Wednesday. 17/2/2021

The Monocle Minute
On Design


See for yourself

It’s a touch counter-productive for an editor to say this but it’s the truth: good design can’t be judged purely through artful photography and, dare I add, choice words. Most (if not all) architects and designers will back me here. While social media and online publications have helped to expose practitioners to a broader audience, in many cases winning them more work, the viewing experience is hardly comparable to immersing oneself within the spaces they design in real life.

With most of us housebound and glued to our screens more than usual lately, the growing culture of judging work on screen has been exacerbated. However, I don’t think it’s to the detriment of those creating the projects. My hope is that the absence of opportunity to experience good design firsthand has left people champing at the bit to appreciate these efforts out there, in an environment they’ve been restricted from, as soon as possible. At least, that is how I felt when I was unleashed on the largely open city of Helsinki last week.

First stop was the renovated Savoy restaurant. Originally created by Aino and Alvar Aalto in 1937 (see In The Picture) it was the recent recipient of a sensitive update by London’s Studioilse, in co-operation with Artek, Helsinki Museum, and the Alvar Aalto Foundation.. It is a masterpiece. While sitting at the handsome corner table favoured by Finland’s former president Marshal Mannerheim, under the soft glow of a perfectly positioned Aalto A330S pendant light, I was overwhelmed by a moment that could never be replicated virtually. I trust that the projects we profile in these weekly newsletters elicit similar reactions when you make your own pilgrimages, as soon as time allows.

Image: Studio Bouroullec et Yann Peucat


Going with the flow

Le Belvédère on the Vilaine river in Rennes is a playful exercise in shifting perspectives. With a form inspired by 18th-century follies, this new pavilion, designed by brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, offers pedestrians and cyclists a fresh view of the city. The appearance of its 13 metre-high cylindrical structure, which contains luminous orbs and mobiles, changes with the weather and the seasons.

Recently opened to all, the largely metal construction was commissioned by the mayor of Rennes, a city famed for its heritage building stock, as part of his effort to reclaim the banks of the Vilaine for public use. According to the design duo, Le Belvédère is “freely open to any use one cares to name” – as a lighthouse, landmark, meeting point or simply a place of reflection.


Body of works

The walled city of Cáceres in western Spain is set to make a mark on the cultural world this spring when it opens a new home for one of Europe’s most important collections of contemporary art. The museum and its adjacent garden will play host to an incredible 3,000-work collection featuring art from Dan Flavin, Josef Albers, Paul Klee and Anish Kapoor, among others, which was gifted to the Extremadura region by German collector and dealer Helga de Alvear.

Image: Joaquín Cortés
Image: Joaquín Cortés
Image: Joaquín Cortés

The gallery was designed by Madrid-based Tuñón Arquitectos as a sensitive extension of the existing Helga de Alvear foundation. The new white-concrete main structure by the city’s ancient wall feels modern but takes inspiration from Cáceres’s traditional architecture, which is mostly made up of whitestone houses. “We wanted to establish links with the historic city,” says the firm’s founder Emilio Tuñón. “But the building shouldn’t be more important than the artists’ work. We designed it as a container, a box of works of art that pays humble homage to De Alvear’s extraordinary collection.”

Image: Mark Kushimi


City blocks

As co-founder of architecture practice Tadpole Studio and an academic at the University of Hawaii, Bundit Kanisthakhon (pictured, on right, with business partner Janice Li) knows a thing or two about building in tropical climates. Much of the work undertaken at his design studios in Hawaii and Thailand, from high-rise apartments in Honolulu to commissions for the city’s Museum of Art, is about opening buildings to the outdoors to ensure that those spending time in them stay cool. He tells us about tropical architecture and why the humble breeze-block should be Hawaii’s construction material of choice.

How can buildings in the tropics embrace the naturally balmy climate and invite the outdoors in?
Living in Hawaii, to be honest, you don’t really need buildings. You never get frostbite because it never gets too cold; and if it’s too hot you could just stand under a tree. In tropical climates we need to embrace what my friend, German architect Martin Despang, calls “easy breezy” buildings that allow cross-ventilation to come in. So we could use materials, breeze-blocks for instance, that allow for that. Breeze-blocks create shade and shadow, and if you look at urban environments in the tropics, the activity happens in the shaded areas. Building with them, you get privacy and safety but there’s still circulation of air and it’s comfortable and social.

Could breeze-blocks, which were widely used in Hawaii in the 1960s and 1970s, be considered the islands’ material of choice?
I always use food as an analogy: in Hawaii, we like to import things like anchovies or pasta, or things that are considered upscale and high-end. But people never look at what they have here. The same goes for building. There aren’t many locally grown materials that are purely from Hawaii but the breeze-block could be. We have the sand, we have the water; you import a little cement, you build the formwork and then you mix it. You could even mix it with coral that you find here but I’m yet to see that experimented with. In Hawaii, you also need to consider wind from the mountains and salty breeze from the ocean, so the materials need to be appropriate and not easily corroded. Breeze-block doesn’t get worn down like steel or metal in these conditions.

Why are many buildings not embracing the use of breeze-blocks like they once were?
What has happened now in Hawaii is that we’re building like typical suburban America. We’ve turned land into cookie-cutter housing developments. The majority of high-rise buildings that are coming up look like microwaves, where everything is sealed up and the only window openings allowed are 4 inches [10cm] because that meets the code and allows them to push the boundary of the building, so developers can sell more square footage. There’s no lanai [a type of airy, roofed, open-sided veranda originating in Hawaii] or balcony, where you can go out to enjoy the breeze. It raises questions about the best way to live in Hawaii.

To hear the full interview, listen to this week’s edition of ‘Monocle on Design’ on Monocle 24.

Image: Anje Jager


Moist excellent

As those of us in the northern hemisphere anticipate warmer months ahead, that greenery on our windowsills will need some extra attention. But far too many plant owners use unsightly plastic jugs or even just drinking glasses for watering purposes. There is a need for some well-designed pieces that are fit for the purpose – and this lovely pitcher from the 1950s ticks all of the boxes.

Crafted from durable copper, the watering can is the work of Swedish designer Gunnar Ander for Ystad-Metall, a manufacturer of decorative metal objects that shut up shop in 1969. The pitcher has a comfortable rattan-wrapped handle and a slim, low-mounted spout that provides optimal pouring control. And it’s not just functional: a design this charming could easily be kept on view. It might even remind you to tend to those plants more often.


Taking a stand

Drawing inspiration from the revered work of US-Japanese craftsman George Nakashima, Swedish furniture company Fogia’s latest collection harnesses natural materials and seeks to offer a timeless aesthetic. Designed by Danish firm Norm Architects, the Koku tables take their name from the island of Shikoku, where Nakashima spent time in the 1960s.

Nakashima’s sculptural and material-led approach to crafting objects was the source of inspiration for Norm. It gave the firm the idea of coming up with a combination of solid wood and metal. “We wanted to give a clear sense of direction to the bottom frame but calm and serene on top,” says Norm’s Frederik Werner. “Some parts are thin and elegant without losing any of the strength of the whole construction. We were able to play with the dimensions and proportions of the different elements.”


Throwing shapes

Finnish brand Artek might be celebrated for its bent-plywood furniture but any devotee of mid-century modernism will also appreciate its monochrome textiles. There’s Aino Aalto’s Zebra, for instance, which is our upholstery of choice for the iconic Armchair 400. And then there’s Siena, a simple geometric motif that translates the essence of Alvar Aalto architecture onto any soft furnishing. Alvar designed the classic black-and-white pattern in 1954, inspired by the famous Duomo di Siena that he and Aino visited during their honeymoon in Tuscany.

Artek has now introduced three new colourways to the pattern, drawing on the recurring materials in Alvar’s architectural repertoire: brick, natural fibres, and marble. For anyone looking to spruce up their interiors in time for spring, the new hues bring welcome options that remain faithful to the great Finnish architect’s understated and impeccable taste.


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