Range rovers

Products of Desire 2 at the Royal Institute of British Architects shows how architects cross boundaries between disciplines with more success than most, argues José Manser

Properly employed, the creative ingenuity of architects is immense. The history of furniture design, for instance, is crammed with well known architectural names ranging from William Kent in the eighteenth century to David Chipperfield in the late twentieth. Furniture design is an obvious and predictable extension of the architect’s activities for two reasons. First, it is often generated by the need to furnish a new building with precisely the right furniture which, for the perfectionist, is usually difficult to find among standard ranges. As far back as William Chambers and Robert Adam, architects have felt this need for furniture of their own invention to inhabit their buildings. Hence the one-off design is produced, which, if successful and suitable, goes into general production.

Second, the construction of a piece of furniture can be felicitously related to the construction of a building, and the temptation to move from the large and complicated to the small and contained – without the multitudinous problems involved in the production of a sophisticated modern building – is irresistible. It is a temptation to which many architects have succumbed. Technical innovation has generally been a catalyst in the twentieth century architects’ furniture designs: Marcel Breuer’s fascination with chromed tube produced the Wassily chair, Mart Stam subsequently exploited the tube’s structural performance to design the first cantilever chair (thus incorporating a potent architectural principal), and both Mies van der Rohe and Alvar Aalto went on to use flat bar steel and laminated wood to create the light but strong framework for chairs which were appropriate in modern rooms. Thus the floodgates were opened for all the great architect-designed furniture which was to follow, some of it in the new plastic materials which have been such a dominant feature in twentieth century artefacts of all kinds.

But designing furniture – certainly for those trained in the broadly based discipline of architecture – is a fairly limited activity and it is far from being the extent of architects’ extra-professional activities, as the Royal Institute of British Architects’ exhibition Products of Desire 2 brilliantly demonstrates. Characteristically inquisitive, structurally knowledgeable and concerned with aesthetics, many of them have exploited their expertise and receptivity to technical developments, new materials and new ideas in other areas of design. Of course, this ability across a wide spectrum of work areas is one that crops up throughout the design profession, but it is particularly apparent amongst architects. And if designers from other disciplines are squirming in their seats at such obnoxious bias, let me add that we are concerned here with architects of a particularly high calibre. A glance at the names of those represented in the show – David Chipperfield, Norman Foster, Rick Mather and Piers Gough – reveal them to be from firms whose every endeavour is coloured by a large measure of originality and resource. Only a few architects reach the high ground when it comes to building design and, inevitably, it is these same few whose relentless creativity draws them on to explore other areas of design.

The history of modern architects goes to prove this. In addition to the furniture for his buildings, secessionist Josef Hoffmann designed fabrics, ceramics, glassware, jewellery, toys and silver. Fellow-Austrian Adolf Loos designed glassware with a chequered pattern cut on the base which is still in production today. In Twenties Paris, Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre was a virtual demonstration of the architect’s ability to turn his design skills in every direction, from coat hangers to light fittings as well as a houseful of furniture. It has been a source of inspiration to designers ever since. Walter Gropius even designed the coachwork of an Adler motor car in the Thirties, the architects’ heyday. Apart from the obvious furniture, people like Serge Chermayeff, Oliver Hill and Wells Coates were designing rugs, ceramics, Bakelite wireless sets and electric fires, and the Australian Raymond McGrath specialised in glass: glass screens, glass- lined walls and ceilings, and six acid-etched door panels depicting the Six Ages of Architecture – which are still a feature of the RIBA’s headquarters (a Thirties building).

A period of austerity during and after the war stemmed the flow for a while, certainly in Europe. This was increased by the specialist designers emerging from art schools, who understandably started fighting to defend their positions. Sturdy professionalism succeeded in driving away the less capable among their architectural competitors. It’s amazing in this context that the plethora of quaintly egocentric designs produced by Michael Graves have managed to hang on in there, pretty though some of his kettles, clocks and plates may be. But Graves apart, there has been a rigour in designs emanating from the cream of the post-war generations which can be directly related to an architectural training and which soon triumphed over post-war lethargy. Early on were the boldly articulated tools designed in the Fifties and Sixties for Wilkinson Sword by Hulme Chadwick. During the Sixties and Seventies Eliot Noyes was in charge of a great family of office machines for IBM, while in Italy Mario Bellini did the same for Olivetti. In Germany, Dieter Rams designed Braun’s beautifully austere and functionally perfect products while Alan Tye, architecturally trained but one of this country’s best industrial designers, has been responsible for many equally successful products, the best known being his architectural ironmongery far G and S Allgood.

British architects’ interest in a high-tech style of architecture and a commitment to industrial materials and products in their buildings by the likes of Sir Norman Foster and John Young of Richard Rogers Partnership has also left its mark. So too has their increasing concern with marine architecture and the aircraft industry; a two-way traffic which has resulted in buildings dependant on marine rigging and tensile structures designed by architects. Lighting outlets have always attracted their attention, but never in such an inventive and intelligent way as they have in the past 15 years or so. Masayuki Kurokawa, Roy Fleetwood and Andrew Holmes have all designed handsome structural lighting systems which certainly benefited from their inherent knowledge of building construction, and the architect Shiu-Kay Kan has made a career out of the design and manufacture of many different light systems.

Patently, the broadness of an architectural training fits its recipients for many more tasks than designing buildings. It’s a great jumping off ground, and one which could well be contemplated by those who have no intention of entering the construction industry.

Products of Desire 2 is on at the RIBA Architecture Centre, 66 Portland Place, London W1 from 26 April to 25 May.

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