The RIBA and Design Week have put together designs from nine architects who have crossed over the border into product design. The result is the Products of Desire exhibition. Clare Melhuish reports

SBHD: The RIBA and Design Week have put together designs from nine architects who have crossed over the border into product design. The result is the Products of Desire exhibition. Clare Melhuish reports

Product design has only existed as a recognisable discipline since industrialisation, the invention of man-made materials, and the beginning of mass-production. Before that, the production of objects was the domain of craftsmen working manually with materials derived from natural sources, and design was an integral part of the process of fabrication rather than a separate activity in its own right.

The advent of mass-production, based on the mechanisation of the production process, was the trigger for the development of design as a separate discipline, and the distancing of the designer, as thinker, from the manipulation of materials and the making process – to the extent that a new term, designer-maker, has been coined to describe the phenomenon of the trained designer who has developed a career as what was originally called a craftsman.

The tools of the designer tend to be paper and pen, or, today, the computer. The exhibits displayed in the Royal Institute of British Architects exhibition are accurate realisations of drawings which in themselves represent an enormous investment of creative energy, and may be admired as such on their own account.

Of all the exhibitors, only Ron Arad enjoys a close relationship with the production process itself – although even he has distanced himself from his workshop now to a far greater degree than formerly, when office, workshop and showroom were all housed under the same roof, as a result of his move away from one-offs and into mass- or, at least, batch-production.

Arad is the rare example of a British-trained architect who made his reputation in product design rather than architecture. The other exhibitors are known first and foremost as architects, and this exhibition may well represent the first real exposure of their product-designing activities to the public.

Elsewhere in Europe, particularly Italy, the distinction between architect and designer of objects is far less clearly drawn. Diversification across the whole field of design, from cities to buildings to objects, is the norm, although it is true that most of the top Italian architect-trained designers, such as Ettore Sottsass, Vico Magistretti, Alessandro Mendini or Michele di Lucchi, are much better known for their product design than their architecture. In Italy, an architectural training is regarded as a solid, all-round design education. But in France, some of the best-known architects, including Jean Nouvel, were trained as designers, and the country’s top product designer, Philippe Starck, who failed to complete even his design education, has moved into architecture with considerable success.

But a century ago British architects led the way in promoting the idea of the architect as all-round designer. Augustus Welby Pugin, best known for his church architecture, was perhaps the first to embrace the idea of using industrial production methods to create good quality domestic furniture in the Gothic style for the masses. He was also active in the fields of textile and jewellery design. Pugin died in 1852, but his influence, as a precursor of the Arts and Crafts movement, was profound. Most of the best-known nineteenth century British architects – George Edmund Street, Richard Norman Shaw, William Burges, John Webb, William Richard Lethaby, CFA Voysey, Charles Rennie Mackintosh – also designed furniture as an integral part of their architectural vision.

The idea of architect as creator of a total environment of high quality, which would be available to everyone, not just the rich, was originally given currency most powerfully by William Morris, who profoundly influenced both the architects of his day, and the founders of the Modern Movement in the early twentieth century.

The Bauhaus school was established by Henry van de Velde – followed as director by Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe – to teach arts and crafts, and subsequently architecture, together, inspired by a profound faith in the potential of industrial production to make the world a better place. All of the key figures of the Modern Movement, notably Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, and van der Rohe, showed at least as much interest in furniture as in architecture, and the chairs they created have become timeless classics.

They were inspired by a mission to improve the lives of the masses, which generated an understanding of architecture as an all-embracing expression of form follows function, which should extend to all aspects of the environment – not just the space, but all the objects in it.

One of the greatest achievements of the Modern Movement was to establish the concept of flowing, seamless living space, blurring the edges between inside and outside; yet, conversely, Modernism also promoted a powerful belief in the concept of the building as architectural object in space, functional, achieved by means of industrial production techniques, but also sculptural. It heralded a progressive erosion of the boundary between architecture and product design, especially as the development of both became increasingly determined by technological advances, and the designer became, as a result, more distanced from a process of construction or fabrication in which he had relatively little expertise.

Nevertheless, none of the best-known British modernists – Peter and Alison Smithson, Berthold Lubetkin, Erno Goldfinger, or Denys Lasdun, for example – seems to have shown any particular interest in product design. After the war, the welfare state promoted a social programme which created more than enough building work for architects, in the shape of housing, schools, hospitals and other public buildings. And in any case, British architects were more concerned with issues of spatial configuration, place and structural honesty than in the formal or aesthetic agenda of Modernism. Finally, the UK did not have a strong manufacturing base for mass furniture production: a factor which remains as relevant today.

It was really not until the “design boom” of the 1980s, spearheaded by advertising, retailing, and figures such as Sir Terence Conran and Rodney Fitch, that British architects began to show more interest in product design. Boom and bust economic conditions exerted pressure on architects to diversify, as construction work became scarce. But the great obstacle to development has been the lack of interest shown by the manufacturing industry. British designers still rely on overseas manufacturers to produce their products, while one-off and batch-production remains the rule, much as it was at the time of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Although it is now possible to obtain a greater range of contemporary design products in the UK than ever before, the British psyche is idiosyncratic in its inclination towards the eccentric, the fantastic and the improvised in matters of style, and it is this national characteristic, above all, that has made it difficult for those interested in sophisticated product design to gain recognition and encouragement in this country. By contrast, there has been a far greater national awareness of and interest in the fashion, graphics, and music side of the design industry. It will be interesting to see what influence the development of the European market might have on this state of affairs.

Products of Desire is at the RIBA Architecture Centre, 66 Portland Place, London W1 from 24 January to 18 February.

SBHD: Sir Norman Foster and Partners: Nomos furniture system table, for Tecno

The Nomos system is a workstation designed around the concept of the interaction between the user and the space he or she occupies, and how that relationship might be enhanced in terms of comfort, efficiency, and economy. It is conceived as an inventory of precision components which can be altered and combined as required, within a fixed framework based on human ergonomics. The system is self-contained in terms of lighting, and can be expanded both vertically and horizontally.

While the frame is built of steel tubing, surface finishes may vary between glass, wood, marble, metal and plastic, depending on the client’s needs. A built-in, vertebrae-like conduit carries cabling from desk terminals, and storage space is accommodated above the desk, to leave the floor free.

SBHD: Lutyens Design Associates: New Delhi occasional table

This table was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1930. It consists of three leaves, each resting on the point of an equilateral triangular base, and a complex interplay of geometric forms – circle, triangle and square. The piece is of such complexity that even today, with precision tools, it is difficult to build, and there is no evidence of it ever having been built before. As a piece of furniture, the table has no real meaningful function. It is, rather, a sculptural object masquerading as a table. The drawing that Lutyens left is a masterpiece in itself: highly economical, yet totally specific, allowing nothing to be left to chance at the hand of the craftsman.

SBHD: Will Alsop: Table for Brian Appleyard

This dining table for Brian Appleyard, who had originally asked for an elegant wooden structure, consists of a 5ft-square gunmetal surface divided into three irregularly shaped panels set at slightly different levels and bolted to a steel frame. The structure of the legs is clearly a product of Alsop’s architectural imagination.

SBHD: Future Systems: Le Caprice champagne bucket

The brief from the Le Caprice restaurant in London was for a champagne bucket and stand large enough to take three champagne bottles. The bucket was designed in plan and section based on the base of three bottles, and the optimum angle at which they would lie in ice. The resulting sculptural shape is formed in stainless steel sheet, and the stand, tapering to a minimal base, is made of cast aluminium, fluted after a fluted champagne glass. The overall size of the two components was deliberately kept to a minimum, in order to avoid obstruction of circulation space between tables. It is manufactured by John Grilli Contracts.

SBHD: Michael Dowd: exhibition system

Dowd’s display system was recently on show in the RIBA’s Florence Hall, for the exhibition Architectures Capitales, about the French grands projets. Dowd was commissioned to design the touring exhibition in 1989 by President Mitterrand. The brief asked that it should be self-contained, present each of the buildings included in the display in a standard format, with capacity for continuous updating, and be capable of fitting into any venue. It had also to allow for non-specialist assembly, comprising a minimum number of components. Now known as Dimension 3, the display frames, based on the A-Frame structural principle, are made of hollow steel tubing with a polished chrome-plate finish, and transparent, unbreakable, polycarbonate panels. Fluorescent fittings are attached to each unit to light exhibits directly and generate an ambient lighting effect.

SBHD: Nigel Coates (Omniate): Mannequins

She-Woman and He-Man are mannequins made of self-polished, cast aluminium, mounted on a shotblasted and painted steel stand with aluminium feet fitted to a cast iron cog. She-Woman was developed specifically for Jigsaw from an earlier, more abstract model, Female, sold to Katherine Hamnett. He-Man has also been sold to Katherine Hamnett and a modified version is being developed for Jigsaw.

The mannequins have a sculptural presence which makes them far more than just display industry production items. The forms were developed as constructions of separately defined pieces in response to the notion of `jigsaw’. Originally cast from life, they have undergone a considerable amount of modification to turn them into the appropriate shapes to display clothes effectively in a static position. The eye-catching, polished quality of the aluminium finish is maintained simply by dressing and undressing the mannequin regularly.

SBHD: Paxton Locher: stainless steel trolley

The trolley was designed as part of a set of three, fabricated by Steve Murtagh, which comprise the kitchen elements of a large apartment in North London. All three are designed to roll away into cupboards when not in use.

The trolley on display is the lowest of the three, designed to serve the table. It consists of a stainless steel frame and sandblasted glass top with a single stainless steel wire basket hung beneath it. The stainless steel handles are designed to protect the corners of the glass as well as to aid manoeuvrability.

The main trolley is for cooking, with hobbs and pan storage. It is designed to be plugged in when required. The third trolley is its partner, providing crockery and utensil storage. The surface is used as a work surface.

SBHD: Ron Arad: Empty Chair

The chair was developed in response to a commission from Driade for a range of cheap wooden furniture with a high design content. In fact, Arad’s designs for a table (the Fly Ply table) and chair demanded sophisticated manufacturing skills, and had to be produced in Italy; hence it was not cheap. Nevertheless, Driade decided to go head with the project, and the chair is now used in both the Tel Aviv opera house and in Belgo restaurant in London.

Although it was conceived as a single piece of wood, it is manufactured in two pieces with the frame fixed to the lower section. It is made of a slightly thicker wood than originally planned, as a result of stringent testing for use in a public place, but its springy quality has been maintained.

SBHD: Cedric Price: market barrow

The three market barrows were commissioned by Westminster Council in 1988-1989 as part of an initiative to improve the size and layout of street stalls in the borough. The structures had to be vandal-proof and mobile, in order to allow them to be moved off the street every night in accordance with new by-laws. The largest of the three is the fruit and vegetable stall, constructed out of steel and timber with a permanently fixed tension cover made of reinforced plastic-coated nylon. Unlike the other two stalls, it is motorised, with pneumatic tyred wheels. The news and souvenirs stall is made of the same materials, and closes up into one big steel black box for security. The clothes stall has an aluminium and steel frame, with the same tensioned covering.

Latest articles