Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

What’s the use of design porn?


John Pawson apartment, Tel Aviv

If you have ever looked at a piece of ‘design’ that has just blown you away – then you will know about Design Porn. For all the vestigial Puritan in us might niggle that the material world is immaterial, things do have the ability to affect us, sometimes deeply.  In fact, the media are now so skilled at exploiting this that almost anything can be presented as deeply desirable: objective clear.

But you might also have noticed, if you look at published interiors of this type, that they rarely if ever feature human beings. The minimal modern interior is at its best when there are no human forms to sully the perfection. Even in the odd instance where a body does appear, it is usually a fey someone dressed all in black or white and reduced to an impressionistic blur. I wonder if anyone really lives like that.

It’s not difficult to become cynical about this: the images presented are not so much habitable interiors as pure art, the interior as sculpture, the whole purpose of which is the perfect image, not a place in which to live.

It’s also worth remembering that most interior photo-shoots are arranged by architects and designers and take place before the space concerned has been occupied. It is therefore free of the detritus of everyday life, and indeed the scuffs and marks that its simply being inhabited will bring.


Does this mean that it is all an illusion? Or perhaps even a delusion? I don’t think so. I find images of design perfection uplifting – because they can be, so long as you accept them for what they are: inspiration, glimpses of a life you might conceivably lead, if only the messiness of real life didn’t get in the way. It does no harm to dream. And as Elisabetta Risatto, owner of the blog Italian Bark[i] says, most people she encounters as a designer have not the first clue what they really like. Visualisations of perfection can help, as long as they don’t intimidate.


Modernism was not conceived for a billionaire’s luxury show-piece; its origins lie in the Bauhaus and mid-century Scandinavian belief in functional, democratic design for all. Eero Saarinen designed sanatoria in the modernist style fully believing in the health benefits of clean, pared back, wholesome living in this case for ill people. The Bauhaus also revolved around a democratic mass-production ethic so it’s ironic that many of the best modernist pieces have become so sought-after that they have been priced out of the reach of most ordinary mortals. There are plenty of sources of more affordable items in the same mould; the bamboo bowl above, for example cost just a few pounds. And maybe the odd signature-piece is worth the lifetime-investment.

Our own home is inspired by the minimalist wonders one sees in the press and online; I say ‘inspired’ because I don’t have the means to acquire the super-models that are frequently featured – and we do live in it full-time. I sometimes wonder what those trophy homes look like once they are occupied by people who presumably can’t help but be as imperfectly human as the rest of us, whatever the size of their bank-balance; what kind of lives do the owners of those places lead? Or maybe the point is, they are never occupied, being merely investment items of those who have far more money than sense – again rather against the spirit of the original modernism.


We have tried to make our modest space beautiful in our own eyes, and it is uplifting just to be in, on a sunny early-autumn morning like today’s. Except for the header, the pictures accompanying this piece were taken there, and you have my promise that other than a little lighting-balancing, no tricks have been played with them. I think we have proved, at least to our own satisfaction that minimal-ish modernism is a liveable, practicable style. Visitors to our home often tell us that they like it, but could somehow “never do that” themselves. But we do well enough for our own satisfaction, and come close enough to the ideal that our home is mostly a calm, relaxing and aesthetically-rich place to be. I will also add that our budget, while not tiny, is certainly not that of a trophy-home owner. That doesn’t matter: what is more important is not just to look but to see the aesthetic potential that is all around you. Pictures of perfection can help that process.

This style also has the practical benefit of being easy to clean. If only we could teach the cat to be tidy…


Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

The White-Knicker argument



Meet ‘The Trafalgar’ and ‘The Mayfair’. Together with their nostalgically-named counterparts they make up an arcadian-sounding housing development on the outskirts of a large town in eastern England. They are not cheap: even a two-bedroom semi in the Trafalgar costs in excess of ¼ million pounds. And for that money, you get a master bedroom a mere three metres square or so.


The picture above was taken this morning of the development under construction. This unmitigated monstrosity is currently being thrown up at a rate of knots – and my reaction to seeing it made me want to do something similar. What was admittedly fairly indifferent open land until a few months ago is rapidly being buried under bricks and asphalt, presumably to stay that way for a century or two – that is assuming these meretricious little hovels last that long. And it’s not only a few houses: in total there are, I should think, several square kilometres of the stuff. The mediocrity is only matched by the romanticised hyperbole with which the development is being promoted. I would suggest this verges on misrepresentation.

I know people need somewhere to live (but would you really trust the building industry to tell you how many new houses are needed?) and I know that not everyone can afford something glamorous – but this is a disgrace. Mass housing is not easy to get right, on account of its sheer volume – but is this really the best we can do?

The white-knicker argument was supposedly used by Marks & Spencer to justify only selling white underwear – because that was all their customers ever bought… The fact that people buy these things is not the reflection of positive choice that the developers would have us believe – while this is all that is provided in people’s price ranges. The U.K. has a record of building shoddy, architecturally catastrophic mass housing, but there have been enough instances of poor construction and soulless non-communities being created that you would have hoped we would have learned by now.

Wellbeing comes in many forms, but the homes we live in have to rate as one of the most significant. Actions speak louder than words, and it is not stretching the point too far to read some very antisocial attitudes into the people who allow these things to be built – namely the opinion that any old rubbish is good enough for ‘ordinary people’.

What is more, having been staggered recently at the complexity of the British planning process, and the near-paralysis it can induce, the fact that these slums of the future are still being built suggests that it is not fit for purpose. When the debates only centre on quantities and locations and virtually neglect the essential qualities that make or break new houses, what on earth is it actually achieving? The answer seems to be the utter bastardisation of this country’s natural environments and architectural heritage.

I have acquaintances ‘inside’ the planning process who overflow with stories of the abuses perpetrated by developers, from the ‘accidental’ destruction of protected trees to the social amenities that were somehow overlooked. Yet they rarely seem to be prosecuted for their failures. Then there is the widespread failure to develop infrastructure to accompany the developments; before I stopped work, my journey was becoming increasingly delayed as more and more housing developments were constructed alongside the main road, clearly on the assumption that the commuter traffic would pour out onto it every morning. Yet nothing was done to upgrade the road; while the developers are no doubt sunning themselves in their Spanish haciendas, the rest of us pay the daily price for their corner-cutting.

There have been numerous reports in the press recently about the shoddy quality of mass-produced homes – hardly surprising when one notes the unseemly haste with which they are constructed –  whereas Grand Designs’ Kevin McCloud, who is now venturing into mass home-building of a more enlightened sort, reports overwhelming demand for his products.

HAB plans for Bristol

Much better developments are being built – but they are still in the minority.

Carrowbreck Meadow, a Passivhaus development near Norwich


It is not as though people do not want better than these Disney-esque, quasi-nostalgic theme-parks to live in. It has to be admitted, though, that the British pre-occupation with ‘heritage’ (seemingly even of the fake sort) probably prevents some more innovative, contemporary solutions from getting off the ground.

It makes me extremely angry that it is still apparently acceptable to fob off much of our populace with such shoddy living spaces; experience suggests that it is not the case everywhere in Europe.

Unfortunately, the bottom line of the construction companies is still the dominant factor in determining the environments in which millions of British people live.

Arts, Architecture & Design

Happy Birthday Charles


How must if feel to walk into your office one morning, sit down at your drawing board – and come up with a design classic? I wonder if you get a sense that this is something special, perhaps your best ever work – or whether that comes later, after the acclaim.

I am simplifying, of course: the creation of a significant item is not the work of one day, even though the initial concept can perhaps come remarkably quickly. There is a great deal of research and development, material testing and more that goes into the realisation of a top-quality product.

It is twenty years since Antonio Citterio, the Italian architect-designer did just that with what has since become the iconic piece that made his name around the world: the Charles sofa for renowned furnishing company B&B Italia. It has done the same trick for the company, becoming by far their best-selling piece.


Inspired by the designs of the Sixties and named after Charles Eames, this has become an icon of contemporary design, the symbol of modernist-minimalism par excellence. Put one of these in a room and it will immediately set the agenda. This is a piece that has been copied a thousand times: If you have ever seen a sofa that is low, deep with spindly metal legs, then the chances are it is a derivative of the original Charles.

Having admired from afar, I first encountered one ‘in the flesh’ at Geoffrey Drayton’s showroom in Hampstead Road, London. My wife and I were at the stage of establishing our first home together, and seating was naturally high on the agenda.

There is something about this piece that is so close to modern perfection that it utterly deserves the recognition it has received. The fifteen-degree angle at which the sides slope is exactly right, as are the proportions of the inverted-L aluminium legs and the slimness of the base. The combination of rich fabric and polished metal, of tightly-tailored base and loose, movable cushions is another sensory feast. The raised base frees-up floor creating a sense of spaciousness, and the reflectivity of the legs creates a floating effect the seat itself. To my eye, this is a piece of design perfection that even Citterio’s other designs don’t get near.

Testing it after walking around half of London was probably not the best move; some British and American commentators have found it too firm for their liking – but firm support is actually our preference, over the traditionally squishy British alternatives. It’s interesting to realise that even notions such as comfort are to some extent culturally-defined.

Charles is a modular concept: there are numerous shapes; it has also spawned an extra-large range (as it if were not big enough already…), a bed, low tables and an outdoor version. It is not something, however, that is easily accommodated in the average tiny British sitting room – it needs space to breathe.


Unsurprisingly, such pieces do not come cheap; this is best considered a once-in-a-lifetime investment. At least it has more mileage left in it than the average used car… Beneath the slim profile is a welded steel frame, and a high-density moulded foam carcase: they should last forever. The same cannot be said, however about the fabrics, which are more beautiful than durable. At least the covers are removable…

Charles is not a sensible financial investment, but it is certainly an aesthetic one: it creates a stylistic agenda for the rest of the home; in that sense, it is worth cutting corners elsewhere for. It has visual qualities that succeed in numerous different environments and its character and proportions are so perfect that it will lift whatever space it is placed in.

This is one piece of design of which I simply never grow tired.

Antonio Citterio
Antonio Citterio
Arts, Architecture & Design

Ancient & Modern


Historically speaking, the U.K. was slow to embrace the tenets of modernism; even when modernist buildings were made in early part of the last century, they often used traditional construction techniques, with rather mixed results. Recently however, Britain has produced some superb contemporary architects and work.

The marriage of the modern with ancient always presents opportunities for intriguing and imaginative work; in my opinion, courageous approaches like the one seen here re-interpret traditional architecture in far superior way to attempting a fake-traditional approach which not only ends up looking pastiche, but often perpetuates many of the inconveniences of old styles.

This renovated farmhouse is situated on Dartmoor, a harsh, stony landscape of surprising bleakness. Minimalism has a perhaps-unexpected sympathy with the very old; the key to both in this case is simplicity. The bareness of the ancient stone contrasts deliciously both inside and out with the simple purity of the modern finishes, and the insertion of a modern space between the two older buildings is an excellent way of uniting them into a spacious whole without detracting from their integrity.

It’s pleasing to see this kind of work being produced in provincial Britain – I just wish that the volume house-builders would take note and provide something more inspiring for the many people who lack the resources needed to undertake this kind of project.

More can be seen at a website that regularly features superb contemporary architecture from around the world.

Arts, Architecture & Design

La Belle Époque: Roman River Music Summer Weekend 2017


People often suppose that living just 45 miles from London is a blessing: “all that culture and entertainment you have access to…”

Actually, it has significant downsides – and not just in property prices. My sense is that huge cities suck the life out of their hinterlands. The combination of the commuting life and socio-economic mass of such places leaves little that is viable for perhaps forty or fifty miles around. And while it is true that London does offer a cornucopia, rushing out of a concert in order to catch the ‘Vomit Comet’ last train back to the sticks rather takes the edge off the evening, even before we consider the total outlay.

So it is excellent that the Roman River Music Festival is going from strength to strength in our area. It was started by a group of musicians in 2000 and is gaining in profile each year, last year even attracting the presence of Nicola Benedetti. Essex is not exactly renowned for its high culture, so it is extremely gratifying to see this being put right, supported by  Arts Council England and the National Lottery fund.

While the core of the festival programme is classical, a wide range of genres is included, and some unusual venues adopted, all under the artistic direction of Orlando Jopling.

Thus it was a delight to be able to walk to a concert in under five minutes, held as part of the RRF’s Summer Weekend of Belle Époque French music in the church of St. Peter ad Vincula, Coggeshall.

The Navarra Quartet were joined by pianist Tom Poster, soprano Raphaela Papadakis and Americans Elena Urioste (violin) and Karim Sulayman (tenor) for works by Ravel, Chausson and Fauré. That is was top-quality music was born out by the presence of BBC Radio 3, which has recorded the entire sequence of concerts for broadcast.

The programme began with a familiar piece Pavanne pour une infant défunte, though performed for solo piano rather than the more usual orchestra. It was followed by Chausson’s Chanson Perpetuelle, La Bonne Chanson eight-song cycle by Fauré and finished with Ravel’s Piano Trio. It is not the easiest of music to listen to and while I do appreciate French music of that period, I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to provide an artistic review. However, it was clear that the performers were highly accomplished as the sparks flew in the second Ravel piece in particular.

A nice touch was the short encore, recognising the early beginnings of jazz in the era, as the ensemble played a lovely arrangement of Henry Mancini’s Moon River. The previous evening had had Gershwin.

The church has a fine acoustic, as I know from experience – and a large East Anglian ‘wool church’ presents an airy setting for summer music.

All in all an excellent antidote to the haul into London for top-quality classical music, and worthy of widespread support. This year’s main festival runs from 14th September to 1st October.

The weekend’s concerts will be broadcast this week as Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert at 1.00pm from this Tuesday. The concert mentioned above will be broadcast on Thursday.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Market Hall in Leicester


When I was a student in Leicester, I economised on food bills by hitting the local market at the end of a Saturday afternoon, when they were virtually giving the food away. On a recent visit, I was glad to see this hadn’t changed (1kilo of superb cherries for £1.20 anyone?)

One of the things that makes me proud of Britain is the ongoing renaissance of its major cities, and at last Leicester is getting its share. We are starting to see some of the vibrance of continental cities coming to the U.K., and my wife and I are mid-way through a programme of visiting them all to see what is happening.

Leicester was traditionally a city that went below the radar. In the Early 1980s when I lived there, it was pretty dowdy – but then, so were most British cities. The discovery of Richard III’s remains and the local soccer team’s rise to fame seems to have given new life to a place that always did have a buzz, thanks to its multi-ethnicity. The city also houses the National Space Centre, and an excellent steam railway on its doorstep.

We were particularly struck by the new indoor market that has replaced the gloomy 1970’s structure. I like the tensions created when contemporary architecture is juxtaposed with the old stuff, and all the more so when it is a working building rather than a trophy. In this case, the new hall sits beautifully alongside the 1850’s Grade II listed Corn Exchange. What’s more,  the old indoor market has been demolished to make way for a major new square in the heart of the old town.

Leicester has a lot of great Victorian and Edwardian architecture, and also a new theatre to replace the excellent but now-gone Haymarket – The Curve designed by Uruguyan architect Raphael Vinoly, which is leading the revival of another inner-city quarter. Well worth a visit.

Arts, Architecture & Design

Cool for Cats – 1


The little character shown below was a bit of an impulse arrival, being a local rescue cat, and he has been excellent ‘therapy’ during my period of convalescence.


We’d discussed having a cat many times before, but always put the decision off. Cats, interior design and model-making don’t really go together. And we weren’t sure how he would cope with the ‘pipes either. (More on that another time…)

Anyway, he arrived in early February and is a delight. But we were keen not to fill the house with fluffy pet tat, as seems the norm. The usual internet search revealed plenty of nicely designed pet furniture – but most of it is in the States or mainland Europe and much is not available in the U.K. What does our choice of pet accoutrements say about our national character, I wonder?

Eventually we were able to track down some essential items that have if nothing else not detracted from their surroundings. This piece in question is a cat cave and comes from Meyou in Paris. Not cheap, but we decided to bite the bullet on this one, and it is certainly an attractive, tactile item. But despite ‘encouragement’ Notley refused to go near it for several months, until one day my wife discovered him curled up asleep inside, and the cave now receives regular use. Which just goes to show that you can take the cave to the cat but…

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