Wednesday 21 February 2024 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Wednesday. 21/2/2024

The Monocle Minute
On Design

Image: Florian Boehm

Tried and true

This week, we celebrate the environmentally friendly rebirth of the classic Eames Plastic Chair (pictured), get a foot in the door of Birkenstock’s striking new Amsterdam office, talk Middle Eastern craft traditions with the artistic director of Design Doha and call for the return of an iconic British modernist desk. But first, here’s Grace Charlton on why hyperlocal design quirks sometimes trump homogeneity.

Opinion / Grace Charlton

Air pollution

“I have some bad news,” says my mother over the phone. She’s calling me from Florence, where she now lives and works after an eight-year stint in New York. “You know my regular coffee spot? The one with all the motorcycle posters and the calcio storico fiorentino flags? It’s under new ownership and they’ve redesigned it to look like… an Airbnb.” Both of us shudder.

Over the years, we have stayed in many apartments in cities from Budapest to Sydney that have what we call “Airbnb design”: think plastic plants in tiny pots, posters of the Eiffel Tower (no matter where you are in the world) and aluminium plaques bearing slogans such as “Life’s a beach” or “Prosecc’o’clock”. In a way, we have almost grown fond of the homogeneity, spotting Airbnbisms in rented apartments, cafés and restaurants that we come across on our travels.

But the Airbnb-style redesign of this particular café, once beloved for its esoteric and charming memorabilia accumulated over decades, was an undeniable offence. Now that the references to the city’s medieval football games and the reverentially framed image of a Maserati motorcycle have been removed, it has lost its distinctly Florentine sense of place.

The café is mostly frequented by older men who sip a cappuccino with a cigarette in the early morning (and a glass of wine as soon as the clock strikes 11). My mother’s choice to make it her regular haunt was a daily source of joy. It’s a place that, until now, made her feel more like a local than a tourist or recent transplant. Hyperlocal designs and references in the fit-out of restaurants, hotels and shops help to create this overall sensation and make travelling worth the effort. Anyone taking over the ownership of such a business, even if it’s just a small café, should bear this in mind.

The next day my mother sends me images of the refurbished café. In lieu of old jugs and blackboards with the day’s panini offerings, there are now ceramic cacti, QR codes and little plaques that boast, “Gin and tonic served here!” It might as well be in Ontario or Osaka. There’s nothing to suggest that the café is in Italy. “But some things haven’t changed,” says my mother. “The clientele of old men is the same. And there was an empty wine glass on the outdoor table this morning.”

Grace Charlton is a Monocle writer. For more news and analysis, subscribe today.

The Project / Birkenstock Amsterdam, Netherlands

Step ahead

When Birkenstock set out to open its first office in Amsterdam, the German shoe manufacturer knew that it wanted it to reflect its appreciation of craft and its status as a heritage design brand. So it tapped Amsterdam-based Griffe Studio to revamp the interiors of a former mansion in the city centre, turning it into a design-driven office workspace and brand showroom.

Image: Maarten Willemstein
Image: Maarten Willemstein
Image: Maarten Willemstein

The interiors subtly incorporate details from the original 1860s property, striking a perfect balance between contemporary and classic shapes. “The project has given us the opportunity to tap into Birkenstock’s design DNA, which is heavily influenced by organic forms and natural materials,” says Vivian Hartog-Holla, founder of Griffe Studio. Inside, you’ll find custom-designed wooden cabinets shaped to resemble the Birkenstock sole, deep-blue Verner Panton-designed lounge chairs, floor-to-ceiling windows that let in plenty of natural light and works by various Dutch artists.

Opening the space is a significant move for the German brand, which has more than 6,000 employees worldwide. “From a cultural and economic perspective, Amsterdam is one of the most important cities in the European market,” says Fabio Ortega, vice-president wholesale Europe at Birkenstock. “The showroom-cum-office offers a window into our world and gives us a chance to host the local community.” With this new outpost, Birkenstock is putting its best foot forward.

Design News / Miguel Milá, Spain

Captain of industry

The largest-ever retrospective of Spanish designer Miguel Milá’s life and work has opened in Madrid. Entitled Miguel Milá: (Pre)industrial Designer, the exhibition is co-curated by his son, Gonzalo Milá, and his wife, Claudia Oliva, director of Valencia-based interior-design practice Hayon Studio. “Miguel loved the idea of exploring his life alongside his designs,” says Oliva. “When he visited the exhibition for the first time, it was a truly emotional experience.”

Image: Mercedes Pelaez
Image: Mercedes Pelaez
Image: Mercedes Pelaez

The showcase guides visitors through more than 70 years of Milá’s work, organised into eight rooms containing over 200 of the designer’s personal items and original drawings. “We spent about six months looking through the archives, recovering and reading whatever was published about Miguel,” says Oliva. “The process of finding and restoring early prototypes together, such as those for the original MB lamp series, has been a special experience.” The exhibition is supported by Spanish lighting firm Santa & Cole (for which Mila designed numerous lamps, including the famous portable Cesta), in collaboration with wood manufacturer Finsa. It showcases Milá’s dedication to simplicity and craftsmanship, as well as his humanistic approach to design.

‘Miguel Milá: (Pre)industrial Designer’ runs until 31 March at the Fernán Gómez Centro Cultural de la Villa in Madrid.

Image: John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Words with... / Glenn Adamson, Qatar

Making a splash

Glenn Adamson is the artistic director of Design Doha, which kicks off on 24 February and runs until 5 August. The new biennial fair is committed to fostering the creativity of designers from the Middle East and North Africa. Adamson was formerly director of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design and head of research at London’s V&A. We spoke to him ahead of Design Doha’s launch this week.

Why did the organisers of Design Doha ask you to curate the event?
I hadn’t been to Qatar before I started working on this fair and didn’t have a lot of expertise in the region. However, I do have an interest in the intersection between craft and design. Much of the work by the region’s creatives is based on artisanal know-how and traditions such as woodworking, ceramics and textiles.

Do the artisans who you work with want to make objects that are produced and sold at scale or exhibited in gallery spaces?
In the 1950s there was something called the “craftsman movement”. The idea was that designers would work in serial production: a furniture-maker might make eight chairs for you and 12 of the same chair for someone else. It was a handmade, limited-production mentality. Then, for about 50 years, there was a reorientation towards individualistic, expressive objects that you might sell in an art gallery. Now we seem to have returned to making handmade things at an affordable price point. This has been facilitated by digital communication and online sales channels. They allow makers to interact directly with their customer base.

Tell us about the location of Design Doha.
The event is mostly taking place in the downtown design district of Msheireb. It’s a new part of the city and includes M7, the museum that we’re using as the biennial’s headquarters. There’s also a studio nearby called Liwan, which is housed in a former school for women. It has been transformed into a workshop where designers can practise anything from ceramics and leatherwork to weaving.

Design Doha 2024 takes place from 24 February to 5 August at various locations across the city.

Image: Florian Boehm

Around The House / Eames Chair, Switzerland

Plastic fantastic

Swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra is breathing new life into one of the 20th century’s most iconic seats: the Eames Plastic Chair. The piece was originally designed by Charles and Ray Eames and launched in 1950 as the first chair with a seat and backrest formed from a single shell. It was also the world’s first mass-produced plastic chair. The pair’s design ethos was to “get the best to the greatest number of people for the least”. This piece is arguably their most successful attempt at fulfilling this vision.

The design makes a return this spring in a more eco-friendly incarnation. The new Eames Plastic Chair RE is made from recycled plastic that Vitra obtained through Germany’s Gelber Sack (Yellow Bag) waste-collection programme. Because of the recycled material’s composition, the seat shells are interspersed with tiny specks of pigment. The range comes in different colours, including cotton white, citron yellow and green. Simple, easy on the eye and perfect for both indoor and outdoor use, the Eames Plastic Chair RE is a fine example of a design that’s made to last.

Illustration: Anje Jager

From the Archive / Hillestak desk, UK

Stacked in your favour

Though the UK might not be as closely associated with modernism as, say, France or Italy, it’s not hard to trace the movement’s influence on the country’s 20th-century design. London’s Tate Britain, Royal Festival Hall, Barbican Centre and many Tube stations still use seating by Robin Day, one of the UK’s most significant postwar industrial designers. His first mass-produced work was the Hillestak, a collection of stackable wooden chairs and tables for London-based manufacturer S Hille & Co. This particular desk from 1950 was a variation with drawers and intended for use in residential settings.

Affordable, sturdy and streamlined, the Hillestak collection was an immediate success and proliferated in schools and libraries across the UK. But the line was discontinued in the 1960s and today the pieces are increasingly rare. Given that Day’s works have proven their lasting value in multiple contexts, why not reissue one of his first best-selling designs? This table would work well as a stackable piece with the optional add-on of mounted storage. Homes and public spaces in the UK would look all the better for its return.

Image: Andstudio

In the Picture / Andstudio, Lithuania

Full of beans

Using vibrant colours, bold geometric shapes and custom typography, Lithuanian design agency Andstudio has given UK coffee company Oddworks’s cans of cold brew a potent kick. “Coffee isn’t just about taste but also about energy,” says Augustinas Paukste, co-founder of Andstudio. “The new packaging vividly reflects this.”

Typography played a crucial role in creating a buzz around the brand. The custom primary font consists of distinctive organic forms, representing Oddworks’ individuality and unusual subscription model; the secondary font, Neue Haas Grotesk, was selected for its unfussy clarity. These combine to ensure that Oddworks can grab the attention of coffee lovers and get its message across. Look out for its eye-catching fridge packs too.;


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