Sebastian Conran has design pedigree running through his veins. After studying industrial design engineering at the Central School of Design, in 1979 he joined branding giant Wolff Olins, and three years later moved to Mothercare to design and develop its merchandise. In 1999, he merged his design studio with the Conran Group to form Conran & Partners, where he is now the director responsible for all product and graphics work.
Maybe it’s the name that subconsciously creates an expectation of juvenility, but when Michael Young jumps out of his car he transmits a youthful energy uncommon in a design veteran of his calibre. And what a car he jumps out of. The 1965 E-Type Jaguar has all the eyes in Stoke Newington popping out of their sockets.
Once upon a time there were three architecture students: Karim El-Ishmawi, Chris Middleton and Martin Jacobs. They met at university in Berlin and created a label called Kinzo. They stuck their brand name on everything they did (literally, with a sticker), including club nights, short films, fit outs and costumes, until one day the big media mogul Axel Springer came along and asked them to fit out a new start-up’s office.
They designed a workplace complete with furniture that was futuristic and monolithic. Soon their design was rolled out over 400 workstations and their custom-made desk design went into production. To seal it off they won the Red Dot Award 2008 for best office furniture and now look set to live happily ever after, designing what they want as they want.It sounds like a young designer’s fairytale, and the great thing is that it’s all true. I flew out to Berlin to meet up with the Kinzo trio to investigate the story of their meteoric rise and get a glimpse of what we can expect to see from them at Orgatec 2008. Their new desk range, Kinzo Air, stands out through its sculptural quality, a trend we saw a lot of at Milan’s office show this year – such as Karim Rashid’s design for Zerodisegno and Ahrend’s wing-shaped desk. When entering Kinzo’s studio, the sloping surfaces that are so characteristic of the Air range are echoed in their workspace, especially the kitchen. “Yes, we designed the kitchen with a spacecraft in mind, although it looks more like an ATM, just without the cash flow,” El-Ishmawi jokes.Judging by the props and furniture in their office –such as an old Japanese television shaped like an astronaut’s helmet, or the original seating from Berlin’s Tegel airport (pre-unification era) – the space/aircraft leitmotif of their current design has been running through their work ever since they first started working together back in 1998. Officially, Kinzo Architecture was founded in 2003, but the collaboration between El-Ishmawi, Middleton and Jacobs goes back to the days when Berlin was “still an adventure park for a new generation”, as El-Ishmawi puts it, and the name Kinzo was always their trademark.There is something distinctly Berlin about Kinzo’s story, how the “anything goes” attitude of that period just after the city reclaimed its status as Germany’s reunified capital led a group of students from party projects to the prestigious commission by Axel Springer AG and the resulting office furniture range. To think it all began with a club, the Kinzo club, which was essentially a party night the three guys set up in an occupied cellar when Berlin was still full of empty buildings, and illegal parties happened on different weekdays to evade the authorities. “Our night was Wednesdays,” says Middleton. Kinzo designed everything from the club’s interior to the music collection (electro and big beats) and the notorious Kinzo Cooler cocktail. After two years Kinzo had a mailing list that consisted of all the design and architecture talents that had flocked to the German capital in search of a flash of new European, East-meets-West creativity. Their studies were soon coming to an end and they realised they needed a workspace to organise the parties from. Above what they call a “modern-age Hell’s Gate”, a typically garish Eastern bloc shopping mall with the attending sense of a time warp about it, they found a space overlooking Berlin’s iconic Alex (the tower on the main square, Alexanderplatz). Soon friends were asking them to fit out odd shops and spaces, such as a candy shop or a pharmacy in Pankow, north Berlin. Word about their “do it yourself” approach – supported by Jacobs’ skills as a trained carpenter – soon spread, and they found themselves consulting property developers in suits in the morning, then changing into builders clothes for the onsite construction work, and later the same day throwing on their party pants for self-organised launch events, all on the same project.
“Whatever we did, we’d put the Kinzo logo on. We always saw it as kind of a seal of approval,” says El-Ishmawi. Competitions and short films about the “everyday hero” (a popular post-reunification theme) followed – essentially Kinzo did whatever they were interested in. “But it took us five years before we started to make money,” Jacobs recalls. The big shift came with the commission to do the office fit out for two offspring companies of Germany’s biggest publisher, Axel Springer (who publishes Bild, Europe’s best-selling tabloid). “Due to the new start-ups being digital media firms, we went for a futuristic interior, everything coming as if out of one mould, to support communication and a modern workflow,” El-Ishmawi explains. Aesthetically they went for a sci-fi look, all in white, with shapes echoing spaceships and tilted surfaces that seemed to almost float. Desks were designed to flow into the space and facilitate a journalist’s daily work rhythm. It was about encouraging people to move and break down static, territorial working patterns. That’s why they placed a kitchen in the middle of the open-plan office. “We generally think workplace designers should recognise the kitchen as a central part of a well-functioning office,” says Jacobs. “Why does it have to be hidden away in a corner?”Kinzo count themselves lucky because the client gave them an open brief. “They wanted a fresh new look but didn’t quite know what they needed in terms of space allocation, even the number of people we needed to accommodate was left open, so it had to be a flexible space,” says El-Ishmawi. “In effect, we decided to build a UFO into a building. They love the result, and the CEO, Dr Mathias Döpfner, said, ‘It almost looks like the inside of an iPod’.” Indeed, the white monolithic interior, with its white sloping walls and angled surfaces, creates a contemporary space that visually echoes Apple design features. No coincidence then, Jacobs is sure, that the team has switched from PC to Mac since moving into the office.This custom-made interior for Axel Springer Digital TV (ASDTV) was Kinzo’s biggest project to date, but the best was yet to come. The Kinzo Air table that heralded their breakthrough into product design was originally designed as a one-off piece for the joint CEOs of ASDTV. “It was always meant to sit within the context of the whole office design, as part of the visual landscape,” El-Ishmawi recalls. During the opening night – which once again Kinzo organised and conceptualised by designing all the party accessories, such as Captain Future-style costumes – Dr Döpfner walked up to the desk and said, “I want to see that table in my office first thing tomorrow.” The company as a whole had recently moved from Hamburg to Berlin and the entire print department of the Bild newspaper, Germany’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, was due an office redesign.So without a moment’s hesitation the three designers got to work and spent the whole night dismantling the table and re-assembling it in the chairman’s office, as it was the only model they had. Against all the heavyweight competition, such as Vitra and Sellex, Kinzo went on to win the commission to roll out the Kinzo Air desk across the company’s 500 employees. “The challenge was that Springer wanted all the desks within two months,” Middleton says. “Due to the prestigious nature of the project, many European office furniture manufacturers came to take a look at our prototype to see if it could be done – we’re talking Vitra, Samas, Sedus – but none of them could do it within the given time frame and budget.” Luckily they found a small local workshop with 20 people that took the project on.“The advantage of this solution is that we keep all the rights and royalties for the design, and don’t need to bend to the manufacturer’s will,” El-Ishmawi adds. “We don’t need to compromise our design in any way and we stay linked to the product’s further development.”Of course, Kinzo have had to make some modifications to the original design. “For instance Springer wanted desking pods to fit three people (as opposed to two as originally planned), so after long debates we came up with an origami solution – folding one side down to dock a further desk surface onto it,” explains El-Ishmawi. Apart from this office project, Kinzo have since fitted out the Lumen lounge bar in Chicago, a cafe in Berlin and the entrance hall of the Friedrichstrasse complex. Their next big plan is to develop the desk design into a full range of office furniture products.Undoubtedly, Kinzo capture the style of their time, and the success and boldness of their interiors will soon see them ranked alongside the likes of their German peers, Graft. But Kinzo have big plans to go international and already have a partner, Ken Schönberg, who is organising projects for them in Seoul. In the way that Berlin’s Love Parade initially advocated the free-spirit of its generation – party hard and love each other – but quickly mushroomed from 1,200 people in the late 1990s to over one million ravers within three years, Berlin’s design scene has shifted from creative underground to hard commerce and mass production. But in a capitalist world, one needs to find ways of making money to survive. Kinzo, with their sci-fi fantasy design, are living proof that it’s possible to achieve business success without compromising and dulling down the imagination in pursuit of a buck.
Nokia’s UK design team had become increasingly frustrated with its Farnborough location – it may be useful to be alongside the other company divisions, but it feels a long way from designer London.
It might seem strange, but in the riot of competing egos and jostling brands that constituted this year’s Milan furniture fair, it wasn’t an aeroplane made from mosaic tiles by Jaime Hayon or Marijn van der Poll’s office desk that looked like a jet-fighter that stood out for me, but an undemonstrative 1950s-style cafe chair. Rather unusually during a week in which one feels the need to be in perpetual motion, moving from launch to launch, cocktail party to cocktail party, Vitra’s Basel chair made me stop and think.Designed by Jasper Morrison, it is hugely elegant and surprisingly comfortable. But it also raised a couple of questions about the industry as a whole. If it hadn’t been on the Vitra stand and if Morrison hadn’t designed it, would I have even seen it? Should one expect more from a cutting-edge manufacturer and a world-renowned designer than a simple cafe chair? And what exactly is the role of the designer in a piece as familiar as this?I have to confess to chewing it over for several weeks before finally concluding that this is exactly what design should be doing. It doesn’t need to ostentatiously reinvent form, or be laced with wit, and it certainly isn’t required to work in the same manner as the fashion world. It can just make familiar objects a little better. “It was partly a correction on my part, having done the Air Chair for Magis in plastic in occasionally fairly strong colours without really considering what the effect would be if a cafe put 40 of them on the pavement,” explains Morrison in his quiet, deliberate way, as we chat in his east London studio. “It coincided with the Super Normal project and just looking at what design does these days – in a lot of cases it pollutes our environment. And projects such as the Air Chair in the colours I originally chose were part of that problem. They may be helping the restaurant to get noticed, but that is completely wrong. It is the wrong function for design.” As a mea culpa goes, this is fairly extraordinary. But, it transpires, Morrison is not finished quite yet. “I would much rather sit in a cafe that had lots of old wooden chairs than in a designer cafe,” he adds. “And I don’t know many designers who would disagree with that.” So does he regret designing the Air Chair in the first place? “I regret the colours,” he replies. And what about the rest of his extensive portfolio? Are there pieces he wishes he hadn’t created? “Well, in some cases, yes. But I didn’t have that realisation then. Now I see much more clearly what my role should be. It doesn’t mean objects have to become boring, but it means we should consider where they are likely to end up.” Now it’s probably worth pointing out at this stage that these revelations come towards the end of an interview notable for its Pinter-esque pauses. Morrison is famously shy – so much so he has been known to deliver lectures in silence – meaning everything he says is measured and cuts straight to the point. Rather like his work, he is not someone to indulge in verbal flourishes, and until you get used to his style, it is ever-so-slightly disconcerting. Born in London in 1959, Morrison wasn’t surrounded by contemporary design as a child. “There was Habitat,” he says. “To see a modern interior was pretty rare, but there were some. My grandfather had one modern interior in his house that was filled with Danish furniture, so there were influences like that.” Tinkering with becoming an architect or an engineer, it was a visit to an Eileen Gray exhibition at the V&A that opened his eyes to design, leading him to study first at Kingston and subsequently, in 1982, at the Royal College of Art. It wasn’t an obvious career decision, as modern design at that time didn’t enjoy the profile it does now. The fact that he succeeded so spectacularly suggests there is plenty of steel behind Morrison’s reticent exterior. He was certainly aware that to make a go of running his own studio, his horizons had to extend beyond the UK. “Whatever there was in England, I wasn’t looking at it,” recalls Morrison. “I was much more concerned with what was happening in Italy. To me, that made much more sense.” Picked up by manufacturers such as SCP in the UK, the ironmongery firm FSB in Germany and, importantly, Cappellini in Italy, Morrison’s profile grew to such an extent that he was even invited to design the Hanover tram in 1995. Other products he has been behind include kitchen appliances for Rowenta, a bathroom range for Ideal Standard, lighting for Flos and a host of products for Vitra, including the ATM desk system. Most have been characterised by a sense of reduction, boiling the object in question down to its bare, but usually beautiful, essentials. The results of his recent “realisation” can be seen at the Vitra Store in New York, having also made stops in Tokyo and London. The Super Normal exhibition that Morrison curated with Japanese product designer Naoto Fukasawa is probably best viewed as a reaction against the current bloated state of the design industry and its obsession with superstar designers. “From my point of view, it is a product of who we are designing for,” he says. “Are we designing for the media or are we designing for the user? I think designers have lost sight of who they are designing for and the media seeks out the more sensational aspects of design. They are, in a way, distorting the profession. The emphasis is too much on the visual and the sensational. That is not what makes a good object – you want the whole story.” The exhibition seeks to redress the balance by showing 200 everyday products – ranging from a plastic bucket to a potato peeler to Dieter Rams’ 606 shelving system – that aren’t attempting to reinvent the wheel, but instead do their job quietly and effectively, while being a pleasure to have around. This isn’t about design trying to ape art or act as some kind of crutch to a company’s marketing department – it is a celebration of industrial design for industrial design’s sake and, as a result, is rather refreshing. The idea for Super Normal germinated as Morrison was designing a set of cutlery for Alessi. “I have been designing things for a long time and looking with an eye as to what works in real life, rather than just trying to make things that look good,” he says. “In the course of looking, I started to realise that a lot of objects probably best described as ordinary worked better than most designed objects. And that kind of intrigued me. I started to learn a lot from more ordinary objects and I tried to use them as a gauge of what I was doing.” This new outlook has proved more than a little controversial. In 2006, the Crate – a bedside table Morrison designed for British manufacturer Established & Sons that looked, well, just like a crate – drew stinging criticism. Did he realise it would cause such a storm? “Not at all,” he says. “No, that was a surprise, but a good one, I think. I have never really looked to cause controversy, but I have to say I quite enjoyed it.” The idea came because Morrison had been using an old wine crate next to his bed when Established came to him. “I just looked at it and thought it was a great solution to a bedside table – I’d be happy with that.” However, even he admits to initial reservations. “Before I showed it to them, I was anxious that they might think I was joking,” he says. “But I explained my thinking and they liked it. What astonished me was that in the same year, someone [Ron Arad and Issey Miyake, if we’re naming names] designed a chair that could be worn as clothes and people weren’t outraged by that. I think it was a really big misunderstanding on most people’s part. They thought it was a cynical project, but it wasn’t at all. It was just my way of showing that design can come from anywhere. It can come from experience, it can come from chance, it can come from observation, or it can come from just plain good luck.” Part of the reason it attracted such barbs, I proffer, was down to his choice of manufacturer. Established & Sons, after all, is acutely aware of the value of good marketing. It’s a company that throws the biggest and most glamorous parties and, arguably, pioneered the hugely lucrative and wildly over-hyped design/art market. The thinking behind the Crate was always likely to get lost in the surrounding hyperbole, wasn’t it? “I don’t think that the size of the party makes the object controversial,” he rebuts politely. “At that point, it was just part of an exhibition. People didn’t read the story. If they had read the pamphlet, they would have understood the project.” Maybe. Whatever, the following year, he exhibited a stubborn streak and came up with a bunch of products based on the Crate’s original concept, to a much warmer critical response. “I decided to be annoying,” he says with a half-smile. “Again as a project, I think it’s interesting. Part of design is being economical with every aspect. Economical with materials, economical with process but also conceptually economical.” Ah yes, but what about when the manufacturer decides to turn your economical crate into a one-off marble sculpture and stick it on a 20-foot plinth as Established & Sons did at the London Design Festival last year? “Well, that was a bit more them than me,” he answers with a bit of a shrug, before adding: “I thought it looked quite nice, actually.” But this is hardly Super Normal. Didn’t he feel a little awkward seeing it up there?. “Not really,” says Morrison. “I think that if it’s a limited edition, or in the case of the marble piece, a one-off, then it is pretty harmless. They wanted to do a show where they did everything in marble. It would have been mean spirited of me if I had said no. I don’t like being uptight about things. It is very easy to be over-protective of your work, or your way of working, and I think that’s a mistake.” Morrison is certainly not above dabbling in the editions market, making pieces for the likes of Vitra and Galerie Kreo in Paris. “It is pretty different,” he confesses. “It’s design for a different situation, really, not for everyone, for sure. I like doing it because it’s a freedom from all the constraints that you have as a designer when you are considering how to make something in volume, and that is really nice.” That said, he admits he resisted dipping his toe in for a long time, “because as a young designer, your goal is manufacturing and volume, and I focused on that. When you achieve that, I think that is reasonable.” You get the distinct impression that having done the hard slog, the art market becomes, in effect, the designer’s pension plan – a lucrative opportunity to have some fun. This is absolutely understandable, although it would be remiss not to point out that design/art bears some responsibility for distorting the industry, encouraging the established star system, celebrating form over content and providing students with a model that, one suspects, will prove to be unsustainable. In fact, all the stuff Super Normal is supposed to stand against. But then I get the impression that Morrison is too open-minded – too polite, even – to be a true zealot. As he points out: “Having spent many years constraining myself and rejecting everything apart from what I thought design should be, I think I am much more open than I used to be. I am quite interested in contradictions as a way of keeping my work alive. If you refuse to consider things, you end up running out of steam on what you’re doing.” Certainly the Basel chair suggests that he has enough steam to quietly rattle a few cages for years to come.
It’s difficult to look at a laboratory set-up without bringing to mind the classic Fast Show character Professor Denzil Dexter (a Californian Bill Bailey look-alike) and his able assistant Dave the chimp. Whether attempting to build a time machine using a station wagon and some pots and pans or heating bears’ urine just for fun, the results of his research were almost always “disappointing”.