Architect and artefact

When it comes to product design, architects can produce the goods, as Sir Norman Foster’s CSD Medal indicates. Hugh Pearman looks into prefabrication to discover how architects manage to steal the plaudits

Can you tell the difference between an object designed by an architect, and one from the hand of a product designer? It seems a reasonable question to ask, in view of the fact that Sir Norman Foster has just been awarded the CSD Medal. Other architects – bridges wunderkind Chris Wilkinson, for instance – have also been honoured by the design profession in the recent past. For all eternity, it seems, architects have won plaudits for their furniture.

Presenting the medal to Foster makes considerable sense. His component-based architecture demands the design of elements that, repetitively used, amount to a production run. And although any Foster building – like any building anywhere – is full of off-the-peg bits and pieces, selected for their suitability, they tend to be adapted and modified to serve alongside the purpose-designed stuff.

This jackdaw approach is not confined to architects. The designers of specialist cars, from TVR to Aston Martin, habitually raid the parts bins of the volume manufacturers for expensive-to-tool items such as lamp clusters, switchgear, mirror housings, and so on. In this way, economies of scale can be turned to the advantage of the relatively small production run. Which is what architects want to do all the time.

They do not always manage it. Charles and Ray Eames may have designed their Californian house in the late Forties to be made from standard industrial components, while Walter Segal in the UK may have organised his self-build house designs to use equally standard cuts of timber: but this dream of near-total prefabrication is rarely achieved. Modification is the norm. Thus Richard Rogers altered standard composite panels from insulated trucks to clad his mother’s house in Wimbledon in 1968-9; thus architects including Richard Horden, Nicholas Grimshaw and Jonathan Ellis-Miller have discovered how helpful the chaps are down at Proctor Masts in Southampton, when it comes to adapting their elegant aluminium products for roof beams, stair supports or load-bearing columns.

Foster has always played this technology-transfer game, but his immense practice also employs bona fide industrial designers – six of them in London, plus one of the partners, David Nelson, a Royal College of Art design MA. There is a Foster-designed motor yacht and electric bus, for instance, and 18 other ongoing projects – among them seating, desk systems, tables, shelving, beds, taps, door handles, trays, vases, candle holders, doors, sanitary fittings, lighting systems, bus shelters and “flat” hi-fi speakers. Stop to think about that for a moment and you realise that, if you hived off the product design business from Foster’s it would make a stand-alone practice of a size, and with a client list, to compare with several high-profile outfits who do products alone. That is before you start to add into the process the input from architects.

Foster’s in-house model shop looks very like the equivalent space in a product designer’s studio. He designs furniture, and his Nomos system for Tecno, designed with Ralph Ball, remains one of the best – if most costly – office furniture systems, capable of translating into the home with ease. A glass-topped Nomos dining table flanked by Foster’s latest Kite chairs is possibly even more desirable than its Le Corbusier equivalents. Nomos is also highly adaptable, as you will notice if you go into the BBC’s suite of “self-service” (meaning producer-free) radio studios in Broadcasting House, where Nomos has been used as a foundation for complete editing and monitoring suites.

The ethos of the Foster office is that the product designers are not shunted off into a ghetto of their own, but integrated with everyone else. David Nelson, although not officially an architect, manages building projects ranging from the Joslyn Art Museum extension in Omaha to the new Reichstag building in Berlin. Little distinction is made between the professional disciplines – an attitude that dates back to Foster’s admiration for the American inventor-designer-engineer-philosopher Richard Buckminster Fuller (most famous for the architectural application of the geodesic dome) with whom he occasionally collaborated in the early days of his career.

Manufacturers come into the picture too: Foster’s iconic and amoebic Willis Faber Dumas building in Ipswich (1971-1975) looks the way it does because, at the time of design, glass-maker Pilkington had just come up with a frameless, suspended, silicon-sealed glazing system for buildings. It had only been tried on straight-sided single-storey buildings. Foster made Pilkington develop it as a complete curtain wall for Willis Faber’s three-storey, curved facades. Neither architect or manufacturer could have done it on their own.

Today, Pilkington’s more sophisticated Planar glazing system has almost become a construction kit for architects, yet they still insist on adapting it – though the real experimentation is to be found with such young architects as Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, working with Pilkington’s French rival, Saint-Gobain, on an all-glass house on the Isle of Skye.

The front line between architecture and product design can be found in every town and city, right out on the street: paving, kerbs, bollards, bins, seating, lamp posts, signage, hoardings, tree-planters, drain covers, telephone kiosks, bus shelters – everything, outside soft landscape, that inhabits the spaces between buildings. Here the selection of pieces is usually made from catalogues, because public space gets scant attention (except in key tourist or high-spending shopping areas where traders or parking levies contribute to the upkeep of the streets outside). Even here, architects sometimes get involved in the design of quite humble objects – like Michael Glickman’s concrete Z-block paving or Hedgehog retaining walls – but mostly the street is the realm of the product designer, whether that means an invisible hack in a firm making pastiche Victorian bollards, or someone of the stature of Kenneth Grange of Pentagram, designer of the Adshel range of bus shelters.

An exception to the general rule is to be found on London’s South Bank, where the “spine route” of Upper Ground and Concert Hall Approach – all the way from Blackfriars to Waterloo – is in the throes of being transformed from a rat-run, into as agreeable a boulevard as the building works in the area allow. The client is the South Bank Employers’ Group, which commissioned a range of street furniture from architect Lifschutz Davidson (with early input on signpost design from a joint team of Henrion, Ludlow and Schmidt and CDT Design). I’ll declare an indirect interest as an advisory panel member to the SBEG.

The bins, bollards, signposts, bike stands and lamp-posts – all precision-made, with kitchen-grade stainless steel much in evidence – are purpose-designed to work in the rougher context of the granite edgings and speed ramps and the Clearmac pavements. It’s all massively more expensive than standard off-the-peg stuff, and massively better too, so you inevitably wonder: why not put them into production, and what about royalties?

As it happens, the rights to the street furniture designs – which are handsome enough to be envied by other districts and cities – are held, not by any designer or architect, but by the South Bank Employers’ Group, which wants to protect its own new clear identity from erosion. If it allows the designs to be replicated anywhere else, candidates will be strictly vetted. Which process, of course, does not prevent other manufacturers producing cheap rip-offs of the designs – something they cannot prevent unless they get into the costly business of Dyson-like worldwide patenting.

For some architects, complete buildings aspire to the condition of product. Future Systems, known for exclusive artefacts such as the wine coolers and trolleys at The Ivy and Caprice restaurants, hates the idea of conventional builders and would much rather assemble its structures like boats or cars. The practice’s new Media Centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground, for instance – an elevated stand for TV and press – is conceived as a piece of equipment like a camera or cricket helmet. Its aluminium carapace will be made in pieces by boatwrights, trucked in on low-loaders and put together rapidly on site. Similarly, when you go down to London Docklands to look at the range of new pedestrian bridges, some now complete – by Chris Wilkinson, Nicholas Lacey, Eva Jiricna, Lifschutz Davidson, Tony Hunt and, yes, Future Systems – you can only regard these objects as pieces of beautiful mechanical equipment rather than buildings.

So to return to the first question: how do you tell the difference between an object produced by an architect rather than a design practice? There is only one sure way: cost to the consumer. If the end product is a cheap mass-produced VCR or microwave oven or camera, it is almost certain to be from a product designer. If, however, it is a low-production, high-cost piece of kit much featured in glossy magazines, it is likely to be from an architect. With furniture, of course, you just can’t tell by looking. There the disciplines merge totally.

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