Wednesday. 14/7/2021

The Monocle Minute
On Design


Solid advice

In my previous life as an urban designer for city hall in Perth, Australia, part of my role involved reviewing designs for new buildings. The aim was to ensure that they ticked a number of boxes – boxes that focused more on what architects and developers couldn’t do (build really steep access ramps, say) rather than what they should, such as ensuring that street-level façades were active and engaging. Frustratingly, it seemed that the exercise was more about meeting minimum requirements than pushing quality architecture. It’s why I was particularly excited by Melbourne’s recent announcement of two new independent bodies that will champion – not just regulate – design in the city.

Soon to be composed of a select group of architects and urban designers, the newly minted Melbourne Design Review Panel and Design Excellence Advisory Committee will, respectively, provide advice on development applications and set the agenda for good design in the city. The move is spurred on by the fact that the Victorian capital has in recent years, by its own admission, allowed the construction of poor buildings that add nothing to the city’s vibrancy and street life – think enormous and lifeless walls of glass fronting what should be an inviting pedestrian streetscape.

And while it’s not a new concept (review panels are common in many cities), it’s a big win for Melbourne. More than just improving designers’ CVs, it offers resident creatives a chance to weigh in on good design and actively shape their city, without the cost and client constraints of their own projects. It’s reason enough for designers in Melbourne to put their names down for a spot on the panel or committee, and why designers elsewhere – from London to Bristol, and Seattle to New York – should sign up for similar groups in their respective cities too.


Outside chances

The work of San Francisco-based architect Malcolm Davis, who founded his eponymous practice in 1991, is often about escaping the big city and venturing into the Northern Californian countryside. It’s seen in his renovation of a mid-century house built around an oak tree in Portola Valley (pictured, top) as well as a “family camp” made up of two simple sheds for passionate environmentalists.

One of his latest projects, a Sea Ranch-inspired coastal retreat (pictured) for a couple working in the area’s technology industry, caught our eye for its clean lines and use of materials from the region. Achieving a seamless connection with the outdoors is at the heart of all of Davis’s project; here, this meant designing around striking ocean views. “Whether we begin with bare land or existing structures, our projects develop their character through careful interpretation and sensitivity to each client’s programme, site orientation, context and climate,” says Davis.

The house is made up of two wood-clad volumes, referencing Californian vernacular barn-like structures, connected by a steel porch. “The artist in me likes a design solution to feel as if it was inevitable, as if it feels natural and makes sense,” says Davis. “Architects at their core are problem solvers and the beauty of a seemingly simple solution is in the details and how the volumes and materials play with the light.”


Deep roots

When Finnish duo Antti Hirvonen and Miklu Silvanto launched their new design brand Vaarnii, the goal was to draw on Finland’s rich design heritage and furniture-making tradition while presenting something materially new and genuinely unconventional. They commissioned a group of 10 international designers – among them the likes of Fredrik Paulsen, Philippe Malouin, Mac Collins and Kwangho Lee – to design a line of furniture and accessories made entirely from Finnish scots pine, to be crafted in Finland.

Image: Jussi Puikkonen
Image: Jussi Puikkonen

“Pine is a challenging wood long-forgotten in the industry,” says Hirvonen, who used to work at the Finnish heritage brand Artek. “But when it’s used right, it has a unique texture and colour.” Vaarnii’s collection was inspired by everyday design in which products are made to serve a clear purpose and function, as opposed to being styled. “Central to Vaarnii’s conception are the ideas of brutalism and sophistication,” says Silvanto, an industrial designer with a background at Apple and Bang & Olufsen. “It’s the tension and contrast built into Finnish culture.”

Image: Mattia Balsamini


Going places

British designer Thomas Heatherwick’s portfolio is already extensive and impressive. It includes the recent Vessel lookout and staircase in New York, the Olympic Cauldron from the 2012 Olympics and the now-iconic New Routemaster bus for London. Adding to this is a new vehicle called Airo, designed in collaboration with IM Motors. We caught up with Heatherwick on this week’s episode of Monocle on Design to find out more about the project.

Tell us about the inspiration behind Airo.
This car is based on two ideas. The first is that the world of electric cars is moving forward at such a speed but there seems to have been this tendency of manufacturers just tweaking how things look. It seems to us that new cars should be adding something more and not just offering a differently flavoured version. The second idea is that there’s a smugness that can exist in electric car drivers who feel that they’re not polluting the air. But they actually are – the tyres and brakes are giving off particulate matter. We wondered whether we could make a car that wasn’t just not-so-bad but could actually be proactively good. Our car integrates hyper air-filtering technology that puts clean air back into the environment.

How does Airo challenge the concept of what a car should be?
There are more than a billion cars in the world. And those cars are only in use about 10 per cent of the time, while 90 per cent of the time they’re sitting there doing nothing. Why can’t they be used as a room given that there’s a space crisis going on? When you think about it, many people’s cars have a better stereo system than their homes – and even the seats are often more comfortable. We thought, well, what if you thought of the car as a useful space for that other 90 per cent. So we designed a car with sliding doors, no central bar and seats that rotate and fold out like in business class on a plane. Now you can park next to your favourite place – whether it’s by the sea or next to a forest – and suddenly the world is your garden.

Aside from positive environmental contributions and providing a new space for us outside of our homes, how can such a car improve our quality of life?
When we worked on the London bus, success was based on how you physically moved people, not by how they felt. What was missing to us was dignity and how someone feels if they’re going to take a bus to and from work for 30 years of their life. So things such as the lighting became important – do you want a fluorescent tube right in front of your face? Technically it’s safe and meets regulations, but it’s the most unflattering thing to human skin tissue. So learning from interior design and interior architecture, we used light that warms your skin. Dignity in design is something that is so often missed. And so we’ll be taking those lessons into the development of this car: the materials we use are going to be a big part of it.

To hear more from Heatherwick, listen to this week’s edition of ‘Monocle on Design’.

Illustration: Anje Jager


Loud and clear

Whether we like it or not, for many of us, video calls have become a permanent feature of the working day for many. Monocle believes that their set-up should be held to the same standard as if the meeting were held in-person. A key consideration is audio quality but we’ve heard from designers that there is a lack of first-rate microphones on the market that also look smart enough to be visible on camera. A suggested solution? An upgraded version of the most iconic of them all: the BBC’s Marconi Type A.

Mass-produced for the BBC as a less-expensive version of the ribbon microphones introduced in Hollywood in the 1930s, the Marconi Type A served the broadcaster throughout the Second World War. The double-sided design is particularly well suited to the human voice and the shape has come to symbolise audio technology – think of the microphone symbol on your phone. Still today, it’s a design we wouldn’t mind having on view.

Image: Michael Rygaard


Shades of tray

In 1963, when Hans Bølling designed the sleek and mobile tray table that shares his name, it would have been difficult for the young Danish designer to imagine its enduring popularity. Set on wheels and featuring two wooden trays, it’s still in production today, cementing its reputation as a timeless piece of Scandinavian design.

To celebrate this longevity, furniture firm Brdr Krüger has worked with the now 90-year-old Bølling to choose seven new colourways for the table’s trays. Handcrafted in Vaerløse, Denmark, the new hues draw inspiration from the elements and include a mossy green, watery blue and sunny yellow. Every tray is reversible, with a light and dark variation of its colourway on its top and bottom. The result is a versatile and easily personalised design classic suitable for any room and any occasion.


Image conscious

Founded in 1952 by a group of photographers and writers to serve as “common ground for the advancement of photography”, New York’s Aperture foundation has made a name for itself producing books that shine a light on the brightest and best in the world of contemporary photography. Its latest publication, Glass Life, showcases the work of Canadian artist Sara Cwynar in a lively 200-page volume that features portraits and stills from her short films Rose Gold, Soft Film and Red Film. These images are part of the Brooklyn-based artist’s visual exploration of consumer culture and the barrage of images that we’re constantly exposed to online.

Image: Tony Hay
Image: Tony Hay
Image: Tony Hay
Image: Tony Hay

Cwynar’s core practice involves pasting together pictures of vibrantly coloured found objects, including melamine crockery and empty jewellery boxes. These are interspersed throughout the book with texts by playwright Sheila Heti and curator Legacy Russell. The result is a visually arresting dive into digital culture and consumerism that cements Cwynar’s position as one of photography’s most innovative young talents.


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