Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Seeing the urban light


Fête des Lumières Lyon 2017

One of the things I admire about continental European countries is the way they ‘inhabit’ their towns and cities. While we in Britain have made great strides with revitalising our main urban areas in recent years, I always feel that the continentals, and in particular the French and Italians have a superior sense of urbanism. And it often extends to the smaller towns in a way that it often doesn’t in the U.K., where many of their equivalents feel half-hearted, if not hollowed-out.

Continental towns are not simply machines for shopping; they do not seem to have suffered from the corporate erosion of public space as has been highlighted here recently: for better or worse, squares and streets belong to all the people, and are not the sanitised pathways between shops that one sees here, with any ‘undesirable’ elements rapidly being moved on by private security guards. Consequently they seem to me to have a more authentic life to them, not that that is to diminish the hardship felt by the homeless, for example.

Another aspect of this is the number and scale of the festivals that take place; again Britain is catching up – we seem to have caught the habit of Christmas markets recently – but somehow we still don’t quite have the ‘conviction’ that comes from such festivities being long-established. Perhaps it will come with time.

I have always enjoyed the genuine communality of such festivals, amongst them the Herbstmesse and Fassnacht in Basel, and the Christmas market and Fête des Géants in Lille.

One on my bucket list is the Fête des Lumières in Lyon, which is has been happening this week. I like Lyon a lot: for a large city, it is remarkably civilised, and has a cosmopolitanism and sophistication that its British equivalents have yet to learn. The FdL is one of the most spectactular festivals I know, its technical accomplishment and, it has to be said expense, something that is beyond the ambitions of most cash-strapped British local Councils. That said, I think a large amount of it has to come down to vision, and it probably helps that the French have a great sense for graphic art, and they originated the ‘son et lumière’ spectacles of which this is probably the greatest. Every time watch, I am amazed at the creativity and technical accuracy of these artists of light. Enjoy the clips from this year’s festival.



Arts, Architecture & Design

Simple is beautiful


As if proof were needed that good design need not cost the earth, here is an example of beautiful design that comes at an attractive price…

David Mellor is recognised as a leading figure in modern British design, and is the Royal Designer for Industry. He trained as a silversmith and made his name designing and manufacturing cutlery, in a plain but classic style deriving from mid-century modern design. His most ubiquitous piece of work is the British traffic light, which he designed in 1966.

His company is based in a modern-vernacular building at Hathersage in Derbyshire, now run by his son Corin. David Mellor died in 2009.

Mellor’s range has been extended over the years into other tablewares and beyond, and I particularly like this piece of bone china tableware. Like the cutlery, the design is plain and the materials fine but simple. In those circumstances, form is all, and the shape of these bowls is perfect. Being bone china, they are of very fine outline and crisp definition, and the white finish is a solid warm shade unlike the slight grey of much cheap white tableware.

We have replaced some broken breakfast bowls with these (simple is what I need in the morning…) but I think even the small ones are good enough to act as display items in their own right. While gathering a whole service would not be particularly cheap, a single breakfast bowl costs around £10. A larger size is also available.


Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Modernism on a marshy coast


Having been born a westerner, to me the coast always meant towering cliffs and rocky outcrops with crashing waves or at least a decent swell. By contrast, the eastern coast of England is deeply uneventful, as the land (sometimes literally) slips apologetically into the sea. On this side of the country, you have to go to Yorkshire before anything more dramatic happens. I recall looking at maps of the country as a child, and thinking that the bit of the coastline north of London looked particularly untidy, before it sorts itself out north of Ipswich into the distinctive bulge of East Anglia.

The sea (well, the nearest salty inlet) is a mere ten miles from my home, and yet much of Essex feels distinctly un-coastal. By a strange fluke of geography, the country actually wraps itself around its coast, so that you can travel a good forty road miles, approach the coast and find yourself looking across at a place not very far from where you started. But if you add up the total length of the salt marshes, inlets and creeks, it adds up to the longest (salt-water) coastline of any county in England.

It’s a chaotic landscape of salt marsh, mud flat and low-lying islands, some of which can be reached by causeways at low tide. It’s also one that human activity has done its very best to mess up further, with a legacy of jerry-building extending from some of the earlier fishermen’s sheds by way of oil refineries to acres of sprawling mobile home camps clamped desperately around little apologies for beaches, which for most of the time lead you not so much to water as vast expanses of mud. The recent addition of off-shore wind-farms tames the scene further, though I must admit an admiration for those graceful and slightly surreal structures, which I think are at least an improvement on Shell Haven refinery. I suppose if you grew up in Tower Hamlets, it’s a welcome release. Yet, over the years I have come to appreciate that it does have a rather melancholy atmosphere of its own.

The Blackwater estuary at low tide


And it does yield bounty, even if one might have reservations about the water-quality of the North Sea. Mersea Island near Colchester has been the source of oysters since Roman times, while further south, Maldon’s marshes are home to a particularly fine sea salt. The area is internationally recognised as a sea-bird sanctuary, and I have seen seals just off the beach at Walton on the Naze.

I do wish, however that more had been done to prevent the particularly sad kind of sprawl that I mentioned earlier: it takes a lot to see even a little of the picturesque in the rows of caravans, and blingy housing estates. So it was pleasing yesterday to walk out past Maldon to the beginnings of open coastline on the way to Goldhanger. A cold wind was blowing in off the sea (special delivery from Norway) so it was wrap-up-warm weather. We (two former colleagues and I) headed for what passes as a headland where a set of rather unusual-looking structures could be seen, and not far from where we knew there was one of the excellent Tiptree Tea Shops. These have spread in recent years to become a much-appreciated highlight of the more visit-able places in this ambivalent county. They are the creation of another eminent local concern, Wilkin Jams of Tiptree (by Royal Appointment), and they serve excellent lunches, cakes and cream teas.

The structures, built by Osea Leisure Park, turned out to be a modern take on traditional Indian Ocean beach hut no less, a line of ten in contrasting pastels, perched on stilts and just 20cm above the water at high tide. They were designed to have minimal impact on the protected beach beneath. It’s pleasing to see some genuinely innovative, high quality architecture being put into such a place – even if the cost of purchasing one, around £25,000, means it’s hardly a democratic gesture…


The nearby tea room offered a refuge from the wind, and served up warm drinks and cakes before our return to the cars at Heybridge Basin. Looked at from the right angle, it could almost have been somewhere much more romantic, even a little Arthur Ransome. Just shows what a little imagination can do to the way humans intervene in even relatively mundane places.

The Osea View tea room

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Well rounded people


Autumn term 1975. Monday morning started with double woodwork – and for me the slightly strange experience of learning in my father’s department. Although it’s perhaps a pity it didn’t come mid-way through the week, I always looked forward to the lesson (which was not taught by my Pa…). Given the academic routine of the grammar school, I found great pleasure of making dovetail joints or turning bowls on the lathe for a change. Unlike certain of my father’s colleagues, I never saw practical lessons as inferior, and I think it is where my now much-valued aesthetic appreciation and streak of perfectionism came from. I well remember my father’s fury when, one day he was summoned to the Headmaster’s office (where he was still seen as the chippie) and instructed to repair fifty wooden exam desks. He replied that he was not the odd-jobs man. Indeed, he was and is a highly-skilled cabinet-maker.

It was also interesting how some of the best in the class during those lessons were not the academic stars (though there was crossover); I think it was good that this gave those with different talents a chance to shine – and the academic ones a taste of what it was like to struggle a bit.

This recollection is particularly in my mind at the moment as my father, now 83, (and still making violins for a hobby) is currently collaborating with a young friend and me to construct a facsimile of a mid-century Scandinavian piece of furniture  by Kai Kristiansen in American black walnut (shown in rosewood above). It is a wood he has never worked before and he is quite excited by the prospect; it is proving to be a most enjoyable experience, which has ranged from researching the original, to analysing the construction, adapting it for the workshop and personal taste, to sourcing suitable timber. A specification and price has been agreed, and construction will start shortly.

Practical skills have been repeatedly looked down on by educators in this country; it is though they are somehow insufficiently worthy, given their apparent lack of intellectual rigour. My former teacher Peter Whitton knew this was not true, for despite being a Classicist, he was never happier than in his woodwork shop, where he too turned out fine pieces.

At present, I am starting to look at what I do next; the medication is gone, and I can feel my mental strength returning little by little. Amongst a number of ‘irons in the fire’ I am tempted to branch part-time into interior design, a field I have followed for many years. I defy anyone to claim that the processes involved are intellectually weak; indeed, I know of few so demanding exercises as solving difficult design dilemmas. And then there is the fact that one (hopefully) has a beautiful end product, which can be admired by those with the aesthetic sensitivity to do so. It is very tempting to sign up for that diploma.

Last Friday, we went to the opening night of Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Life of Julie Cope at FirstSite in Colchester; I am also currently reading his book The Descent of Man, and despite Perry’s lurid persona and less than rigorous academic background, let no one claim that this is not both a skilled and highly erudite man.

At the other end of the spectrum, I know of individuals educated to the highest academic levels, who are not able to perform the simplest practical tasks for themselves, and who seemingly lack any ability really to see (in the deep sense) beauty in their surroundings. They may have trained minds (and I’m all for that) but they seem impoverished in other ways. Is this the cost of the strong emphasis on academia? The ultimate sadness for my father came some years ago when the Craft & Design department he had founded and developed over forty years was closed to make way for a computer suite. No more opportunity for today’s sixth formers to do something practical as part of their week’s programme.

This is short-sighted: many highly-educated people do also appreciate the arts and practical crafts; they provide a complete diversion into another rich aspect of life which I for one would never be without. Peter also knew this, as did the many clearly-thoughtful people at the Perry exhibition.

Only target-chasing educational managers seem snooty enough to disparage the breadth that comes from the empowerment to produce and appreciate tangible works. Our neighbouring nations such as Germany have never disparaged practical skills either – and a comparison of the two nations’ economies tells all that need to be said about that.

Bring back double woodwork on Monday mornings – especially in the most academic schools. Breadth, depth and richness in education is important.

Arts, Architecture & Design

Don’t (just) Dream


First World problems.

Some months after my wife bought one, I eventually yielded to the temptation of a tablet computer, the main reason being a wish to cut down on the amount of recycling generated by my rather sizeable magazine consumption. I’m happy to say it worked – but I felt that if I was going to be spending quite a lot of time with that item, it deserved to be done properly. In particular, I like a book that I am going to be holding for a lot of time to be pleasingly tactile, and I didn’t see why a tablet case should be less so. One can also add that a tablet is both more fragile and more expensive than the average book, and so perhaps needs a suitable case all the more.

The official Samsung case came in at about £50 and was only available in a very limited range of colours and finishes, so I  hunted through the hundreds of cases available online. Most were surprisingly cheap; I eventually bought one that looked promising. It started well, but inside a month, two of the clips holding the tablet in place had broken, and there were signs of further imminent deterioration. So after another considerable hunt, I bought a slightly more expensive replacement. This lasted rather longer – but it had several design flaws, not least the inability to charge the tablet with the cover closed – and it too soon started to deteriorate. At this stage, I also found out that ‘PU leather’ is a euphemism for polyurethane and is, in my view pushing its luck with trade description law. Time for another re-think.

Next I bought a Danish-designed leather cover – albeit made in India. This would have been quite costly had it not been an end-of-line model. It was better on the tactility front, but it turned out still not to permit case-closed charging, and after a few weeks, the ridges against which the open cover rests came loose inside its lining, meaning the tablet would not stand up properly.

Further searching – and eventually I landed on the Noreve website. This company specialises in what it calls ‘haute couture for devices’ These covers are hand-made to order in St Tropez no less, from top-quality leathers, the colours and finish of which can be specified on ordering. They have a small range in stock, and there is a wait of about two weeks for a made-to-order specimen.

As always, I staked out the website for several weeks until a sale came up, with a significant reduction on offer; I pounced. The case eventually arrived, not only well-packaged, but also in its own box and cloth travel-bag. Très chic. The claims made by Noreve are not over-stated: the case grips the tablet firmly but unobtrusively, and it is still possible to remove it when needed; strong magnets hold the case closed without the need for a strap. All of the function ports are fully accessible and the material finish is beautifully tactile – rather akin to holding a leather-bound volume in one’s hands. The experience of using the tablet is significantly enhanced as a result. My only criticism is that there appears to be no magnetic auto-off function when closing the case.


Six months later, Noreve emailed me asking if I wanted to replace the case with a new one; it was very tempting to reply by asking whether they were expecting the original to have fallen apart, not that there appeared to be any chance whatsoever of that happening. Indeed the case is just starting to loosen up and mellow nicely.

Judging by the prices of other goods on their website, I suspect that many Noreve items are bought by those who can afford to treat them as disposable – which I most definitely cannot, neither would not wish to. Judging from progress to date, this will last many years – and as it is what I had had in mind to begin with, there is going to be little temptation to change. Some may be interested to note that they also provide mobile phone covers for a vast range of phones, as well as specs cases and other niceties.

The £75 I paid for the case was about 50% higher than the Samsung one, and about the same amount more than the total cost of the several failed cheap efforts I had purchased to begin with. But I expect this to last many times longer and therefore justify the outlay.

Moral of the story: always follow your own advice and buy the best you can afford to start with.

Noreve products are also available from third-party suppliers including Amazon, though in limited styles and not to order.

(Usual disclaimer)


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.