November 17 2010
The scale is miniature, but the elegant proportions, spatial handling and clever use of materials speak volumes. For the glamorous accessories and sharply designed domestic tools pictured were all created by architects of international standing.
Welcome to the world of micro-architecture, where the constructive arts pervade even the most utilitarian items. From lamps, vases and tableware to knives, kettles, trays, cook-pots and even loo brushes, if ever there was evidence that everyday objects can be both useful and beautiful then it is revealed in the many and varied homewares created by contemporary architects.
Of course, architects have long had a hand within the home. Frank Lloyd Wright, Josef Hoffmann, Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius and Eileen Gray all designed complete environments – structures, interiors, furniture and household objects, while Arne Jacobsen and Ettore Sottsass were both prolific in their homeware designs. What’s new is that practising architects are increasingly targeted by homeware manufacturers to design products normally created by industrial or product designers. And it’s a win-win situation. Manufacturers take advantage of an architect’s familiarity with materials, structure and engineering; architects see their projects realised quickly on a more intimate scale; and homeowners benefit from attractive designs with exemplary functionality.
“Architects have an innate understanding of proportion, structure and engineering that ensures their homeware designs not only look striking but are frequently better-functioning as well,” says Peter Fiell, co-author of Tools for Living: A Sourcebook of Iconic Design for the Home (Fiell Publishing, £29.95).
“Generally, architect-designed products have a strong visual presence and can be seen as miniature, three-dimensional, architectural projections,” he adds. “Zaha Hadid’s Crevasse vases [2010 edition, £245, from Design Museum Shop] look like twin counterpoised skyscrapers, while Ettore Sottsass’s famous 5070 condiment set [£87, from Alessi] looks like a tight cluster of domed buildings. And the popularity of architect-designed products is partly due to their accessibility. Let’s face it, few people can afford to commission a residence by Toyo Ito, but most can afford a piece of his Ku tableware for Alessi [dinner plate, £72; soup bowl, £66].”
Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Museum, agrees. “An architect will be aware of the whole environment and consider the relationship between an object and the space it’s in,” he says. “Take a fork, for example. An architect will consider its weight in the hand, the grip and materials but also where it will be used and how it can contribute to the celebratory environment of a meal with friends.”
Talk to John Pawson, the architect most closely associated with minimalism, and the deep consideration given to even the humblest object becomes clear. His cook-pots for Demeyere (from £161, available at www.zwillingonline.com) involved, he says, “functional challenges ranging from the need to achieve efficient thermal conductivity in the pan’s base while maintaining a cool handle to the requirement for a good pouring lip and a form which would feel comfortable and balanced in the hand. At the start I ran through all the components I had to get right and ended up with a huge list. In terms of pure design our efforts focused on refining the shape of the body and on the detail of the junction between body and handle.”
Pawson’s home accessories are poetically beautiful as well as functional, which explains why his domestic pieces for the Belgian company When Objects Work are currently featuring in a retrospective of his career at London’s Design Museum. “I try to achieve the same serenity and sensuality as I do with my buildings,” he says. “I always say the same considerations apply, although objects are of a size where you can achieve almost exactly what you want. And really, these are things that I’d like to have myself.”
The origins of Pawson’s WOW collection (available from the Design Museum Shop and Mint) lie in his design for a new Cistercian monastery in the Czech Republic, and his idea of kitting out the monks’ refectory. It includes white lacquered bowls (small bowls, from £164), water glasses (£20), wine glasses (£20), cutlery (24-piece set, £275), trays (£310 to £770) and candle-holders (from £145). “Each implement or vessel is designed for the best possible experience in use – for visual delight, to feel good in the hand and to be ideally fit for purpose,” he says.
All the architects designing for When Objects Work appear to be united by their use of simple forms, exemplary function and a timeless idiom. As director Beatrice de Lafontaine puts it: “We commission designers to explore the theme of decorative art as superlative domestic equipment. The world of architecture is preoccupied with form and proportion, and I’m convinced that when this vision is translated into a small object then it will embody truth, utility and soul.”
An architectural approach, she believes, provides clarity and functionality while embracing a poetic response. And this is palpable in the designs. Inspired by Herb Ritts’ photograph Male Nude with Bubble, a Murano glass bowl (£960) by Ludovica and Roberto Palomba attempts to capture a bubble’s fluidity. The cross-beams of an under-construction timber roof are echoed in Japanese architect Shigeru Ban’s fruit stand (£2,170), while the hand saws that sparked Jean-Michel Wilmotte’s steel fire dogs (£1,750 for a set) are strikingly self-evident.
Most WOW pieces are hand-crafted. The Hybrid cutlery designed by the late Maarten van Severen marries simplicity of form with contemporary materials – a titanium fork, zirconium ceramic knife, a spoon hand-lacquered 65 times using Japanese Urushi lacquering techniques (in 999 limited edition sets, €999 each) while each piece of Vincent Van Duysen’s Pottery collection (£885) comprises a matt ceramic container and a sandblasted oak lid (from £88 to £170). The latter serves as a cover or plinth, with the wood’s soft, weathered grain combining with the clay’s irregularity to give the pieces a serene presence. Meanwhile Richard Meier’s elegantly proportioned candlesticks (£95 and £117), bonbonnière (£117) and Half Full collection glasses (£75 each) employ the Modernist language of his architecture, and reflect his fascination with space, form and geometric clarity.
Another high-profile architect with a growing portfolio of homewares is Zaha Hadid. Her signature style of curvilinear geometry is expressed in bowls designed for Sawaya & Moroni in colourful metacrylic (€28,800) and sterling silver (€79,200), in the alloy Series ZH lever door handles for Valli & Valli (£238) and the stainless-steel Zaha cutlery for WMF (five-piece set, £95).
The Crevasse vase for Alessi, reissued this year in stainless steel with a PVD (physical vapour deposition) coating in a limited edition of 999 pieces (£245, from Design Museum Shop) is cut from a single block and scored along two diagonal lines to make a warped, inverted surface. Several vases can be placed together like a cityscape or left to stand alone like landmark skyscrapers. Similarly, the five separate elements of Hadid’s melamine Niche centrepiece (£87, from Alessi) can nest together or be reconfigured.
Earlier this year, Hadid launched four designs for wall-covering specialist Marburg in its Art Borders wallpaper series. Their names – Elastika, Stria, Swirl, Cellular – epitomise Hadid’s dramatic, spatially aware designs and are available in various contemporary colourways (£115-£250 per 2.2m x 6m roll, from Brian Yates). But perhaps the Hadid homeware that has literally caused the biggest splash is the Triflow By Zaha kitchen tap for Triflow Concepts, launched last year, with an updated version, the Quadro, in matt gold, black chrome, black, pewter and nickel now available (from £6,779). The faucet’s fluid shape is said to be inspired by flowing water – although it does chime conveniently with Hadid’s signature Z motif. Technically clever, it has a separate waterway for purified water, controlled by a touch-sensitive electronic device, while the single lever controlling hot and cold water blends with the tap’s innovative shape. The new version will also offer hot (98ºC) filtered water.
Another architectural microcosm is Hadid’s organically shaped Genesy floor-lamp for Artemide (£5,050). Moulded from polyurethane, it is inspired by research into natural growth systems, its sweeping canopy of branches emerging through an interconnected network at the base. It’s as indicative of Hadid’s architectural work as Norman Foster’s Gherkin lamp is of his design for London’s 30 St Mary Axe building. Available in two sizes (30cm, £260; 60cm, £446, from Nest) the Gherkin lamp is made of acid-etched, mouth-blown Murano glass and stands on a chromed metal base. It is produced by Italian lighting company Kundalini, which also makes the mouth-blown, opal-glass Drop Wall and Ceiling Lamp (£204, from Nest) designed by architects Future Systems.
The Corrubedo lamp for Fontana Arte (from £110) – a minimally designed wall-mounted fitting that casts soft, indirect illumination – is another architecturally inspired homeware, this time by David Chipperfield. And although Chipperfield’s Tonale tableware for Alessi (from £14 to £52) draws inspiration from the vernacular ceramics of Japan and China, it nevertheless echoes the purity and restraint of his built work, such as the Folkwang Museum in Essen.
The concept of micro-architecture is also embraced in the 100 Piazze collection by Italian manufacturer, Driade. Architect Fabio Novembre’s eight silver-plated brass trays (from £625) are modelled on Italy’s famous squares, including Milan’s Piazza della Scala and Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio.
But it’s another Italian brand, Alessi, that, over 30 years, has really turned architect-designed homewares into a minor art form, with many of its designs now in the permanent collections of museums such as the V&A, Centre Pompidou and MoMA in New York. Alessi CEO Alberto Alessi explains: “In Italian culture our understanding of product design has always been tightly bound to architecture and, practically without exception, all the leading Italian designers began as architects – so it’s natural that the majority of my designers have been architects.”
Eleven architects were invited to contribute to Alessi’s Tea & Coffee Piazza project in 1983 under the direction of designer-architect Alessandro Mendini. This resulted in two of Alessi’s all-time bestsellers: Aldo Rossi’s La Conica coffee-maker (from £139) and Michael Graves’ 9093 kettle with a bird-shaped whistle (£88). Its success was repeated in 2003 when 22 architects were given free rein for Alessi’s Tea & Coffee Towers project. And in September a set of eight coffee spoons (£38) designed by architects who contributed to that project (including Jean Nouvel, Toyo Ito and Wiel Arets) was launched.
The roll-call of names who have worked with Alessi reads like an architectural A-Z, from Will Alsop (coffee spoons, £28) to Peter Zumthor (peppermill, £82, and candlestick, from £41). Standout designs include Wiel Arets’ espresso coffee-maker (manual, £115; electric, £168) and hand-blender (£88), Andrea Branzi’s double-spout Mama-ò kettle (£190), Nigel Coates’s Big Shoom table centrepiece (£148), Frank Gehry’s Pito kettle (£255) with its dancing wooden fish, Ito Toyo’s Ku white porcelain dinnerware (plate, £72), Jean Nouvel’s pitcher (£80), Aldo Rossi’s Il Conico kettle (£118) and Philippe Starck’s now-iconic Juicy Salif citrus squeezer (£43).
The amount of time and thought involved in producing such seemingly simple kitchen necessities is illustrated by Future Systems’ beautiful, practical Bettina tableware (from £26) which took the architects more than four years to develop, design and prototype.
Alessi has encouraged some architects to create “families” of objects, notably Alessandro Mendini’s Anna G corkscrews (£27-£47), Anna kitchen timer (£38) and cheese grater (£51) and Stefano Giovannoni and Guido Venturini’s growing range of Girotondo accessories decorated with their “standing men” design (from £5 for a napkin ring). Nor has Alessi confined itself solely to products for the kitchen – witness the Birillo collection of small bathroom accessories designed by Piero Lissoni (towel stand, £160; bin, £42; lavatory brush, £72).
Following Alessi’s example, makers of larger home appliances are now working with architects too. Renzo Piano (a Pritzker Architecture prize-winner) recently designed a hob (from £635), oven (from £1,570) and fridge-freezer (from £2,500) for Smeg. The latter is like a micro-building – finished on all sides so it can be positioned anywhere. With stainless-steel interiors, a single door and choice of three Japanese-inspired exterior colours, it resembles a modern sculpture as much as a fridge-freezer. For fans of Piano’s highly anticipated, soaring Shard building in London, it’s surely a micro-architectural must-have.