Contemporary English design: between pragmatism and inventiveness

In contrast to its Italian, Scandinavian, French and American counterparts, English design was rather discreet in the first part of the 20th century, as well as in the aftermath of the Second World War. However, the United Kingdom, especially England, has a real history of furniture. We speak of English style rather than English design, because it goes back to previous centuries: from the Renaissance to the beginning of the 19th century. The pronounced English taste for wooden furniture, particularly mahogany, with its classic forms characteristic of English decoration, was not exported, or only very rarely

Apart from the figure of William Morris (1834-1896), an English furniture and objets d’art manufacturer who defended and campaigned for the rehabilitation of handmade work and for bringing the artist closer to the craftsman (Arts & Crafts movement, 1880-1910), it was not until the early 1960s that an English personality, Robin Day, gained recognition beyond the borders of his country. But it is only since the end of the 1970s that English design has asserted itself, thanks to an exceptional generation of designers born in the 1950s who continue to express their talent today. Is there a British design DNA? To sum up, we could say that it combines pragmatism, technique, love of organic forms and creativity.

Robin Day (1915-2010), a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, launched his own design studio with his wife, Lucienne Day (1917-20102), in 1948. A fan of cheerful design using the new materials of the time, in 1962 he created the famous “Polyprop ” chair, so called because it is composed of a single polypropylene shell fixed to tubular steel legs. Designed for the English furniture manufacturer Hille, for whom he would become design director, the ” Polyprop” was a success, selling millions of units. Robin and Lucienne Day are considered the pioneers of modernist design in Great Britain.

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(1962/1963). This emblematic chair, practical because it can be stacked, and produced in more than 14 million copies, made the reputation of the English furniture publisher Hille, which still produces the seat today.
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Before achieving international success with the “Polyprop”, Robin Day designed a number of chairs for Hille in the 1950s, including the 675 Chair, produced in 1952 (back in walnut plywood).

Two English designers of foreign origin who settled in London then made their mark; two strong personalities, trained in the 1970s at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London: Zaha Hadid (1950-2016) and Ron Arad (1951).

The former was born into an upper class Sunni family in Baghdad, Iraq, moved to Lebanon where she studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut, before moving to London to study architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture. Zaha Hadid, who sadly died of a heart attack in 2016, is best known for her architecturally sophisticated buildings. She launched her own practice in 1980, but also collaborated with international publishers, particularly Italian ones: Alessi, B&B Italia, CITCO, LAB23, etc.

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In 1993, Zaha Hadid built herfirstcompletebuilding, a fire station on the production site of the Swiss furniture manufacturer Vitra, in Weil-am-Rhein (Germany). A fire destroyed almost the entire production site in Weil-am-Rhein in 1981, so Vitra decided to rebuild the site and equip it with its own fire station!
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Fire station for Vitra in Weil-am-Rhein, architect: Zaha Hadid, 1993. Zaha Hadid’s architectural style is characterised by intertwining lines and curves, sharp angles and superimposed planes. It is a complex but light architecture.
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Fire station for Vitra in Weil-am-Rhein, interior view, architect: Zaha Hadid, 1993.

Ron Arad was born in 1951 in Tel Aviv and trained by the Franco-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London at the same time as Zaha Hadid. He met with success in the early 1980s with the Rover chair(1981) and the Well-Tempered Chair in1986. In 1993, he created a worldwide bestseller, the Bookwormshelf publishedby Kartell. Ron Arad is a highly creative designer with an artistic approach that leads him to manipulate, experiment and transform materials.

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Rover armchair, 1981, designed by Ron Arad. As a very creative designer, Ron Arad has reappropriated a Rover car seat. The seat tubes are made of black lacquered bent steel, with “Kee Klamp” type connecting elements
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The incredible Bookworm wall bookcase by Ron Arad for Kartell, 1993. Literally meaning a “bookworm”, the Bookworm is mounted on a wall with the help of fake books. The ingenuity of this piece: a flexible structure induced by the metal, which allows this wall shelf to “undulate”, in opposition to the straight lines of more traditional bookcases.
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Ron Arad, Fantastic Plastic Elastic chair 8009 FPE for Kartell, 1997. An incredible look and feel for this seat made of coloured polypropylene, the uprights are made of extruded painted aluminium. Ron Arad makes full use of the deforming properties of plastic to deliver a piece of furniture that looks elastic, hence its name!

Very fortunately for British design, Zaha Hadid and Ron Arad have talented successors who are making British design a world reference. Three singular personalities born at the end of the 1950s stand out: Ross Lovegrove (1958), Jasper Morrison (1959) and Tom Dixon (1959).

The first, Ross Lovegrove, defines himself above all as an industrial designer (he worked on the design of Sony’s Walkman portable music players and the iMac computer), an aesthete of technology and who appreciates, above all, organic design(link to design-market website). In 1990, he made design history with a seemingly basic object, but which he revisited incredibly: a simple thermos jug which he transformed into a transparent object exploring the relationship between interior and exterior. This is perhaps one of the most copied concepts in contemporary design. Nature is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for this extraordinary designer who creates works with pure, sober and authentic curves

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Thermos Basic carafe, design Ross Lovegrove & Julian Brown, 1990. A futuristic piece for its time with transparent polycarbonate plastic that in no way hides the structure, purpose or material. Lovegrove gives the everyday object a new look.
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A glimpse of the central piece, the glass thermos jug. The elements can be easily combined.
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In 1998 Ross Lovegrove invented the Go Chair for the American publisher Bernhardt design. A chair that has become iconic, with a great purity of form and refined elegance. It is also thefirst chairto be made entirely of magnesium and is a testament to its designer’s taste for organic forms.
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Go chair, detail. In his career, Ross Lovegrove has multiplied his collaborations and knows how to do everything: watches, yachts, clothes, etc. He uses sophisticated techniques and materials to create his designs. He uses sophisticated techniques and materials.

Born in the same year, Jasper Morrison is perhaps the most influential figure in British design today. Like Ross Lovegrove, he is a lover of form. A graduate of Kingston Polytecnic Design School and the Royal College of Art in London, Morrison designs functional, sober and synthetic pieces, in short, minimalist design, the opposite of the Italian Memphis movement of the early 1980s. He can be said to be the worthy successor of Robin Day and of a pragmatic English design tradition (the English have traditionally preferred utility and comfort to decoration). He advocates a return to the primacy of function in the object.

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One of the most emblematic pieces created by Jasper Morrison for Artifort: the Vega armchair (1990). It has everything to please. Original, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, with only two round cushions as back and seat, a metal rod to connect them and a metal base.
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Like Ross Lovegrove, Jasper Morrison is a jack-of-all-trades, and exercises his talent in many fields other than furniture, such as his work for Alessi and the design of the pepper and spice mill Pépé le Moko (1998). Its simple appearance and beautiful forms are appealing, in reference to the long history of everyday objects
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In 1999, Jasper Morrison designed the Air-Chair for the Italian publisher Magis, a seat that prefigures the traditional outdoor plastic chair. It is a “super normal” seat, in the words of its creator, practical and comfortable.
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In addition to being comfortable, the Air-Chair is stackable. Other models have been added to the Air-Chair by Magis, which markets the Air-Family.

The enfant terrible of contemporary English design is Tom Dixon (1959). This self-taught man discovered his love of design by trying his hand at welding. He started by designing recycled metal furniture for his friends. He quickly met with success with pieces that embodied a new industrial spirit. An immoderate love for raw materials, craftsmanship and industrial forms. A rock’n’roll image, but work that is recognised worldwide, propelling him to become artistic director for Habitat and Artek, the famous company founded by Alvar Aalto.

S Chair, design Tom Dixon (1991/1992) for Cappellini. This chair with its incredible shape reveals Tom Dixon to the general public and launches his career. Instantly recognisable curves, a terrible look!
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S Chairs, design Tom Dixon (1991/1992) Originally made with fabric or leather upholstery, the S Chair is also available in other materials such as wicker.
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Beat Trio Linear suspension lamp, design Tom Dixon, brand Tom Dixon. Tom Dixon excels in the art of designing lighting. He works with materials such as brass and copper to great effect.
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View of the interior of the Beat Trio Linear Suspension, a classic by the designer. Luminous hammered brass interior, a work of goldsmith..
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MELT copper suspension lamp, Tom Dixon design, Tom Dixon brand.

If we wanted to sum up contemporary English design in a few words, we could say that it inherited a preference for the functionality of the object, but that creative personalities have since infused it with an aesthetic modernity combined with a subtle art of discrepancy, between pragmatism and inventiveness..

Today, it is the talented Edward Barber (1969) and Jay Osgerby (1969) who have taken up the torch left by a generation of fascinating designers.

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Button tables by Barber & Osgerby for B&B Italia, 2014

François Boutard