Wednesday. 29/3/2023

The Monocle Minute
On Design

Image: Paolo Galgani

Human touch

Whether it’s the practical yet playful furniture of New York’s Giancarlo Valle or a flat-packed table that delivers the solid presence of a rustic antique (pictured), how we engage with an object is what ultimately gives it meaning. This week we learn about a US company that has revolutionised architects’ working relationship with their materials and a Swiss timepiece that demonstrates why designers should draw inspiration from across disciplines. But first, Natalie Theodosi ponders the enduring appeal of iconic watches.

Opinion / Natalie Theodosi

Time immemorial

On my way to Geneva’s Watches & Wonders trade fair, which runs until Sunday, I thought about the horological industry’s huge success and tried to identify the reasons behind it. The sector was among the most resilient at the height of the pandemic and has maintained the momentum ever since. While elegant shopping environments, confident marketing campaigns and backing from luxury conglomerates such as Richemont and LVMH play their part, it ultimately seems to come down to the design principles that watch-makers have lived by for decades – the kind of principles rooted in handcraft, respect for precious materials and an obsession with detail.

Watch companies don’t rely on novelty in the same way that most fashion or even jewellery brands often do. Instead, they focus on revisiting classic designs year after year, enhancing them with higher-quality materials, improved mechanisms or subtle changes of colour. Take, for example, Swiss label Jaeger-LeCoultre’s elegant Reverso dress watch, which has retained its popularity since making its debut in 1931. In Geneva this week the watch-maker is unveiling the latest iterations with a new pink-gold case, the thickness of which has been reduced by almost 1mm – no small feat, given the complexity of the mechanism, which contains 108 components. Cartier has taken a similar approach with its Tank watch, a key part of the house’s collections since it first appeared in 1919. For this year’s Watches & Wonders, the French house debuted a limited-edition version featuring a new skeleton movement.

There’s no better way to communicate who you are than through a consistent design vocabulary. That’s why watch brands have such loyal customers who are willing to invest in their classic designs, even in times of economic uncertainty, and appreciate the smallest details, such as the width of a watch’s case. Entire communities can be built around these designs: Jaeger-LeCoultre has recently opened Reverso 1931 Cafés around the world to tell the story of its art-deco-inspired timepiece, while fellow Swiss label Audemars Piguet has opened the Hôtel des Horlogers to bring enthusiasts together in the watch-making region of Le Brassus. These success stories prove that the best products are designed to last and recognise the importance of the human touch.

Natalie Theodosi is Monocle’s fashion editor and a regular contributor to ‘Monocle On Design’.

The Project / Studio Giancarlo Valle, USA

Unexpected pleasures

“In many ways, it’s a slow-burning set of ideas and experiments – a sort of evolutionary process,” says New York-based designer Giancarlo Valle about his furniture, lighting and objects. Valle grew up in San Francisco, Caracas, Chicago and Guatemala City. Reflecting this, the work on display at his recently opened showroom in New York’s Soho (pictured) draws inspiration from a range of cultures and aesthetic sensibilities. It’s also united by a sense of practicality. “What we do is very direct,” he says. “People want to use the things that we make.”

Among his offerings are the tortoise-like, stoneware-topped Elena Table, made in collaboration with artist Matt Merkel Hess, the oversized mohair-and-cotton Tapestry Daybed and the Liza Stool, which takes Donald Judd’s preferred medium of Douglas fir and softens the effect with slightly splayed legs and a wavy seat. Valle’s studio, which you can visit by appointment, devises projects that are playful, studied and unexpected.

Image: Giacomo Valle Studio
Image: Giacomo Valle Studio

Valle grew up in San Francisco, Caracas, Chicago and Guatemala City. Reflecting this, the designer’s work on display at his recently opened showroom in New York’s Soho draws inspiration from a range of cultures and aesthetic sensibilities. It’s also united by a sense of practicality. “What we do is very direct,” he says. “People want to use the things that we make.”

Design News / IWC Schaffhausen, Switzerland

Driving force

One booth attracting plenty of attention at this year’s Watches & Wonders is that of Swiss manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen. It has put together an installation exploring the theme of form und technik (form and technology) to celebrate the new Ingenieur Automatic 40. This state-of-the-art steel sports watch was inspired by the Ingenieur SL, which Geneva-born designer Gérald Genta created in 1976.

Image: IWC Schaffhausen
Image: IWC Schaffhausen
Image: IWC Schaffhausen

IWC Schaffhausen’s updated, automatic version boasts cutting-edge movement technology and, while the dimensions of the original have been carefully reworked, Genta’s dial pattern and integrated H-link bracelet remain largely unchanged. The IWC team is showcasing the watch alongside a Mercedes-Benz C 111-III, an experimental car with a retro-futurist aesthetic that dates to the same era as the Ingenieur SL. The connection made between the intricate watch and the sleek but significantly larger automobile reminds designers everywhere that they can – and should – draw inspiration from across disciplines.

Words with... / Philippe Brocart, France

Feeling good

Founded in 2019, US-based company Material Bank has revolutionised the selection of timber, tile, brick and steel in architectural projects. As its name suggests, it has built a bank of materials from which it dispatches free samples from a range of suppliers to architects across the country in less than 24 hours. Material Bank is now in the process of rolling out this distribution model in Europe, where it plans to launch this spring. To find out more, we spoke to Philippe Brocart, general director of Material Bank in Europe.

Image: Rebecca Toh

Tell us about the idea behind Material Bank.
We bring value and efficiency to architects. In the US, we work with more than 500 brands and manufacturers, and over 100,000 architects use Material Bank every day. If you’re working on, say, a hotel and you need samples from 20 different brands, you can make an order on the platform and it will arrive in a single box the next day. It’s very sustainable because, instead of 20 packages from 20 brands, architects receive one box with all the samples. When we’re operational in Europe, architects will have the opportunity to order samples before 19.30 and, if they’re in a major city, they will receive it all the following morning from our base in Paris.

There’s a clear value for architects but what are the benefits for the brands and manufacturers that are involved?
We bring big value. To order samples from Material Bank as an architect, you have to go through a stringent vetting process. That helps to generate leads and business opportunities for the brands. Instead of having sales representatives knocking at the door of architects, they can find out exactly what they are working on and why they are interested in a particular product.

In an age of 3D models and virtual reality, why is it still important for designers to receive physical samples?
People want to touch the materials. Even in big business-to-business projects, clients want to see samples. If you don’t touch the materials and don’t have the feeling that you will like it, you won’t know if it’s what you really want. Nothing replaces that.

For more from Philippe Brocart, listen to this week’s ‘Monocle On Design Extra’.

From the Archive / N71 Lamp by Maison Jumo, France

Guiding light

This mid-century desk lamp was too well designed for its own good. French lighting manufacturer Maison Jumo produced the N71 in the 1960s and 1970s, and it quickly became a success. While the lamp was likely designed by André Mounique, one of Jumo’s three co-founders (the firm simply credited itself), auction houses now sometimes mistake it for a 1930s design by renowned architect Eileen Gray – and sell it for the proportionate price.

Illustration: Anje Jager

It’s easy to see how the N71 passes for the work of a modernist master. Made from sheet metal in contrasting chrome and off-white lacquer, this desk lamp sports a wide adjustable diffuser that projects just the right amount of light onto a document or desktop. Had it been Gray’s creation, the N71 would probably have been reissued already. Instead, it remains in a limbo of obscurity with only a mislabelled copy still in production. Even with no illustrious name behind it, the N71 deserves an authentic remake.

Around The House / Frama, Denmark

Trestle mania

When it comes to furniture, a simple idea can go a long way. In 2011, Copenhagen-based brand Frama launched the first item in its Farmhouse Table series: a pair of oak trestles that shoppers could match with any tabletop of their choice. By popular demand, the offering soon grew to include matching tabletops. Now the brand has released three new sizes: a square four-seater table, plus low-slung coffee tables in both square and rectangular formats. “If a design gets positive feedback, we will develop it in a certain direction,” says Frama’s founder, Niels Strøyer Christophersen. “Our products really have a life of their own.”

Image: Paolo Galgani
Image: Paolo Galgani
Image: Paolo Galgani

Strøyer Christophersen attributes the success of the Farmhouse series to the original cross-shaped trestles, which are sturdy without getting in the way of anyone sitting around the table. “The trestles work in all kinds of constellations,” he says. The construction is in thick, oiled oak, with a simplicity inspired by old Danish country houses. With the solid presence of a rustic antique table but the advantage of arriving flat-packed with easy assembly instructions, the growing collection continues to be a hit.

In The Picture / ‘Tokyo Metabolizing’, Japan

Bathroom reading

Founded in 1917, Japanese bathroom brand Toto is perhaps best known for its Washlet toilet, which it launched in 1980. That decade the firm also started a publishing imprint as part of its social-contribution programme. Toto Publishing issues books on architecture and design that perfectly complement the brand’s smart products. One such title is Tokyo Metabolizing.

Released in 2010 to coincide with the Japanese presentation of the same name at the 12th Venice Biennale of Architecture, the book remains highly relevant and in print today. Written by architects Yoshiharu Tsukamoto, Ryue Nishizawa and Koh Kitayama (curator of Japan’s national pavilion at the 2010 biennale), Tokyo Metabolizing surveys the buildings of the Japanese capital through aerial imagery, architectural drawings of homes, photos of concept models and written interviews in both Japanese and English.

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

This combination of graphics, visuals and text reveals Tokyo to be an “assemblage of independent buildings”, rather than a metropolis with shared walls like its European counterparts. It’s a form that is clearly communicated by the book – and one that gives Tokyo the potential to grow and rapidly respond to changing urban needs.

For more stories on architecture and publishing, pick up a copy of Monocle’s April issue.


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