Arts, Architecture & Design

Voice of an angel


Julie Fowlis, King’s Place, London.

Far more people have heard Julie Fowlis sing than are probably aware of the fact. Her ‘big moment’ to date was being commissioned to produce some of the backing music for Disney’s “Brave”; she also featured on BBC4’s well-received Transatlantic Sessions and on Jools Holland’s show in 2007. Despite that, she remains largely unknown outside the world of traditional music – which is probably just how she likes it – a more unaffected performer you could not find.

She sings almost entirely in Gaelic, having grown up on the Outer Hebridean island of North Uist. She is perhaps the first such singer to come close to breaking through into a more mainstream audience, despite the comments above. There was a moment a few years ago when it briefly seemed that she might be tempted to cross over into the commercial mainstream – and then she backed off again. She has resolutely resisted the temptation to move into English, which could no doubt secure her that much wider audience, but for her followers, it is her contemporary but sympathetic interpretation of Gaelic song that is part of her charm – which remains resolutely alien to anglophone ears for all that it is an indigenous British language.

Judging by the tour schedule, she and her band had probably started out from home near Inverness earlier in the same day in order to do this performance; indeed Eamonn Doorley observed that there were some ‘oblique brains’ on stage as a result – not that it showed.

The two 45minute sets were as close to note-perfect as makes no odds, though admittedly a fair proportion was long-established music, which made it no less welcome. Interspersed discretely with this were some items from her newly-released fifth album Alterum, which does include a couple of deviations from the previous norm – one the Annie Briggs song Go Your Way, and another a beautiful Galician song Camarinas – sung in a mixture of Galician and Gaelic, which in my view would be a more successful avenue to explore than English revival folk song.

Fowlis has an amazingly dynamic voice, ranging from the ethereal to the rhythmic, slightly hard-edged tones needed for the Puirt à beul a form of mouth-music of light-hearted, bawdy or nonsensical lyrics that were used for dancing, in the absence of formal instruments. It demands immensely tight vocal control and dynamic, and to intersperse it with whistle-playing as Julie Fowlis does requires superb breath control. The physical demands of the songs were often visible on stage.

Fowlis’ band comprises first-rate musicians – her husband Eamonn Dooley on bouzouki and Tony Byrne on guitar, outstanding Scottish fiddle-player Duncan Chisholm, and double-bassist Ewen Vernal. They play a tidy set of tunes too, often modern compositions in the traditional idiom. Fowlis herself is classically trained, playing not only whistles, but flute, oboe, cor anglais and accordion and both great and small Scottish pipes. It was much to our delight that she returned to the stage to finish the encore set on the Highland Pipes.


As a ‘way in’ to the world of traditional music, Julie Fowlis is superb. While she retains authenticity and respect for her roots, both her treatment of it and her persona have done much to appeal to a wider audience. I particularly like the fact that her success (she is also a T.V. presenter in Scotland and Ireland) has had no discernible effect on her personality, and she is still a modest, even slightly retiring presence on stage. Her music is greatly suited to intimate venues such as Hall One at the King’s Place, and the Sam Wannamaker Theatre where we saw her couple of years ago.

And I also like the fact that the entire team (including the sound engineer who had risen at 4am to fly from Inverness for the gig) were Scottish or Irish – evidence right in the heart of the capital that there is a whole world of ‘Celtic fringe’ culture going on out there in a part of the world, stretching from the Hebrides through Ireland to Brittany and Galicia, of which London is usually barely conscious.

Arts, Architecture & Design

Fabulous Belgians



Attitudes towards architecture and design are, I think, influenced by the differing physical and social environments that give them birth. I’ve always looked to Switzerland, Italy, Australia and Japan for my interiors inspiration, places that aren’t afraid of the radically modern. There are some very good modern British architects, too, perhaps in a slightly gentler way – the work of David Chipperfield and John Pawson always inspires – though as always in Britain, modernism – the slightly-pejoratively named ‘International Style’ – seems to come with overtones of wealth and exclusivity.

One place that has remained somewhat below the radar in respect to modern architecture , is the Low Countries. I think it is fair to say that in Britain, Belgium in particular has always had a rather non-identity. But there is a large amount of excellent, distinctive design being produced in both Belgium and The Netherlands, of whom some of the fashion designers such as Dries van Noten and Anne Demeulmeester are higher profile. But the same spirit of under-stated and crisp minimalism is increasingly to be found in the work of those countries’ architects too, with practices such as Minus and Klaarchitectuur gaining a growing reputation, as well as a number of smaller practices such as Frederic Kielmoes. It has had some success in diverting me for the time being at least, from my more usual diet.


On reflection, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a culture that produced medieval Flemish gothic is good at architecture generally – though I must admit the old stuff always used to feel rather dour and overblown to me, until I learned to like it by spending time in Lille.

What is interesting about the Flemish take on modernism is that it seems closely suited to the quiet, unassuming landscapes, often post-industrial towns and pale light in which it is seen. Perhaps that is why its use of stark contrast works so well, with both very blond and very dark woods, slubby greys, inky blacks and just the very occasional ‘pop’ of saturated colour giving a little more support than is usual to the pure, slightly bluish-whites. It is rather different from the all-white of more ‘traditional’ modernism, which relies to a greater extent on strong natural light and a dry climate for maximum impact. Here, the restricted palette allows colour to come from either possessions or carefully-framed views of the exterior, which become almost art-works in their own right when seen against the monochrome interiors.


It is a striking and almost austere aesthetic, with overtones of the Old Masters as well as a nod to mid-century style in the simple, natural material chosen for the signature furniture pieces. It has an ethereal edge to it, too, which sits especially nicely within the region’s coastlines of dunes, grasses and big skies. It demonstrates, too, that modernism does not require glamorous surroundings in order to work.


As with many cultural matters, there is a visible continuity with the work of the previously-mentioned British architects such as Chipperfield and Pawson, though I rather like the fact that the Flemish work is perhaps a degree more sombre than the more forgiving British versions. In addition to the buildings themselves, the Belgians have a number of companies producing crisp, high-tech lighting and other fixtures, with companies like Modular and Deltalight being in the avant-guard.


What is more, there are some fascinating juxtapositions of ancient and modern taking place, which seems to work particularly well with the slightly gloomy traditional architecture of the region.

So there we are: a ‘school’ of architecture worth watching, and one that might have things to lend to Britain’s aesthetic as well. I suspect that many will consider such pure interiors impossible to live normal lives in – but I’m not so sure. There is nothing here that says ordinary, messy life should not go on within: it’s just a matter of how the buildings are organised to keep it contained.

And a few more things to add to the growing list of notable Belgians.


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.

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