Over the last few weeks I have been watching a BBC show that unfortunately isn’t available here in the USA. The broadcast is “The Genius of Design”, and it focuses on design topics and practices from industrial design to graphic design and all touch points in between. I was lucky enough to find the first 5 episodes online, and after some lengthy downloads, took time to watch them. (no I won’t post links to the copy-write protected content, you must find it on your own.)
One of the people who has been interviewed throughout the series is Jasper Morrison, who is quite arguably one of today’s most influential industrial designers. And because of Morrison’s profound influence on the world of design, he is the subject of today’s “Design Friday Post”.
If you want to truly understand Jasper Morrison’s work, you should flip through a copy of “World Without Words”. This is a series of images that Morrison compiled in 1988 from a collection of second-hand books and postcards. The images range from one of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion houses and Gerald Summers’ one piece plywood chair to a fisherman’s hut on Hastings’ shingly beach, each image illustrates the wit and elegance with which Morrison has revitalised rationalist design.
Morrison was born in London in 1959 and grew up there as well as New York City, when his father an advertising executive was posted in the United States. He studied design at Kingston Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art. In 1986, a year after graduating from the RCA, Morrison opened his Office for Design in London.
Morrison cites his early influences as his grandfather’s study – a light, bright room furnished in the modernist style and an Eileen Gray exhibition he saw at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. During his student years, Morrison became interested in the work of modernist pioneers – such as Buckminster Fuller, Gerald Summers, Jean Prouvé , Le Corbusier, and Eames. In 1981 Morrison saw the first exhibition of the Memphis Movement’s furniture designs in Milan, This exhibition became a major inspiration for his thinking on design. Later Morrison described the experience as: “Just fantastic. Here was proof that none of the old design rules mattered any more.”.
Jasper Morrison has always been a designer that focused on industrial production. Rather than making a single piece, or short run of production mockups by hand, Morrison went to small industrial workshops which would make up small quantities of objects from ready-made industrial components. His 1984 Flower Pot Table, for instance, was made from a glass circle supported by a stack of ordinary flower pots.
Over time Morrison won commissions from SCP in London; FSB, the German door handle maker; Cappellini, the Italian furniture manufacturer; and Vitra, the Swiss furniture company whose chairman, Rolf Fehlbaum, contacted Morrison after seeing a slide presentation of A World Without Words.
In 1988 Morrison created “Some New Items For The House”, a room set for the Berlin Design Werkstadt exhibition. The set consisted of chairs, tables, a chaise longue, four walls and a door – all made from plywood. At first glance, the objects looked banal with their simple lines and familiar forms, but closer inspection revealed the quiet intelligence with which Morrison had refined them. Critic Charles Arthur Boyer, described the pieces as Morrison having “crystallised” his design ethos: “to produce everyday objects for everyone’s use, make things lighter not heavier, softer not harder, inclusive rather than exclusive, generate energy light and space”.
Morrison has pursued that specific goal ever since. He still works for Vitra and Cappellini, and has now nurtured a strong working relationship with other clients including Flos, the Italian lighting company; Italian plastic manufacturer Magis; Rosenthal, the timeless German porcelain manufacturer; and Italian design the giant Alessi. The perfectly plain 1998 Tin Family steel kitchen tins he produced for Alessi and 1997 Moon tableware for Rosenthal echo the apparent simplicity and underlying subtlety of his aesthetic, and the “archetypal objects” that Morrison searches for constantly with his design process.
Critically, Morrison’s clients have also allowed him to experiment with new materials and technologies. The results include his 1999 Low Pad Chair for Cappellini, which was inspired by one of Morrison’s favourite mid-20th century chairs – the Danish designer, Poul Kjaerholm’s 1956 steel and leather Chair, but used a new method of condensed upholstery to create a comfortable, but durable padded leather seat. Another technical coup is his 1999 Air Chair, an elegant, relatively inexpensive moulded dining chair made from a single piece of plastic using Magis’s new gas injection technology.
In recent years Morrison has tackled even more complex commissions: notably by designing a light rail system for the city of Hanover in what he described as “an exhausting, but not unenjoyable” two-year project. He has also collaborated with the Swiss architects of London’s Tate Modern museum, Herzog & de Meuron, to furnish its public spaces with his Low Pad Chairs and 1998 Op-lá tray table for Alessi.
In 2000, Jasper Morrison departed from his self-imposed rule of concentrating on industrial production by accepting a commission from a museum in the Provençal village of Vallauris to produce a limited edition of ceramics made by local artisans. The result, as Morrison himself admits, shares the sleekness and formal clarity of his industrial designs. Rather than being flattered by his interest, the European craft community was outraged. “Why work with the ancient skills of the Vallauris potters,” railed an editorial in one craft magazine, “to make something that looks as if it came from a factory?”
In the early 2000s Morrison set up a new studio in Paris and proceeded to divide his working life between there and London. He acquired new clients such as Rowenta, the French household appliances manufacturer for which he is developing a new range of kitchen products including kettles, irons and coffee machines. Morrison also sustained his relationship with established clients by designing new projects for Cappellini, Magis and Vitra.