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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.