Wednesday. 15/9/2021

The Monocle Minute
On Design


Creative licence

As many of the stories in this week’s newsletter show, one of the best things about visiting an event such as Salone del Mobile is seeing great designers’ creations in person, in showrooms and exhibitions. The work at Milan’s massive annual industry event is always of high quality, ambitious and boundary-pushing – as all good design should be. In fact, some of the most frustrating projects for a designer are undoubtedly those in which clients put other considerations ahead of these qualities.

In my short stint as a landscape architect – when Copics, not Caran d’Aches, were my pens of choice – I saw time and again a focus on short-term costs and short-sighted ambitions put ahead of investing in quality design. But a new survey of clients by the Australian Institute of Architects, backed by the UK’s own institute, should give designers confidence when pushing back. Among its findings, the survey revealed that 60 per cent of clients want designers who challenge them if project objectives aren’t being met. This is significant and uplifting for designers everywhere, assuming that their project’s objectives are centred on delivering a well-designed product.

It’s a reminder that developers and clients want their architects and industrial designers to say when decisions, perhaps driven by money or ego, will get in the way of delivering good work. Combined with respondents’ indication that they want to invest in sustainability (and there’s nothing more sustainable than good design), the results should steel the resolve of practitioners everywhere.

When practising, had I known that clients appreciated being called out, I might have spoken up more when design directions drifted. And if you’re a designer who does the same now and gets some backlash, well, point the client in the direction of the survey. Or, if all else fails, send them my way – I’d be more than happy to try and talk them around.


Natural selection

Designers turn to a host of different sources for inspiration: from their upbringing and hometown to the natural world. For Cypriot-born, UK-based industrial designer Michael Anastassiades, the latter has always resonated particularly strongly. For proof, look to his new exhibition, Cheerfully Optimistic About the Future at Fondazione ICA Milano. Launched as part of Milan Design Week and running until January, the show explores the role of “nature as designer”, across an open-plan warehouse space in the city’s Vigentino neighbourhood.

In the first space, a collection of stones – started by Anastassiades as a child and added to in the following years – are carefully arranged in straight lines and gentle curves. Each object is intended to show how nature can create “perfect shapes” that look as if they have been crafted by artisans.

In the other room, a series of bamboo lamps with pewter bases builds on this theme. Every one is handmade (and in the case of the pewter base, hand-poured) by Anastassiades and his team. Again, nature is the designer, with the bamboo unaltered (except for being cut to length) and the plant’s pipe-like form inspiring the use of tubular light bulbs. The result is a set of sleek-looking lamps that would be a welcome addition to any home – all the while illuminating the potential for nature to inform design.


Stroke of genius

Completed in 1934, Milan’s Piscina Cozzi was the first indoor swimming pool in Italy, showcasing the avant-garde engineering prowess of prewar Lombardy. Today it remains a place of pride for locals, thanks to its beautiful aquamarine tiles and marble floors. Making “improvements” to it, then, could be considered risky. But an enormous mural created for Milan Design Week by the co-founders of Toiletpaper magazine, artist Maurizio Cattelan and photographer Pierpaolo Ferrari, in collaboration with Desigual, shows that this doesn’t need to be the case.

Image: Andrea Pugiotto

Called Be Water and on display for the next year, the gigantic 246 sq m mural – almost as long and wide as a 25m lap pool – is painted on the back wall of the building and depicts a woman partially submerged in water. Sporting perfectly manicured nails and immaculate make-up, we’re guessing that she’s Milanese.

“The Cozzi pool is part of my life,” says Cattelan. “When I’m in Milan I go there every day to swim.” He adds that his idea for the mural took shape over the course of several dips in the pool. His work, and its immediate popularity with both the Milanese and visitors, is a reminder for designers that constant immersion in a site (or pool) is essential to developing design solutions that are site-specific and hold water with locals.


All in hand

Chicago-born, New York-based designer Stephen Burks (pictured with partner Malika Leiper) connects tribal and artisanal craft techniques with contemporary aesthetics. It’s an approach to work that’s seen his studio, Stephen Burks Man Made, established as one of America’s most acclaimed industrial design practices, earning him the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for product design. We recently caught up with Burks for Monocle on Design in Italy, where he was presenting a collaboration with Salvatori at Milan Design Week.

Image: Caroline Tompkins

Tell us about your new community-facing gallery and studio in Brooklyn, and the projects that have come out of it.

My partner Malika Leiper and I had a small gallery in Dumbo, which we began renting at the start of the pandemic. We didn’t spend a single day there for six months, so when we did open it, we thought, “Okay, rather than trying to make this about us, how do we make this about our friends in our community?” Relationships are the most important thing going forward and so we called the space “Contemporaries”. Just by chance, the managing director of USM USA wandered in and loved what we were doing. That translated into a project that we’ve started called Anywhere Kitchen, in which we’re looking at the intersection of food, design and community to build conversations around the biggest issues of our time.

You talk about design as a language. How do you use it to communicate ideas about sustainability?

We want to make objects that people want to keep. And I think if we start there and we’re all against “throw away-ism”, then we’re moving in the right direction. In terms of sustainability, we like to work with noble materials and think about how we’re in the service of people, and of the customers that are buying our work. It’s about asking, “What does the work do for them and how is it doing its best for sustainability?”

You’re a jury member for the Hue+Man design competition run by USM, which many young designers entered. What advice do you have for people early in their careers?.

I think the next generation of designers really have to look inside themselves. It’s not just about them trying to take on the world. Rather, it’s about understanding who they are first and then thinking about how that translates into a project: an expression of not just their identity but their identity in relation to the world. It might sound a little funny but it’s this philosophy of “no heroes”, because we’re all people and everyone is capable of design. So, regardless of where you’re at in your career, you have something to say and you can make a contribution. It’s why we shouldn’t look at other designers as competition. Young designers today have to be fearless.

For more from Stephen Burks and Malika Leiper, listen to this week’s edition of ‘Monocle on Design’ on Monocle 24.


Harmonic triad

It is an underappreciated feat to design a three-legged chair that is stable enough to seat someone safely. Alvar Aalto famously succeeded with the Artek 60 stool but the finest such dining chair that we’ve come across is hidden in the archives of Swiss furniture-maker Horgenglarus. Designed by architect Max Bill in 1949, the beech-plywood piece even came with a matching trilateral dining table.

It came from a fruitful collaboration between Horgenglarus and Bill, who was a student under Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Many of Bill’s designs from the 1940s and 1950s are still crafted by the small but storied chair and table-manufacturer in the canton of Glarus. The Tripod Chair, however, is today only available to assiduous auction-goers. Surely such a well-balanced design deserves to be part of the permanent collection.


Place setting

Outdoor furniture brand Kettal revealed its new dining table, Il Colonnato, this week, which reproduces Italian architect Mario Bellini’s 1977 project. Taking inspiration from classical architecture, Il Colonnato’s design emulates a series of columns supporting a portico, or tabletop in this case.

“The Colonnato family of tables has always been defined by its innate stability, due to the weight of its elements,” says Bellini. “But today, by using new, lighter and recyclable alloys, new perspectives are opened up.” Originally designed in marble, the dining table today comes in teak and cement, which the designer says gives it a more contemporary feel. In fact, according to Bellini, Kettal’s recent release is all about putting a modern twist on the Colonatto without “betraying its noble origins”. We agree: they got the balance just right.


Pride of placement

Highlighting the strength of a good design collection in print should not be about outdoing the featured objects but complementing them in a clear and handsome way. Milan-based agency Studio Vedèt has done just that with the print and digital collateral celebrating London marble-furniture brand Agglomerati’s Round Table from its Mass collection, which was one of many successful projects it released at Milan Design Week’s Alcova event.

With a clean sans-serif typeface, the print brochure’s cover and graphical work is particularly impressive. Using bold, simple abstractions of the furniture’s forms over a striking red background, it delivers punch while intriguing the reader to read further.


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