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Q&A – Raf Simons

Fashion designer, Belgium

Fashion industry giant Raf Simons has turned his attention to furniture with the launch of his sixth collection of fabrics with Denmark’s Kvadrat. At Milan Design Week in April the former creative director of Christian Dior used furniture (and three demountable houses) from mid-century design greats including Gerrit Rietveld and Jean Prouvé, as part of an installation called “No Man’s Land”.

Monocle: You highlighted your new range of fabrics for Kvadrat against a backdrop of mid-century furniture. Why did you go back to the past to launch a new fabric?
Raf Simons: I am a big admirer of this body of work from Jean Prouvé, Le Corbusier, Mathieu Matégot and Gerrit Rietveld because there is a warmth to it. They were serving the consumer in an incredible way, making work that is ergonomic but also robust. It might be refined design but it can take a knock.

M: When you look at designers from this period such as Charlotte Perriand and Le Corbusier, who were thinking about issues like social housing as well as furniture, how did it inform your creative approach?
RS: Good design is good design. And a Jean Prouvé demountable house is incredible design; Gerrit Rietveld furniture is incredible furniture. When it comes to learning from the past it is a lot to do with taking responsibility. My collaboration with Kvadrat is about being responsible; I need to make a fabric that is an incredibly good fabric, for lots of people to use in lots of different ways, which is what I think these particular designers from the past were doing.

If you take away their aesthetic language and look at their work from a social and psychological point of view, they all took responsibility. Prouvé in the war period was designing to solve big problems and big issues with housing. If it was good design back then and it’s still good design today, it means it’s still going to be good design in 2060 – and that is something I think about in my work. The power of good design is like the power of nature. It’s great.

M: And what impact does this have on you when you think about fashion?
RS: The desire to make something that can last is a big thing to me. That might sound strange to you coming from a fashion designer, because fashion is also supposed to work in its moment in time. But I design things that people like to hold on to and I know from my own brand that people keep my fashion. This is something that I feel proud and emotional about.


Sharing nicely

Housing — Cambridge, uk

Co-housing developments, encouraging home-buyers to band together and share resources, are catching on in Europe. Marmalade Lane in Cambridge is one of the latest such projects; it’s also one of the most handsome.

It was designed by Cambridge’s Mole Architects and the 42 homes have a Scandinavian feel, influenced by research trips to Denmark and Sweden where co-housing is a more established concept. With high ceilings and large windows, each property was customised from three different brick types and multiple internal layout options. “This slightly haphazard nature is very pleasing, and the accidental surprises arising from this process animate the streets, expressing individuality within a cohesive whole,” says Meredith Bowles, principal at Mole. Houses are grouped around a central garden, which already had oak trees and will host resident allotments.


In with the old

by Nolan Giles

London is proud of its past. As such, architecture firms have become adept at working with the old bones of buildings and bringing out new value from them, which isn’t easy as they’re often dealing with strict heritage preservation codes. A fine example is the multibillion-pound transformation of under-used industrial wasteland at King’s Cross, which is setting global benchmarks as a mixed-use project.

It’s putting community gardens and affordable housing side by side with cash-generating offices for global technology brands and a busy international transit hub. Already warehouses at King’s Cross have become refined retail destinations, while an old granary is now home to one of the world’s most progressive design schools in the form of Central Saint Martins.

London doesn’t always get re-use right (and the King’s Cross redevelopment certainly has its critics) but it does have plenty of success stories to share. Just look at Tate Modern: the contemporary-arts institution became the most visited attraction in the city last year (about six million people dropped by). Yet the site was a redundant powerstation two decades ago.

London’s approach to resuscitating its old building stock, rather than knocking down and rebuilding anew, is to be commended. Architect Robert Sakula of Ash Sakula is currently redeveloping old industrial buildings in Hackney Wick, an area in London’s east where long-defunct canal-side factories have been repopulated with bars and coffeehouses. He says practicality and saving energy in construction make the argument for re-use in London but there’s a more intangible factor at play. “Old buildings are a repository of memories,” he says. “They create continuity and connections.”


Natural beauty

Golf club — Jordan

The new wave-shaped Ayla golf clubhouse rises elegantly from the desert at the foot of Jordan’s Aqaba Mountains. “We wanted it to feel of the land rather than on the land,” says Oppenheim Architecture’s principal Chad Oppenheim from the firm’s base in Miami.

Oppenheim and his team aimed to take inspiration from the surrounding dunescapes, the Jordanian mountains and the built heritage of the Bedouin. The result is an undulating form that almost feels natural; its singular concrete surface was shaped by hand and infused with local minerals and sediment to give the remarkable exterior shell its earthy tone.


People’s palace

Airports — Singapore

“You create a beautiful building by making a meaningful building,” says Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie in reference to his latest project. Jewel Changi is a monumental dome-like space, which part-opened last month at Singapore’s Changi Airport. Its huge inner core is an indoor forest on multiple levels, with stairs and walking trails weaving through thousands of plants and trees. At the centre of everything is the “rain vortex”, the tallest indoor waterfall in the world. The inter-terminal shuttle zips through periodically, giving it all the feel of a spaceport from the future.

While Jewel Changi’s funding model is mainly based on its expansive retail offering, Safdie’s aim was to democratise the building and provide a new public area as a gift to the space-starved island-state. “I wanted to create something that felt much more populist, in the sense that it mixes all the population,” he says.

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