There are times when this act of theft seems rather shameful, and yet I think the impulse that led to it is common enough. There are lots of people out there who want to own something created by a great architect. But lacking the wherewithal to buy or commission an actual building, we go for something more affordable, and generally, to be honest, something more useful and decorative than a chunk of cement.
Thanks to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, fans of the great man are especially well catered for. All manner of Wright-designed - or at least Wright-inspired - objects are available. There's the Frank Lloyd Wright Clock Collection from Bulova, for instance, while in Japan the Yamagiwa Corporation is the authorised licensee of his lighting designs, so that now it's possible to buy a wall sconce very much like those you could find in the Storer House, or a table lamp as used in Chicago's Midway Gardens.
There is something enormously appealing about the idea that an architect, someone who's concerned with large structures and grand effects, should be equally concerned with lamps and tables, door handles and bath taps, but in the end it's not exactly incomprehensible. Yes, God is in the details, but more simply, architects don't want their grand schemes messed up by shoddy detailing and tacky furniture. They don't want your humble tastes ruining their flawless vision. This could, of course, be just another manifestation of their megalomania.
Philip Johnson once wrote that Mies van der Rohe gave "as much thought to placing chairs in a room as other architects do to placing buildings around a square". Which makes me wonder how Van der Rohe would feel now that his chairs have become design cliches to be found in many a boardroom. You can't help thinking that the corporate owners of these chairs haven't given quite as much thought to their placing as he'd have liked. But this is part of democratisation. If you buy a Mies chair, you can do what you like with it, place it on your floral carpet, put a cushion on it, drape it with an anti-macassar. Collapse of stout architect.
I suspect that architecture and furniture go together in a way that, for instance, architecture and wallpaper, or architecture and carpets, somehow don't. Buildings and furniture are both three-dimensional objects, things that you can walk around and view from different angles.
But consider Le Corbusier's chaise longue basculante; a thrilling bit of sculptural form that livens up the pages of interior design magazines just about everywhere. We now know that the design owed a great deal to Charlotte Perriand, but we still think of it as a Le Corbusier item. For years I wanted one of these things and eventually bought one; a knock off, naturally.
I find, however, that I very seldom actually sit on my chaise. I tend to position myself across the room from it, on my extremely undesignerish futon, and gaze fondly in its direction. True, this is partly because it's so great to look at, but also because it's not actually all that comfortable to sit on. And there are times when I wonder if this is true of Le Corbusier's architecture too. Chandigarh looks great, but would you really want to live there?
If anyone bought anything from Maya Lin's recent "The Earth is (Not) Flat" collection from Knoll, they may be having some of the same experience. Lin was the architect-artist who designed the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, and has gone on to do a barn conversion for the American Children's Defence Fund library. Her furniture designs include stools and a coffee table, which are apparently based on pre-Columbian millstones, although the top of the coffee table is actually convex; now there's an idea. These things are, she tells us, "self-portraits". So if you've ever wanted to plant your rear end on an architect's self-portrait, these are no doubt just the job.
But what if you want something you can hold in your hand or put on your mantelpiece? That's where Swid Powell comes in, a New York-based company that makes "objects by architects". It was set up in the mid-Eighties by Nan Swid and Addie Powell, a couple of phenomenally well-connected New York design women who rounded up a few of their friends - people such as Philip Johnson, Richard Meier and Robert Stern - and took them to the Four Seasons restaurant where they revealed their scheme: to commission them to create tableware, candlesticks, photograph frames and so on.
Nan Swid says: "I knew that very few people would ever live in houses designed by Richard Meier or Robert Venturi, but I thought they would like to experience that aesthetic level." Well, up to a point, Nan.
Certainly it's fascinating to see what an avowed Deconstructionist like Zaha Hadid does for Swid Powell when she's invited to design something as "constructed" as a dinner service. Actually, she produced a surprisingly restrained, attractive, and really rather tasteful abstract pattern printed on conventional-looking dinner plates.
Robert Venturi came up with the "Village" tableware for them; a series of miniature items that look like buildings; the coffeepot is a Tuscan tower, the teapot resembles the Parthenon. This is amusing enough, but I think you might say it got a bit out of hand when one of their architect- designers, Stanley Tigerman, made a tea-set resembling his own weekend house in Lakeside, Michigan. There's something condescending about the notion that since we can't live in an architect-designed house, we might be happy to keep our milk and sugar in one.
Swid Powell also employed Michael Graves to design their Big Dripper and Little Dripper coffee sets, a man better known for his phenomenally successful "water kettle" from Alessi. I think some of the claims made for this thing are frankly a bit much. The shape certainly looks great, and the rivets are terrific, but I'm not sure there's anything very postmodern about it, and the little whistling bird just seems a bit silly. On the other hand, it has sold a million or so units, and it's infinitely more appealing than the kettle Frank Gehry designed for Alessi, which resembles random blobs of metal and wood arranged to look deliberately out of whack.
It's also interesting that when Michael Graves came to design kettles for the Walt Disney Company, incorporating Mickey Mouse ears in the handle, the effect was much less successful. Maybe a design that uses an existing icon can't itself become iconic.
So what other options do you have for incorporating architect-inspired excellence into your life? The furniture shop Freud, in Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC1 (0171-831 1071) sells a range of Charles Rennie Mackintosh tables and chairs. Richard Meier chairs are available from Knoll International (0171-236 6655). Alvar Aalto's 1936 tea trolley - the one that looks like it's made from a child's construction kit - is available from Artek, at a price that might make you drop your teacup. You can buy door handles designed by Gaud or Norman Foster. Of course, having Norman Foster handles on your doors won't give your house quite the look of the rebuilt Reichstag, but it may convince people that you know good design when you see it, which I guess is the point.
Not so long ago an oak tree fell on Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin East, causing much damage and requiring a lot of fund-raising to pay for restoration; but those folks at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation are smart. Knowing that many people still want a piece of the great man, they made souvenirs out of the offending fallen tree. This would appear to be the ultimately oblique, not to say fetishistic, way to own a bit of Wrightiana, but what else are you going to do? Steal a lump of cement?Reuse content