Wednesday. 24/11/2021

The Monocle Minute
On Design

Opinion / Nolan Giles

History repeated

One joy of writing about architecture is spending time in beautiful old buildings and imagining what life there would have been like when they were new. Step into a great 1950s modernist tower in New York, for example, and you can envisage slick-haired businessmen dashing to lifts in sharp suits. Or order a cocktail at Singapore’s 1887 Raffles Long Bar and your imaginary drinking companions meander around the teak-adorned space in a haze of cigar smoke; the women using fans to keep cool and wearing flowing gowns.

However, playing this game last week on a trip to Stockholm I came a little unstuck while exploring an unheralded design movement from the early 1920s: Swedish Grace. The resulting work includes buildings such as Stockholm Concert Hall (pictured), where oddly elongated columns cast slender shadows on ornate cast-iron gates, and the Kungstornen skyscrapers, where stone entrance archways have been carved into shapely statues of half-naked men, seemingly bearing the weight of these hefty buildings. With a sprinkle of art nouveau, inspiration from the antiquities and the clean lines of early modernism, these exuberant works are hardly what you expect from a nation known for pragmatism, thriftiness and lovely red-timber buildings.

Image: Alamy

But Swedish Grace comes from a unique moment, as Cilla Robach, first curator at Stockholm’s National Museum, explains. She says that as the nation emerged from the First World War and the Spanish flu, wealthy companies and the country’s government empowered creatives to dream up a “new design for a new society”.

An extensive exhibition at the museum next year, that Robach is curating, will highlight Swedish Grace and the era into which it was born – when women became liberated, Greta Garbo starred on the big screen and architects and artists worked alongside artisans to create these joyful designs. “It was about investment in taking care of the details,” says Robach. “These sculptures and buildings made people happy.” She notes that, 100 years on, there are many similarities to now and we should consider taking inspiration from Swedish Grace when designing our own future. “When nightclubs reopened here [after pandemic-enforced closures], my son queued for 10 hours to dance for eight hours. The feeling from that time is most certainly one we can recognise again today.”

The project / Zürich Police Station

Open and shut case

As you walk along the train tracks in Zürich’s trendy District 5, it’s not easy to pick out the exact function of the former industrial neighbourhood’s newest building. Is it an office complex or a new block of flats? Only a glimpse through the bulletproof windows, where detectives will soon be pouring over case files, betrays its real purpose: this is the criminal investigation department of Zürich Police. Designed by architecture studio Penzel Valier, the six-storey building stands apart from its neighbouring structures but has generous windows that invite the surrounding neighbourhood in. “This creates a structure that oscillates between referencing its environment and autonomy,” says lead architect Christian Penzel.

Image: Bruno Augsburger
Image: Bruno Augsburger
Image: Bruno Augsburger

And while glass might dominate the upper floors, the building’s ground level, which contains twelve cells for temporary detention, uses concrete as its material of choice. The concrete has a timber imprint, which is visible on the ceiling, that adds a surprising gentle touch to the cold, functional space. This trend continues on the upper levels, with a naturally lit concrete-walled atrium rising up to the sixth floor. The outcome is a building that is practical and open to the outside world. It’s a surprising approach to the design of a police building but one that will hopefully create an uplifting work environment for people doing an important job.

Design News / Toyota Tacoma Camper, USA

Box fresh

If the idea of holidaying in a motorhome makes you shudder, you might want to take a closer look at Toyota’s “Tacozilla” Tacoma Camper. Inspired by the car-maker’s Chinook Campers of the 1970s, the new custom-built prototype “micro-house”, unveiled this month in Las Vegas, is built around the chunky Tacoma pick-up truck and comes with teak flooring, a bathroom with a hot shower, a kitchen with a sink and hob, a pop-up skylight and plenty of sleeping space.

Image: Toyota

The camper was designed and created at the Toyota Motorsports Garage in Texas. No detail was overlooked; more than 100 hours were spent on the rear door alone. “We really didn’t want it to look like a [boxy] refrigerator on the back of a truck,” says lead builder Marty Schwerter. The vehicle features rounded edges and angular forms, smooth aluminium surfaces and retro paintwork. “Our goal was to build a vehicle that is engineered correctly – but also made to look really cool.”

Words with... / Kai Langer, Germany

Plug-in power

Kai Langer is head of design at BMW i, the German car manufacturer’s sub-brand dedicated to electric vehicles. Langer, who joined BMW as a junior designer in 2003, has worked his way up the ranks to lead one of its most important teams. Here he tells us about BMW i’s new recyclable car and the future of automotive design.

You made a splash at the recent IAA Mobility motor show in Munich. Tell us about BMW i’s newest work.
We showed our BMW i Vision Circular, which is 100 per cent recyclable. Most of its materials are suitable for circular recycling; you can actually recycle it and then use it the same way as you did before. We do this already with materials such as paper and glass but it was challenging to bring that into the automotive sphere and specifically for BMW in a premium and luxury context. We wanted to show that being sustainable and environmentally friendly, which we have to be for the future, doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice anything.

You call it a ‘vision car’. How does that differ from production and concept cars?
You have production cars, which everybody can buy, and concept cars, which are mostly five years in advance of production cars. Vision cars show a vision. In this case, it’s a vision for 2040, showing what could be possible by then: a fully responsible, sustainable vehicle that could be made in that timescale. So we’re predicting the needs of the future, using technologies that need to be developed to get to that point. We’re drawing on technical concepts that are theoretically possible today but so many things need to be developed in order for us to reach the point where they are usable in a production car.

Are you optimistic about the future of automotive design?
A lot of predictions about the future go down the dystopian alley but that’s not what we want. And it’s not what we want to offer our customers. We’d like to offer a fun, enjoyable future. One of the big responsibilities we have is to be sustainable. We want to show that we can still combine that with a premium mobility product by making it 100 per cent environmentally friendly and recyclable.

From the archive / Scarpa Monk chairs, Italy

Back in the habit

Afra and Tobia Scarpa designed their first piece of furniture together in the 1950s, while they were architecture students in Venice – and then simply never stopped. Tobia, who is the son of famed 20th-century architect Carlo Scarpa, and Afra soon married, moved 50km northwest to Montebelluna and became prolific industrial designers. The duo worked for many of Italy’s leading manufacturers but among their finest and most versatile creations is the Monk chair, designed in 1973 for Italian furniture company Molteni&C.

Illustration: Anje Jager

True to its name, the Monk has a modest, plank-like frame and comes upholstered in either a robust canvas or cognac leather – a combination that ensures that the chair works just as well as a living room lounger as around the dining table. The coveted Soriana armchair from Cassina and Tacchini’s limited-edition Pigreco chair are just a couple of the many designs by the Scarpas that have been successfully revived recently. It would only make sense for Molteni&C to have the Monk follow suit soon.

Around the house / Maharam Edition Stool 60

Complementary colours

Famed Finnish furniture company Artek has joined forces with US-based textile studio Maharam to update Alvar Aalto’s celebrated Stool 60. Sold exclusively in North America, the special-edition release offers colourful takes on the three-legged perch, upholstered with a selection of vibrant Maharam fabrics designed by Hella Jongerius, Alexander Girard and others. “The stool’s simple geometry makes it an ideal mannequin for even the boldest patterns and colours,” says Marianne Goebl, Artek’s managing director. “At the same time, the upholstery adds a layer of tactility and comfort.”

While the brands complement each other aesthetically, the partnership is about more than just appearances. “We rarely get the chance to join forces with a company that shares our commitment to tradition and innovation,” says Goebl. It’s a match that guarantees that this new edition of Stool 60 will be a meaningful addition to any living space.

In The Picture / ‘A Modern Way to Live’, UK

Domestic bliss

Matt Gibberd was a senior editor at The World of Interiors when he set up estate agency The Modern House with childhood friend Albert Hill in 2005. Their ambition? To identify design treasures that were up for sale and help the vendors to find buyers who appreciated a home of “architectural distinction”. Despite having no property experience, the approach was a hit and in the ensuing 15 years the duo have sold hundreds of homes.

In that time, Gibberd noticed a trend: many of the best homes shared the same timeless principles of space, light, quality materials, connection to nature and fine decoration. And it’s these five themes that are explored in his new book A Modern Way to Live, which is published by Penguin. Across 320 pages, it contains musings from Gibberd, paired with beautiful photos of real homes designed by the likes of Walter Greaves and Frama’s Niels Strøyer Christophersen. It makes indispensable reading for designers looking to create enticing domestic environments – or anyone wanting to make their own home more welcoming.


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