Continental drift

Alan Morris and Neil Poulton are two of the UK’s most successful design exports to mainland Europe. One can’t get enough of it, the other is becoming increasingly wary. Lynda Relph-Knight spoke to Bologna-based Morris, and Conway Lloyd Morgan travelled to

Alan Morris has been in Bologna just long enough to sometimes forget an English turn of phrase. But his occasional lapses into Italian remind you just how beautiful that language is compared with the guttural tongues of northern Europe. And the beauty doesn’t stop with the language. Morris, a Shropshire lad by birth, says one of the most fundamental differences between working as a designer in the UK and practising in Italy is that everyone involved in a project there, including the manufacturer, believes the result should be beautiful.

“Until now, manufacturers involved in furniture and lighting have participated fully in the design process and happily enter discussions about beauty,” he explains. But Italy’s current economic downturn and various corruption scandals might bring a few changes in attitude, reckons Morris, because “the easy money isn’t around any more”.

But still, even designers have a different approach in Italy. Someone of the stature of Vittorio Gregotti, with whom Morris worked during his year out in Milan, might start to design a building from the roofplan or from the concept of light, rather than taking a more pragmatic approach to the architecture.

It’s all about a deep-rooted concern with style. “An Italian man will groom himself without embarrassment,” Morris says, pointing out a major cultural difference between Italians and the average Brit.

But it’s more than just style. The Italians also care about quality, Morris maintains. “Manufacturers are well tooled up, good on health and safety and don’t do it on the cheap,” he says. “No one goes into business unless they can finance it – usually with family money.”

The other difference, of course, is that, as an architect, Morris has had no difficulty crossing over to lighting and furniture design and even to looking at the styling of the Apes three-wheeler, a vehicle that will be 50 next year and is as synonymous with Italy as the Routemaster bus once was with London. With just about everyone coming out of Milan’s famed Domus Academy an architect, it’s the expected thing to diversify on graduation. “For English practices, it’s a big problem spanning that gap [between architecture and product design],” he says. “In Italy it’s almost second nature. The Italians don’t see why you can’t do it.”

Morris puts this difference down largely to the Italian education system. Architecture is the starting point in Italy and the schools would argue against specialisation and the restrictive practices that govern the profession in the UK. This suits him down to the ground. When he first set up in London he shared a studio with two product designers, preferring them to architects, and he now counts several artists among his friends.

Morris started his studies at what was then Kingston Polytechnic in south-west London, transferring to the Architectural Association for Part 2 of the professional qualifications. It was the AA, he reckons, that marked a turning point for him. “I was the only Brit in Rem Koolhaas’s unit,” he says, “and it opened me up for Italy. I wasn’t aware then that the AA was the place to study architecture – the only place they’d heard of abroad.”

In fact, despite a short sojourn with Gregotti Associati during his year out, Italy wasn’t Morris’s first real sortie abroad. After a stint at Terry Farrell’s London office in the early Eighties, he “ended up in Buenos Aires”, among other things teaching pure architecture with Michelangel Roca. But London beckoned again in 1985 and he returned to work with Eva Jiricna on projects such as an early Joseph shop in London’s Brompton Road, while working in parallel on his own jobs.

Jiricna’s influence on Morris is clear and he still drops into her Mayfair office whenever he’s in London. “Her architectonic approach is very inspiring,” he says. “She’s best at small spaces and has a knowledge of scale I hadn’t come up against before. She picks up the value of every little detail.” It’s hardly surprising that he says his experience of her prepared him for product design.

Morris talks of “the luxury of the prototype”, a feature of product design that architecture can never copy. A model, however large the scale, will never really represent the finished building. Architects who are perfectionists, like Jiricna, will therefore always be frustrated, he says.

The Italians, he says, are also “in pursuit of perfection”, but the difference is that the process is seen as a positive thing rather than a route to inevitable frustration. “You’ve got to keep yourself up in the fairly depressing world of design, and Italy helps you do that. Culturally, you have some assistance in Italy; in the UK you’re in the wilderness.” He adds that the Italians are also less hostile to foreigners.

“There are so many architects in Italy – of the order of 20 000 in the Rome faculty of architecture alone – that it permeates society and the manufacturing industry. The tag ‘Made in Italy’ has become a marketing plus.”

This attitude also means designers are respected, which makes it easier to make your way, he reckons. “If I knock on a [potential client’s] door in Italy, I’m met with respect and an awareness of what I’ve done already. In the UK you’re jumping in at the deep end if you go it alone. You usually end up working freelance for somebody else.”

Most of his work in Italy has been at his own instigation. But those whose doors have opened for him include Treviso-based Magis, the manufacturer of Jasper Morrison’s bottle rack for which Morris is designing some new furniture and accessories. There’s the ambitious niche bathroom company Agape, of which he says modestly “they’re so good themselves they don’t really need me”; and there’s young lighting group Nemo, for whom he designed the Sun range of light fittings launched at Euroluce in Milan in 1994. “You don’t tend to get a brief,” he says. “You tell the client what you want to do.” And manufacturer and designer stay close throughout.

You’d think a designer like Morris would settle in Milan, given his previous experience there. It’s certainly home to fellow Brits such as George Sowden and, more recently, James Irvine. But he chose Bologna as much for the quality of life as for the local furniture companies and wealth of artisans there.

“With 38km of covered walkways, you never need an umbrella and you can travel everywhere by bike and save on parking tickets,” he says, adding that train and plane journeys are also easy. The childcare is, he says, “amazing”. And then, of course, there is the food – “good bread, olive oil… you can’t get a bad cappuccino”. Who can blame him?

Chez Paul is a bistro with attitude. It may be a well-flung plateful from the Opera Bastille (a building so disliked by Parisians that it appears on no known postcard of the city), but no matter. For Chez Paul the feldgrau left in 1944, so forget the repainting. As such it beats up a storm, and Neil Poulton suggested it as an appropriate rendezvous for a Scot in Paris to meet a Welshman from London.

After a design degree in Edinburgh, Poulton won an MA from the Domus Academy in Milan in 1988. His graduate project, The Ageing Pen, a pen made from a “living” plastic that changed colour and shape with persistent use, so becoming personalised, was widely exhibited, and helped him to find work in various London design companies. But with the downsizing at the end of the Eighties, he decided to move on.

He had thought of returning to Milan, but was discouraged by the number of young designers willing to work for nothing for the big studios. Philippe Starck, he was told, was looking for designers and, indeed, Starck took him on.

After two years in Starck’s office by the Place Bastille he felt confident enough to open his own consultancy, Poulton & Poulton. One of his first clients was electronique d2 in Paris, for which he is still consultant artistic director. Its Coq external disk drive won a Design Innovations prize from the German Design Zentrum in 1994, and is still in production, selling more than 35 000 units a year. Other clients include Vianne/ Domec, a French lighting company whose Click! table lamps and Applick! wall lamps both won French Oscars de Design at the Salon Internationale de la Lumière in 1996. At the same show, his Bolide Applique Sculptural for Atelier Sedap won a Mat de Bronze. (Sedap specialises in developing light fittings that can be integrated into plaster surfaces, as well as decorative plasterwork.)

“Starting up a business in France is bureaucracy gone mad,” he explains. “To rent a studio you have to be approved by the Chamber of Commerce, and to get its approval you have to have premises. It makes Catch-22 seem childish.

“And the social security costs are crippling, adding a further third or more to the salary bill. The administrative systems and the banking sanctions are a minefield. You have to understand the system in order to work within it.”

The same applies to doing business. “The French distinguish between ‘designers’ – using the English word for it – and ‘créateurs’. Designers do product design, créateurs design furniture. If you do both, as I do, you don’t fit into either pigeonhole, so you risk not being taken seriously by either. Though a few designers like Starck can appear anywhere.

“So getting started was a real problem. Calling people cold to offer design services is a waste of time here. Some French companies still see design as decorative only, and are not interested in professional design. Some think only a French designer can work for the French market, others consider the idea of changing their designs or designers an insult.

“You need to build a network of contacts and develop them. But once you have done so, you’re on solid ground. They see client/designer relations as long-term affairs. My work for electronique d2 is a good example.”

After Coq, Poulton has gone on to develop the Shark parallel port kit, the Surf optical disk drive, and a range of remote controls, among other products.

Poulton has also used his Paris base to make international connections. For the Steel collection, created by Molteni and Molteni in Italy as a platform for the work of new designers in metal, he has created the Hookwall-mounted coat stand, a standard lamp for Habitat Europe, the FM Tuner radio for LaCie in the US, and a range of three luminaires for Mito in Italy, launched earlier this year.

Poulton is just back from a long trip to the West Coast of the US, to help electronique d2 with a newly acquired American company. “It’s not difficult to see why so much electronic product design is coming from over there. Lunar Design has almost a whole street just down the road from Silicon Valley. Why come to Paris when you’re next door to Palo Alto?

“Paris is a small and busy city, a great place to live. Networking is essential, but there is a good circuit of openings, events and fairs to help build and develop a business.

“There is also VIA, a body which was set up to invest in and sponsor design. It has a reference service, which will also fund the development of prototypes, and a bursary system. My Tambourré adjustable stool was produced thanks to one of those.

“The city has a good infrastructure of model makers and artisans as well. Private commissions are also more frequent here than they probably are in the UK.”

But, I asked, as the chateaubriand and sauce béarnaise arrived, would he advise a young designer to start up in Paris now?

“It’s not as clear as it was,” he admits. “For example, payment tends to be on a royalty basis according to sales, which is fine if a product is a rapid success. But products don’t stay in production as long as they used to, and there is often a cut-off point in the contract after which royalty rates drop.

“And there are a lot of uncertainties in France at present. The Mitterrand era of grands projets, which made France an international focus for design and architecture, hasn’t left behind a stronger design culture. There are a number of good, successful design groups here, of course, but I feel they are all chasing less business.

“With the arrival of the single monetary system, there are going to have to be major changes – for example, in social security funding. The political rise of the extreme right-wing under Le Pen has a lot of people worried as well. I feel there is less assurance about, less confidence.”

Poulton is not the first person I met in Paris to express the same disquiet about the combination of resignation and intolerance that seems to be growing in France. We ponder this over tarte tatin and coffee, looking at the faded jazz band and theatrical review posters on the dark walls of Chez Paul, also reminders of a different, more optimistic era. “Perhaps,” he says, “it’s time to be moving on.”

Could this be back to the Place Bastille, or further afield?

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