alistairwelch

Journalism portfolio of Alistair Welch

Monkey Business

Profile of the vibrant Spanish designer Jaime Hayon for New Design 124

There’s a worrying moment just before Jaime Hayon takes the stage at a London Design Festival event hosted by BD Barcelona. The ceramicist, artist, and furniture designer (and I’m sure there are more titles one might add to the list besides) mentions to a friend his reluctance to speak for too long saying: “it’s boring to listen to designers.” Not necessarily a ringing endorsement for his upcoming ‘In Conversation’ slot.

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Jaime Hayon with pieces from his Showtime collection

Nevertheless, neither he nor the audience need to have been concerned as Hayon’s enthusiasm proves infectious as he shared with the room (decorated, naturally, with work from throughout his career) his colourful and playful approach to the business of design.

Hayon was in London for the city’s Design Festival this September to celebrate ten years of collaboration with the Spanish design brand BD Barcelona. The relationship between the two is one of those great matches between designer and producer, with BD’s style allowing Hayon space to indulge his effervescent creativity in delivering pieces that straddle the boundary between art and design.

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Showtime Cabinet

This expression perhaps finds its apogee in Hayon’s Showtime collection for the brand. A range of pieces for the home inspired by classical Hollywood musicals sees Hayon playfully rejecting the notion that form must slavishly follow function. The Showtime Cabinet is a fine example: aside from its bright colour options, the cabinet might at first glance appear to be a fairly conventional piece. However, cast your eyes to the legs and you witness Hayon’s unique sense of fun and frivolity: every leg is different from the next as though pinched at random from another item of furniture.

Alongside a sofa, armchair, side chair, and table, the Showtime collection includes a range of Hayon’s ceramic works. These vases have a certain sculptural quality and reflect Hayon’s keen interest in fine art. “I see these pieces as little sculptures,” he says. “With BD it has always been a relationship where it was important to make something that involved storytelling. My BD stuff is more on the border of the art world, where there is more freedom to do crazy things.”

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Work for Haagen-Dazs

Although much of Hayon’s output does show this artistic and sculptural sensitivity, he demonstrates an industrial designer’s attention to detail when it comes to materials and their qualities. “Design is like cooking and a material is an ingredient for the final product,” he comments. “The behaviour of ceramics, of crystal, of metal: every one has something unique to offer. Every material becomes something you can work with to improve the quality of what you are making to make it a little more interesting.”

Hayon explains that for him the creative process begins with sketching; his sketchbook is rarely far from his grasp and his typical response to a brief, he says, is to straight away draw “about nine different things”. Although Hayon’s Spanish identity is meaningful to him, travel is also a significant inspiration; his Monkey Side Table, for instance, is a twist on furniture he saw often in South Africa that featured monkeys as servants.

“I thought ‘Wow, poor monkeys, always devoted to service!’,” he says. “I decided I was going to do a monkey, but this one is not sure whether it wants to serve you or not. You should have seen the faces on the people at BD when I first suggested the monkey!”

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Monkey Side Table

Despite initial befuddlement, the Monkey Side Table, which is rendered in architectural concrete, has proved a popular piece for BD and the monkey has even emerged as something of a motif for Hayon, reappearing most obviously in his range of Monkey Mirrors for Galerie Kreo as well as cheekily springing up elsewhere.

Indeed, Hayon’s reputation, broadcast and enhanced by the success of his relationship with BD Barcelona, has earned him the opportunity to spread his creative wings into many areas of designs. He has recently created quirky ice cream cakes for Haagen Dazs and a range of limited edition timepieces for the watch brand Orolog (look closely at the face and you may well see that monkey smiling back).

“People are beginning to look for my style and I am becoming a brand in myself,” comments Hayon. “When I introduce a product with a partner, having a personal signature makes it easier for people to say that you are the right guy to work with.”

One definite element of brand Hayon is colour; throughout his career the designer has chosen to use vibrant, bright palettes (it might not surprise you to learn that an exhibition of Hayon’s work was entitled ‘Mediterranean Digital Baroque’). “One of the first things I realised [in my design career] was that people were often taking themselves too seriously,” he says. “How many square sofas can you see on the market? Do we need any more grey? Colour and the use of form are open doors to happiness: spicy colours for a spicy guy.”

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Showtime ceramics

“Yes, design needs to be functional – we are trying to make nice things and make them functional as much as we can,” he adds. “On the other hand, design must, especially for designers like myself, bring stories to life. Absolutely I’m an industrial designer – but once you know how to make things you can play with them. If you sit on my chairs you will know they are functional, but I try to bring something else to the pieces which gives a certain uniqueness.”

 

Style counsel

From New Design 121

Alistair Welch chats with fashion designer Wayne Hemingway, a man who is eager to share his passion for vintage culture

He made his name as the founder of globally celebrated fashion label Red or Dead, now you’re most likely to find Wayne Hemingway admiring a classic Jaguar or rifling through Northern Soul vinyl. Morecambe-born Hemingway is carving quite a reputation as an events organizer as his calendar of Vintage Festivals goes from strength to strength.

The concept is a relatively simple one. Find a venue, bring along a great range of stall holders with superb vintage clothing and wares, add a rally of classic cars, organize some top DJs and live acts, garnish with some top-notch street food and open the doors to the public to enter the vintage spirit.

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All this begs the question, what actually is ‘vintage’? How does an object, a garment, or a record qualify for the tag? Surely it’s about more than simply age. Hemingway agrees, for him vintage is about age, yes, but age mixed with that most essential of ingredients: style.

Hemingway traces his interest in vintage culture to his upbringing in the 1960s and 70s in the north of England. “I grew up wearing second hand clothes because that’s all I could afford,” he says. “Both me and my wife are from fairly poor backgrounds and the whole of the punk movement, especially up north, was about adapting second hand clothes so they didn’t look like charity shop clothes.”

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Wayne with his wife Geradine

Hemingway turned his passion for clothes into a business when at 18 he and his future wife Geradine moved to London and began selling second-hand clothes on Camden Market. Initially trading to earn enough to survive, their venture grew into something much larger to the point where they were taking over £10,000 a weekend. By the age of 19, Hemingway had opened his first shop.

A life-long thriftiness also plays into Wayne’s love of vintage. “Constantly buying new is wrong and you don’t need to because if you’ve got any style you can make old things look up to date,” he says. “I’m wearing vintage now, just a sweatshirt from the 80s and a pair of brown cords which are probably 70s. If I said I’d bought them in Paul Smith last week nobody would have known the difference. I’ve got an interest in timeless design – things that don’t go out of fashion.”

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This ‘timelessness’ is important to Hemingway’s understanding of vintage; a term that he sets in opposition to ‘retro’. “Vintage has to be something that is still relevant because otherwise it becomes retro,” he argues. “[You can] get dressed in leggings and listen to Cyndi Lauper, but Cyndi Lauper has never been cool, it’s kitsch.”

Along with poor Cyndi, Hemingway suggests Findus Crispy Pancakes and Wagon Wheels as cultural phenomena we might safely label retro rather than vintage. “Certain foods that were around in the 70s are still relevant and some aren’t [he’s looking at you Findus Crispy Pancakes] because they have been improved upon,” he says. “If you could improve on Stevie Wonder he wouldn’t be playing Songs in the Key of Life to a sold out Hyde Park. People are not going there because it’s kitsch, because it reminds them of a time they were eating Findus Pancakes, they are going because that album is as good as it gets.”

Hemingway sees his Vintage events as the antithesis of an 80s reunion weekend which, throwing another word into the mix, he calls ‘naff’. “Naff we should leave behind,” he asserts. “Naff we should leave behind and not naff we should show to a new generation.”

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He continues: “There’s a difference between vintage and just looking back. You look back so you can see the things that have a massive influence on today. To look back at the 1950s and the Festival of Britain and Robin and Lucienne Day is absolutely valid, but you can also look at the 50s and see things that are like ‘what’s the point?’”

There is certainly a point in reflecting on the heritage of automotive design and a celebration of the motor car was at the heart of Hemingway’s latest event: The Classic Car Boot Sale. Held across an April weekend in the King’s Cross area of London, the event brought together over one hundred classic cars, motorbikes, and scooters, alongside vintage traders and a curated host of design-makers. 21803113558_9844884718_o.jpg

“We started Vintage because we felt that going to festivals and events was too full of Bieber and Rhianna and hippy massages and wellbeing,” explains Hemingway. “I was a punk so grew up not liking all that crystal stuff, and in the festival scene there was a lot of that going on. We’ve always liked dancing, going out, and watching bands. One of my favourite clubs was one in Manchester where you could go into a punk room, soul room, a 50s room – some people would dress accordingly for the room. One moment you would hear Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, next it would be Marvin Gaye.”

A similar eclecticism informs the vibe of Vintage events. “Add some amazingly designed cars, good DJs, good bands and great street food and we’ve achieved a fun weekend out,” he concludes.

Matthew Arnold writing in the 19th century thought culture to be “the best which has been thought and said.” Wayne Hemingway’s understanding of vintage culture isn’t too far away: it’s the most stylish garments, the most beautiful cars, the most timeless tunes committed to vinyl. And, above all, that which isn’t naff.

On the slide

Riding the ArcelorMittal Orbit Slide for ND123

It seemed somehow fitting that on the day of the EU referendum I was preparing to propel myself into the dark unknown. At the top of the ArcelorMittal Orbit, the Anish Kapoor sculpture of winding red metal that dominates the space between the Aquatics Centre and what is now West Ham United’s home ground on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, I was ready to ‘Ride the Slide’ – a souped-up helter-skelter designed by Belgian artist Carsten Holler that over the course of 178m and 12 twists plummets you the 76m from the viewing gallery back to terra firma.

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Nattily accessorised in a scrum cap and elbow protectors I pushed off with some trepidation. I’m not afraid to admit that taken aback by the speed and tight turns of the ride I screamed like a giddy teenager for the 40 seconds or so it took me to descend and emerge into the daylight. What I anticipated might be a gentle cruise to the bottom turned out to be a thrilling ride that certainly got the heart racing.

The slide is the world’s longest and tallest tunnel slide and riders can expect to experience speeds of up to 15mph during their descent – although I can attest that it certainly feels significantly faster within the confines of the 800mm diameter tube.

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Carsten Holler designed the slide at the invitation of the Orbit’s original architect Anish Kapoor, who was eager that his distinctive work of public art should be augmented by an experiential element. Holler is no stranger to such rides having conceived the giant slides that occupied the installation space in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall during 2006. His vision for the Orbit slide includes a particularly fiendish tight corkscrew section dubbed the ‘bettfeder’ after the German word for ‘bedspring’.

Construction was led by Buckingham Group Constructing using specialist abseilers provided by CAN Structures, with structural engineering work provided by BuroHappold. The Slide has been manufactured by world-renowned slide manufacturer Wiegand and British firm Interkey, who are based in Corby. Steel has been contributed by ArcelorMittal, whose original donation made possible the realisation of structure for the 2012 London Olympic Games. Polycarbonate sections of the tube allow riders to see out of the slide for certain sections of the ride, providing that is they are brave enough to keep their eyes open the whole way down.

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“Since 1999, I have built a number of slides, both free-standing and attached to buildings, but never onto another artwork as in this case,” explains the slide’s designer Holler.“Now that the two artworks will be intertwined with each other, I see it as one of these double situations that I am so interested in. I like it when a sense of unity is reached in two separate entities, and you can find this thought to repeatedly occur in my work.”

“I am delighted that my work, the ArcelorMittal Orbit at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is the site for a collaboration with Carsten Höller. I believe it will result in the making of a new work which will bring two works of art together in an ambitious way,” adds Kapoor.

Unlike the result of the EU referendum I can guarantee that this particular venture into the uncertain will put a smile on your face. And there’s no need to be too frightened, although the ride is speedy the plunge is nowhere near as steep as the dive the pound took on Brexit day.

Out of bounds

Short piece for New Design 122 (June 2016) on the Visionary Crazy Golf project for the London Design Festival which sadly failed to reach its Kickstarter funding threshold

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Hole concept by AtelierBowWow

Golf hasn’t had the greatest of press recently, what with the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers deciding against allowing women to become members of the famous Muirfield course. Stroll up to the tee then a group of leading designers who in a stroke for golfing inclusivity have unveiled plans to transform Trafalgar Square into the country’s most visionary crazy golf course.

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Paul Smith’s hole on the steps of The National Gallery

The project, led by fashion designer Paul Smith (a man whose association with golf you might think runs as far as smart sweaters), will see nine avant-garde holes installed around Nelson’s Column for the duration of the London Design Festival (September 16-22). The ambitious installation is seeking crowd-funding via the Kickstarter platform with backers able to select rewards including early-bird tickets to play the course and limited edition Paul Smith socks.

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Hole concept by Tom Dixon

Smith himself has proposed a challenging hole that would see golfers putt up and down the steps of The National Gallery. Other high-profile designers who have devised concepts for the course include Tom Dixon, Camille Walala, and the Japanese architecture practice Atelier Bow Wow. Before her sad death in March this year, Dame Zaha Hadid contributed to the project, designing an undulating hole over two levels that traces the shadow of Nelson’s Column.

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Mind the pigeon – Ordinary Architecture

At the time of writing the Kickstarter fund stood at just over £20,000 pledged out of a £120,000. So, if you will indulge another golfing pun, there’s a fair way to go and if you want to be putting amongst the pigeons this autumn it’s up to you to support the project. Plus fours strictly optional.

Microwave meals

Article for New Design 119 covering work by YouMeUs for JosephJoseph

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Microwave cuisine doesn’t have a glamorous reputation: it’s all pierce the film, dinner for one, pasty innards hotter than the sun. But it doesn’t have to be that way – after all, the microwave has some great virtues, it is an easy, quick and convenient means of cooking food, and over 80 per cent of UK households own one.

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Stackable cooking system

 

Working with the popular kitchenware brand Joseph Joseph, London-based industrial design and consumer experience company YouMeUs devised a range of microwave cookware, called ‘M-Cuisine’, that would look beyond defrosting and ready meals, changing attitudes to the microwave and helping the brand to take advantage of what, for it, is a new category.

The products within the range include a rice cooker, a stackable cooking system, a ‘cool touch’ dish, and an omelette bowl. All of the pieces deploy Joseph Joseph’s distinctive product language of clean lines, bold colours and a dose of visual wit.

Chris Christou, YouMeUs director, explains that Joseph Joseph approached the consultancy in 2013 having been impressed by the company’s award winning work in kitchen technology, especially for the Kenwood sub-brand KMix. “It was important for us to quickly get up to speed and immerse ourselves into the homeware category and to gain a deeper understanding of what the Joseph Joseph brand stood for,” he says. “This also helped us develop a design methodology that would serve the brand.”

The research process focused on a fundamental question – why is it that microwave cooking has not changed substantively since the devices became a popular domestic purchase through the 1960s and 70s? “Our research was multidimensional. We combined both consumer insight, trends research with ethnographic research,” continues Christou. “This helped us gain an informed understanding around how we live, how we eat, where we eat, together with observational studies centred around product usage, functionality and usability.”

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Rice cooker

He continues: “We live in a culture of immediacy, spending less time and less time preparing meals, we demand convenience and eating patterns have fragmented. We felt that it was equally important to understand both how we are living and eating as well as gaining insight into the functional problems associated with product usage. This would allow us to create cookware that was relevant to today’s consumer.”

Joseph Joseph presented YouMeUs with a relatively open brief, leaving it up to the consultancy’s designers to determine product direction. The team’s research revealed that the microwave, used intelligently, can be a very precise and efficient cooking tool. Indeed, for certain foodstuffs, microwaving can be preferential to conventional cooking techniques. Vegetables, for example, typically retain more nutrients when cooked in the microwave rather than, say, by roasting.

In this sense it was the microwave’s capabilities rather than its imitations which informed what elements would constitute the product range. YouMeUs devised a stackable set that allows the cooking of a complete meal – protein, vegetables and potatoes, rice, or pasta – in the microwave. “Different foods require different cooking times, resulting in a lot of dish juggling,” comments Christou. “The stackable design we developed allows you to save cooking time by pausing the microwave and adding layers during the cooking process. A meal making powerhouse for busy families.”

With the rice cooker, rather than inventing a completely new product, the designers were interested in improving every aspect of functionality and aesthetics in the journey from packet to table. Innovations introduced include a rice paddle that also operates as a lock for the lid and the carry handle.

The ‘cool touch’ bowl and dish were designed with convenient warming and eating in mind. The product uses a double-walled structure with an air gap ensuring that the bowl remains cool to the touch. Unlike glass and ceramics, plastics are not affected by the microwave’s electromagnetic radiation so are not themselves heated. The idea was that when taken out of the microwave, the bowl could be comfortably carried around the house – perfect for casual dining or multi-tasking whilst eating your morning porridge.

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Cool Touch bowl

The range is completed by an omelette bowl. The microwavable tool serves as both the mixing bowl and cooking vessel in order to increase the convenience of preparation and reduce washing up.

In dealing with a kitchenware product for the microwave, understandably material choice was an important consideration. “When designing microwave cookware, along with the development team at Joseph Joseph we had to select materials that were ‘food safe’ with a high temperature melting point,” adds Christou. “Polypropylene was used for most of the products in the collection. The grill component in the stackable cooking set however uses an SPS polymer as it had to withstand very high temperatures associated with cooking bacon. This was a new material for Joseph Joseph and it did present some tooling and moulding challenges.”

Christou explains that during the design process he was not unduly concerned with the visual communication of the Joseph Joseph brand. Since the brand’s products are distinctive for offering a functional improvement over its rivals’ , Christou felt that creating innovative product concepts that markedly improved the user experience ought to be the priority. “We tried not to think too much about the visual expression or the form language of the object. This would come later on in the design process, once we had an idea,” he says. “Colour, materials and finishes along with some common design details helped to bring the range together.”

The range launched in September 2015 and is available in homeware retailers throughout the country.

The World of Charles and Ray Eames

The World of Charles and Ray Eames runs at the Barbican, London until February 14. Here’s my review of the show for New Design 119.

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On either side of the Atlantic run parallel narratives of post-war modernism. From the blitz-bombed streets of London rose brutalism manifest in the form of the Barbican; meanwhile in the sunshine and space of California, Charles (1907-1978) and Ray Eames (1912-1988) were busy defining the stylistic sensibility of mid-century America. These two strands converge in the Barbican exhibition The World of Charles and Ray Eames, the first retrospective of the designers’ work to be held in the UK for fifteen years.

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We start in dramatic fashion not with a chair or couch but a study for a glider nose cone in bent plywood. This imposing, graceful, even sculptural wooden arch is swiftly followed by a battlefield leg splint in the same material. It is a reminder that the output of the Eames Office, established in Venice, California after the newly-wed Charles and Ray relocated to the West Coast in 1941, was underpinned by the principles of industrial design and relied on testing material properties, those of plywood in particular, to structural and creative limits. The furniture pieces for which the Eameses are best known would see the application of such techniques in the domestic mileu.

Significantly, what the visitor next encounters is a cabinet containing copies of Arts & Architecture magazine with covers designed by Ray Eames. In this juxtaposition between product and visual media the exhibition, sophisticatedly curated by Catherine Ince, establishes an important crux. Namely, that the Eameses were as prolific in Letterpress as plywood. Indeed, the Eameses’ close relationship with the design media allowed them to carve a space in which to mythologize their own reputation.

There has been a recent trend for ‘World Of’ exhibitions whereby it is not only a designer’s output but the paraphernalia of their environment which is of interest – last year’s Hello, My Name is Paul Smith at the Design Museum being an example. In the case of Charles and Ray Eames such an approach is utterly justified: they embraced design celebrity and were eager that their own way of life and aesthetic taste might be a model for modern America.

Within the pages of Arts & Architecture (then under the editorship of John Entenza), the Eameses documented the design and build of the Case Study Houses 8 and 9 in Pacific Palisades – companion buildings which were occupied by Charles and Ray (8) and their long-time collaborator, the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen (9). Architectural models of both of the houses, enormously influential in post-war building design, as well as photography of the Eameses enjoying domestic life shot for mainstream magazines are among the 380 works collected across the two floors of the Barbican Art Gallery.

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Of those 380 pieces it is, of course, the furniture that will sell the tickets. And understandably so, for what a remarkable oeuvre the Eames Office produced in its four decades of activity. The plywood seats of the 1940s show the Eameses experimenting with technique and form. At this point the potential for the mass manufacture of furniture was beginning to be realised and its interesting to note in the exhibition signage a surprisingly utilitarian mantra attributed to Charles that his practice was about “getting the best to the greatest number for the least.”

This is truly Arcadia for the design enthusiast. A particular stand out piece is the perfect simplicity of the 1946 LCW (Lounge Wood Chair) – a two-piece low-seated plywood chair that Time magazine named ‘the chair of the 20th century’.

The pieces narrate the evolving relationship between the Eames Office and the furniture manufacturer Herman Miller as well as, in places, revealing a more personal touches. We have a lounge armchair designed for film director and friend of the Eameses Billy Wilder – its low base is said to have been designed to make sure Wilder would not fall out of his chair if he got overexcited whilst watching his beloved televised sports. Meanwhile, bucket chairs from the Eameses’ house have been charmingly customized with cat drawings by illustrator Saul Steinberg.

Whilst many will access the Eameses through the furniture, their work stretches broadly across graphic design, painting, photography, film making, and the built environment. “The Eames Office was an intensely interesting and busy practice that used any tools to communicate any subject of interest to Charles and Ray Eames,” explains curator Catherine Ince. “You can see that visual communication was central to the Eameses’ practice: Charles was a prolific photographer, Ray possessed a tremendous eye for art direction.”

With America on the cusp of the ‘information age’, the successful shaping and transmission of a message was a preoccupation of Charles Eames in particular. Nowhere is this more evident that in the Eames Office’s work for IBM – the subject of a mid-exhibition digression on which is its worth pausing.

The computer company IBM commissioned the Eames Office to design its pavilion for the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair. The project was the Office’s most significant undertaking to date and involved not only defining the pavilion’s architecture but also crafting the multimedia message that IBM would present to show-goers.

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At the heart of the concept was the ‘Ovoid Theater’, essentially an egg-shaped pod supported some 53 feet in the air. It was large enough to seat over 400 guests and housed 22 screens of various sizes, which displayed ‘Think’ a film created by the Eames that explored the relationship between computer science and everyday problem solving.

Visitors to the Barbican exhibition can experience a version of ‘Think (albeit scaled-down from the original) with film and static images across seven screens. The Eameses’ vision of the future is served with a slice of All American apple pie: there’s the football coach chalking up plays as a version of ‘symbol and reality’ that is likened to the wind-tunnel testing of a fighter jet; a well-to-do housewife attempting to organise a dinner party seating plan is a corollary to computer modelling; and the major benefit of accurate weather forecasting? To predict the number of hot dogs that will be sold at a baseball game.

What feels initially like a digression introduces a theme that underpins the exhibition: that the Eameses are products and authors of the American Dream. Whether it is sports or social climbing, furniture or domestic architecture, what is at stake here is progress and aspiration. It is at this point one becomes aware of a key piece which has not yet been encountered.

I refer, of course, of the Eames lounger. That recognisable combination of aluminium, rosewood ply, and leather that together with its companion ottoman speaks of executive America. It confronts the visitor as they begin the exhibition’s upstairs’ circuit. Majestically lit, organic yet imposing, the lounger demands attention. Can there be a more iconic work of furniture design.

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The example secured by the Barbican shows a slight weathering of the ottoman’s leather. One cannot help but speculate as to the heels that caused such erosion – one imagines the Brooks Brothers suit, the taste of whiskey, the whiff of cigar smoke. The lounger, one of the first pieces design by Charles and Ray Eames explicitly for the high-end market, is in its own way a symbol of American corporate power.

The lounger and ottoman were released by the Herman Miller company in 1956, but not after many years of experimental development. The studies in the material capabilities of plywood and the optimal organisation of seat design through the 1940s appear to move towards this moment. Beneath the Californian smiles there was hard graft and compulsive attention to detail. As such, perhaps the lounger is the arch articulation of one of Charles’ favourite sayings, borrowed from the movie business: “Never let the blood show.”

The exhibition design by the London-based 6a architects is understated and coherent. The journey through the two storey space is essentially chronological with much opportunity afforded along the way to dwell of digress as attention demands. Quite rightly it is the furniture works that are the hero pieces, the narrative markers in the story of the Eames Office, with the multimedia visual communication output functioning as an ongoing dialogue.

One of the final exhibits is the reproduction of an extraordinary film, a question an answer sessions between Madame L. Amic and Charles Eames originally recorded for the Louvre’s 1969 exhibition ‘What is Design?’. Eames’ responses are remarkable in their succinctness – he is happy to offer one or two word answers not out of belligerence but out of confidence that he has said all that is required. Asked the titular question – what is design? – he responds elegantly: “a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.”

Eames’ precisely worded understanding of design is followed to the letter in the execution of the Barbican show. This is exactly what an exhibition of design ought to be. In tackling the work and careers of two of the discipline’s most significant practitioners The World of Charles and Ray Eames is simultaneously obsessively detailed and pleasingly broad. The focus on process in the Eameses’ modes of expression, whether that be furniture design, visual communications or film, invites the visitor to explore broader questions around the cultural and commercial function of design.

My 2015 in Theatre

The Gathered Leaves by Andrew Keatley (Park Theatre, Finsbury Park)

Ostensibly conservative (with both small and big Cs) this new play deals with a family gathering of the Penningtons as the clan’s patriarch William prepares to celebrate what illness may ensure is his final birthday. What lifts the drama above this stock conceit is the precise dramaturgy of its set piece moments: an overcooked salmon as three generations wait for a late arrival; an unbearably fraught game of Trivial Pursuit; and the climatic presentation of birthday gifts. Scenarios which most audience members will have experienced themselves, but that also eviscerate the particular secrets, prejudices and alliances behind the mannered structures of the Pennington’s upper-middle class existence.

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The Gathered Leaves

Beautifully and sensitively played is the relationship between Giles and his brother Samuel. We see them as boys in a 1960s-set prologue and the formation of a fraternal bond that remains as strong in 1997 (the action takes place weeks before Blair’s first landslide as the Conservative party consumes itself over Europe and sleaze). Giles is a father, husband and doctor but his first loyalty is to Samuel whose autism (never over-written or over-acted) makes the unwritten rules of family engagement, difficult at the best of times, to him almost impenetrable. It is the brothers’ relationship that is at the heart of the play and from it emanate the work’s ultimately optimistic themes of love and redemption.

Great Britain (Richard Bean, Haymarket) a brash tale of tabloid sex, betrayal, and excess written in response to the phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson enquiry felt somewhat dated. Its satirical targets reflected a former age of the gutter press and Bean’s script lacked the sharp wit that made One Man Two Guvnors such a delight.

The Changeling (Thomas Middleton, Sam Wannamaker Playhouse) continued the Globe’s excellent run of productions of Jacobean and post-Jacobean drama in its new candlelit playhouse. Costume, lighting, and live music combine to create an intimate and atmospheric theatrical experience. There is a lightness of touch in dealing with text that allows moments of emotional intensity and comedy to coexist thus alleviating the anxiety present in many plays of the period that the action we are seeing is simply too macabre to take absolutely seriously. This awareness of the possibility of the ridiculous was particularly prescient in the Playhouse’s staging of Pericles (William Shakespeare) – this most ‘un-Shakespearean’ of plays that, more akin to medieval romance, follows a classical hero through various trials and tribulations before a literal deus ex machina hastens two improbable reunions can be unsatisfying – the verve, pace and physicality of this production ensured it was a pleasing romp.

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James Garnon as Pericles

Outdoors at The Globe The Oresteia (Aeschylus/trans. Rory Mullarkey) was the full Greek experience – a chorus with belligerent English rhythms, bold leading performances and blood, yes lots of blood. Sadly I didn’t get a chance to see London’s other Oresteia, the well received Almeida production, but I gather that whilst that version looked to see Aeschylus in a modern context, Mullarkey’s adaptation for The Globe stage was more interested in foregrounding the otherness of Attic revenge tragedy.

My two visits to Stratford this year took in Oppenheimer (Tom Morton-Smith, Swan) an overlong but not entirely unenjoyable consideration of the eponymous physicist behind the atomic bomb and Volpone (Swan), Ben Jonson’s city comedy of greed and comeuppance. Henry Goodman was superb as Volpone, particularly in the opening sickbed scenes where he feigns mortal illness to entrap a series of grasping legacy hunters. However, he was let down by an underpowered Mosca. The action was transported to a near-future Venice and the text was updated in places to suit – this was most effective in the Scoto of Mantua mountebank performance which took its lead from Jonson’s interest in complete play but fell flat in other places where contemporary references to global warming and iPads felt utterly incongruous.

Three visits to the National Theatre produced mixed results. I loved The Beaux’ Stratagem (George Farquhar, Olivier). This rarely performed Restoration play, somewhere between farce, whodunnit and comedy of manners, was elaborately staged, fast-paced and at times joyfully silly. Staying with Farquhar (for it is his The Recruiting Officer that provides the play-within-the-play) Our Country’s Good (Timberlake Wertenbaker, Olivier) was a solid effort and although the ensemble playing was difficult to fault, offered little especially exciting or involving. Waste (Harley Granville-Barker, Lyttleton) was tough to enjoy. The play struggles to connect with a modern audience because its two central conflicts – disestablishment of the Church of England and abortion – trouble the early 21st century mind far less than the early 20th. With this central moral quandary undermined, you are left with three hours of somewhat turgid self-examination or sub-Downton drawing room scenes which sparse staging and stark lighting did little to improve.

'Waste' Play by Harley Granville Barker performed in the Lyttelton Theatre at the Royal National Theatre, London, UK

Waste at The National Theatre

Of course the theatrical event of the year was Benedict Cumberbatch’s much-hyped turn as the Dane. Hamlet (William Shakespeare, Barbican) was the hottest ticket in town and Cumberbatch did not disappoint, delivering an intelligent and youthful Hamlet that found particular interest in the generational conflict between the worldly student and (step)parents concerned with kingship and state. What was most striking was the scale of the Barbican’s Elsinore, truly a vast stage set, and perhaps the first example I have scene of a stage design built with the transmission of the action to cinemas in mind.

Against my usual judgment I ventured to two West End musicals this year. The Phantom of the Opera (Lloyd Webber, Her Majesty’s Theatre) is now an exercise in 80s nostalgia and, to use a vogue word of 2015, rather ‘problematic’ in its dealings with abduction and obsession. However, The Book or Mormon (Stone & Parker, Prince of Wales Theatre) is wonderful in its absolute desire to offend as many people as possible without a care to the consequences. As with South Park and Team America, Trey Stone and Matt Parker’s writing is intelligent enough to forgive AIDS jokes and frog fellatio.

2015 was bookended by Tchaikovsky at the English National Ballet – both Swan Lake (January) and The Nutcracker (December) were, as always, complete pleasures.

Connecting renewables

Coverage of British Power International’s POC-MAST from Energy Engineering 60

The locating and making of a grid connection has always been a headache for the solar PV and onshore wind industry. In chasing the most advantageous resource and avoiding the planning permission difficulties that come with proximity to centres of population, developers often site solar and wind farms in relatively remote locations.

To connect a wind or solar PV site to the grid, developers can run a cable from their site to a grid substation, but the further the distance between the two the more costly this option becomes. If there is not a nearby substation, there may well be overhead conductors running in proximity to the wind or solar PV site. However, connecting to such overhead lines has not been an easy task, typically requiring the replacement or, at the very least, the extensive modification of existing towers in order to accommodate the grid connection. This work can last over a year, involve complex consent agreements with landowners, local authorities and network operators, and see costs spiral into million of pounds.

In an effort to make grid connection less time consuming, less expensive, and generally less painful for onshore renewable energy developers, electricity sector consultancy British Power International has developed a connection solution that eliminates the need to replace or significantly re-engineer existing towers.

The company’s POC-MAST (patent pending) product negates the requirement for a new junction tower allowing the developer to connect directly to the overhead line. The POC-MAST is installed adjacent to the existing tower at a distance of between five and ten metres and connection is made via low tension cross leads. The POC-MAST is suitable for overhead line distributed generation connections operating from 11kV to 132kV.

POC-MAST

Bob Ford, head of design projects at British Power International (BPI), explains that the consultancy began work on the POC-MAST after a client with a large solar PV farm approached the company looking for a more cost-effective means of connecting to the grid at 132kV. “Traditionally to do that connection you’d have to replace an existing tower which requires a lot of temporary work to maintain one live circuit; is dangerous from a health and safety perspective; and would require a great deal of planning permission, organisation, and deep excavation for foundations,” he says. “Our solution is much cheaper and can be installed with the minimal circuit outage conditions as you don’t need to divert the circuit or the existing tower on the overhead line.”

The overhead line design team at BPI devised the POC-MAST with health and safety and speed of installation in mind. The modular POC-MAST comprises multiple polygonal sections of folded sheet steel that can be connected together to achieve the desired height. The POC-MAST’s base accommodates the base flange and hinge arrangement and is connected to the mass concrete foundation by cast in-situ holding-down bolts. In addition BPI as developed an alternative foundation using screw-anchor assembly.

Ford explains that the POC-MAST can be installed and connection achieved by a four-man team within three days. The traditional connection method involving the modification of the existing tower, on the other hand could take up to a year. “We have developed a hydraulic system to lift the POC-MAST so we can fully construct and ‘dress’ (that is put the insulators and other equipment on) at ground level so nobody is working at height,” he adds. “Using an hydraulic ram we can lift the POC-MAST within 20 seconds and once the POC-MAST is raised a team on a cherry picker use cross leads to connect the POC-MAST to the overhead line.”

Depending on the connection configuration most overhead line connections can be achieved in less than one day meaning a significantly shorter period of circuit outage than in a conventional connection.

One key element of the POC-MAST’s design is that, whatever the weather conditions, it will transfer minimal mechanical load to the existing towers – and it is, in fact, this aspect of the system which is subject to an international patent. Given that many of the existing transmission towers, especially in the 132kV field, date from the 1930s and 1940s ensuring they are not placed under an excess strain is particularly important.

Whilst the fundamental design of the POC-MAST will not differ from site to site, Ford explains that each POC-MAST will be designed to be site specific according to prevailing weather conditions and the particular tower it is connecting to, this is contained in a complete design pack. Additionally, the POC-MAST is designed for minimal visual impact: its standard finish is in galvanised steel but the POC-MAST can be coloured if necessary to make it less conspicuous in the landscape.

BPI completed the installation of the first POC-MAST for its original client in August 2014; the product is now operational and has proved to be very successful. In March 2015 the mast was named Business Innovation of the Year by Construction News in recognition of the product’s major potential in the renewable energy sector.

In addition to the design of the POC-MAST BPI also provide a complete design service for the adjacent substation.

Building on this initial success, Ford explains that the company is now tackling business development and attempting to communicate the advantages of the POC-MAST to renewable energy developers. “We want to set up meetings with solar and wind farm developers to educate them that you aren’t necessarily stuck with a 12 to 18 month connection solution – our product can be up within three months or just a matter of days if planning permission has already been granted,” he says. “This gives the developer much more autonomy to plan and use sites that they would not necessarily have been able to use.”

“The traditional connection methods have been with us since the beginning of overhead lines and it really is time to look at new methods,” concludes Ford. “Our technology is cost effective, time saving, and health and safety focussed – overall a much better solution.”

Head in the clouds

I spoke to Derrick Pover and Sue Heaps of o1Creative about the design of three restaurant spaces within the SkyGarden, a dramatic space spanning the top floors of 20 Fenchurch Street (otherwise known as the Walkie Talkie).

skypod view

It’s the garden that isn’t a garden and the public space that isn’t exactly public. That’s what the critics say at least and it must be admitted that the SkyGarden has had its fair share of criticism since its opening in December 2014.

Touted as an indoor park and viewing gallery, SkyGarden is the space at the summit of 20 Fenchurch Street, that recent addition to the London skyline dubbed the ‘walkie talkie’. Whilst one might take issue with the quantity of flora or the accessibility of the public booking system, one cannot argue with the view: a breathtaking panorama of the city from Alexandra Palace in the north to Crystal Palace in the south.

Within this extraordinary environment 150 metres above the London streets, multidisciplinary interior design practice o1creative were tasked by the project’s catering contractor Rhubarb with creating three destination food and drink venues. Visit the SkyGarden now and you will discover The Sky Pod Bar on Level 35, The Darwin Brasserie on Level 36, and the Fenchurch Seafood Bar and Grill at the very top, Level 37. Each space is a standalone bar or restaurant with a distinct food offer as well as an individual interior aesthetic concept.

However, long before the Soho-based o1creative could think about soft furnishings or light fittings, there were complex technical design aspects to address contingent on the location of the space at the top of a commercial skyscraper. The relatively confined nature of the SkyGarden demanded careful planning on behalf of the designers to take into consideration ventilation, heating, gas and water services, and heating systems. “You can’t start thinking about the finishes until you have made the mechanics work. People don’t necessarily appreciate just how complex a building such as this is,” comments o1creative design director Derrick Pover.

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O1creative had limited prior experience of either designing restaurant interiors or working in high-rise buildings. However, the company’s extensive portfolio of retail design, that includes prestigious work for Harrods and Selfridges, provided a solid grounding in managing large luxury projects. “Good design is about solving a problem,” adds Pover. “If you listen to the brief properly and do a good level of research it does not matter if you have done that particular specialization before.”

The design agency was involved in the project at an early stage, when the space was little more than a bare steel shell, and this helped the problem solving process in enabling the designers to grapple with broader technical challenges before turning their attention to the detail of interior design and finishes. O1creative director Sue Heaps explains that planning the air conditioning system to accommodate three separate food and drink spaces was in itself the work of four months.

“Some consultancies might only do the ‘creative’ side of things,” she says. “We take control of everything from concrete slabs to the finished article. That is what we do on every project we work on and it is important because we can design those systems [air con, sprinklers, ventilation and so forth] so they are not adversely affecting the look of the space.”

Somewhat unusually, o1creative elected not to put the fit-out contract to competitive tender. They chose to work with specialist leisure industry contractors WFC, a decision which Derrick Pover argues led to a relationship of trust and shared responsibility as opposed to a situation where the contractor has an incentive to cut cost at any opportunity. “The idea of not going out to tender is quite a radical thing,” he says. “But by getting your contractor on board early you make them part of the team and you can be honest with them about delivering to a certain price so they are working with you rather than against you.”

The project was delivered on time and at a cost that the client Rhubarb was comfortable with. The result is three spaces that each have an individual design identity whilst sitting coherently in the spectacular setting of the SkyGarden.

The Sky Pod Bar in the main atrium area serves coffee and cakes through the day and cocktails and canapés by night. The space is ambient, meaning it is a similar temperature to that outside. With this feature in mind, o1creative referenced changing seasonality in the design concept: in winter months seating is accessorized with faux fur and cashmere blankets whilst the summer will see the introduction of a more exotic theme so the bar area is more beach cabana than ski lodge.

The lower of the two restaurant pods hosts The Darwin Brasserie, an all-day eatery named for the naturalist and botanist Charles Darwin – a link that is picked up in the interior design through a palette of neutral colours inspired by a volcanic island and botanical drawing motifs.

The Fenchurch Seafood Bar and Grill on Level 37 is a ‘refined dining’ offering. Here the design speaks of exclusivity and luxury with rich leather banquette seating, lighting and bar accessories by top design brands, and a unique private dining room that can be occluded from the public gaze by liquid crystal glazing – ideal for reclusive VIPs and camera-shy celebrities.

“We looked to celebrate the unique aspect the restaurant has on the cityscape around this iconic building,” adds Pover of The Fenchurch. “Diners look out over a spectacular sea of lights and architectural forms. This glittering matrix of patterns is reflected in the design of the restaurant bar, with the backdrop featuring a series of rear and illuminated tiles and mirrors.”

Indeed, attention to detail when it comes to lighting is evident throughout the three spaces. Thanks to advances in LED technology, o1creative were able to use the more energy efficient, longer life LEDs rather than Halogen bulbs, but still achieve a warm quality in the light. All of the LED fittings are connected to a sophisticated DALI dimming system which allows central control of lighting levels to create just the right atmosphere.

It may have been a long and complex project, but the SkyGarden has yielded impressive results and with three distinct restaurant spaces now complete, o1creative is hopeful of further restaurant design work in the future.

This article originally appeared as the ‘Briefcase’ feature in New Design 115.

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Climate Change: Problem Solved

My look at innovative renewable energy technologies that could help to stall climate change appeared in the latest issue of BBC Focus magazine.

Picture 6

http://www.sciencefocus.com/issue/climate-change-problem-solved