The spirit world

Hugh Pearman visits the ethereal world of Ross Lovegrove, who has collaborated with an all-star cast for his first book on his ground-breaking designs

‘How long’s it been?’ asks Ross Lovegrove, striding across the smooth, bare concrete floor of his Notting Hill studio to greet me. I’m ashamed to admit that it has been ages. In fact, the last time I found myself chez Lovegrove was as long ago as 1996. He was pretty well known then, but not quite the international name he is now, a designer with a highly personal, even idiosyncratic approach that is light-years away from shallow styling.

I’ve come because his book, Supernatural: The Work of Ross Lovegrove, published this month by Phaidon, succeeds in being both more than just a monograph and more than just a picture book. Yes, there are sumptuous, even mildly erotic, pictures (naked women, black and albino white, artfully posed on chairs, curve matching curve) and, of course, the book design by Yumi Matote is impeccable: Phaidon at its best. But Lovegrove has not waited all this time for his first publication only to go the conventional route.

Supernatural is a reflective volume. It does a bit of lateral thinking aloud. Lovegrove has contributed sections, as have the structural engineer Cecil Balmond, design expert Paola Antonelli from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, designer Tokujin Yoshioka, lightweight materials engineer Adriaan Beukers and American architect Greg Lynn.

This is quite some international roll-call, and as it happens, I find one of them sitting in the studio on the afternoon of my visit. This is Lynn, a Los Angeles-based architect much concerned with new ways of generating form, and thus a fellow traveller with Lovegrove in his quest for a synthesis of structure and skin. Lovegrove and Lynn are, in an informal kind of way, preparing for their public discussion at the Institute of Contemporary Art later in the day. This seems to take the form of a laid-back Friday afternoon, talking about each others’ work upstairs while the rest of the office gets on with things downstairs.

Also sitting at the table is the German design historian Albrecht Bangert, author of a soon-to-be-published book on another favourite of Lovegrove’s, the multidisciplinary designer Luigi Colani. The group is completed by Miska, Lovegrove’s architect wife and partner, and designer of the studio space, with its high-ceilinged, excavated basement. Lovegrove himself contributed with his DNA Staircase in composite materials, a product he made for himself, but with later production for others in mind. With its sweeping, seemingly unsupported, carbon-fibre handrail, it is daring and spectacular. It is product design heading towards architecture. That’s always been a Lovegrove aim: to build from a product design, component-based point of view. Things that link together to make other, bigger, things. Slowly, he’s getting there.

The group settles round and the conversation proceeds. Lynn gets to see Lovegrove’s idea for a modular exhibition building made from interlocking, power-generating plastic components (his first idea was his Solar Bud garden lamp stuck into the neck of a big office, drinking-water bottle. The riff develops from there until a complete building product system concept is developed). In turn, Lovegrove gets to see Lynn’s first sketch designs for his own house in Venice, California, where a spaghetti-like steel structure allows remarkably thin floor slabs. Lovegrove compares it with the work of Toyo Ito, whose Serpentine Pavilion in 2002 was kitted out with his Spin chairs for Driade. Bangert, in his role as academic, draws comparisons with other designers, other periods. Miska provides background on various Lovegrove projects – not least getting the new studio built. The Lovegrove family lives over the shop and had already taken up all the available above-ground space.

We drink water poured from Lovegrove-designed Ty Nant plastic bottles, where the container, conceived as a solidified torrent of water, expresses the contents. We sit (upstairs) on Lovegrove’s Go chairs in die-cast magnesium, or those very successful Spin chairs for Driade. Downstairs, where we go for the projected images, we arrange ourselves on a selection of Philippe Starck furniture. Lovegrove is a great admirer of Starck. He sees the ingenuity and application beneath the devil-may-care showbiz persona. But then, he is also on record as an advocate of the ubiquitous £5 plastic garden centre chair, regarded as naff by all arbiters of taste. For Lovegrove, it is supremely efficient and comfortable to the point of being all but unimproveable.

I’m struck by the way Lovegrove, in the book, cites domestic science – cooking – at school as a big influence on his attitude to materials and design. The things you can do with eggs, or jelly, or sugar, or flour. He points at his shelves, which are full of found objects. ‘There you’ll find a bear’s skull, which is made from proteins and polysaccharide, and next to it a meringue, which is made from the same things. Both rigid – the difference being that the meringue dissolves if you pour water on it,’ he explains.

This is all part of Lovegrove’s quest for ‘organic essentialism’, itself an aspect of his ‘supernatural’ design approach. His work used to look at times as if it was harking back to the curvy forms of the 1950s and 1960s, but now, as Bangert points out, that parallel is meaningless. Lovegrove is Lovegrove, not a disciple of Eero Saarinen.

In some respects, he has more in common with that master of bricolage, the late Achille Castiglioni, who loved to collect objects of all kinds and put them together in a Duchamp sort of way – except that the end result was always more useful than the deliberately meaningless juxtapositions of the Dadaist master. Lovegrove works in a similar way. His glass-floored office and every part of the office building is scattered with this, that and the other. ‘When I was at the Royal College of Art, Memphis was very big,’ Lovegrove recalls. ‘People would go into the workshop, get a block of wood, put a funny shape on it, spray it pink and call it a fax machine. Somehow the Memphis Group legitimised that action. That was very exciting as a student aged 21 – you very quickly saw how things could be. But what I used to do quietly was to go off and find objects and put them together. A printed circuit board with an amazing shape, perhaps a copper jelly-mould, maybe a fantastic light bulb. I’d stand them there – they could be anything. It’s about inspiring yourself.’

Starting from first principles, taking inspiration from wherever: that’s the Lovegrove way. From Cellophane-wrapped Rowntrees fruit jelly slabs to hi-tech industrial gels is but a short step, he points out. Both behave in essentially the same manner.

There are some pieces of curvilinear, sometimes etched, pieces of glassware standing on a lightbox. These are some of Lovegrove’s early experiments for the Salviati Venetian glass company. He’s going to do more. ‘It will be a celebration of the fluidity of glass – not a vase or anything,’ he explains. ‘You never know what’s going to arrive in design. You have to extrapolate from the materials where they want to go.’

That’s Lovegrove and his never-ending line of inquiry. If it sounds like that old mantra, ‘truth to materials’, that’s because it is. But materials in sometimes unexpected combinations and textures, and always beautiful forms. Nature, after all, has a habit of springing surprises. Lovegrove works to make those surprises both pleasant and inevitable.

Supernatural: The Work of Ross Lovegrove is published by Phaidon, priced £39.95

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