Design classics: It's got to be perfect
We asked eight experts, leaders in their respective fields, to pick out the ultimate design classic, a piece of engineering and artistry so perfectly formed that it surpasses all others. The only catch? They weren't allowed to choose one of their own creations...
Saturday 12 April 2008
The perfect chair
I have this chair at home, and it's one of the first things people see when they arrive at my house. They want to give me a compliment, and are desperately looking around for something they like. Almost everything else there is designed by me, but they see this and say: "Great chair!" I'm exaggerating a little bit, but I feel I have said, "No, no, it's not mine" enough times.
It was actually made in 1961, when I was only 10 years old; it was designed by Cesare Leonardi and Franca Stagi, and is called the Ribbon Chair. It has a very strong idea, that of one continuous ribbon. Often when there's a strong idea like that, the design is serving the idea, not the idea serving the design. But this chair is not like that – it doesn't bother anyone. You can see that it can be de-moulded easily: it's made from fibreglass, and there are no undercuts. It looks complicated, like a twisted ribbon, but it's a perfectly curved shape, cantilevered on a triangular piece of chrome-plated tubular steel. The triangle on the floor is the minimum amount of steel you would need, yet it's wide enough to be stable. The tube is fixed to the ribbon by rubber cushions so it adds that springiness to the steel, making it more bouncy – but just enough, not too much. The way the ribbons curl in on the sides provide you with two really nice sloping arm rests. It is a perfect example of a fantastic, optimistic Sixties design.
It's a chair that I always coveted when I saw it in publications, auctions, vintage furniture shops, etc. So when I saw this example in a shop in Camden Lock five years ago, I told it, "You're coming home with me," and it did. I don't really need chairs – I went against my decision not to clutter the place up with things I like – but this one jumped the queue. I even accepted the yellowness of it – I didn't think I would get on with it in yellow, but there it is, I'm friendly with it now.
Ron Arad is an industrial designer and architect, and a professor at the Royal College of Art
Portrait by Steve Schofield
The perfect fireplace
I got the fireplace in Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, when I was out shopping with my daughter, Rita. I was just embarking on the demolition of the house I live in now, and had left behind a brass fireplace in my previous house which I couldn't bring with me, but really wanted to replace – I wanted to have the same feeling. And then I saw this 1930s Art Deco fireplace. And I just knew that was it. I ship a lot from the United States anyway, so that didn't faze me. What was even more exciting was that it was $1,000, which, thanks to the exchange rate, was £500 at the time!
I bought it even though I thought I'd have to cut the size down because it seemed too long, but when it arrived at my house it looked perfect just as it was: what I call a happy accident. Then, because there was too much space between the hole and the fireplace, some great craftsmen fitted it for me. They put mirrored slips in, surrounded with brass. At that point I found out from the Building Regulations people that the chimney was too short, and I'd have to rebuild it – I didn't want to do that, so instead I filled it with rock crystal logs, which is madness, and great fun. I have a light right up in the chimney which shines on the crystals and they shimmer. There's a lacquered ceiling and the room has a fabric of mine that is aquamarine with a silver print, so it's all about shimmering, and it has magically lengthened the room. And even though it's not a working fireplace, my house is still boiling hot.
I've two steel fire-dogs there too, and a pair of mad bronze ducks that have followed me around from house to house, which are now sitting on the black slate hearth. You often don't notice them until you're sitting on the chair and suddenly see them reflected in the mirrors. It is my fantasy fireplace.
Nina Campbell is an interior designer, best known for her patterned fabrics, wallpapers and carpets
Portrait by Philip Sinden
The perfect table
The EM table was designed in 1950 by Jean Prouvé. There is a whole host of reasons for loving it today – the aesthetic, first, is absolutely beautiful. It has an elegance, and an air of sophistication about it, which is interesting because it's so simple. It looks poised and yet it's made from quite substantial materials. This particular version has a green top and black under-frame, and there's another, which I also love, that has a timber top. What I love about the design is that it shows how much of a master Prouvé was. His history is really interesting: I can't get to grips with whether he was an architect or an industrialist. He was pioneering elements of mass-produced furniture, as well as architectural products. He came from a factory background – he was an engineer – and I think the EM is an amazing combination of pure engineering and sensitivity to a beautiful piece of furniture. Incredibly, it still looks fresh – which is the best test for any design.
What is especially interesting is that this was designed for a Fifties pre-fab housing project called Maison Tropique. Lots of designs like this were made for the masses: for the student population, for offices, basically people at the bottom end of the purchasing scale. What I find weird in today's market is that these utilitarian products have become luxury items. It is so strange. I wish it wasn't like that. But I can see why – this table was designed to last and it's going to last, so it has become a design classic and its value has obviously increased. I suppose what I'm passionate about in furniture is that it shouldn't be treated as a cheap and fashionable commodity. It should be a "double heirloom" piece – designed to pass through two generations. That's what it used to be about, because things were built with fantastically high standards, not with cheap material that will last only five years. I love this piece because it encapsulates all that.
Russell Pinch is a furniture designer
Portrait by Philip Sinden
The perfect fabric
The thing is, Howard Hodgkin is a hero for me. He's an amazing artist, and I have always been inspired by his work. The first time that we met I was knocked out by his style: it's one of those experiences that stays with you. He designed this fabric in 1986, which was slightly ahead of his time. Contemporary art didn't hold the same values then as it does now, and it was before people got used to using contemporary fabrics. But as an artist, Howard is very flexible and forward looking.
In this fabric, I see the artist, the painter. He didn't compromise the mark for the fabric. I find the marks very pure – they're extremely sensitive and strong at the same time: that's what I aspire to in my own work, a graphic but soft image, combining all the sensitivities. It's fascinating, and it provided a great learning curve for me.
The best fabrics give off a really positive energy – be it texture, in which case they're very tactile, or if it's an image it has to have its own spirit, not be banal or coarse even if strong. People think if there's a strong image or colour maybe it has a sort of bling crassness about it: that's absolutely what I don't want – the perfect fabric is innovative.
And that's what this is: it was a brave mark to make, and not many people understood that ride from work of art to textile. I've always thought it's amazing when people cross boundaries. Howard is a very strong person and open, so it didn't make him insecure to do something like that. I do think, though, that if he felt it wasn't going to be beautiful, he wouldn't have done it.
Tricia Guild is the founder and creative director of the fabric, wall-covering and accessories company Designers Guild.
Portrait by Michael Franke
The perfect house
I don't do country houses. It might be nice to visit for a weekend – ie Saturday – but otherwise you could go completely mad. But I do see the promise in a Big Mayfair House. Mayfair here could be taken to include St James's, inner Marylebone and other contiguous bits of Big London – ie hedge-fund and related territory.
It's really only in those areas that the Georgian promise comes good: you're in a place worth being in and it's plenty big enough for whatever it is you want to do, live, work and so forth. Otherwise it's all compromise – nice house, shame about south London, or darling little proportions but no room. There's a constant trade-off between the robber-baron scale of 1860 stucco with its debased detailing and the adorability of a Georgian house which doesn't stretch to it. But in this particular belt of late-18th, early-19th-century London – the centre of the world – you get old houses that come up big and are full of promise because they're eternally being altered to suit the whims of the rich who inhabit them. While one house in this kind of terrace can be full of working moles under horrible fluorescent light, the next one could be reinvented by a David Collins or Tara Bernard as a brilliant live-work for a fun-loving IT billionaire.
Madonna and Joe Corre and Jay Jopling and Griff Rhys Jones all know how to organise such a house to their advantage and in deep Mayfair and St James, hedge-fund boys and a whole variety of Having-It-All Types work that way. Of course, if I lived in New York I'd want one of those Park Avenue beaux arts apartments with 14 rooms, and if I was in LA I'd probably go with the flow and want a Neutra House ... but I'm not. I'm a deep Londoner, and it's the studied anonymity of these fronts (you can tell it's seriously big if you can count four windows across at the first-floor level) that does it for me.
Peter York is the design and interiors columnist for 'The Independent Magazine' Portrait by Michael Franke
The perfect knife and fork
It's quite difficult being a cutlery designer and choosing someone else's design, because it's such a narrow field, but this place setting is really nice. It's Georg Jensen's 1906 design, which was the first place setting that he designed for the shop he'd opened two years earlier. It's a beautiful, handmade silver design that was part of the Arts and Crafts style – which was intent on marrying design and craftsmanship – sweeping through Europe. That is still a very current idea, although there's often not much of it left in design any more. A lot of designs are farmed out, and then just arrive. It's the handmade bit that I like.
In sterling silver, Jensen's piece has a very modern feel – the shape of the bowl on the spoons is modern and there's an interesting handle shape. I just think it's quite amazing how something designed back then can still look modern. All the hammer marks are still in there, subtly, but showing that these pieces have been hand-raised, not stamped out from a sheet of metal. And if you look longer at the pieces, you'll see there's a change of thickness here, a bit cut out there – details you don't notice immediately.
I think it would have cost a fortune even then – a handmade set of cutlery would probably be £150 per piece. The idea behind it was for Georg to have a special design of his own for his shop, which is an inspiration for me, and a nice parallel to what we do. We design something, prototype it, and have total control, seeing the design process through from start to finish. That's why I chose this design: it's a bit more special than others. Unfortunately I've only got one place set!
Corin Mellor is the son of 'cutlery king' David Mellor and is now the creative director of David Mellor Design
Portrait by Philip Sinden
The perfect lamp
Everyone knows the Anglepoise lamp – it's ubiquitous. The company behind it is so charming. It's a quintessentially British company that has recently been revived by the latest generation: they've been working with new designers, including the fashion designer Margaret Howell, to introduce new colours, and they've also abstracted classic designs – creating the giant Anglepoise, for instance, or flocking it – to do really interesting things. And while they've kept the brand fresh, what is at the heart of Anglepoise is really sound design.
This is the perfect light because it is flexible and practical, and even in the midst of this flexibility and practicality, it is styled beautifully. The junction between the stalk and lighthead is exquisitely sculpted in the way that the springs attach to the stalk and base to make it adjustable. This adjustability is what is really revolutionary about it – when it was introduced to the market, it was a real eureka moment: why hadn't anyone thought of this before? You can have it in an industrial, commercial space on your desk – this one is from my studio, and is white because I keep things neutral there so the muse is not interrupted! But because it is elegant, you can have it in your home too; I've got one as a bedside light. The feel and weight of it at the base and the fact that it's real quality, and British produced, makes it a joy to use.
When it comes to price, I think you've got to look at content and longevity. An Anglepoise lamp will last you a lifetime so in that regard, it is excellent value (starting at around £60 for the basic table lamp). I think what this product highlights is that you should be careful not to buy things for this moment: invest in what you can use in the future, and try to crush the throwaway culture we are so enamoured of.
Naomi Cleaver is a design consultant and interior designer and is the presenter of Channel 4's 'Other People's Houses' and 'Honey, I Ruined the House'
Portrait by Philip Sinden
The perfect public building
The first thing to say about the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh is that it's a great statement about democracy, which is terrific. In a late Western democracy, it's important to restate that democracy is important to us.
The building is such a brilliant piece of townscape – it's in a difficult part of the city, and in a part of Edinburgh complicated by diminutive surroundings, so they had to build a grand building, but not too grand. They managed to bring in the surrounding landscape – particularly to the south – while the building still reacts to the high street, to Holyrood, and, on the west, to tenement buildings.
It immediately fitted into Edinburgh's urban and country landscape, while being completely unusual and unlike anything we have seen. It's a magnificent work of craftsmanship, and you don't often get that – it's not made in a factory but by people, and it has a personal quality of handmade-ness on a grand scale. I love it: it's a totally poetic design, carried out with joy and a high level of skill.
Inside, the committee rooms are fantastic spaces with a brilliant outlook. They are a tour de force of beauty – high spaces with very complex interior elevations, all of which add to the idea of committees being not a mindless cog in the machine, but a magnificent position and that people on them should know this.
The architect was Enric Morales, a Catalonian, who unfortunately died while it was being built, but it was completed under the auspices of his wife and the Scottish architects RMJM. Morales came out of a fiercely independent Catalonia at a time when it achieved its independence from Madrid after the death of Franco, so he was familiar with the idea of expressing independence, which was what the Scottish Parliament needed. I think that is why it's such a powerful piece – it has a very personal feeling to it.
Piers Gough is one of Britain's leading architects, designing everything from Janet Street-Porter's Clerkenwell home to a social regeneration project in the Gorbals area of Glasgow
Portrait by Philip Sinden
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