Material Boy: Philippe Malouin

The British-Canadian designer, who has worked for Tom Dixon and taught at the Royal College of Art, invites creative limitations to conjure his eclectic and soulful works – from chairs to buildings – into being     

Photography Taylor Lyttleton

“Design works well when you set constraints,” says Philippe Malouin, who has worked in London since 2009. “We are always being told ‘Do what you want’ by the brands that come to see us, but no-limit design does not give good results. I would much rather be asked to design a chair in wood, with a given height and no arms, than to have no limits.”

If the client won’t spell out a limit, Malouin finds a way to do it for himself. The kind of constraints that he sets for himself range all the way from making a mass-produced mirror using only a single piece of standard stainless steel tube, to a limited-edition vivid yellow desk, entirely made out of nylon by casting it in a mould. (The trick with the mirror is to press the top two thirds of the tube flat very carefully, and then polish it until you really can see your face in it, while leaving the tube intact at the other end to allow the finished object to stand upright on a table. It’s yours for £125.)

Brick lamp for Umbra Shift

The desk and a number of related pieces are collectively known as Industrial Office. The group includes a storage system, some smaller accessories – such as steel hooks, desk tidies and a hat stand – along with a nylon telephone and a desk chair made from hollow steel sections that seems to be channelling memories of the 1960s seen through the filter of cubism.

They are available from the New York art-gallery owner Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn at her Salon 94 Design offshoot.

Alexander Street chair for Man of Parts and Group chair for SCP

The constraint of making a mirror out of stainless steel tubing is, conceptually at least, not unlike the one involved in making a desk out of a single material and without fixings. But there are other things going on with the Industrial Office project too; not least that Malouin loves nylon. “It has a low friction coefficient, so you can make a sliding drawer without bearings; you can get fantastic colours; its hard wearing and if it comes to it, fully recyclable.”

An unused spring in the studio

He is well aware that to confess enthusiasm for plastic of any kind is about as transgressive these days as to go elephant shooting; but this is not some Trumpite attempt to deliberately offend. He is asking us to see this demonised material in a different way. By making it into a gallery piece he is doing the exact opposite of designing disposable single-use plastic bottles. “The desk will never be thrown away. Used in this way, the meaning of the material is completely changed,” he says. Industrial Office can also be understood as an epitaph for the kind of workplace that was once universal, but which had already taken on the wistful quality of an endangered species even before COVID-19 finally consigned it to history. The searing colour serves to dissipate the sense of melancholy.

The mirror and the desk are two very different kinds of object. One is made in relatively large numbers, the other has the aura of an editioned piece. But they both reflect Malouin’s belief in the continuing relevance of physical things that we can touch and feel.

Scirocco chair made for Volkswagen in 2008, with smaller Hardie Stools underneath

Malouin, who was born in 1982, studied industrial design in Montreal and Paris, before moving to the Netherlands where he was a student at the Eindhoven Design Academy. He showed Grace, the inflatable table initially made for his graduation project, at the Cologne Furniture Fair. When fully inflated on its folding wooden legs, it’s big – able to accommodate 10 people – and sturdy enough for Malouin to be photographed standing on it. However, let the air out, and it packs away into a duffle bag. It was an inventive-enough idea to get him an internship in Amsterdam with Frank Tjepkema, one of the Dutch designers associated with the Droog group. Then Tom Dixon offered Malouin work in London, which allowed him to move to Britain in 2009 and set up his own four-person studio. He designs objects and furniture under his own name, but has also established a parallel architectural and interiors practice called Post-Office, which is responsible for, among other things, Valextra’s London flagship store and the Aesop HQ.

In 2011, Vienna Design Week teamed him with Lobmeyr, Austria’s long-established glass maker, which still produces the whisky tumblers and champagne flutes designed early last century by Adolf Loos and Josef Hoffmann respectively. Malouin designed an installation piece called Time Elapsed, made by Lobmeyr’s technicians. It involved a ceiling-mounted rotating arm fabricated from brass, slowly releasing the contents of a hopper full of sand onto the floor beneath, leaving a roughly circular trace. It could be understood as a chandelier of a kind, but it is also a reference to the use of sand in glass-making, and the act of time-keeping itself. “The flow of sand through an hourglass is traditionally used to keep track of elapsed time. It is also a physical representation of the fine line between the past and the future. Through the machine in this room, the deposition of sand forms, not minutes and hours on a clock face, but abstract and changing patterns, illustrating the link between time and decoration,” Malouin explains.

Prototype for Nude Glass

In the same year, Malouin became interested in the techniques used to make chain-mail armour. His researches eventually resulted not in the piece of furniture that he had originally considered, but in a rug, made from galvanised steel wire, painstakingly put together by hand; it took 12 people a total of 3,000 hours to finish. The starting point was a near-endless supply of pre-coloured galvanised wire, of the kind used to make agricultural fences. One of the team focused on tightly coiling the wire around a metal rod, on the end of a power drill, in a timber jig. The coils were hand cut into small rings and then riveted together one at a time in a traditional Japanese pattern that makes two rings, one on top of the other at the centre of twelve more rings linked into them, and radiates outward. The result is a deep textured metal rug that has both the quality of a woven fabric, but also of a three-dimensional object, an effect emphasised by the use of different colours for some sections.

Malouin sees himself primarily as an industrial designer, with a training that has equipped him to work for mass production. He is dismissive of his own skills as a maker, but uses them as an essential part of the design process. “We very often make things, badly, here at the studio in order to allow a design discovery to happen, and then it influences the industrial process.”

Enamel samples, ongoing works

For the Industrial Furniture collection it was different. “Half the things were handmade by Julian Komosa and me. We taught ourselves to weld. We made cast rubber chairs.” But for Malouin making is more often a tool rather than an end in itself.

His energetic commitment to tactility, combined with his interest in giving objects qualities that go beyond innocent utility, make him an attractive choice for a certain kind of company. A surprising number of Malouin’s clients are brands such as Lobmeyr that have a long tradition of craft skills, but are also interested in finding ways of reinventing themselves.

1882 Ltd, established only recently but continuing a five-generation family tradition in the English pottery town of Stoke-on-Trent, is one such brand that is attracted to Malouin’s sensibility and enthusiasm for new materials: His Dunes collection is a series of plates and bowls of various sizes that makes the most of those skills. The pieces have pitted, textured surfaces that are achieved not by Malouin making conscious decisions about every detail, or with a fully worked-out drawing. Instead the model from which the mould is made is shaped by what he calls analogue three-dimensional printing. Like Time Elapsed, the installation he made for Lobmeyr that, within limits, distributes sand at random in a given radius, a Dune plate shows the traces of the accidental placement of material from the ‘printing’ process. The end result is a plate has the quality of an individually made and precious object, and yet you can put it through a dishwasher or use it in a microwave oven.

Detail of Scirocco chair

Malouin’s work displays two complementary themes. There is the work with 1882, and other companies such as Hem from Stockholm and SCP in London, which uses industrial techniques to make affordable and useable domestic objects and furniture. And there is the work with Salon 94 Design which has the space to operate on multiple levels simultaneously. Technique, such as the use of a single mould to make a translucent rubber chair, is important. But Malouin’s work is also full of sly, almost throw away, references. (He cast concrete aggregate for the Core stool making an explicit allusion to brutalism, which is clear enough. Naming one of his Gridlock chandeliers Powell, after Geoffrey Powell, a partner in Chamberlin Powell and Bon, the architects who designed the Barbican estate, is however sending a coded message to those who know.)

Sheridan Coakley of SCP has been working with the designer since 2017, when he was impressed with one of his chandeliers in a hotel. The first result of their collaboration was the Group sofa, the Barrell table and a range of swivelling armchairs. The most recent piece is Puffer, like a soft, generously down-stuffed jacket draped over a beech-framed armchair. It was launched at this year’s design festival in London. “I’m very proud of it,” Malouin says. “It reflects on the things I was pondering during lockdown. It’s about comfort, posture – I hurt my back during that time – and support.”

In a world in which designers have come to question the relevance of creating objects of every kind, Malouin’s work, which is about material qualities as well as ideas, offers an encouraging sense of continuity. It shows the solace that is to be had in surfaces that are good to touch and objects that make us feel more secure, while quietly inviting us to think about what they actually are, and what they mean.

This article is taken from issue 27. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Martino Gamper

What makes a furniture designer? Martino Gamper has been a chef, a carpenter, a hitch-hiker. From the mass-produced to the individual crafted object, Deyan Sudjic profiles the multifaceted creator

Defining Martino Gamper is not easy. Having attended four very different art schools in several different countries, he studied in departments that ranged from sculpture and ceramics to design, and used three languages, before finally deciding what he wanted to be. He is in the gallery world, but also designs for mass production, and is interested in what he calls “making as a means of thinking”.

Gamper was born in the German-speaking Italian province of South Tyrol, in the small city of Meran – Italians call it Merano – in 1971. Now he lives in London, but spends several weeks of every year in New Zealand, where his wife, the artist Francis Upritchard, is from; and he has a residency at Maja Hoffmann’s foundation in Arles.

Gamper considered the life of a maker in his teens. He enrolled at a craft school when he was just 14. An apprenticeship came next. If you take a quick look behind the ragged façade of the building where he has his studio, in a still-ungentrified corner of Hackney, you would be forgiven for assuming that Gamper turned out to be a carpenter. There are neat rows of chisels and saws arranged on the walls, and carefully ordered work benches on which pieces of wooden furniture wait to be completed. But there is more to his work than skill – enough, in fact, to render the debate around craft and design, and art and design, redundant.

Taking up almost as much space in the studio as his carpentry tools and the chair production line is a long table flanked by the kitchen that takes up much of Gamper’s energy. It’s not that he is a chef, but food is a fundamental for him. “Early on, with no clients or commissions, I had to find an alibi to get started on a project, and that alibi was food.” “Cooking is similar to design,” he says. “In order to design a table you need food, and food without a table does not work. I create food events in order to design tables; it is an excuse.” On the day I am there, the studio is working on a meal to celebrate Christmas, but Gamper uses food much in the way the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija does, to explore the ways in which we interact with each other.

Workshop tools

He completed his apprenticeship at 19, then went travelling. After a summer in Switzerland financed by selling bags made out of old inner bike tubes, he tentatively began to think about becoming an artist. He secured a place at the Art Academy in Florence in 1990, but left almost immediately – repelled by the endless reproductions of Michelangelo’s statue of David and the shortcomings of the Italian educational system, where students copied each other’s essays and professors failed to show up. He moved to Vienna – where he talked Michelangelo Pistoletto into giving him a place on the sculpture course at the Academy of Fine Arts. Pistoletto, one of the founders of Italy’s arte povera movement, was interested enough in the objects that Gamper made. Gamper was also spending a lot of his time at the University of Applied Arts, on the other side of the city. It was the school where Josef Hoffmann had once taught, which was rooted in design, rather than art. Pistoletto suggested that he made up his mind between the two, and he chose design. Gamper gravitated to what was nominally the ceramics masterclass, led by Matteo Thun, once an assistant to Ettore Sottsass and a member of the Memphis group. Despite learning very little about ceramics, Gamper impressed Thun enough to get hired to work in his studio in Milan. Thun not only paid him – unusual in the intern-exploitative climate of the time – but also covered his fares to and from Vienna in order to allow him to continue with his studies. The experience of working in a well-organised commercially orientated design practice was something that Gamper found useful, even if it did not leave him wanting to design in Thun’s post-Memphis postmodern manner, or even to run a large studio. The early 1990s were not Milan’s best years: “The masters were dying out, the place looked grey, and postmodernism did not appeal,” Gamper says. While Thun was spending most of his time in Italy, a group of his more enterprising students in Vienna, Gamper among them, hijacked their absent professor’s office and turned it into their private workspace. When Thun finally departed, Enzo Mari took his place.

Studio knives, recipes, Off-Cut Vase detail and vintage banana (eaten now)

For Gamper, studying with Mari was as important an experience as meeting Pistoletto. Both have an interest in humble, found materials; Mari’s blueprints for self-made open-source furniture designs have continued to fascinate designers. Even more interesting was Gamper’s time spent in London at the Royal College of Art as an Erasmus student. It was there that he encountered a tutor who disabused him of the notion that his precocious technical ability with a band saw would be enough to get him through: “I am not interested in your practical skills, I am interested in your thinking about the idea.” This was an approach that stayed with him. And he returned to the RCA, once Ron Arad had established the design-product course.

Arad used to say that his job at the RCA was to make his students unemployable. Partly, he was suggesting that his course would give graduates the independence to set up on their own. But he was also conscious of the realities of a world in which the traditional idea of big industrial clients looking to hire designers to work on specific briefs no longer applied. His students had to be able to make their own way. If they couldn’t work on an industrial scale, then they had to make the most of what they could find, just as Arad himself had once made his Rover chairs with car seats salvaged from a scrap yard.

Gamper’s graduation project was an exploration of corners. “I was living in a corner of a loft at the time, and my project was about the corner as a spatial entity between architecture and furniture. I made a corner light inspired by Flavin.” Afterwards, Gamper made a living scavenging from skips in order to improvise readymade objects: ‘Designing without designing’, he called it. He was selling lights made from footballs. The Umbro football was the only one that had the right degree of transparency, and he had a stall at the V&A selling pieces he made on the spot for 25 pounds each. From out of this exercise came the 100 chairs in 100 days project, which turned a spontaneous exercise into a conscious performance: He put together fragments of broken and abandoned chairs to create altogether new chairs. A polypropylene seat, teamed with a bentwood back, a pressed metal shell and an upside-down back. Each individual chair is ingenious, and is more than a piece of sculpture, but is based on an understanding of what is involved in manufacturing and design- ing a chair: “I learned a lot by taking chairs apart.” Keeping up the pace was demanding, but the project immediately attracted attention, and has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world.

Recycling bin and Arnold Circus Stool storage

Commissions started to come Gamper’s way: some for conventional pieces of mass-produced furniture, others for interiors. There was work from the fashion world: windows for Miuccia Prada, displays for Anya Hindmarch and interiors for Peter Pilotto, a friend with a similar Austrian-Italian background. The Serpentine asked him to curate an exhibition, which he based on the seemingly unpromising idea of the shelf, but filled it with pieces that made you consider the humblest but most ubiquitous of objects in a new way. Most recently, he designed the AlpiNN, a restaurant for a chef in the South Tyrol who has a commitment to rooting his food in the specifics of the place. “He doesn’t use olive oil, because you can’t find it in the mountains, so I wanted to design the place using only things that you could see in the area: wood from the valley, lamps using parchment from sheep that graze nearby.” Like all of Gamper’s work, his design avoids the obvious. He has no predictable signatures. Instead, his material grows out of the material from which it is made, and from quietly observing how we use spaces and objects.

Britain is no longer quite the place that it was at the end of the 1990s, when a special set of circumstances that included open borders and low rents made London a specially fertile place for designers. On the rain-soaked day of Britain’s 2019 general election, Gamper wore a badge to proclaim his hope that Britain would choose a government that made it possible to stay in the European Union. He had taken the citizenship test that would qualify him as British but did not yet have the right to vote. London has become a place in which it is possible for a designer who can work anywhere, as he can, to be successful. What is not so clear is how attractive it would be now to a young and unknown Gamper.

Bella Vista Chair, reclaimed teak, pasta flour on floor

Photography Sophie Gladstone 

This article is taken from issue 26. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Reinventing the Chair

Do second lives always need to mean second best? Emeco has made pioneering efforts to turn recycled materials into high-end, high-quality design items, joining forces with some of the biggest names in the industry along the way

Photography Eleonora Agostini

The tracker on the Electric Machine and Equipment Company (Emeco) website keeps a real-time count of the number of plastic bottles that owner Gregg Buchbinder has already saved from landfill. Last time I looked, the total had reached an impressive 37,391,344 bottles. So far, most have been used in producing the 111 Navy Chair. Except for the range of saturated colours, it looks exactly like Emeco’s first product: the original, natural-aluminium-finish Navy Chair, which has been in continuous production since 1944. Because it is 65 per cent plastic, the product of 111 recycled bottles, reinforced by a mix of 35 per cent glass fibre, it is also a little heavier than the exceptionally light all-aluminium original.

Coca-Cola approached Emeco about working together on a chair at the recommendation of MoMA’s design curator Paola Antonelli. Buchbinder had to be convinced that he was being asked to take part in a worthwhile project, rather than a marketing exercise. “I was not interested in doing something promotional,” he says. “They said ‘No, it’s not about marketing. One trillion bottles ending up in landfill every year is a real problem for us.’” As it has turned out, this project has made Emeco a pioneer in the use of recycled plastic to make furniture, matching its expertise in aluminium.

To signal continuity, Buchbinder chose to make the new piece in the form of the Navy Chair. “I did not want it to be about cosmetic style. Furniture is not about fashion.” He was also making the point that creating things to last depends on how they look as well as what they are made of.

Though polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic used to make bottles, is widely recycled, it is mostly for lower-grade products such as carpet. Using it in an armchair retailing for 400 dollars was an altogether different proposition; it meant finding a way to turn unpromising-looking flakes of recycled pet into a material that is both strong and attractive enough for furniture. It took four years for BASF’s chemists working with Emeco to produce the right mix of recycled plastic, fibreglass reinforcement and a non-toxic dye as the basis for a hollow one-piece injection- moulded chair.

Recycling is an essential part of Emeco’s origin story. When it won its first contract to supply the navy with indestructible chairs in 1944, it had little choice but to use recycled aluminium given wartime shortages and priorities. The Navy Chair is still made from recycled aluminium, which now has the virtue of using 95 per cent less electricity to manufacture than the virgin material.

Emeco built a 150,000-square-foot factory in Pennsylvania, employing 600 workers at its height. Every month a special train would pull up on the track that went right inside to load up 10,000 chairs at a time; they went to the giant Newport News shipyard in Virginia, and other ship building towns, for installation aboard naval vessels of every description. The end of the Cold War shredded Emeco’s order book. By the time Buchbinder took over in 1998, Emeco was in serious danger of going broke. Saving the company has been an all-consuming mission for him. With that accomplished, he has made Emeco do all it can to demonstrate how furniture manufacturers can contribute towards a sustainable economy.

“The back story is that I grew up in Huntington Beach in California and went surfing as much as I could. I had a deep connection with the ocean; you see dolphins and sea birds, and I still go as much as I can. But the la rivers are basically a storm drain, and after it rains, it’s like surfing in a toilet. It made me very conscious of environmental issues.

“My whole life has been furniture,” says Buchbinder, “My dad was an engineer. He worked for Herman Miller on the understructures for the Eames Lounge Chair. My mother was an interior designer so we got Domus magazine at home, and I knew about Ettore Sottsass.”

Buchbinder’s strategy was to move away from institutional clients to target the design market. He had a couple of useful customers that helped. Terence Conran was buying container-loads of the Navy Chair to sell in Habitat. In the us, Ian Schrager put in a large order of Navy Chairs for the Paramount Hotel in New York. Philippe Starck gave them an entirely new character with a slip cover on which was a silk-screened image of an axe. The navy might not have liked to see its chair dressed in drag, but Buchbinder was impressed.

When the two met, Starck, who had assumed that Emeco belonged to “a bunch of old army guys”, immediately offered to design something for the company. Buchbinder, struggling to meet his payroll bill at the time, confessed that he was not in a position to pay. Starck was undeterred. “‘We don’t want to do anything gimmicky; we can’t just put horns on it,’ I said to him. ‘No, I am just going to wash the details and make it more neutral,’ Starck said.”

The result was the Hudson Chair, a subtle refraction of the form of the Navy Chair as seen through Starck’s own aesthetic. Its roots are clear, but it’s softer, and no longer carries the visual memories of the American industrial vernacular. Starck refined the chair by specifying a mirror-polished surface. It was a technique that turned out to be beyond Emeco’s manufacturing capabilities at the time. “Our neighbour in Pennsylvania is Harley-Davidson, and they are big on polishing. Their big burly guys took the chair and made it shine. All of a sudden it looks like jewellery.”

“Starck put us on the radar. From then on, we could work with Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, anybody we wanted.

But it was Jasper Morrison, who has been designing for Emeco since 2017, who turned out to be the next important changing point. Morrison was reluctant to design anything until he got to know the company. “He spent a long time at the factory. He understood us. He focused on who we are. I was impressed by his ability to see simple things that had such value.”

Morrison’s first range, Alfi, uses a seat and back made entirely from recycled materials, a mix of waste polypropylene and waste sawdust. The legs are made from ash salvaged from local forests ravaged by ash dieback disease, a timber once used to make baseball bats.

Emeco describes Morrison’s next project, the one-inch aluminium-frame chair as “age proof, weatherproof and trend proof ”. Buchbinder calls it his favourite: “It’s made in the same way as the Navy Chair. It is so simple you really can’t tell when it was designed – if it was in the 1940s or 1980s, or now.”

Emeco remains an unusual company driven by a single-minded sense of purpose.

“When we work with a designer on a new project, they have our full and complete attention. We put our total effort into it for a couple of years. Everyone from the shop floor to engineering is involved. When we have so much wrapped up in tooling, we can invest 1 million dollars, it has to be this way. We don’t do more than one new launch a year.”

This year’s new range, On and On, is designed by Barber Osgerby, the designers of the torch for the London Olympics. It’s a stacking café chair made from a more advanced version of the recycled pet material used for the 111 Navy, capable of being reused indefinitely. It’s already boosting Buchbinder’s online count of plastic bottles saved from landfill.

B&B Italia: 50 Years of Design

A new documentary offers a unique insight into B&B Italia’s history, design methods and architectural collaborators  
Established by Piero Ambrogio Busnelli in 1966, B&B Italia has surpassed 50 years in design innovation. The company’s dedication to creativity and technology has allowed it to become a leader of modern furniture, while its capacity to predict trends and respond to changes in taste and living has resulted in furniture collections that epitomise important phases in design history. Although Piero Ambrogio Busnelli died in 2014 aged 87, his legacy lives on through his son Giorgio Busnelli and grandchildren who now work within the company. 
A new documentary by film-maker and writer Didi Gnocchi is a rare and personal glimpse in to the vision of Piero Ambrogio Busnelli, tied together with photographs and interviews with influential designers and architects such as Renzo Piano, Mario Bellini, Antonio Citterio, Vincent Van Dyson and even Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London. The documentary unpacks B&B Italia’s 50-year legacy, and explores the past, present and future of the company and its collaborators.
Gnocchi has always been curious about the vision of designers but does not come from a design background; she spent most of her life as a journalist. Her media production company– 3D Produzioni– has been researching design, architecture and history for many years, building relationships with designers and architects all over the world. During the research process, Gnocchi browsed not only through B&B Italia’s archives, but through her own. ‘We filed a lot of material in our archives that turned out to be useful to give a better context to the years when the company was first set up, and how it later grew in relation to Italy,’ she says.  ‘Everyone was very pleased to tell us about their relationship with B&B Italia, especially with their new Research Centre which they all said is a worldwide milestone.’
B&B Italia: Poetry in the Shape, When Design Meets Industry is available to stream via the B&B Italia website from 13 April