A super natural

Ross Lovegrove has more in common with architects and engineers than other designers, and would love to work on complete habitats, if only he could find clients willing to take a risk with his intuitive creations, says Hugh Pearman

When you think about it, Ross Lovegrove just isn’t like other designers. He’s from a slightly different world, and moves in slightly different circles. Being Welsh and trim-bearded sets him apart, for instance, like a more stylish version of Rowan Williams.

In fact, Lovegrove could well be the archbishop of British design – he has a touch of moral authority about him, and you could imagine him fashioning a shepherd’s crook. I can even picture this imaginary object, leaning in a corner of his studio in Notting Hill. It would, I suspect, be made of carbon fibre. And it would undoubtedly have an organic curve to it.

Ah, organic. This is a word that inevitably comes up when I ring Lovegrove in New York. ‘I get a bit tired of being lumped in with quasi-organic designers,’ he sighs. So, how to characterise his approach?

‘It’s a natural perspective, a search for pure form,’ he suggests. Or, as the title of his Phaidon monograph would have it, Supernatural. Anyhow, when I call, he is putting the finishing touches to a show, named Endurance, of limited edition pieces in aluminium and carbon fibre – tables, benches, his DNA spiral stair, for instance – for auctioneer and gallery showcase Phillips de Pury. It’s his first exhibition in the US and I know it’s a big deal for him because he tells me so. ‘I’ve put heart and soul into this,’ he opines. Lovegrove is like that. He’s cool, but also frank, particularly about himself and his feelings and ambitions.

For instance, he’s always wanted to design complete habitats, not just objects. Not just chairs and water bottles and lovely things like his new Muon loudspeaker columns for Kef – twisting, polished aluminium stems of auditory excellence, each standing over 2m high and weighing 120kg, launched at this year’s Milan show. He also displayed a new version of his Supernatural chair for Moroso, a collection of lighting for Artemide, a piece for Seralunga alongside Zaha Hadid, and another lamp, this time for Yamagiwa. A big Milan for Ross, then.

Despite all this, he wants to do what architects do. He has an affinity with the offices of Zaha Hadid, Future Systems and Greg Lynn from California. He invites people from those companies to his Notting Hill studio, the space dominated by that remarkable DNA spiral stair. It’s no surprise that Lovegrove’s Spin chairs for Driade graced Toyo Ito’s remarkable 2002 Serpentine Gallery pavilion, most successful of the series so far, now found at Battersea Power Station.

Ito is another of those architects of natural form, whose minds work the Lovegrove way. Lovegrove’s Air One armchair in moulded packaging foam also took its place in the pavilion. ‘It philosophically connects with the architecture by extending the theme of structure and materials research into the seating,’ is how he describes it. Some might see it as a slightly more formalised beanbag, but turn the Air Chair over and you can see how Lovegrove took his interest in disposable packaging – the sort that is carefully moulded to cushion computers and suchlike in boxes – and made something desirable and much more permanent out of it.

But first, he tells me about the time he went to see one of his heroes, the German designer Luigi Colani (recently the subject of an exhibition at the Design Museum, in which Lovegrove participated). He took his son with him to see the moustached wizard’s magic kingdom of beautiful sci-fi objects. As you would.

‘People who create form’, says Lovegrove, ‘tend to gravitate towards each other.’ Eventually, Colani asked Lovegrove junior which of the various models he liked best. This turned out to be some fabulous stingray-like stealth aircraft. ‘Take it,’ said Colani, thrusting it upon him. Whereupon they found themselves having to carry this huge and mysterious object back through airport security, with hilarious consequences.

Given that Lovegrove does quite a bit of unpaid prototyping himself, I ask, how come Colani can fund all that expensive research work? Lovegrove has the answer. ‘He tells me that in the 1960s he was paid $22m (£11m) to build a spy plane. It’s just the sort of thing Colani likes to say. He was always going to governments. But he always reinvested what he earned back into his own ideas,’ he says. Lovegrove may be gratifyingly successful, but to the best of my knowledge he has yet to find a government prepared to shell out Colani dollars. Maybe the end of the Cold War put paid to all such James Bond excesses. These days, a different reality prevails. The tooling for one of his prototype tables at Phillips de Pury cost £87 000, he divulges, and you can hear the wince down the phone.

Even so, he still wants to move into the larger realm of buildings. The question is, how and why? ‘It depends what type of buildings you’re talking about. Plenty of the important statements in architecture have been on the small scale, like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, or Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion houses. Bucky Fuller was a very interesting character. Imagine what he might have done, if he had had today’s materials at his disposal,’ he says.

Indeed, it’s an intriguing proposition. If Bucky Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome and the tensegrity structure, whose trade name Dymaxion was a blend of ‘dynamic’ and ‘maximum’, had the carbon fibre, gas-injected polymer and rapid-prototyping techniques available to designers today, we might all be living in a different world. And this is undoubtedly the world that Lovegrove dreams of. He just does not fit the mould of the British designer in the way, say, Jasper Morrison does. He admires Morrison’s pared-down, utilitarian approach, but admits, ‘I can’t lift a pen to do what he does. I just can’t physically do it.’

In fact, you don’t have to be talking to him very long – whether on the phone to Manhattan or in that light-drenched Notting Hill studio – before his dissatisfaction with the normal approach to design bubbles up. ‘The reason so much industrial design is so hopeless right now,’ he pronounces, ‘is that it doesn’t have the process, the exploration, that Zaha or Herzog and de Meuron have. Personally, I’m a risk-taker. I’m not interested in having a safety net.’

‘Organic essentialism’, as he also calls what he does, is not the same as Minimalism, because nature, though very efficient, goes about things in a different way – not a straight-line way. ‘After all,’ says Lovegrove, ‘we human beings are organic and essential – and look how weird we are.’

Weird but beautiful, like the gorgeously plump naked platinum-blonde model, or the skinny black one, that make their presence felt on Lovegrove’s furniture in the pages of Supernatural. People are weird, and they are different, but no matter how fleshy or skinny you are, there’s no denying that you’re just not made of straight lines.

So when Lovegrove tells you, ‘I really believe in what I do’, you know that he means it. He is not a shallow stylist. Plenty of others, these days, are using the latest digital design techniques to do curvy things of one kind or another, but he has been pursuing his goal of organic essentialism for longer than most, talking to people – such as engineers like Arup, as well as those fellow travelling architects – who have the same mindset.

Recently, he finally did what he has resisted doing for a long time, and set up a personal website. Just as Supernatural is not a conventional design monograph, showing the process as much as the product, so www.rosslovegrove.com has a manifesto feel to it. It’s a slide show, really, making few concessions to commerciality. His gas-injected polymer chair for Moroso, for instance – itself called Supernatural – is there not in glossy-photograph form, but as a structural diagram. ‘At 2.5kg, it’s fat-free – half the weight of its nearest competitor,’ goes the blurb.

And then you find a car – little more than an indicated transparent egg with mesh hammock seats inside. Oh, and with wheels that somehow dispense with the idea of having a central hub, being connected at the rims instead. What magic is this? But it is not a site you can delve into to find out more information: the Flash technology glides you on to the next subject, but not before you just about clock the words, ‘My dream remains to rationalise the car as a democratic, universal, biological, Earth-centric tool for living.’

Powerful stuff, potentially – and certainly there is a lot of Fuller’s attitude in that gnomic utterance. Could this be the 21st century Dymaxion car, just as his Solar Seed house concept looks very like a reworking of the Dymaxion house?

Or, put another way, can this perhaps be design ‘that is so astonishingly beautiful for its relevance that people want to be associated with it’, as Lovegrove insists environmental design must become in order to flourish?

Leaving aside such rhetoric, let’s not forget one thing. Look at something like the honeycomb-bubble polycarbonate work surfaces in the Lovegrove studio, sit on one of those Spin chairs, pick up a Ty Nant plastic water bottle, and it is immediately clear that Lovegrove is just a very good intuitive designer. The question now is whether he can position himself as something more, and develop things that step outside the industrial or product design ghetto. There is no question that he can do it. But will he be allowed to?


Ross Lovegrove

Until 1986, Ross Lovegrove worked for Frog Design in West Germany on projects for Sony and Apple.

Since returning to London, he has completed projects for, among others, Airbus Industries, Kartell, Ceccotti, Cappellini, Ideo, Moroso, Luceplan, Driade, Peugeot, Vitra, Olympus Cameras, Yamagiwa Corporation, Artemide, Alias, Knoll, Herman Miller and Japan Airlines. He has collaborated with architects such as Toyo Ito and Tadao Ando.

He is a Royal Designer for Industry and his award-winning work has been exhibited internationally.

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