For a designer who describes his latest pieces as “introspective furniture”, Ralph Ball is not the introvert you might expect. He may sometimes appear diffident about a talent which has brought him wide recognition as one of the past 20 years most thoughtful UK furniture designers. But nearly two decades after his 1980 Royal College of Art degree show signalled the arrival of a major new talent with the Aero light and sheet steel shelving suspended on wires, Ball has lost none of his special talent to provoke.
This week he opens a new one-man show at the Plateaux Gallery at London’s Butlers Wharf, which reveals the designer once again using the medium of furniture and lighting to question in a gentle, enigmatic, but ultimately confrontational way what modern design means.
Introspective Furniture follows last year’s Modern Movements exhibition at the Concord Gallery, also in London. It promises Ball’s most forthright exposition yet of what he describes as “form follows idea”. He is fascinated with Modernism, but chooses to celebrate it in a critical way – using its key historic references to create a playful and ironic post-modern commentary on the Modern Movement itself.
In a sense, Ball’s new pieces adhere strictly to the Modernist notion that ornament is crime – no decoration is applied to the objects. But they are highly decorative – the decoration created out of the tension between the modern idea and its expression in form and materials.
A light fitting called Golden Delicious, for example, twists the modernist axiom “truth to materials” by turning the bulbs and shade into a bowl of fruit. His Virtual Table 2 plays with the modern idea of “no borrowing from the past” by including an isometric drawing of the table within the piece. The drawing masquerades as the traditional art of marquetry in plastic wood grain. “You can’t take one image away from the other without it all disappearing,” says Ball. “It’s an ironic essay on truth and artificiality.”
If all this sounds like Ball is wrapped up in his own psyche – to take Alan Fletcher’s maxim that artists solve their own problems, while designers solve other people’s – then the designer freely owns up to it. His newest work, he says, is more about artistic enquiry and self-expression rather than design for production – although if manufacturers are interested, certain pieces such as the simple Light Shade Up can be rationalised for batch production.
“I originally came to furniture design from an interest in sculpture and painting because I thought I should do something more practical, but now I’m moving back,” says Ball. “Furniture allows you to do that because it is such an expressive medium. I suppose that even the Aero Light was an excuse to do sculpture.”
Aged 47, Ralph Ball grew up in Yorkshire, the son of a “frustrated architect” who ran a building company. “My father designed a single-storey hexagonal house in Brough, which we lived in,” recalls Ball. “It was a bizarre design for that part of the world.” The influence clearly rubbed off. After studying first in Hull and then at Leeds College of Art under Derek Carpenter, Ball began his career freelancing in interiors.
A brief spell in the early Seventies working for Alan Cooper Office Furniture brought him up sharp against the cold realities of British industry. “Alan Cooper had never had a designer before and I went at it very professionally, studying its shopfloor practices and tailoring my ideas to its methods,” says Ball. “I thought my designs were conservative, but the company was shocked. I then realised it just wanted someone to modify the leg details.”
The experience taught Ball a hard lesson. When he returned to study furniture at the RCA under Robert Heritage in 1977, it was with a specific agenda to develop the kind of work that would attract progressive architects rather than blinkered manufacturers. The strategy paid off. The delicate aesthetic and rigorous engineering combined in the Aero light brought Ball into the orbit of Foster Associates.
Over the next three years, between 1981 and 1984, Ball was part of the Foster team which was working on a range of furniture projects. Two in particular – drawing boards for Foster’s own office and desking for the Renault building – became the forerunners to Sir Norman Foster’s famous Nomos system. “I left before Nomos really got going, but there is no doubt that the Renault glass-topped table with suction cups was influential,” says Ball. ©
In 1985 Ball formed a design partnership with his professional and personal partner Maxine Naylor. The resulting work explored the potential of lighting with tension wires and PVC sheet and was widely and controversially promoted as an example of “the new crafts” by the Crafts Council. That same year, Ball resumed his relationship with the RCA as a visiting lecturer. He has since gone on to work in three separate RCA departments – furniture, industrial design and jewellery – and is today a senior lecturer in Ron Arad’s brave new combined furniture and industrial design unit.
The involvement in jewellery is perhaps most instructive in understanding Ball’s sensitive approach to detailing. “I was asked by David Watkins to set up a production unit in jewellery at the RCA because I was outside the discipline,” says Ball. “Jewellers tend to solve problems by hand in working the material, whereas pieces for production need to be specified rather than improvised in the making.”
Now, however, Ball is pushing his own work back towards jewel-like one-offs (and in some cases, ironic one-liners) with price tags to reflect the aspirations of art. “I suppose I’ve become more interested in furniture as object,” he says, by way of explanation rather than apology. Interestingly, Ball says his newest ideas have not come through sketching but through language and wordplay. “I’ve taken the argument of Modernism but turned it on its head. I’ve used the language of Modernism but pushed it to the point of absurdity.”
His self-adjusting Year Book Table, for example, twists the modernist axiom “starting from zero”. It is a commentary on the symbiotic relationship between design journalism and designer products. Whereas most design products seem to support design publications, here the design publication literally supports the product. Each new yearbook edition adds a layer to the table and the books beneath become redundant as part of a self-adjusting process.
Similar games are played with a wall shelving system created by using as brackets four volumes of a fictional Complete History of Shelf Supports published by Mitchell Beazley. By confining himself totally to “introspective” modernist references, Ball has created a truly post-modern furniture collection. It may sound odd and intellectually challenging, but then a period of introspection does tend to bring out the thinker in Ralph Ball.
Introspective Furniture will be showing until 15 November at the Plateaux Gallery, 1 Brewery Square, Tower Bridge Piazza, Butlers Wharf, London SE1,