Wednesday. 6/4/2022

The Monocle Minute
On Design

Image: Max Zambelli

Social construct

We take a seat at a new exhibition in Japan, talk watches with Bulgari and survey the renovation of a grand Belgian castle. First, a reflection on the work of architect Christopher Alexander.

Opinion / Nic Monisse

Time out of mind

As I write this, I’m sitting at a melamine table at London’s King’s Cross station. The surface is fine as a perch for my coffee but it has a faux-stone finish that is unimaginably ugly. Aside from wanting to vent about it, I was keen to use this ugly table as a chance to write about the work of architect, academic and author Christopher Alexander, who passed away last month.

A towering figure in the design world, his books have served as guides for designers (including this once-aspiring landscape architect) seeking to build cities and homes that are authentic and lasting in their appeal. These are qualities that Alexander acknowledged were difficult to define: in his 1980 book The Timeless Way of Building, he surmised that timelessness was “a quality without a name”. In short, you know it when you see it.

For me, whenever I have seen such a quality, whether in a piece of furniture or a building, it has always involved materials with integrity – those that aren’t trying to be something else, whether they’re natural, such as timber, or artificial, like concrete and plastic. As such, this faux-stone table doesn’t cut the mustard. It will date – in fact, it already has.

So why write about it? First, I wanted a chance to share one of the lessons that Alexander’s writing taught me: material choices matter when it comes to making objects and places that can stand the test of time. And second, I hope that someone at King’s Cross finds a better solution to these tables – if not for me, then in honour of one of the world’s most important design thinkers.

The project / Château de Mirwart, Belgium

Born again

The Middle Ages, mid-century furniture and more modern design combine in this renovation of a grand Belgian castle. Only seven years ago, Château de Mirwart in Belgium’s forest-laden south was in a state of disrepair but owner and architect Loïk Eyers, along with his firm Jaspers-Eyers Architects, transformed it into a hotel with luxury lodgings, a restaurant and a banquet hall.

Inside, they have taken a pared-back approach and kitted the castle out with furniture from Italy’s Molteni&C. Reissued pieces by mid-century Italian maestro Gio Ponti harmonise with modern furniture from Yabu Pushelberg and Patricia Urquiola. The Belgian heritage of the brand’s creative director, Vincent Van Duysen, has also been key to the renovation and there is plenty of the trained architect’s work on show. New pieces for Molteni&C, including Van Duysen’s Lucas sofa and Louisa coffee tables, sit alongside old timber building elements and ornate marquetry.;

Design news / ‘Chairmaker Takayama Japan’, Tokyo

Seat at the table

Hidden away on a back street in Tokyo’s Nishi Azabu neighbourhood, Karimoku Commons is a stylish showroom and gallery for its namesake furniture brand. The upper floors show Karimoku’s regular collection but, until 10 April, the ground level is hosting Chairmaker Takayama Japan, a showcase of work by 23 independent Japanese furniture makers.

Image: Yoshitsugu Fuminari, Max Zambelli
Image: Yoshitsugu Fuminari, Max Zambelli
Image: Yoshitsugu Fuminari, Max Zambelli

Some of the chairs featured in the exhibition – which was previously held at the Kusakabe Folk Museum in Takayama, a city in central Japan renowned for carpentry – are virtuoso displays of woodworking. Visitors are free to sit on any of the items, which range from Karimoku chairs from the 1970s to Kenta Hirai’s sculptural sweep of layered cedar. Also on show are pieces by Takayama-based potter Ririn and the exhibition’s organiser, Shinjiro Ito, whose mahogany R Chair is just the ticket for any office in need of new seating.

The chairs are all available to order and the designers behind them will be present on different days to talk to prospective buyers and furniture enthusiasts. But this is more than just an opportunity for the makers to boost their sales. “Furniture making is often a solitary profession,” says Ito. “We thought it would be good to bring people together.”

Words with... / Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani

Lean machine

Octo Finissimo, Bulgari’s ultra-thin octagonal watch collection, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion, the Italian luxury brand is releasing the Octo Finissimo Ultra, a new watch that’s only 1.8mm thick and is limited to 10 pieces. There are also two limited-edition anniversary versions of the Octo Finissimo Automatic and Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT Automatic. In the past few years, both watches have set records: for the thinnest automatic and the thinnest chronograph watch, respectively. Eager to find out more about the design, we caught up with Bulgari’s product creation executive director, Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, on this week’s episode of ‘Monocle On Design’.

To start, tell us about the Octo Finissimo collection.
The idea behind the Octo Finissimo was to have a new, more contemporary way to wear a grand complication watch but with a very Italian touch and with very Italian taste. Before the Octo Finissimo, formal watches had a round design, with a very thin bezel, a white face and alligator straps; they were very, very traditional. The Octo Finissimo, however, was the first ultra-thin watch that used a metal bracelet with titanium execution and the same material for case, bracelet and dial. It was a new way to wear an ultra-thin watch. That’s why it’s so unique and that’s why a lot of people collect it.

What role does Bulgari’s Italian heritage play in the design of the Octo Finissimo collection?
As an Italian brand – and I am an Italian designer – it’s very important to have the aesthetic and technical elements at exactly the same level of quality. If the watch is just beautiful, it’s simply a piece of art and you won’t use it. And if it works in a very unique way but is not attractive, then it’s just a piece of engineering. For us as an Italian brand, design is about applying art to industry. This is our way of design.

Speaking of the technical elements, tell us about your watch-making facility in Switzerland.
It’s very special because certain timepieces are still made completely by hand. For example, with the Octo Finissimo Ultra, we spent three years [working by hand] to develop the movement and completely change the way we imagined the case. For some of the other watches, one watch master might spend eight months just assembling a single timepiece, with 1,000 components made by hand. These watches are the pinnacle of our mechanical obsession; they’re pieces of mechanical art.

For more from Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, tune in to this week’s episode of ‘Monocle On Design’.

From the archive / Honda Spacy 50, Japan

Right angles

Classic vehicles from the 1980s might guzzle a lot of gas but their bold and boxy shapes can be more appealing than many sleeker, contemporary models. That’s why we’re excited that manufacturers including Toyota, Hyundai and Ford have been releasing new models that look just like their vintage counterparts, while boasting a much-improved fuel economy. In our view, the next model that should receive this treatment is the Honda Spacy 50, a cult-favourite scooter from 1982.

Illustration: Anje Jager

While Honda has recently carried Spacy scooters in its range, the model evolved so much over the years that it currently has little of the original’s angular charm. A faithful rerelease of the Spacy 50 could keep the cool, low-slung frame and golden-beige colour of the original, with the four-stroke engine swapped for an eco-friendly electric motor. We’re sure that Honda would see vintage gentsuki fans lining up to ride out of the showroom on one.

Around the house / Vipp Pencil Factory, Denmark

Here to stay

Danish furniture firm Vipp is increasingly using architecture as inspiration for its new releases. Case in point is its latest collection, which was initially dreamed up for the brand’s concept hotel, Chimney House. “Many of our furniture pieces have evolved from larger Vipp architectural and spatial design projects, such as the Chimney House hotel in Copenhagen,” says CEO Kasper Egelund. “The Chimney cabinet, for example, has been on the drawing board since we opened the hotel in 2019.” This handsome unit features Vipp’s trademark fluted aluminium on its sliding cover. The brand is also releasing shelves in dark oak, which complete a smart storage duo that we would be happy to see in homes far beyond Vipp’s Copenhagen check-in desk.

In the picture / ‘No Idea Is Final’, USA

Work in progress

Every week for the past 11 years, Sven Schumann and Johannes Bonke have been talking to creatives and industry leaders for their online publication The Talks. As a result, the two journalists and editors have conducted more than 500 interviews, featuring the likes of film-maker Wim Wenders, actress Jodie Foster, chef Niki Nakayama and fashion designer Stefano Pilati. Schumann and Bonke have collated each interlocutor’s pearls of wisdom into No Idea Is Final: Quotes from the Creative Voices of our Time, which is published by Phaidon.

The book features short snippets from their interviewees, touching on topics such as money, creativity and design. And it’s not just the written content that’s appealing. The snappy page layouts play with the scale of the title’s serif font: some pages include short quotes in large text, while others are filled with longer quotes in smaller type. The outcome? A book that’s inspiring to read – and good to look at.


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