Can a sofa designer create a tram? Tableware? A corporate identity? Jasper Morrison thinks so and, as if to prove it, he’s currently working on all these projects. The next few years will be decisive in a career which up until now has been firmly focused on furniture design. His simple designs, sought after throughout Europe and the US, represent the perfect marriage between comfort and function.
However, Morrison has always preferred to re-work everyday objects rather than create new forms. Until the time comes when there are just so many chairs he can re-invent. Hence the 36-year-old’s project for stra, the Hanover transport authority, to design the new trams which will be ready in time for Expo 2000, being held in that city. He’s just finished designing a complete porcelain table service for Rosenthal, and on the go is a proposal for a new corporate logo for the German furniture retailer Seipp. A Morrison-designed bottle for the Swedish beer Falcoln was taken off the market after the brewmaster was sacked for creating a brew which was apparently quite repulsive.
“Really, if you can design a chair, you can also design ceramics,” Morrison explains. “There’s no great mystery to the technique. All you need is a certain amount of background information, to understand what can and can’t be done. After that it’s common sense.”
The shift to bigger projects with huge budgets, like the Hanover tram system, means relying on specialists for technical support. He is the first to admit that he’s no expert in graphics or transport design and construction. “Design needs to be more and more about teamwork, say between a designer and an engineer, or a designer in a company with an engineer. It generally leads to a better result,” he says.
Morrison’s leap into the unknown may well raise a few eyebrows among designers. Manufacturers have used furniture designers in the past to create other products, resulting in a fine marketing and PR exercise without leading to a design or commercial success. But those close to Morrison aren’t surprised. “There’s no trouble with jumping around like that – it should be encouraged,” says Sheridan Coakley, owner of SCP, the first (and still the only) UK company to manufacture Morrison’s furniture.
“Furniture must be relatively limiting for designers after a while,” Coakley adds. “They must feel there are other areas to go into. Particularly the way Jasper works; he is not the kind of person who will just do a Mark II, Mark III and a Mark IV because somebody’s asked him to. He cannot allow himself to design something unless he really feels he has something to say. To have the opportunity of designing a tram is what any designer of any discipline would really want to do.”
However, Morrison isn’t about to abandon furniture. For next year’s Milan fair he is working on an all-weather outdoor chair for Capellini. He generated the project himself, and its inspiration explains a great deal about the Morrison design credo.
“It’s a case of working out what hasn’t been done, and suddenly having a feeling that apart from loads of ugly ones, there must be space to have a good idea. It’s much harder to take a product where there is already good design available. I quite often, by intuition or just by looking around, become aware of certain areas that haven’t been covered. I think it would be nice to have a good outdoor chair – it serves a real need,” he explains.
Such rigour and integrity is typical Morrison. He is sober and serious-minded, with just a touch of English humour. Coakley, a great admirer, says: “It’s quite difficult to extract anything from him at times, but he’s forthright in his views. He is a disciplined person and doesn’t have much time for flippancy, which is reflected in his designs.”
His father was an account executive for
J Walter Thompson, so Morrison spent two year’s living in Sneden’s Landing outside New York from the age of four, then three years in Frankfurt, Germany. His mother was a professional chef and worked in cookery publishing. Though he never mentions it, Morrison is the nephew by marriage of Sir Terence Conran. Of his childhood, he says: “I think I had a good understanding of what the whole concept of selling an object was. My father would explain the basic ideas of some adverts, or he’d just say ‘we did that cornflakes ad’ and we’d look at it in a different way. We’d view it as somebody’s piece of work, or read it as propaganda.”
On returning to the UK, he studied at the liberal public school Bryanston, in Dorset. He thought about being an engineer or an architect, but he eventually chose design, which he felt combined qualities of both yet satisfied his pragmatic spirit. A decisive influence on the young Jasper was the study in his grandfather’s country house. “It was completely modern which had a great impact on me. It wasn’t so much the individual objects but the overall atmosphere. It was very light and airy, whereas most English interiors were dark and gloomy.”
From 1979 to 1982 he studied at Kingston School of Art, then from 1982 to 1985 he studied furniture design at the Royal College of Art in London. Influences include Charles Eames, Eileen Gray, Richard Buckminster Fuller and Jean ProuvÃ©, plus everything from Rationalist architecture to the cinema and trips to India.
Two events radically changed his life – a visit to the 1981 Milan furniture fair, and his third year at the RCA, which was spent studying under Andreas Brandolini in Berlin. The Milan fair previewed Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis collection, whereby Morrison saw that it was possible to take a conceptual approach to design. Later, with Brandolini, he developed his own personal concept based on functionalism and comfort. Together they called their own “pseudo-group” Utilism International, based on the idea that people must live with design on a daily basis. His products still subscribe to the rule born from this movement: they must be easy to use, comfortable and simple. A similar philosophy runs through the work of the Progetto Oggetto movement he created with former RCA colleague James Irvine, who is now head of Sottsass product design. Together they created the Alfabeto storage system.
Morrison met Sheridan Coakley during his student days at the time when the furniture manufacturer had a shop in London’s Notting Hill Gate selling original twentieth century furniture. Coakley shifted to the manufacture of contemporary furniture in 1985, after successfully launching Philippe Starck’s chairs and tables in the UK. Morrison and Matthew Hilton were his first designers. Otherwise, Morrison did many one-off pieces, showing them in galleries and received a lot of critical praise. It wasn’t until 1987, when SCP showed at the Milan fair, that Morrison started getting commissions from the likes of Cappellini, Alias and Magis in Italy and Vitra and FSB in Germany.
His work remains better-known in Europe than in the UK. He estimates that 95 per cent of his furniture is manufactured on the Continent. He has never had a solo show of his work here, despite numerous group and solo shows in Madrid, Berlin, Milan and Amsterdam. Just last month, a brilliantly-conceived exhibition, prepared by Morrison himself, along with curator Annette NÃ¨ve, and co-sponsored by British Airways, opened in the Arc en RÃªve architecture and design centre in Bordeaux, France. The exhibition runs until 18 February 1996.
Why haven’t British manufacturers shown more interest in his work? “Because they’re stupid and narrow-minded,” Morrison says bluntly, without a hint of irony. “As British designers we are happy to go abroad if we’re not used here, and most of us do just that. It’s just a bit sad for Old Blighty.” He blames the situation on a number of factors: the British population doesn’t appreciate design as much as its European neighbours; historically, British industry has relied on engineers to make its products; the Design Council’s efforts to persuade industry have fallen on deaf ears, and the Government doesn’t provide funding for public venues like the Design Museum.
But this appalling situation isn’t enough to make Morrison pack his bags. “I think in some perverse way, I like working here. It’s easy enough with a fax machine and a plane ticket to sort out any problems.” He admits that the effect of having lived abroad makes him feel all the more English, and that the capital will be his base. “I think I genuinely like London – that grey, grimy, wet earthiness that it has. I really couldn’t live in Paris, Berlin or Milan.”
Asked what projects he’d like to handle in the future, Morrison says he’d like to design lamps and cutlery. Those tempted to consider Morrison as the UK’s up-coming Philippe Starck, juggling numerous design tasks at once, take note: “Above all, I think design offices should be small and whoever is putting their name behind a project shouldn’t be that removed from what’s going on. I wouldn’t want many people working for me. I think it would be a disaster,” he concludes, with the wisdom of a hardened pro.