects. Before we sold the spectacles, we had them repaired and then surrounded by neon. We also had a set of signs recently from a circus in Blackpool that were very comic-book in style, which lit up and read ‘flash’, ‘bang’ and ‘wallop’. They sold for £2,500 to a writer who has a house in the countryside.”

Industrial and commercial lettering is particularly popular. M Goldstein has had several McDonald’s letter Ms pass through the shop, while the online store often has sets of wooden public house sign letters, and 1970s red Odeon/ABC cinema signage lettering (from £8 per letter) available. In the US, sells old movie theatre marquee lettering (from $3 to around $60) that is the very essence of romantic, popcorn-scented Americana.

While there’s certainly the demand for these items, acquiring the perfect object for a room isn’t a precise science. Much of the sourcing is a case of rummaging and falling in love with something you never knew you wanted, and the more substantial pieces are generally price on request and subject to negotiation. For many people, active pursuit of pop salvage is simply too time-consuming, but there are some locations worthy of expeditions. Clignancourt in Paris is one of them, as is Sunbury Antiques Market in Kempton Park, the stores along Lillie Road in London and Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market in New York City. It’s also worth looking at and, which, along with some of the more obscure local markets and auctions in the UK, are favourite hunting grounds for the interior designer Russell Sage, a man well known for incorporating quirky elements into his projects. “Often with items like this,” he says, “people have a justifiably romantic idea of them, but they have gone through a dozen different dealers and started out as something that was part of a clearance sale and sold for £10.” The use of macabre Victorian taxidermy is something of a Sage trademark, and while he spends weeks scouring auctions for remarkable objects, it’s also possible to visit Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors in London’s East End to pick up an off-the-shelf eight-legged stuffed lamb (£2,000) or a two-headed calf (£3,500).

Simon Costin's home, London

Simon Costin’s home, London

Sage acquired several pieces when the Brading Waxworks on the Isle of Wight closed in 2010, as did Simon Costin, an art director for Fabergé, Yves Saint Laurent and Hermès, who has them on display in his home in London’s Dalston. Costin’s house is a paradigm of the salvage style, but with an emphasis on the darker end of the spectrum. When he bought the house, the previous occupant had painted many of the rooms in a colour he describes as “eye-grating cerise”. Now it’s a shadowy gothic fairy tale. “I’m a collector, but I don’t really focus on anything in particular,” says Costin. “I like things with a story.” An 18th-century glass-topped Italian funeral coffin acts as a focal point for the living room, while shelves on every floor of the house are filled with carnival flourishes, old toys and Doctor Who props. “Visitors always respond to the toys, like my 1920s devil Punch and Judy puppets,” he says.

Playthings from the early 20th century may well have been passed down as family heirlooms, and come charged with nostalgia. In the same way, more recent objects can have great pop currency, particularly if they were never intended for the home. The artist and designer Misha Milovanovich has oversized ice-cream displays and a giant fibreglass teddy bear on show in her home in London’s Ladbroke Grove, next to original artwork by the likes of Julian Opie and Charles Avery. She recently bought a toy shop prop from Circus Antiques – a scaled-up, life-size, Playmobil Indiana Jones – which stands next to her desk. “When I moved in here, it was an empty shell with concrete floors,” she says. “I wanted to create my own little playhouse.”

Milovanovich’s aesthetic will seem too extreme for many, but these items from the recent past serve as a great alternative to contemporary art for interior designers. M Goldstein recently took stock of an illuminated sign from the late 1960s, from a defunct strip joint in Tisbury Court that reads: “Soho’s Live Girls”. At the time, it would have been an invitation into one of London’s less salubrious venues; now, it has a charming, almost melancholy quality to it. In its way, it’s an elegiac piece of social history.

Several designers are experts in the field of salvage. Henri Fitzwilliam-Lay works on particularly refined and high-end interiors. Her style mixes the plush, grand elements of Dorothy Draper with the clean, corporate modernism of Florence Knoll and contemporary bespoke pieces by the likes of Rupert Bevan, but she’s increasingly working with collections of 20th- and 21st-century items. “I particularly like working on children’s rooms,” she says. “Collections of items can turn chaos into order, by giving objects definition. Vintage toys also work well in arrangements around the house. I think you can make a collection of just about anything – even my children’s tiny Japanese plastic Gogos figures – and the skill lies in the displaying of objects to create what I often refer to as the ‘still life’. I hunt at antiques fairs, and after a first purchase the rest of the day may be spent finding more and more complementing pieces.” The weathered appearance of an item is also important; Fitzwilliam-Lay has started using old survey maps as wallpaper, “because I love the faded colours.”

James Russell and Hannah Plumb work together as the interior design duo James Plumb, and their rough-hewn aesthetic and use of scavenged items is contemporary yet artfully cobwebbed. “We have just created a new space called The Chalk Room for the menswear store Hostem using discarded items,” says Russell. “Their stories – real or imagined – inspired us. We combined objects so that they felt like they might always have existed like this.” Among the items they used was an old harp case, from Wurlitzer Co of Cincinnati, which they turned into a wardrobe, and a crate designed for carrying a prize stud pig, marked in faded lettering: “Ashville Herd – Pedigree Large White Pig”. The imagery the crate conjures up is eclipsed by the possibilities surrounding it. It could have been a theatrical prop, or integral to a farmer’s fortunes. Like the nostalgia of an old Soho fluorescent sign, abandoned cinema façade letters, a once state-of-the-art robot from a mid-20th-century technology expo, or a set of discarded toys, it may have exhausted its original use, but its dynamic visual energy can be channelled into a new context.


Surrealism in design (Quintessentially)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2009 by markcoflaherty

Injecting a sense of humour, or at least a sense of fantasy, into design is a perilous business. For every person who loves a colourful Alessi espresso cup, there is another who feels like offering violence when presented with a grinning corkscrew or any other kitchen draw item that comes day in, day out with a personality and punchline. In the last few years there’s been a new movement taking place at the more adventurous and higher end of the design pitch, one that does embrace wit, but which has been looking to the anti-disciplines of classical surrealism to fashion inventive and radical pieces. It’s a movement that has developed in tandem with the way in which the furniture editions market has caught up with the fine art market, and developed a parallel kudos. These aren’t items to fill with salt and pepper, or to grate cheese with. These are grand, investment, showcase pieces. These are objects that, surface functionality aside, are unique and special, like any great work of art.


You can physically sit on Fredrikson Stallard’s Pyrenees Sofa, a foam and steel structure that resembles an Alpine landscape, but a POA limited edition piece like this is unlikely to ever be troubled by a human bottom, even if its designers, Ian Stallard and Patrik Fredrikson, have a fantasy of seeing Jerry Hall splayed across it.

London-based partnership Stallard and Fredrikson are at the forefront of the surrealist movement in high-end design. ‘Form following function is so yesteryear!’ says Patrik Fredrikson. ‘It is a boring and imprisoning term. Any “law” like this backfires against creativity.’ The duo’s work, shown by the David Gill gallery at October’s DesignArt fair in London, has also been at the focus of the ‘art or design?’ debate. It is beginning to seem more and more of a moot point: Gill launched his gallery in the 80s with furniture by the conceptual artist Donald Judd, while the very name of DesignArt London suggests a collapsing of boundaries. ‘A new futurism’ is how Francis Sultana, the director of the Gill gallery describes it, often with a surreal or even disturbing tendency, such as Fredrikson Stallard’s urethane rug, The Lovers, which resembles two pools of intermingled blood, each containing the precise volume of liquid tissue held by the human body. ‘It would be amazing to see that piece in a monastery or convent,’ says Ian Stallard. ‘Though it would be equally exciting to see it in an elegant apartment on 5th Avenue.’

Much of what Fredrikson Stallard are doing taps into notions of pure sensation as well as the surreal: Their Rubber Table makes no sound when you place a glass on it, while Unit Number 4 is a coffee table made from solid ice. While that may be taking surrealism to the extreme, as much as a clothes iron with nails jutting out from its ironing surface, it’s no less arresting than Dutch avant garde interior company Moooi’s life size Horse Lamp, designed by Front in 2006, or any of Studio Job’s oversized Alice in Wonderland  white gold mosaic pixel tea service pieces which were rapturously received at last year’s Salone di Mobile in Milan. The pieces were surreal in scale, but in a very modern way: ‘If these objects were scaled down to their conventional sizes, the pixels would create the illusion of smooth silver surfaces,’ explains Nynke Tynagel of Studio Job. Rather like Margiela’s playful upsizing of doll’s clothes to adult size, Studio Job’s ‘eat me… drink me’ aesthetic says something about the unfettered imagination of childhood, and our place in the world of logic and scale. In the editions market, there are also practical concerns too. As the celebrated author and design critic Alice Rawsthorn says: ‘Big equals better… you can see that you are getting more for your money’. Equally, there’s no confusing an unusably gargantuan item – with the exception of perhaps Marcel Wanders’ cartoon-huge lamps which, no matter how much space they take up, still act as a light source – with a functional item, and a form that doesn’t follow function has to be interpreted as art, or at least as an extravagance in the same way that wearing a pristine white Chanel coat with a pencil skirt and perilous high heels suggests that you don’t get the bus.

Linked in with the seductive exclusivity and collectibility of the new wave of surrealist furniture is the notion of craft. Designers are reacting against mass-produced flat packed furniture by prototyping pieces that necessitate more care and attention from the human hand. The designer Hella Jongerius produces a range of what she calls ‘unique plates’, with animal figures in their centre. Each one is unique and is intended to ‘place greater emphasis on the manufacturers handcrafted products and to show the numerous steps involved in finishing a product.’ Her Props collection for Vitra last year consisted of simplistic looking vessels and spoons that had sprouted ears and wings. ‘They are a hybrid of functional product and a character from the fantasy world of animals fables,’ she explained.

In summer 2009 the V&A in London is showing Telling Tales, a collection of work by furniture and product designers split into three sections: The Forest Glade, The Enchanted Castle and Heaven and Hell. The exhibition will be a showcase not only of furniture that falls into the design art category by having a narrative and an inherent complexity that prices it way out of Heals and Habitat, but of the surreal tendency in design today. Studio Job will feature, as will Maarten Baas, who in the past has had shows based around antique furniture that he has burnt and charred, and whose ‘Hey, chair, be a bookshelf!’ is an assemblage of items subverting their function: A lampshade became a vase, a violin became a coat rack, etc.

Not all surrealist edition work is entirely avant garde in nature. David Linley is a designer whose work often has an edge to it (he has produced one-off couches with tribal-style slashes across the leather), but is more at home in plush, moneyed Mayfair than in East London lofts. His Time Table, produced in an edition of 20, is a wonderfully classic piece that is also classically surrealist. Like much of his work it is tasteful and, finished in rosewood, it has the air of the establishment about it. The acrylic clock dial set into its top surface is, however, quietly subversive – is this a table or a time piece? Can a form follow more than one function? No matter what your take on the surrealist trend in furniture, it’s certainly displaying a level of accomplishment and style that is in a different league from the world’s superfluous inane kitchen gizmos and jokey Mr Suicide bathtub plugs.

Wood and it be lovely (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2009 by markcoflaherty

Shrink-wrapped, disposable design is dead. There’s a huge shift going on in the marketplace for contemporary furniture and the best of it has nothing to do with post-Corbusier chrome tubing or clear and coloured acrylics. It’s in wood – lovely, old-fashioned, ultramodern, timeless wood. And what we’re seeing produced is as radical as any carbon fibre chaise, but in infinitely better taste.


When SCP, one of the UK’s most innovative high-style furniture manufacturers and retailers unveils its stand this April at the most influential furniture show in the design calendar, the Salone de Mobile in Milan, it will consist entirely of wooden furniture. Designs showcased will be from some of SCP’s most directional names: Russell Pinch, Matthew Hilton, Donna Wilson and Kay + Stemmer. Sheridan Coakley, SCP’s MD, has identified a sudden shift in the market, and taste: ‘Making furniture out of carbon fibre is ridiculous,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t need to survive hitting a wall at 200 miles per hour.’ As for a renaissance in carpentry, he believes that ‘wood has never really been away. It’s the only material you can really restore if it’s damaged, and it has such a long life. People allow it to age and reflect its use and it looks good with the patina that it picks up.’

Certainly one of the reasons that people are engaging with wood again is an appreciation of its longevity. As well as recent financial realities and a new, almost moral disdain for reinventing your interiors seasonally, there is the inherent humanity of wood: scratched resin surfaces cry out for replacement in the minimalist home, but scuffed wood suggests life being lived. There is also a wonderfully naïve quality to it, over and above our nostalgia for it.

It is the green quality that underscores wood’s current popularity. At last year’s 100% Design show in London, one of the most newsworthy stands was run by the Advanced Timber Concepts Research Centre, an incentive by the University of Western Australia bringing together State government and the furniture industry to design, promote and produce high-end, high-style furniture from sustainable timbers. The ATCRC Shimmer Chairs and Shimmer Table – delicate yet sturdy and superbly attractive textural pieces with impeccable eco-credentials – should go on sale sometime this year. In the future, it’s entirely possible that wood production will eclipse pollutant-producing plastics. As Gary Marinko of Advanced Timber Concepts says: ‘There are currently a very large number of forests being planted as “carbon sinks” that will need to be harvested eventually. Conversely, plastics may become less socially acceptable because of their petroleum base.’ Even more emotively, most of us simply don’t want disposable stuff any more. We want the antiques of the future: something to cherish and to pass to future generations; furniture with a soul.

There’s no hint of the antiques market or the vintage auction about the new wave of wood furniture; far from it. When Sebastian Wrong and Richards Woods debuted their WrongWoods collection of sideboard units (from £998) at Wrong’s Established & Sons gallery in London in 2007, the pieces were a bold type exclamation mark announcing a new modernity in wood. Each plywood piece is covered in woodblock print panels in acid bright colours, an exaggeration of the grain of real wood. ‘Extravagant and gestural,’ as Wrong describes it, ‘but based on an extremely basic process of printing.’ The cartoon colours of the pieces are arresting in themselves, but it’s the grain print that is so enchanting – like Warhol’s silkscreens, which stripped down images of Liz Taylor and Marilyn and heightened them again in fluorescents, these are pieces that play on our strong emotional attachment to something visually quite elementary. In this case, it’s the very texture of wood… the knots in the surface are the icons and wood is the star attraction.

The WrongWoods pieces have discreet design pedigree, referencing postwar British G-plan functionality. ‘The carcases of the pieces are plywood as opposed to MDF,’ says Wrong. ‘This was very important because plywood was an important material to fill a void in the postwar years in terms of people needing items for their homes. It was a simple and structural material.’

If 1940s frugality dictated materials and influenced form, it was the subsequent school of Mid Century Modernism which saw designers using wood to create truly radical work. This was the furniture of the future, produced in what many had erroneously perceived to be the material of the past, and it’s this period that’s echoed in 21st century wooden furniture. As Bradley Quinn, author of Mid-Century Modern: Interiors, Furniture, Design Details and Ultra Materials, says: ‘Mid Century craftsmen perfected the art of working with wood, engineering design methodologies and production process to streamline manufacturing and eliminate waste. Few materials surpass the versatility of wood.’

Mid Century Modernism changed the silhouette of wooden furniture and the way we perceived a simple wooden chair. From the Eames brothers to Robin Day and the 1951 Festival of Britain, the new shapes were inspired by aviation, elements of science fiction and notions of a utopian future. The movement was embraced by Lucian Ercolani who showed his work at the 1946 Britain Can Make It expo at the V&A: his curved and flared Butterfly chair still looks fresh today. The company Ercolani founded, Ercol, has consistently produced top quality if often staid wooden furniture since its inception – but it also has a wild side which, since the fashion designer Margaret Howell championed its early archive and started selling its classic range in her flagship London store (including the beautiful beech Butterfly, now back in limited production of around 200 a year at £400 a unit), it has begun to explore again, employing the likes of Matthew Hilton for special projects.

Matthew Hilton has a genius for contemporary wooden design. He approaches his designs as a sculptor as much as furniture designer, ‘finding very odd ways to make chairs… the stranger the way, the newer the form,’ he says. ‘It’s sculpture but the sculpting tools are very limited – you either work in straight lines or circular motions. With my Fin chair (£675) I started out with the idea of splitting a back leg all the way up.’ The work he has been producing for his new eponymous label, Matthew Hilton, displays elements of Scandic and British 50s chic – consider the oval surface, tapered crows-feet legs and heavy walnut grain of his Light Oval Table (£3145). Hilton talks of being inspired by ‘the funny, amateur 1950s modernism that was somehow diluted and softened for England: very domestic and nice.’ Consider it Eames with a pinch of the Ealing comedy if you will – sharp, but rounded with British charm: in a way, the very essence of his client Ercol. Charm aside, Ercol’s quality is superb, as is that of Hilton’s mainline which consists of small-scale-production and beautifully detailed pieces – chairs are made in conjunction with wood-specialists De La Espada in batches of a maximum of 20 at a time, all by hand.

Matthew Hilton and Russell Pinch, Britain’s other key practitioner of modern wood design, are both designing new ranges for Ercol. Hilton’s first chair for them is being produced initially as a luxe edition in walnut with a soft pad (£845); clear lacquer and stacking ply versions will follow. The new chair is an incredibly strong, pure design – the back and seat panel create a stark, angular single-ribbon S-shape when viewed side-on. It’s a future design classic, as are some of the other pieces in the pipeline at Ercol.

Edward Tadros, Ercolani’s grandson, is enthused by the new work that he hopes will build on Ercol’s renaissance: ‘By rekindling the enthusiasm for the Ercol Classics, we’re opening the door for the Hilton and Pinch projects.’ Tadros has some truly wonderful pieces at prototype stages at his ultra modern Buckinghamshire factory with its state of the art  £180,000 five axis CNC computer milling machines, including paneled sideboards and dining tables by Hilton and Pinch which reflect that ‘domestic and nice’ element, but with a vibrant edge and modernity.

As anyone who has searched for the perfect modern chair will know, the 20th century obsession with machine and information age materials has led to a 21st century style hangover of overly fanciful colours, superfluous decoration and peculiar silhouettes – the interiors equivalent of a gilded lily, with bells on. The rehabilitation of wood is changing all that. Although the SCP Classics range, featuring iconic designs by Noguchi, Saarinen, Bertoia and Eileen Gray, hasn’t a single grain of wood in it, the new collection being unveiled in Milan will broaden SCP’s scope widely and promote more organic materials in the contemporary market. ‘Those 20th century classics in the SCP Classics range are still regarded as modern furniture,’ says SCP’s MD Sheridan Coakley, ‘but that perception is changing.’ The Perfect Chair already arguably exists at SCP, and it’s in wood. Russell Pinch’s Avery chair (£200) is a new kind of modern, exactly the sort of pared-down piece the market so sorely lacks. It has lovely straight horizontal and vertical lines, like a child’s drawing of a chair subsequently articulated by perfect proportion and draftsmanship. It’s not afraid of being A Chair; as Sheridan says, ‘It’s visually and physically light.’ It has all the simplicity of Gio Ponti’s Superleggera, updated for today. The Avery just doesn’t have a wrong context – which is incredible. A new version, with almost imperceptible tweaks to make it more comfortable, has been released for 2009.

Russell Pinch is renowned for his work in wood, and his interest in the material began at an early age. ‘My dad made our kitchen table,’ he says, ‘and it holds hundreds of fond memories. Its top was periodically sanded down as its surface was finished, and it’s since been updated with one of my designs, but the original lives on at my sister’s house with another generation eating at it.’ As well as elliptical Harper’s dining tables (£1880-£2265) and a selection of Marlow armoires (£2955-£4485) in different one-colour finishes with a variety of graphic paneling, one of Pinch’s most exciting wood products is his Twig wall panel (POA), which covers an entire surface, floor to ceiling, with hundreds of bisected Ash logs. ‘En masse it creates a soft rhythm that engages without shouting,’ says Pinch. ‘It’s very alluring – when you look at it you want to reach up and touch it.’

The Istanbul-based design firm Autoban create work in wood that is as playful as it is aggressively modern. Much of their seating, with exaggerated curves and leanings, has a touch of the retro-futurist, while their Ladder Bookcase (£1415), which looks as it sounds, is wonderfully smart and functional. All of it has a touch of the childlike, or ‘the beginner’ as one of Autoban’s designers, Oznur Comlek puts it. ‘We started making products in plywood because it was strong, funny and cheap and suited our style. Now we work in oak and walnut. All wood is emotional – natural, renewable and warm, enjoyable to touch and to watch change over time.’ The new, more sophisticated work from Autoban is being produced by Matthew Hilton’s partners, De La Espada, who as well as working with the most dynamic designers internationally are also the go-to company if you’re looking for the Perfect Wooden Desk – their 023 Bureau Desk (£1095) and 009 Console Table (£995) are some of the smartest home office pieces around.

One of Established & Sons’ most exciting editions shows of the year, running at their London gallery until late March 2009, is a showcase of wooden pieces by Seattle artist Roy McMakin. His work takes folk traditions as a starting point but exaggerates and manipulates them – his Kountry Chairs resemble twisted and scaled-up children’s seating. The pattern of pale square patches on his dark 4 Drawer Chest looks, from a distance, like a wood detail blown up on a computer screen to the point of pixellation, but is actually, as Sebastian Wrong explains, ‘the replacement of inconsistencies with good material and aligned wood grain… there is incredible detail in the pieces.’ McMakin’s furniture has the heft and presence of fine art objects: his slat-back ebonized chairs make as much of a statement for a dining room as a Bridget Riley above the fireplace, and priced at £4,000-£40,000 they represent serious investment. McMakin works in Douglas fir, the most graphic of woods. It’s bold and strong, not a clean or apologetic wood or an IKEA laminate. These are pieces that, as with all quality wooden furniture, can only look more beautiful as they weather. Of course, anything carefully chosen should look better with age. It’s just unfortunate that an occasionally puerile single mindedness within modern design caused us to doubt that reality for so long.

Advanced Timber Concepts Research Centre, The University of Western Australia, Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts, M433, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, Western Australia 6009; +61 8 6488 1560;

Autoban, from De La Espada;

De La Espada, Clerkenwell Workshops, 31 Clerkenwell Close, London EC1R 0AT; 0207 096 1154;

Established and Sons, 2-3 Duke Street St James’s, London, SW1Y 6BJ; 0207 968 2040;

Ercol, Summerleys Road, Princes Risborough, Bucks HP27 9PZ; 01844 271 800;

Matthew Hilton, from De La Espada;

Margaret Howell, 34 Wigmore Street, London W1U 2RS; 0207 009 9006;

Russell Pinch, 6 Horsford Road, London SW2 5BN; 0207 501 9252;

SCP, 135-139 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3BX; 0207 739 1869;

Pure form (Quintessentially)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2009 by markcoflaherty

There’s still something of the naked ape about man when you put him next to, or inside, certain modern structures. More than merely sculptural forms or places of shelter, they transcend their function and become a kind of totem for what we wish we were. Think of the black monolith that appears throughout 2001 A Space Odyssey – the inscrutable object that apparently brings intelligence to Neanderthal Earth. It is the pure essence of a technology we can’t comprehend, the badge of modern civilisation. Within its simplicity and blackness lie all possibilities. Also sprach Zarathustra.


A radical new skyscraper being planned for downtown Zagreb, designed by Croatian architects Hrvoj Bakran, Drazen Plevk and Zdravki Krasic, doesn’t so much recall as replicate on a much larger scale the black monolith of 2001 A Space Odyssey. The 160 metre high, slender jet-black minimalist building will tower over an unremarkable landscape like an intergalactic visitor. In Zagreb it will be the tallest building in the city, and the public excitement around the plans couldn’t be greater if it came with the promise of alien advanced intelligence for all in its proximity.

The sinister sheen and geometry of the 2001 monolith has inspired more than just architects: you can see it in the work that Hedi Slimane produced at Dior Homme and in Peter Saville’s book and album covers and installations. Its purity is as much about its lack of colour and reflectivity as its form. Pure black or white buildings strip things down to form and magnify their impact.

As Vicky Richardson, editor of the architecture and design magazine Blueprint says: ‘It’s a pared down reductionalism rather than minimalism; an anti-design statement. Featureless black and white facades make a statement that they – unlike so much gratuitously iconic architecture – are serious, restrained, contextual and not trying too hard. It’s a rejection of self conscious architecture.’

OMA’s Dubai Renaissance tower was conceived as ‘anti-icon,’ according to OMA’s Rem Koolhaas. Though this self confidently blank, white, 200 x 300 metre monolith lost out in competition to Zaha Hadid’s Dancing Towers and won’t be the central feature of the Business Bay in Dubai, plans are going ahead with it on another site. Dubai, where every new piece of architecture is all singing, all dancing, would seem the most radical context in which to reject self conscious architecture. Thankfully the Dubai Renaissance’s gimmick (to revolve) has been dropped after Koolhaas admitted it was a novelty with an eye on the competition. The resulting tower will be eminently more powerful in its restraint.

The use of white in architecture is nothing new, of course. It has a functional pedigree in that it reflects the heat of the sun, something that gives Santorini and many other Greek towns their gleam. But a number of European contemporary architects have gone beyond Mediterranean function, most notably Portugal’s Alvaro Siza, whose elegant modernism is often celebrated with him hailed, according to Chris Twaddle, of London based architecture studio kennedytwaddle, as ‘the architect’s architect.’ As Twaddle, one of the UK’s rising stars of modernist urban design, says: ‘Siza uses white as a response to climate, but it’s the clarity that it gives his buildings that’s magical. His work shows that “colour” is only one of the many elements that make a scheme successful.’

Siza’s Santa Maria Church, built in the early 90s in Marco de Canavezes in Portugal, is illustrative of how the practicality of white in a hot climate can become transcendental. From one end it appears to be a simple whitewashed concrete construction of three tall windowless  columns, while from the exterior of the altar end, a smaller column attaches to a larger one with a sweep to the rest of the ‘box’ of the building. Although the windows, where they exist, appear small in scale, they are cut into the curves in such a way that they flood the inside white stucco space with light reminiscent of a Hammershoi painting. As fellow architect Marc Dubois puts it: ‘It’s a space which assigns a sacred dimension to the light.’ Siza’s use of white strips things down to pure form. In a similar way, Delugan Meissl’s new Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, which is much more playful and angular, and looks inherently ‘Porsche’, could have appeared overbaked with an over reliance on texture or glass, but with so much white on it, it’s pared back. Equally, plans for Daniel Liebeskind’s Creative Media Centre, to be completed in 2010 in Hong Kong, detail a building with sharp, aggressive points, slashed horizontally with windows, tempered by a calm white surface. Both of these projects share a sense of futurism, something that the use of white has always signified. New fabrications are also being used to accentuate the sci-fi element: The Seeko’o (meaning ‘glacier’ in Inuit) Hotel in Bordeaux has been clad in Corian, a material more commonly used for ultra sleek high-style interior surfaces.

The UK architect David Chipperfield works repeatedly in pure white. His studio design for sculptor Antony Gormley in London is blank and necessarily industrial (Gormley needs the kind of space that any light-to-medium industry would require) but resonates with more impact than that of a mere factory: the punctuation of windows (or rather the lack of punctuation) makes the frontage more sparse, the roof is in a geometric saw-toothed pattern and the inner walls are seamless, like those of a gallery.

Chipperfield’s background includes work on shopfittings for the likes of Issey Miyake and Joseph in the 80s, when minimalism was all, and the focus was on both stock and the rarified air between that stock. His own brand of reductionism has carried over into his architecture today. ‘I think that “icon architecture” has a certain danger,’ he says. ‘Everything has to look spectacular, everything has to look like it’s changing the world, even if it’s not really doing that much.’ Chipperfield is leading the move away from icons and ego.

The plans for his Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate are at once eyecatching and restrained. It has a discernible dialogue with its environment: there is a maritime feel in the building’s sail-top silhouette. Though nowhere near as literal as something like the crazed Vasa Museum building in Stockholm with its masts, wooden construction and slanted slate roofs, there is still an echo of the majesty of big ships sailing around the Kent coastline. ‘We are trying to make something that’s abstract and contemporary on the one hand but completely inspired by its own task and function,’ says the architect. Similarly, his Gormley studio plays artfully off the Kings Cross warehouses surrounding it, but is focused on its purpose – a place in which Gormley can sculpt.

Pure black is more commonly used on smaller, but still sensational, projects. David Adjaye’s Dirty House, the live/work site of artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, is one of the most celebrated buildings in London’s burgeoning new look East End. It too has the impenetrable look of the 2001 monolith – its brickwork has gone incognito behind thick black anti-graffiti painting and its windows are reflective with no apparent frames visible from the street. It sits one block back from Bethnal Green Road, quiet but ominous, like the architectural equivalent of one of Mark Rothko’s Black-Form paintings.

Simon Conder has built two beach houses on the eerie Kent no-man’s land of Dungeness and the first of these, finished in black rubber, has brought as much attention to the area as did artist Derek Jarman’s similarly black, but traditional, fisherman’s cottage, a short walk away. Conder’s structure is a modernist take on the ramshackle homes that line the beach, but its intense, vulcanized blackness makes it the most dramatic structure on the coast. In many ways it’s the inverse of Siza’s white – there are environmental issues to consider on Dungeness, and many of the traditional cottages are black from weatherproofing with pitch. Conder takes the image and accentuates it without turning it into a cartoon. That said, there is something delightfully fantastical about the house, sitting on the pale shingle as if it had been dropped there by a tornado from a weird parallel Kansas.

The use of pure black or white has a trickle down effect. Two of Cazenove Architects’ UK projects have been on small scales, and used dense black exteriors but also colour. Their Abbey Children’s Centre has some of the dandy, diagonal flair of mid-century modern on top of a low-rise strip of rooms, painted black but with a door panel of hot pink and windows of sunflower yellow and aqua. Their offices for Lee Valley Regional Park Authority are black but with prominent angular windows working on horizontal, vertical and skewed axis. Both buildings find their strengths in the core weight of the use of black.

Reductionalism isn’t without its problems or controversy. It can be challenging. It can be unnerving. Last year saw the completion of work to reinvent the façade of Edward Durrell Stone’s landmark building at 2 Columbus Circle in New York. The work, which was carried out as part of the conversion of the building into the new home for the Museum of Art and Design, has been condemned as ‘the rape of 2 Columbus Circle’ by the City Review’s Carter B. Horsley. The original 1964 structure was an undeniable folly – a mixture of Venetian palazzo elements in odd, stretched proportions, and almost entirely windowless. The new building has a façade of bands of glass, arranged in lines that appear to read, ‘HI”. It’s an unremarkable building. Inelegant. But the former structure was remarkably unpopular. Why? Arguably because it was unsettling in the context of midtown Manhattan; it did have a marvellously sinister tone – its blank Vermont marble facades suggested a Moorish mausoleum.

Author Tom Wolfe was one of those who defended the old building, and blames its fall in part on the rise of Ephemeralism in architecture, which he claims ‘arrived in 1994 with Jean Nouvel’s Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris… embracing transparency with plain glass walls, voyeurism and branding – making the exterior design remind you of the enterprise within.’ Ephemeralism and Reductionism are almost polar opposites. Ephemeralism would appear to be a perfect fit for big business in big cities, while the latter is a far bolder school of pure vision.

What’s happening in Zagreb, and in Dubai, would suggest a shift away from transparency, voyeurism, branding and, of course, ego. It might be challenging, scary even, but then these are challenging and scary times.

No average Gio Ponti (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , , , , on September 20, 2009 by markcoflaherty

It’s the end of the season at the Gio Ponti-designed Parco dei Principi hotel in Sorrento, sitting stark, white and angular on the very edge of Italy’s most rugged and spectacular coastline. A group of women in OndadeMar swimsuits and Chanel sunglasses are making their way up from the beach to get ready for dinner in the Gio Ponti Restaurant where the primi and secondi are served on the richly patterned plates inspired by the Melotti majolica tiles around the hotel that have been used ever since it opened in 1962. Each bedroom in the Parco dei Principi is decorated with 30 different kinds of geometric blue-andwhite tiles in a myriad of combinations, all echoing the Mediterranean outside, as well as the groovy era in which they were conceived. This hotel is strikingly “modern”, from a time when “modern” looked just that bit more exciting than it does today, in a world that had been turned on its head by technology, politics and rock ’n’ roll. Like a lot of Ponti’s most instantly recognisable work, its furniture – right down to the swimming pool’s diving board – has the stark but futuristic lines of the space race. Many a visitor to the Parco dei Principi goes home with every intention of injecting their home with some of its style.

ponti2So it’s not surprising that the market for vintage Ponti interior treasures is gathering momentum. When Sotheby’s in Milan sold 79 lots of Ponti in 2005 the interest was unprecedented, with a pair of 1930s armchairs going for over £31,000. At Themes & Variations in London’s Notting Hill, 1950s vintage Ponti is some of the most in-demand stock; the buyers can’t source enough of it. Richard Wright of the Wright auction house in Chicago believes that the year of the Sotheby’s auction in Milan was a turning point for the designer’s work: “The market has become hot now. The Ponti customer now tends, for us, to be the international buyer and we sell a lot to Europe. These are serious collectors. We had a consignment in May from his own Milan apartment which he created in 1953, and one coffee table went for $135,000.” In tandem with the resale market, reissues are fuelling international interest for the undisputed master of 20thcentury Italian design, and yet Ponti remains much more affordable than some of his French peers, such as Jean Prouvé. “Ponti has
got more expensive, but it’s not overvalued,” says Wright. “Now is a good time to buy.”

While Gio Ponti’s name may not be as household as some of his American or French peers, his work is unique in that it covers the breadth of the best of 20th-century modernism in Europe from the 1920s to the 1970s. He was extraordinarily prolific, as his daughter Lisa Licitra Ponti details: “Sixty years of work, buildings in 13 countries, lectures in 24, 25 years of teaching, 50 years of editing articles in every one of the 560 issues of his magazines, 2,500 letters dictated, 2,000 letters drawn, designs for 120 enterprises, 1,000 architectural sketches.”

From his early days in the 1920s creating ceramics for Richard Ginori (which now produces the plates for the hotel in Sorrento), through his work with designer and illustrator Piero Fornasetti on interiors and furniture in the 1950s, to his cathedral in the commercial port town of Taranto, Ponti’s genius had longevity as well as ahead-of-its-time impact. “He brought a warm and emotional touch to architecture and design at a time when rationalism prevailed and he created many of the icons that shaped modern Italy; it’s all about good food, sunshine and ‘the table’,” says Deyan Sudjic who, before becoming director at the Design Museum in London, was editor of the design magazine Domus in Milan, founded by Ponti in 1928. “I sat at the desk he designed for his own use. It was like having the keys to a classic Rolls-Royce.”

Ponti is sexy, chic and an “insider label” but none of his work is overdesigned. “As Frank Lloyd Wright grew older his work teetered on the edge of kitsch,” says Sudjic. “Ponti was better at modern.” If there is a definitive Ponti motif, it is the diamond pattern that he began incorporating into his work from the very start of his career, on the surface of ceramic urns that have been known to achieve almost $100,000 at auction. If there is a Ponti style, it is a certain sense of excitement about modernity and the future that flirted with Jetsons kitsch at the hands of Stateside designers but, as Sudjic says, remained credible under Ponti’s direction.

At Moss in New York, the most influential interior design store in the US, the sleek, super-light black lacquered Superleggera chair manufactured by Cassina ($1,390, and from £580 in the UK), which can be held aloft with one hand by a child, has been a bestseller for years. Now it’s joined by Ponti’s bold but simple cutlery, reintroduced by Sambonet ($172 for a five-piece set). If the Pirelli Tower in Milan, built between 1955 and 1958, is his most famous landmark, it’s his classic coffee machine for La Pavoni, designed a decade earlier, that is his most omnipresent design classic, still churning out espresso in cafés up and down Italy.

Ponti belonged to an age where to design meant to turn your hand to anything and, frequently, everything. Michael Maharam of the Maharam Design Studio, which has reissued two of Ponti’s 1930s textiles, sees him as a forerunner of today’s more exclusive interior designers: “He came from a time of mul ti disciplinarians. The shift is going back to that now. People hired the likes of Ponti to create holistic environments. If you were a person of substance and wanted to create a highly orchestrated environment, you needed a genius like him who could do things with ceramics, silver, furniture, textiles… And
what he was doing was explicitly different from what was on the market those days.”

One of Ponti’s two original bespoke textiles (£166.35 per metre from Kvadrat) that Maharam has reissued is I Morosi alla Finestra (“The Lovers at the Window”), a charming, whimsical print with small, colourful figures with arms stretched at a series of louvred windows. When Paul Smith saw the print he immediately approached Maharam for permission to use it as a coat lining. Maharam agreed and Smith later designed a print for him in return: “That textile is somewhat impractical to be used consistently in interiors because it’s a lightweight silk mix, but be cause of that it speaks of a certain opulence during a certain time” – something the British designer recognised. Similarly whimsical and decadent are the ceramics Bardelli still produces, including Costumi tiles (from about £13.50 per tile) with illustrations that were originally costume designs for ballets and operas Ponti worked on at La Scala and La Triennale in Milan.

Ponti also produced work for the Italia luxury shipping line including designs for the legendary and doomed Andrea Doria, which was lost after colliding with an ocean liner in 1956 and was one of his most major collaborative projects with Piero Fornasetti, along with the interior for the San Remo casino in 1950. No expense was spared on this mid-century modern floating palace, with everything exclusively commissioned, and the walls hung with notable artwork, including pieces by Bragalini and Predonzani.

Ponti’s collaboration with Fornasetti was at its most prolific in the 1950s; pieces from this decade, particularly the originals, fetch the highest prices. The most famous piece they produced, the “architettura” Trumeau cabinet covered with Fornasetti’s distinctive monochrome architectural façades and vaulted interiors, is still available new from the Fornasetti showroom in Milan and international resellers including Themes & Variations (£14,000). When the original came to auction at Wright recently, it fetched $168,000.

Many have their favourite Ponti period, but in reality all of Ponti’s furniture can “work” together, following the ethos that if something is truly well designed it can sit next to anything. FontanaArte produces several of Ponti’s lights, selling over 1,000 of the Pirellone floor lamp (£1,320) every year. His 1931 Bilia table lamp (£300) is a simple geometric sketch of a lighting fitting, a glowing white blown-glass orb on a dove-grey conical base that has become something of a cult object. “The products designed by Ponti are the first examples of ‘democratic design’,” says FontanaArte’s Grazia Innocenti. “In terms of the lights that we produce, they represent the first mass production of a certain quality of design.”

Montina, one of Italy’s biggest furniture companies, has kept several Ponti pieces in production and they have never dated stylistically. The beechwood Ponti 940 chair has slim, spiked lines and a pinched hourglass silhouette, while the 969 chair is more whimsical with broad, laced, looped backs, though it still has a stark simplicity. The total Ponti look can be seen in archive pictures of his domestic interior projects completed as far afield as Caracas and Tehran, as well as in records of his work on the 1958 Alitalia offices in New York and the designs for the sister hotel of the Parco dei Principi in Rome, the original furnishings of which sold for a small fortune through Wright.

At the Royal Continental Hotel in Naples a whole floor has been restored to its original mid-1950s Ponti glory and guests can sit at his iconic vanity tables on his Superleggera chair. Ponti’s work is linked very much by a common sense of situation. He tailored his work specifically to each commission, which is why the cathedral in the commercial port of Taranto resembles a sail and why the Parco dei Principi in Sorrento is saturated in Mediterranean blue and uses glossed Melotti pebbles in frescoes all over the hotel. It is the vibrancy of Ponti’s work that enamours so many newcomers to it, whether it’s a chance encounter at auction or through a week at the Parco dei Principi; vibrancy and an amazing freshness. “Not only has the hotel in Sorrento aged incredibly well,” says Hip Hotels author Herbert Ypma, “but it’s still adventurous, even for something that is getting into its sixth decade.” Such is the reverence that the Italians have for Ponti’s work that the hotel was painstakingly restored between 1999 and 2002 for its 40th anniversary by its current architectural guardian, Fabrizio Mautone: “I catalogued everything and, as far as possible, had pieces remade by the same factories, ceramicists etc that produced the originals. This is a living museum.” The hotel has become an essential stopoff for design aficionados, alongside Ponti’s other existing landmarks across the country. It’s a functional work of art by a genius. As Mautone says, “Gio Ponti was an artist who really just happened to become an architect.”

Bardelli (003902-902 5181; Cassina, 003903-623 721; and see Simon Joy & Associates. FontanaArte, 003902-45121; and see The London Lighting Co. Fornasetti, Via Manzoni 45, 20121 Milan (003902-659 2341; and see Themes & Variations. Kvadarat, 62 Princedale Rd, W11 (020-7229 9969). The London Lighting Co, 135 Fulham Rd, London SW3 (020-7589 3612). Maharam, and see Kvadarat. Montina (003904-3274 9207; Moss, 150 Greene St, New York (001212-204 7100; Parco dei Principi, via Rota 1, 80067 Sorrento (003908-1878 4644; http://www., from about £195. Sambonet, 003903-2187 9711; http://www.sambonet. it. Simon Joy & Associates, 301 Clerkenwell Workshops, 31 Clerkenwell Close, London EC1 (020-7138 3956). Royal Continental Hotel, Via Partenope 38-44, Naples (003908-1245 2068; http://www.hotelroyal. it). Themes & Variations, 231 Westbourne Grove, London W11 (020-7727 5531; http://www.themesand Wright, 1440 West Hubbard, Chicago (001312-563 0020;

Star man: Marc Newson (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2009 by markcoflaherty

Pssst, want to buy a Marc Newson Lockheed Lounge? You’re in luck – the Holy Grail for the collector of furniture-as-art is available from the Vitra Design Museum. Exquisitely crafted in sheet metal, it’s a prized limited edition – there are only 500 in the world. It’s also a snip at €593.81. The catch? You can’t sit on it – it’s a 1:6 scale miniature.


The 1986 Lockheed chaise, with its hammered patchwork Enola Gay surface and mercury-in-mid-pour shape is the icon of the furniture editions market; the exclamation mark at the end of the statement: ‘In the 21st century, chairs and tables are the new art!’ It has an aura like few other items of furniture – it has appeared in 1001 interiors magazines as well as a Madonna video. One of the 10 in existence fetched a record breaking $1.5 million at Christie’s and the prototype has a market value of $2.4 million. The Lockheed Lounge is the Rosetta Stone for the interiors collectibles market and the reason why the world’s most powerful art dealer, Larry Gagosian, now represents Newson alongside the likes of Jasper Johns and the estate of Andy Warhol. Little wonder, then, that as well as being the prized possession of a handful of museums and collectors, the Lockheed is also one of the priciest pieces of dolls furniture of all time too.

For Sydney-born Newson both the significance of the Lockheed and his own celebrity are overrated. Turning up for his own opening of editions cut from Carerra marble at the Mayfair outpost of Gagosian’s gallery empire in March, he looked every inch the rock star in his canary yellow jumbo cordurouy suit and Yves Klein Blue vest. His girlfriend, Charlotte Stockdale, one of the most powerful stylists in the fashion industry, was at his side with their baby daughter Imogen, and Manolo Blahnik was seconds behind. Click, click, flash, flash. Far from basking in the glory, Newson was exhausted by another frantic week of planes, trains and automobiles. ‘I just want tonight to be over’, he said while shrugging off any suggestion of his own celebrity: ‘You know, this is a very obscure industry. A lot of the people I work with have never heard of me, and outside of rarified design circles most people have never seen a Lockheed Lounge.’ A star then, but a modest one.

Compared to an IKEA best seller, Newson’s furniture may be relatively low profile, but just like his yellow suit, when it’s in the room, all eyes are on it. Didier Krzentowski is the most influential furniture dealer in Europe and Newson is one of his most high profile properties. He’s been working with him for over 12 years and calls him ‘The Star of Design’. Krzentowski’s Galerie Kreo is at the heart of the burgeoning global editions market and his apartment in a mansion block overlooking the Eiffell Tower is as much a showroom as it is a family home. The rooms are a Who’s Who of contemporary furniture design, fashioned out of wood, steel, carbon fibre and neon: Jasper Morrison; Martin Szekeley, Andrée Putman et al. The most attention grabbing piece of them all, right in front of Krzentowski’s desk, is Newson’s mirror-surfaced Alufelt chair. With its bone-like curves and its meticulous sheen it’s almost unnervingly perfect, as if the product of some incomprehensible alien technology. Krzentwoski sees Newson’s work, particularly his early 90s alumininum pieces, as meticulously engineered totems:  ‘For me Marc is not only a designer, but the representation of a generation and a way of life’.

Born in 1963, Newson’s formative years were played out against the space race and the Moon landings. Like fellow product designers Karim Rashid, with his bright pink and orange podular pieces, and the white-bearded fluoro-clad Ross Lovegrove who, like Newson, has created prototype cars a century ahead of their time, and a super flash flatbed airline seat, he is trying to craft the future that was promised to him but didn’t materialise. There is a retro futurist sensibility to Newson’s work that was forged in the late 60s and early 70s. It is in the vocabulary of his work and a certain repetition of pattern: His rectangles and squares are soft, bowed and asymmetric, as if melting into more dynamic yet also more physically appealing, ergonomic shapes. He has said in the past that his idea of a perfect object is an egg. Instead of the circle he favours either more amorphous shapes or the hexagon – it appears everywhere from the mirrors of his Lever House restaurant in Manhattan to his Qantas departure lounge carpeting in Sydney, where the hexagonal grid pattern appears to be pulling into focus, like a disorientating visual effect in an old science fiction film. It is simple but quite literally, sensational.

‘The future used to be really futuristic’, he says, ‘There was a sense of utopia about how it might be. We didn’t know that when we got there it was going to be so banal.’ Newson has made a career out of creating a better looking future – one that’s sexier… more fun.

The spa at the Newson-designed Qantas First Class Lounge looks, quite literally, out of this world. Clinical white-on-white and raw stone surfaces are juxtaposed with an arresting wrap-around floor to ceiling vertical garden that flips the axis on which you’d expect to see flora; emerald Spider Plants grow upwards, across and out of every square inch of wall. It feels like the oxygen harvesting garden quarters of an intergalactic cruiser. As the masseurs and facialists busy themselves like so many 22nd century doctors or flight technicians, there’s a sense of wellbeing but also the serenity of being off-world, in orbit. This cinematic sci-fi snapshot isn’t a one off: ‘I find film very inspiring’, says Newson. ‘It is fantastical… Ken Adams’ sets and 2001 have always stuck in my mind.’ Similarly, his Azzedine Alaia shoe boutique in Paris looks like a zen, marbled Space Odyssey escape pod.

Science fiction is integral to the Newson look, and even the names of his products: There is the Event Horizon table, refashioned out of Carerra marble for the Gagosian show this year; the Black Hole Ikepod watch, produced in an edition of just 66, and his 2004 Talby mobile phone in brushed metal named after a character from the movie Dark Star.

The Talby retains a cult following in Japan where it was released with a variety of different fluorescent coloured keypads – Newson has never shied away from bold use of colour. In his vision of the future, black and white or the fussy maximalist reaction to monochrome are not the only options. His colours are boldly artificial and in clean blocks – they are overtly engineered shades and resonate proudly with a celebration of the artificial. His collaboration with the denim label G-star on a range of jeans and printed sweatshirts wouldn’t look out of place amidst the recent OTT nu-rave fashions that trickled down from Shoreditch hipsters to Top Shop, while his suitcases for Samsonite are in acid yellow and lava orange; great for photographs, and for promoting Samsonite as a progressive brand, but… practical? ‘We embrace contemporary design and Newson’s vibrant colours inject energy and vibrance’, says Samsonite’s Global Creative Director Quentin Mackay. Newson, meanwhile, claims he wanted to work in brights because people want easily identifiable bags. But what about the impact of a few whirls around the baggage carousel? Wouldn’t that take the shine off the meticulous Newson aesthetic? Contrary to what the flawless, android overtones of his work suggest, the designer believes that human interaction completes the process; he doesn’t get twitchy about wear and tear, he embraces it.  ‘Only yesterday my girlfriend was packing and dragged her bag off my carbon fibre table, putting a bloody great scratch right through the middle of it. She was almost in tears but I was just like, whatever… that’ll be the first of many scratches.’ Similarly, his fondness for plastics, with all their connotations of disposability, belies his underlying design ethic. ‘I am obsessed with the idea of quality’, he says. ‘I love the idea that products live, and you form an attachment with them. I like the concept that you buy a product, keep it forever, and never have to buy another one’.

As well as being born into a world dreaming about jet packs and holograms, Marc Newson belongs to the first generation of truly global citizens. Though he has homes and studios in both Paris and London, he says that ‘the reality is that I spend more time elsewhere than in either’. He works on the road, and in the air. ‘I tend to do no design work in the studios’, he says. ‘They are about administration. Design for me takes place in my head. I sketch incessantly until I feel that it is out of my hands and exists in the real world, then I get someone at the studio to work with it on computer, which I’m hopeless at.’ While he believes that what he does transcends geography and ‘is one of the only truly global creative expressions’, some identify a deeper significance in his Australian heritage. American retailer Murray Moss talks of a ‘reference to Aboriginal artefacts through an evolving filter of advancing technologies’ in the work. Moss points to the sculpted shape of his products that ‘aren’t so much organic, more shapes that were born angular and worn naturally and slowly over time, as if by the sea, into smooth undulating curves.’

Newson’s personal state of perpetual motion and his obsession with the technology and aesthetics of flight led to his most important collaboration to date: His creative directorship of Qantas. For him the job is integral to everything he does and will ever do: ‘Aerospace is where technology is invented’, he says. ‘So for me to have first hand involvement puts me one step ahead of the game’. Given the aviation motifs that have been a part of his work since he started, the Qantas appointment really is, as Newson says, ‘an example of life imitating art’. It also represents the boldest move by any airline stylistically since the heyday of Braniff’s 60s and 70s ‘end of the plain plane’ campaign, their Pucci-clad cabin crew and Warhol TV adverts. He created the Qantas Skybed J-class seat in 2003. With its dark hexagon-patterned shell that creates perfect, rigid, personal space, it has the ever so slightly sinister look of a Star Wars Tie Fighter. Qantas have been equal parts savvy and brave to employ him to his full capability – when Ford commissioned his 021c car it never made it past the concept stage despite immense demand, something that Newson puts down to corporations often believing that ‘it’s easier not to do something than do it’.

While Newson describes working in such a pressured and conservative industry as being ‘one step away from being in the army’ and ‘one big obstacle’, his excitement at being handed the opportunity to design the new Qantas A380 interior from nose to tail is obvious: ‘This rarely happens in anyone’s career’, he says. Lesley Grant, Qantas’ General Manager for Customer Product and Service describes working with Newson as ‘amazing’. ‘The most important thing is that he’s a frequent flyer, so he was just as engaged with talk of the experience of flying as the look and design.’

On first sight of the new A380 designs it’s clear there’s been no reinvention of the wheel here. There is still traditionally ordered seating and the look is subtle compared to something like Newson’s EADS Astrium Space Plane which, with its hammock-style grey and yellow moulded seats is the embodiment of so many of the designer’s Jetsons fantasies. But then the EADS project is being developed for space travel and the A380 is for commercial transit and, as John Borghetti, Qantas’ Executive General Manager says, ‘aviation has conservatism culturally built in’. Notwithstanding that conservatism, there are radical elements to what Newson is doing for Qantas in the A380 and beyond, from the sexy red leather sofas in the new business cabins to the foot cradles in economy. The First Class lounge, meanwhile, is a Marc Newson tour de force, from its retro-style clackerboard announcing departures to the vast sweep of its picture windows overlooking the runways and the bathroom fittings from Newson’s commercially range with Ideal Standard.

Borghetti promises there are radical Newson plans still to come, but that they need to ‘take the customer with them, show it to them and sell it to them’. The most radical aspect overall of the new plane is in the holistic approach to design, ensuring Newson’s swank seating isn’t undermined by naff panelling or signage. It may be relatively subtle, but it’s beautiful and part of Borghetti’s vision for ‘a seamless Qantas experience’. There are some fantastic details worked into the projects, and the futurist flash, inherent in the ‘DNA’ that Newson frequently talks of is in every detail: when your coffee arrives at 30,000 feet in one of Newson’s beautifully tapered white Space Odyssey-style mugs, which Borghetti singles out as his personal favourite element of the Qantas makeover, you can’t help but want a set of them immediately; they are a gorgeous paradigm of the Marc Newson DNA.

It’s odd that there aren’t more domestic Newson products on the market. One could argue that his strengths are within interiors, editions and industrial projects. Certainly his interiors projects have been uniformally remarkable. When Aby Rosen, the owner of Manhattan’s landmark Lever House building was looking for a designer for the tower’s basement restaurant space, Newson’s US agent, Stuart Parr, hooked him up with the job. For such a power-dining environment it was an avant garde and risky choice, but Parr says Rosen was ‘beyond happy’ and is currently a major collector of Newson’s work. Anyone who ate in either Oliver Peyton’s Coast in London or Mash & Air in Manchester while they were open will remember their poured floors and sculpted lines, a style echoed today in the Qantas lounge in Sydney but on a more lavish scale, with perfectly curved-off pre-cut Carerra marble corners where ever wall meets floor or ceiling – in Marc Newson’s vision of the future, there is no such thing as a squared off corner.

Back on the factory floor level of product design, companies tend to use Newson for window-dressing limited editions, like the 1000-run lime green £500 Dom Perignon ice bucket, subsequently followed up with an aluminium version. ‘He has created a contemporary icon for us’, says Daniel Gaujac, the Executive Vice President of the champagne house. The cooler may not be functional or mass market, but it’s certainly an ingenious pop art photo-opportunity. Newson has, it must be said, enjoyed some success on a domestic level – Vicky Richardson, the editor of Blueprint, singles out his pepper mill for Alessi as one of his greatest achievements. ‘I have it at home’, she says. ‘It’s so heavy that it feels as if it’s turned from a block of solid wood. Using it every day makes you realise that the enticing curves of his collectable work translate into products that are functional and really satisfying to use’. Tefal produced a range of cookware with Newson in 2004 and Smeg launched a range of Newson-designed hardware this April in Milan. He is currently working on a range of optical products with Swarovski. Busy, busy, busy.

The Marc Newson star is still very much in the ascendant. ‘We’re working on a book together, but it’s going to take years because of how young he still is’, says Didier Krzentowski. Right now, the collector’s market for his work is buzzing. ‘It caught fire about six years ago’, says Stuart Parr. ‘Particularly in the case of the American market – Apple computers was the only company that really had a contemporary design language in the States, and it’s taken a long time for that to impact on commerce and change the culture. Now a lot of contemporary art buyers are buying his work’.

Marc Newson’s unparalleled success in the editions market has liberated him and expanded his power base. As an artist, he works without the constraints of the industrial world and on more and more commercial projects he is given carte blanche: ‘When I started working, when I created the Lockheed Lounge, everything I did was limited in number as I couldn’t afford to do more than one or two at a time’, he says. ‘Now I have the confidence of clients and, with the editions, I’m not beholden to anybody except myself. It’s come full circle. Now it’s more like… a hobby’. As hobbies go, there are few as wish fulfilling or indeed lucrative.

Susanne Bartsch at the Chelsea Hotel (Sunday Times Style)

Posted in Architecture, interiors and design with tags , , , , on September 20, 2009 by markcoflaherty

There are few addresses in the world that carry as much rock and roll resonance as the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. The name of this W23rd street building, with its imposing laced wrought iron balconies and iconic neon sign, conjures up a barrage of glamorous and infamous pop culture legend: Dylan Thomas, Sid & Nancy, Patti Smith, Warhol’s “superstars” and, still in residence on the 7th floor, the undisputed queen of Manhattan nightlife, Susanne Bartsch.


Bartsch has, since her arrival from a 13 year tenure in London in 1981, taken over three apartments, combined them, and created what is an increasingly rare enclave of bohemian fabulousness in ever more corporate Manhattan. At a time when New York is closing more and more of its clubs down (Bartsch was the victim of two closures in the space of one week in 2006), she is continuing to fight for the right to party. She’s also staying put.

‘I like the idea of living in a hotel,’ says Bartsch, who as well as presiding over New York’s more fashionable nightclubs for as long as anyone can remember, acted as a US agent for many of London’s hottest fashion names (BodyMap, Galliano, Leigh Bowery…) during the heyday of her Bartsch Boutique in the 80s. ‘I have the illusion that I can take off at any time at the Chelsea.’

Even exotic creatures of the night have their ties however, including a husband (the equally iconic gym owner David Barton), her two dogs Bippy and Schnauzie and a 14 year old son, Bailey: ‘I am a mom and my son is my priority and yes, I have put down roots, but I still like the feeling that this isn’t permanent.’

Bartsch’s universe at the Chelsea is a museum of thirty years of living glamorously. When she first arrived, taking over the flat from artist Patrick Hughes who had shared it previously with the writer Molly Parkin, it was a blank canvas. ‘It was all white’, says Susanne in her distinctive Swiss-raised drawl. ‘There were plain walls and painters drop cloths stapled down on the floor. I lived out of shopping bags at the time as it was mostly about me and my outfits.’ Bartsch’s elaborate fashions still dominate a lot of her bedroom, but since her first husband had the hallway painted with wild magenta and purple star graphics as a surprise birthday gift by the artist Joey Horatio, the space began to take on life of its own. Bartsch sanded all the floors and had Horatio paint murals on the living room ceiling. Then she turned the bedroom into a sensual ceiling to floor rouged boudoir. ‘Joey calls the colour Chanel Red. He painted the room and then I found the most perfect bed at an auction house for $500. It was cheap because people don’t have room for big beds in New York’. A vast Chinese wedding bed, found by David Barton in China, dominates the living room: ‘You can close all the slats and make it totally private, and you can have tea put served through the windows. The idea is that you can be totally starkers in there!’

Most of the artefacts in Bartsch and Barton’s home are oversized souvenirs. A driftwood and glass coffee table was bought to put in the lobby of Barton’s gym in Chicago, but didn’t make it out of the Chelsea.  There are chandeliers in the hallway and bedroom taken from the Raleigh Hotel in Miami, from when Bartsch hosted a New Years Eve party there. An ET doll sits on a mantelpiece behind an overstuffed sofa. ‘I don’t know where that came from!’ says Susanne. ‘But he’s been here for a long time. I had to wash his coat the other day’.

There has been no interior design strategy for Bartsch’s home apartment. There is also, as Susanne says, ‘nothing expensive here’, apart from a small artwork by the artist Ross Bleckner; a tiny dot in a frame that represents the beginning of life, a gift from Bleckner given to her at her baby shower in the 90s. The whole place is pure flea market ramshackle, rough around the edges New York City. The apartment is full of life, with cascades of books, flyers, remnants of outfits and clubland memorabilia.

Bailey’s space is a typical teenage boys bedroom, with a row of electric guitars and a wall full of rock posters. The only tell tale sign that this isn’t, perhaps, the average boys bedroom is the vast mirrorball hanging from the ceiling. ‘I don’t know if he realises quite how unusual it is to live here”, says Bartsch. ‘His friends love coming here from Brooklyn for sleepovers because they can go to the deli at 2am. You can’t do that in Brooklyn.’ In Bartsch’s ongoing world of fantasy and escapism, and increasingly defiant after dark hedonism, being able to get a sandwich in the middle of the night remains a basic necessity. And she certainly doesn’t look like decamping to Brooklyn anytime soon.