Wednesday 14 February 2024 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Wednesday. 14/2/2024

The Monocle Minute
On Design

Image: Michael Grimm

Learning curves

Is now the time to revive a mahogany 1930s Swedish bar cabinet? Possibly. But if you prefer something more contemporary, Monoware’s minimalist nesting bowls might be up your street. Elsewhere, we head to India for a lesson in urban school design and visit Iowa to see how the state’s US-Norwegian heritage has inspired an ambitious museum renovation (pictured). But first, Nic Monisse on the need for craft schools.

Opinion / Nic Monisse

Full screen ahead

On a recent trip to the US, I found myself enjoying a pastime of many American interior enthusiasts: watching HGTV. The cable network, which launched as Home & Garden Television in 1994, is broadcast to nearly 80 per cent of US households and covers everything from furniture restoration to home-buying and renovation. The channel has become a de facto source of design inspiration for Middle America, which is concerning given that it seems to cater to the lowest common design denominator.

When I tuned in, teams of designers had been tasked with finding vintage items to “flip”. They painted over mid-century wood-veneer dressers and removed their period details. These creatives were undoing good design by covering up honest materials. All this calls into question the standard of everyday design in the US, especially when compared to that of other countries. In Denmark, for example, TV shows have made celebrities out of previously unknown creatives. Take Aabenraa-born designer Rikke Frost, who began working for one of the world’s top furniture brands, Carl Hansen & Søn, shortly after appearing on Denmark’s Next Classic, a TV series produced by state broadcaster DR. Frost’s success is a testament to the quality of Danish design shows – and something that US equivalents will probably struggle to match.

Part of the problem is that, in the US, there is a dearth of discussion about what constitutes quality architecture and design. There’s also a lack of education about it – and the same could be said of other Anglophone countries too. Before attending design school in Australia, I could only name a few of my country’s top architects (funnily enough, I probably would have counted Jørn Utzon, the Danish designer of the Sydney Opera House, in my limited number). Compare this, again, to Denmark, where friends can tell you the names of the chairs that you’re sitting in (“That’s a Fritz Hansen Series 7”). The nation even has folk schools for adults to develop craft and design skills. There are some 70 design-education centres in the country, which teach everything from furniture-making to film. All this contributes to a population that is wise to the benefits of good design.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: in Decorah, Iowa, a cultural centre is helping locals learn traditional Norwegian craft skills (see below). My hope for the US – and Australia – is that it finds ways to roll out more of these spaces. At the very least, I hope that HGTV hires producers with an understanding of good design.

Nic Monisse is Monocle’s design editor. For more news and analysis, subscribe to Monocle today.

The project / Modern High School International

Above the noise

Building a school in Kolkata, one of India’s most populous cities, comes with a set of steep challenges. Among these is the need to overcome problems caused by the city’s constant traffic noise and high pollution levels. Commissioned to build the Modern High School International – a co-educational international school comprising classrooms, a library, a maker’s workshop, an exhibition space and communal areas for students – Singapore-based architecture firm Studio Sklim decided to face these issues head-on. “Our solution was to embrace the chaos,” says Kevin Lim, the practice’s founding principal.


“Designing a school at a chaotic urban traffic intersection required us to defy conventional wisdom on ideal educational environments,” says Lim. The six-storey building, built on the site of the basketball courts of the pre-existing Modern High School for Girls, prioritises robust acoustics and light-filled classrooms. The front of the building is separated into rectangular segments and is constructed to optimise natural daylight; meanwhile, double glazing helps to control internal temperatures and glare. “Amid the cacophony of honking and the haze of air pollution, we endeavoured to create a space conducive to learning.”

Design news / Vesterheim, USA

Roots finder

The Vesterheim centre in Decorah, Iowa, first opened as a museum dedicated to Norwegian-American history in 1877. Vesterheim translates to “western home” in Norwegian, a fitting name for a place that shares much of its heritage with Scandinavia: some three million Nordic people immigrated to the Midwestern US between 1825 and 1925. It therefore made sense that the cultural institution turned to Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta to develop an ambitious redevelopment project in 2018.

Image: Michael Grimm
Image: Michael Grimm

In late 2023, Snøhetta unveiled a new building called The Commons – a fresh entry point to the culture centre that contains a museum and folk-art school, as well as a collection of adjoining outdoor spaces. Its striking wooden-canopied conservatory also serves as a visual link between Vesterheim and Decorah’s main thoroughfare. “The canopy extends out over the pavement, evoking the geometry and profiles of traditional Norwegian sailing vessels,” says lead architect Chad Carpenter.

US building traditions have also been incorporated into the project. The exterior walls were constructed with locally sourced bricks from Adel, Iowa, where the tradition of brick-making dates back to the 1880s. The outcome is a building that is, according to Carpenter, simple, robust, welcoming, warm and light-filled. “These are integral values to US and Norwegian design,” he says.

For more design briefings, pick up a copy of Monocle’s February issue today.

Image: Shangri-La Hotels

Q&A / Thomas Heatherwick & Kuok Hui Kwong

Human touch

Heatherwick Studio’s first travelling exhibition, Building Soulfulness, initially opened in Tokyo before moving to Seoul in June 2023. The show, which is curated by the team behind the Mori Art Museum, is a celebration of the London-based designer Thomas Heatherwick’s global portfolio. It includes a full-scale prototype of Airo – a vehicle that cleans the air as it moves – and models of different projects from around the world. The exhibition is now on show at the Fosun Foundation in Shanghai, in partnership with the Shangri-La Group. Here, we catch up with Heatherwick and chairman and executive director of Shangri-La Group, Kuok Hui Kwong, to find out more about the showcase, as well as the link between architecture and hospitality.

How important is putting on a show like this for the public?
Thomas Heatherwick: Around the time when I set up my studio, people weren’t interested in going to architecture shows. The text was impenetrable, the drawings were too abstract and there was very little sign of real buildings. This stuck with me. I want to celebrate the nature of shared spaces – and it’s really important that everyone feels part of that conversation.

What have you learned about hospitality design while working on this exhibition?
Kuok Hui Kwong: Hospitality is about connecting different people and cultures, and bringing them together to a space where they feel comfortable and primed for whatever social interactions they want to have. Good design helps achieve this – and this exhibition shows that good design is a universal language.

TH: The Western mindset towards hospitality dictates that hotels are for visitors and houses are for locals. But when you spend time in Hong Kong, Singapore or Shanghai, however, you realise that hotels are a part of urban life. It doesn’t matter whether you’re going to sleep there or not – hotels are public spaces that are used for birthdays, engagements and drinks.

Where do you see room for growth opportunities for design in Asia?
KHK: There are many opportunities to try new things in Asia. Large numbers of the population live in urban areas, so the challenge is about creating spaces that make people feel good.

TH: In the push for modernity and simplicity over the past century, we lost some of the humanity in the buildings around us. There is evidence that without this complexity, we are putting the human body under stress. Visual complexity and ornament are essential in Asia, though they are regarded almost as taboo in the Western mindset.

For more on Heatherwick’s work in Asia, pick up a copy of Monocle’s February issue, which features a special report on his recently completed Pacific Place shopping complex in Hong Kong.

Illustration: Anje Jager

From the archive / Boet bar cabinet, Sweden

Yesterday’s booze

In 1935, this bar cabinet must have made many shoppers on Avenyn, Gothenburg’s main boulevard, stop in their tracks. The mahogany chest with an angular engraved relief on its door stood tall in the window of Boet, the interiors shop founded by prolific designer, publisher and entrepreneur Otto Schulz. Swung open, it revealed mirrored shelving with enough space to hold all the trappings needed for Swedish family festivities.

Schulz was born in Germany but emigrated to Sweden in 1907, where he established Boet (Swedish for “nest”) and a magazine of the same name. As a designer, Schulz liberally blended ornate art deco details with streamlined modernism, using an opulent approach to craftsmanship that made well-heeled Swedes swoon. Though Boet shut up shop long ago, the designs first shown on Avenyn still make an impression. This one-off masterpiece is garnering interest again: design gallery Modernity scooped Pad London fair’s historical design prize late last year when it put the cabinet on display at its London outpost.

Around the house / Monoware nesting bowls, UK

Feather the nest

Continuing its knack for catering to the minimalist dining room, tableware brand Monoware has released a five-piece set of nesting bowls. They are part of a range of made-to-order pieces inspired by its longstanding partnerships with British makers. Every piece is handcrafted by ceramicist Ned Davies at his London studio through a process of wheel-throwing, glazing and firing. The collection also includes an onyx-hued vase for flowers with long stems.

Image: Monoware

“We want our customers to be able to feel the craftsmanship through the material and finish, visible in small details such as glaze texture or a fingerprint in the clay,” says Daniel Baer, Monoware’s founder and creative director. “Every product is created to become a multi-functional staple in the home – pieces that will be picked up and used over and over again.” Originally turning to stoneware for inspiration with the collection, Baer now foresees it expanding over time into different materials, including wood and glass. “We hope that the pieces we craft will become fundamentals in the home – timeless staples that blend with individual style and daily needs.”

In the picture / ‘The Japanese House Since 1945’

Changing rooms

“In many respects, 1945 marked a point when Japan had to reset,” writes American architect and journalist Naomi Pollock in the introduction to her new book, The Japanese House Since 1945, published by Thames & Hudson. “Following the Second World War, there was a new political order to establish, an economic crisis to overcome and physical devastation from which to rebuild.”

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

This period of history also represented an opportunity not only to modernise housing – by, for example, separating eating and sleeping quarters – but to rethink what residential buildings could be. Ideas of Western modernism were already circulating in Japan and were embraced even further as concrete and steel became more readily available. Architects were keen to experiment, whether on their own residences or on projects for progressive clients. Many of the resulting houses became artistic statements, unparalleled in their conceptual purity. For example, the Tange House in Tokyo, designed by Kenzo Tange and featured in The Japanese House Since 1945, is a thing of beauty.

With a foreword by Tadao Ando, this book presents the most compelling architect-designed Japanese homes. Whether they are terraced houses or a tower of tiny, triangular rooms stacked on top of each other, these buildings demonstrate developments in form, material, architectural expression and family living over almost 80 years. “Quirky, experimental and utterly fascinating, the houses produced in Japan since the end of the Second World War are among the most exceptional in the world,” adds Pollock. The Japanese House Since 1945 is a ringing endorsement of that statement.


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio

00:00 01:00