Sensual pleasure at the cutting edge: Jonathan Glancey meets one of Britain's finest designers, whose talents until recently have been appreciated more abroad than at home

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ROSS LOVEGROVE'S masterpiece is a tiny sliver of disposable green translucent plastic first shown at the exhibition '91 Objects by 91 Designers' at Gallery 91 in New York in, you guessed it, 1991. At first glance, it looks like some piece of inspired contemporary jewellery. It is, in fact, a prototype of a ceramic-bladed razor that Lovegrove has researched and made at his own expense: pounds 4,000. This is shaving technology at the cutting edge, a razor that could deal an elegant and mortal blow to the ubiquitous and highly disposable models.

'Do you know how many disposable razors Bic makes in a year?' asks the 34-year-old product designer. 'Three billion. That's a conspicuous waste of resources. The ceramic blade can be used 150 times before you throw it away. It looks perfect under a powerful magnifying glass - unlike a steel blade which is rutted and bumpy. A Bic is worth about three shaves and once it's gone, it's gone; my shaver can be recycled.'

Sadly, you cannot rush out to buy a packet of ceramic-bladed razors. Lovegrove is not a designer in a hurry. 'It has to be exactly right,' he says, 'and I have to find exactly the right manufacturer.' Like so many of the designs Lovegrove is working on, the ingenious razor is the shape of things to come.

Lovegrove shifts from razors to his new figure-of-eight chair, a reworking of Arne Jacobsen's famous Ant Chair (the one Christine Keeler posed naked on). Jacobsen chose laminated timber; 30 years on, Lovegrove opts for injected resin. 'I started by making five prototypes,' he says, 'because I wanted chairs like this at home and couldn't find them. They cost me pounds 1,000 each. Prototyping at your own expense is one way of never getting rich, but I can't help doing it. I'm not satisfied with sketching a product; I have to see whether it works.'

You will be able to buy a figure-of-eight chair for considerably less than pounds 1,000 when they go on sale in a year's time. 'Cappellini in Como is making them,' says Lovegrove. 'Giulio Cappellini saw the 'Organic Design' exhibition at the Design Museum. One of my chairs was on display. Cappellini looked at it and said 'I have to make that chair'. He sent me a first-class air ticket to Milan so that I would go to Como.

'Now that's the kind of outfit I like working for. There's no point working for anyone unless they are enthusiastic about innovative design; it takes several years to get sophisticated products like office chairs and vacuum cleaners (Lovegrove is designing both) on to the market, so you need to get on like a house on fire with your client. I really enjoy working with Americans, Germans, Italians and the French; in Britain you find yourself dealing all too often with people who talk about 'bottom lines' and 'fast turnover' rather than function, materials, manufacturing and durability.

'The best British companies to work for are those that have a real love for what they do - like Connolly Leather - and then decide to push into a new field. You know they'll be even more enthusiastic about their new project.'

In fact, Lovegrove, possibly the finest British product designer under 40, has worked almost exclusively for foreign companies, apart from a four-year spell on the staff of the British-based Allied International Designers. He was born in South Glamorgan, and designed a baby buggy for Cindico, the baby product manufacturers, when he was just 17, before training at Cardiff College of Art and Design, Manchester Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art in London.

In 1983 he went to Bavaria to join Frogdesign where he worked on computers for Apple, car phones for AEG Telefunken, personal stereos for Sony and luggage for Louis Vuitton. He moved on to Knoll International in Paris, became a member of the prestigious 'Atelier de Nmes' group of designers (Phillipe Starck is the leading light), and then established a practice with Julian Brown in London in 1987.

Three years later he set up Studio X on his own. The current client list includes Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Philips, General Electric, Knoll International and Connolly Leather. Most of this solo work is only just about to arrive on the market: luggage for Connolly Leather, bags for Vuitton, games for Hermes, a plastic office chair for Knoll International and, not soon enough, the ceramic-bladed razor.

Everything Lovegrove designs has a special, sensual quality and yet none of the products is anything other than functional. 'I'm a good old-fashioned functionalist,' he says. 'I start at first principles with every design. I don't have a signature as recognisable as Phillipe Starck's. Starck is a brilliant stylist and a lot of fun; I suppose I'm rather serious.'

For Lovegrove, however, functionalism does not exclude beauty or sensuality. 'Cars,' he says, 'are some of the most beautiful things industrial societies make - at least they are when brand new and before they have turned a wheel. I'm amazed at the fact that so few car buyers appear to make a connection between the quality of their car's components - the precision of switches, handles, seats, materials and so on - and the quality of components in their homes. Most door handles and light switches are horrid and badly made; those in a car are good to look at and nice to touch. I'd like to take a BMW or Mazda apart and reuse various bits throughout an interior.'

Lovegrove has recently designed a prototype sofa for Mazda (the American arm of the Japanese car giant is moving into luxury goods) which makes both subtle and overt use of the latest car production technology. Made of Modar, a polyester resin, the seat is light, supportive and comfortable. It features reading lights adjusted by twiddling rear-view mirror controls hidden in the sides of the chair. The prototype two-seater cost Mazda pounds 20,000. Mass produced, the price would be nearer pounds 2,000.

The car components incorporated in the Mazda sofa are, Lovegrove insists, neither gratuitous nor whimsical. 'I'm against the boy-racer approach to product design that has characterised the past 10 years. Designers have been playing too many games, producing things such as post-modern kettles that look amusing but burn your fingers when you pick them up. I think the most satisfying products are those you can appreciate almost with your eyes closed, like the camera or office chair whose controls simply fall to hand. You know an Angle-poise lamp works when you reach out and tilt it without singeing your fingers.

'Over-styled products of the Eighties will be considered worthless in the future. Designers should either be putting their efforts into products that can be intelligently disposed of or those so beautiful that people want to keep them for years.' Lovegrove might talk sense most of the time, but here at last one can pull him up short. After all, he has designed a razor that is destined to be junked after it has been used 150 times, but which is so beautiful that one cannot imagine anyone throwing it away.

(Photographs omitted)