This week we get a handle on the finer details of design, from a cinema-inspired workspace in downtown New York to a 1970s furniture set that we hope will make a comeback. Plus: we flick through a new book that’s teaching readers how to turn a house into a home. But first, Gregory Scruggs takes us to the beach.
Manhattan has 51km of shoreline but, until Gansevoort Peninsula opened a few weeks ago, it didn’t have a beach. Piers and seawalls have long created a protective perimeter around the New York borough. With this new addition to the Hudson River Park, however, the water’s edge now beckons. The waterfront space – a joint commission from the state and city governments – is roughly the size of four American football fields and offers plenty of amenities. Designed by Field Operations, the New York-based studio behind the High Line, it includes boardwalks, a sports field, a beach, a large seating lawn, a picnic area and a salt marsh.
When I visited on a windswept day shortly after its opening, a few people were picking their way down a rocky escarpment to marvel at the peninsula’s landscape at low tide. The park is helping Manhattanites to connect with the natural world, reminding them that they are islanders in a great estuary, on a tidal river that rises and falls.
But things could be done to strengthen this link. Near the shoreline is a sign that reads, “No swimming”. It’s a stern visual cue signalling that this well-designed intervention’s success remains at the mercy of the wider ecosystem’s health. While the Hudson is safer for swimming than it has been in decades, the perception and reality of pollution make the public averse to taking a dip. If local authorities want Field Operations’ work to live up to its potential, they must maintain good water quality and invite New Yorkers to swim. Until then, the landscape, with its sandy beach, artfully arranged beach umbrellas and Adirondack-style chairs, will be little more than a well-designed prop for would-be beachgoers.
Design interventions of this kind can only be fully complete when they exist within healthy and functioning environments. Just as no man is an island, no landscape is one either.
Italian-Iranian gallerist Nina Yashar (pictured) is widely respected for her curatorial eye and knack for finding hidden gems. An exhibition at her Milan gallery, Nilufar, honours Italian artist and designer Gabriella Crespi, whose work has long flown under the radar. Born into a well-to-do family in Lombardy, Crespi carved out a career in furniture after studying architecture at the Polytechnic University of Milan. She first made waves in the 1950s with a series of moon-shaped sculptures but she created her most impressive work in the 1970s, when she shunned trends that contemporaries such as Enzo Mari and Alessandro Mendini followed.
The exhibition includes pieces from this ground-breaking period, such as Tavolo Rising Sun, a bamboo dining table from 1975, and Tavolo Ellisse, a coffee table composed of polished brass plates. The show is a celebration of a designer who was willing to break from the status quo. Creatives seeking the courage to do the same should drop into Yashar’s space on Via della Spiga before the exhibition closes in January.
Multifunctional workspaces are the focus of New York-based architecture studio Civilian. Among its recent projects is the Manhattan headquarters of Sandbox Films, a production company that specialises in nonfiction storytelling. As well as offices, meeting rooms and production and editing suites, the HQ has a bar and a state-of-the-art screening room. The space also hosts public events and a residency programme for independent filmmakers.
Inspiration for the project came from the art deco grandeur of the building, which is in New York’s Flatiron District. Civilian’s team took cues from the look and feel of picture houses from the early 20th century, a time when designers such as Denmark’s Poul Henningsen worked on such spaces. “Unlike today, cinemas used to be celebratory in the splendour of their design,” says Ksenia Kagner, Civilian’s creative director. The interior incorporates refinished vintage furniture with custom-made pieces and rich colour references with warm wood panelling. The outcome is a nostalgic environment that’s a comfortable work and social space for the Sandbox Films team.
When it comes to timber structures, there’s no one better than Shigeru Ban. Born in Tokyo in 1957, the Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner is well known for his use of wood and materials that are made from it, including paper. Today his practice, Shigeru Ban Architects, employs 80 people and is based in offices in Tokyo, New York and Paris. Its projects range from hospitals to residential buildings. Monocle met Ban in Paris to ask him about his design ethos and innovative use of materials.
You are revered for your use of timber. Is there a time and a place for using it?
I like to use timber as much as possible, as long as building regulations allow it. When I was a child, my family’s house was renovated by a carpenter. Nowadays carpenters use power tools but, back then, they only used hand tools. It was magic. Spaces that use timber feel comfortable. They offer temperature and climate control because they breathe. Wood is also warm and nice to touch. Unlike concrete or steel, it doesn’t require a finish.
You’re currently designing wood-clad housing blocks in Antwerp. What are the challenges of working with timber there?
The legislation in Belgium is strict when it comes to timber so we are mostly using it for the finishing. The only structural work that we are doing with it is on the roof. But we have been allowed to use timber beams, which will make the penthouse the most interesting space. I hope that when people see this residential project using timber, it will usher in a more widespread use of the material.
There’s an abundance of natural light in your work. How do you strike the balance between natural and artificial light?
Light and shadow are very important in all of my projects. You need artificial light in the evening but I try to take advantage of natural light. The mood varies depending on the time of day so I like artificial light to be as limited as possible, only lighting where necessary.
For more from Shigeru Ban, pick up a copy of Monocle’s November issue.
Lema claims to have been the first Italian company to produce “integrated furniture systems”. This somewhat opaque phrase means that it produced forerunners to your Ikea wardrobe: instead of a one-size-fits-all option, Lema offered storage units that could be adapted and made to measure al centimetro. This level of customisation became possible in the 1970s when the company began to make its products at a factory in Brianza designed by Angelo Mangiarotti. The architect also created some of the best examples of Lema’s integrated approach, such as the 1976 Assieme furniture line, which included a bed, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and this sideboard.
Assieme combines two materials that are rarely seen together in industrially produced furniture: walnut veneer and granite. With a fold-down desk and hidden drawers, the sideboard is based on the simple idea that it can be customised to any length. Lema is still based in the Mangiarotti-designed factory so here’s hoping that it resurrects this discontinued line some day. The only thing missing is a catchier term to market it.
It’s important to pay attention to objects that we come into contact with every day, including door handles. Taking cues from the soft edges of signet rings, Los Angeles-based creative studio AD Miller has designed the Signet Handle for Belgian furniture brand Maison Vervloet. A new variation on the contemporary “L” handle, it has a gentle ridge at the front of the lever that you can rest your thumb on as you turn. This simple tweak makes the act of opening a door an ergonomic pleasure.
Curators and editors Monica Khemsurov and Jill Singer are behind both the digital design publication Sight Unseen and this handsome book, How to Live with Objects. Issued by US-based Clarkson Potter, an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group, the book guides readers through the placement of objects in their homes. Split into four categories – vintage, contemporary, handmade and sentimental – it outlines how to identify pieces of furniture that can add meaning and personality to any room, regardless of your style preferences or space limitations.
To help illustrate the point, the book includes interviews with creatives including Misha Kahn and Lykke Li, who share anecdotes about their favourite objects, and tours of the houses of designers and curators such as Charlotte Taylor and Su Wu. The result? A handbook that can help turn a characterless house into a home with personality.