It is testament to the influence of Charlotte and Peter Fiell on our collective awareness of design that, on entering their west London workspace, I am able to make a quick, envious inventory of their furniture. The shelves, stuffed floor to ceiling with hefty tomes on art and design, are by Dieter Rams; the sleek office chairs from Vitra. Admittedly, it is more of a struggle to name the man behind the sculptural low seats in zingy colours on which we station ourselves for tea (the late Pierre Paulin, Charlotte tells me later), but I recognise them, and – perhaps more importantly – I recognise them as being exemplary of good late-20th-century design. Not bad for someone without specialist knowledge or the means to do more than contemplate such pieces wistfully on the shop floor at cult furniture store SCP.
It would not always have been thus. Today, in a world where Philippe Starck has his own reality-TV show and casual enthusiasts around the globe are sufficiently versant in modern and contemporary design to tell their Eames from their elbow, the effect of the quiet revolution in knowledge and taste that the Fiells kick-started with their first book Modern Furniture Classics Since 1945 is so complete that it is almost impossible to believe how radical it was.
Since that first work in 1991, the husband-and-wife team has gone on to author a string of seminal design books and spent 15 years as editors in charge of the design arm of international German art publisher Taschen. Even if you don't own one of the Fiells' beautifully conceived volumes, you may well have flipped through one on somebody else's coffee table. In addition to popping up on academic reading lists, their authoritative but accessible, unfussy style means they are just as likely to pop up in an esteemed architect's Cappellini cabinet as on a first-time buyer's Billy bookcase.
Tomorrow, the Fiells will launch their own eponymous global publishing company at the London Book Fair, striking out on their own with 15 initial titles, three of which are penned by the couple themselves, covering pure design topics as well as issues with which they are not so closely associated, such as food and ecology. '
Peter, 51, admits that it is a counter-intuitive decision in the current climate: "Starting a global publishing company in a recession and during a migration away from books towards... well, nobody knows what – it's fairly audacious. But after all this time, we have established a trusted brand with our name around the world and we have always felt compelled to do something meaningful through books. We believe in propagating ideas, connoisseurship, culture, taste – heavy words, I know, but our motivations are sound. We have always written not to perpetuate our name, but to educate."
If the economic climate is not on their side, the Fiells' own track record is. After all, nothing could have been more counter-intuitive, or paid off more roundly, than the couple's early career decision to specialise in post-1945 design. "I was on the Works of Art course at Sotheby's," recalls Peter, "and spent a year working at the V&A's furniture department. During that time it became clear to me that absolutely no scholarship had been done in the world of post-war 20th-century furniture. It was unbelievable. If you study the whole history of furniture design, from the Egyptians through to today, without question the most important time was a 10-year period, 1945 to 1955. It changed everything."
Fired with enthusiasm, Peter went into antique-dealing to get the professional experience necessary to set up his own business specialising in pieces from the 1950s and 1960s. It was during this time that he met Charlotte, 44, who was then studying at Sotheby's, and together the pair eventually took on two galleries in London's King's Road, where they intended to "treat 1950s furniture as you would treat 18th-century French pieces in a Bond Street gallery".
The exuberant colours and futuristic shapes were met with a mixture of shock, awe and total bewilderment. "We would literally stop traffic with our window displays," says Peter. "There would be crowds of people around the window on a Saturday morning because nobody had ever seen anything like a Pierre Paulin chair. It had been designed in the 1960s, forgotten, and then was suddenly being rediscovered.
"The 1980s London yuppie might have the latest Porsche, the latest mobile phone, the latest carbon-fibre tennis racket – all at great expense. And then he'd go home at night, open the door to his house and find a sea of brown furniture. A total disconnect. It was the look of the establishment – country-house furniture that had descended through your family. If you were a young guy trying to get ahead in the City and it became known that you collected contemporary, it meant one of two things. Either your judgement couldn't be trusted or you were gay. Either way, you weren't making the board."
"The 1980s were seen as a designer decade, but people didn't really get it," agrees Charlotte. "It was as if they thought design was the same thing as designer label. It was a very skewed idea of design. The press got it – the press was wildly disproportionate to the sales we had. And a lot of young people got it, but they couldn't afford it. So we thought, 'OK, we are struggling because we're pushing the envelope of taste and we need to put a stamp of authority on that period.' My tutor at Sotheby's, Megan Aldrich, suggested we do a book."
Modern Furniture Classics Since 1945 (Thames & Hudson) followed, marking the beginning of the period's revival. Not long after, the Fiells' long partnership with Taschen was born, resulting in an extensive list of titles covering all areas of 20th-century design, from industrial to Scandinavian, lighting to chairs, 3-D forms to 2-D graphics – uniformly received as the last word on the subject in question. The Fiells' role with Taschen was almost that of commercial academics. "It was wonderful – we were paid to work full-time as design historians, researching and writing and accruing all that knowledge," says Charlotte.
Ironically, so much has the Fiells' work done to disseminate and popularise mid-century design that had the couple decided to open their shop about 15 years later, they would probably have cleaned up. Charlotte agrees that the shift in taste and the increase in value placed upon modern design has been enormous. "I remember phoning up Fritz Hansen to see whether they would make us an egg chair and them saying, 'Well, we think we can do it but we haven't made one for a couple of decades...' And now look – there are egg chairs in Foxtons estate agents, for god's sake!"
She attributes this in part to the mature spending power of the generation of young people who were captivated by the kind of designs in their shop window back in 1988 and have inculcated the same aesthetic in their children: "Recently, I went to the Vitra warehouse sale. I got there at 5am and there was this huge queue of people, lots of them really young. Some of them had been sleeping in tents for three days to buy a Charles Eames lounge chair for £99. And it suddenly struck me how people really dig design in a way that they would never have done before."
Do the Fiells harbour any ambivalent feelings about the way in which mid-century design has become a ubiquitous lifestyle marker of "cool" – to the extent that it has even been appropriated by estate agents? "You may buy an Eames chair because it is fashionable," says Peter, "but I can guarantee you that, through use, you will come to understand why it is beautiful and you will know that you don't want to buy a poorly designed chair ever again. Your own experience with good design is an education in itself, so we don't really care how people come to own good design; what matters is that they do."
Where the Fiells are less happy is in the persisting confusion between design and interior decorating: "I think the problem often comes from TV shows which often use the word "design" to mean decoration. And design has a different meaning, which is huge – it could be anything from pattern-making to scientific research."
"It's not about flouncing around and introducing neo-baroque frills to an interior," adds Peter, wryly. "Design is more profound, more holistic, more important."
It is that importance, the power of design to solve human problems on the smallest scale to the very largest, that is the driving force behind their writing. Charlotte cites the case of a particular humble kitchen implement: "Never underestimate the pleasure that you get from a really well-designed potato-peeler, or rather how hideous a badly designed one is to use. I know it's a very mundane example, but it's a good example of how good and bad design has a direct impact on the quality of our everyday lives."
On a more ambitious level, Peter is keen to point out the strong link between design and social practice: "I went to Westfield recently. It's the largest urban mall in Europe, built right next to White City, one of Europe's most deprived areas. You think, 'This is insane, this is a rough area, this place is going to be full of mall rats.' Then, unbelievably, you go in and they've got the highest-spec furniture in the common areas – things by Ross Lovegrove, Zaha Hadid, Jean-Marie Massoud. Beautiful, upholstered furniture. You think, 'How has this not been wrecked?' But it hasn't. People go in there and see that this is different from the stuff that they have at home, and they enjoy it and respect it."
Both also believe that simply choosing to buy well-designed products is one of the most important strategies at our disposal in solving the world's environmental problems. "Our future as a species relies on how we make and consume things, so we have to change our patterns. But we were talking about the importance of making things last longer before people started talking about global warming," says Peter. "If you buy something that is made to last a lifetime, you get better value for money, more joy through use and it's also the responsible way to consume. You can't argue with that. But who thinks about it like that? Just buy better and you are contributing massively. It's like Rams says, 'Less but better.'"
It is with this in mind that the Fiells have written the forthcoming Tools for Living, a comprehensive guide to the ultimate products for the home, from furniture to kitchen equipment. The idea is that people can use it as a reference book to furnish their own home, or, as Charlotte suggests, when choosing gifts for others.
"I remember when the artist Michael Landy shredded all his belongings a few years ago and it was something like 7,000 possessions. That's a huge number and a lot of it is junk," she says. "One of the ways that people end up with 7,000 things is because people panic at Christmas and birthdays and buy something novel or gimmicky. We wanted to give people a guide to really well-designed stuff, so if you do have to buy your brother something and he has a home office, say, you can buy him the best stapler and he will actually be able to use your gift every day of his life."
Of course, deep down, most of us know that buying better is the right thing to do, but the state of our bank balances is enough of an excuse to cheap out. But Charlotte points out that good design is not necessarily prohibitively expensive: "There is a huge price range in there. Le Parfait kilner jars, for example – they cost only a few pounds but they are the perfect preserving jars."
The Fiells must surely shudder at the pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap world of Ikea, then? "I have a love-hate relationship with it," says Charlotte. "Ikea is great because it is accessible, well-designed furniture, but it doesn't last. I always think, 'If only they went the extra mile...'"
"It's democratic and the intention is good," adds Peter, "they have contributed to the masses' knowledge of design – but it's not very deep. It is the look of modern design that it's promoting, but go below the surface and it's particle board."
Have they really never succumbed to the temptation of a £20 Billy bookcase? "I go and pick up lots of things and then put it all back and end up with a candle or something," says Charlotte. "Our eldest daughter went to university and she needed a desk – I did think maybe we should go to Ikea, but I couldn't. We got her a beautiful, mahogany 19th-century desk for £160 in the end, which is probably almost what you would have spent at Ikea. Hers, though, is likely to last forever."
To view the Fiells' 2010 spring catalogue, visit fiell.comReuse content