People start in unusual places. The lighting designer Lee Broom was an actor before he — literally — saw the light. Environmental artist and activist Porky Hefer worked in advertising. Tom Dixon, renowned for his gold-plated teaware, only started in design because he had a motorcycle accident.
After two years of interviewing designers, gardeners, architects and gallery owners for the FT’s “Little black book” slot, nothing surprises me. The wonderfully louche French designer Philippe Starck told me the strangest thing he had ever been asked to make was a coffin. Antiques dealer Will Fisher proudly told me about his (real) antique head of a giraffe.
What they all have in common is a unique take on the world.
Here are six things I have learnt about the creative process:
Feel is as important as look
Ross Lovegrove, an industrial designer whose pieces look like frozen mercury, talked about how his collection of African tribal art — some 350 pieces — made him feel at home. I was left to wonder how he got from studying these to coming up with ideas for his sci-fi like designs — until we started talking about tactility.
Furniture maker John Makepeace talked at length about how furniture should be an engagement with the body. The antiques dealers talked about richness and layers.
Lovegrove keeps hundreds of notebooks, in which he jots ideas after a lot of sitting and staring. Starck designed his UFO-shaped lemon squeezer on a napkin in a pizza restaurant (his meal was taking too long). Garden designer Jo Thompson has to not think about the project for a week between meeting the client; it is only then she puts pen to paper.
Few, if any, interviewees said they made notes on their phone or computer. Even Marc Newson, who was in raptures about the possibilities of 3D printing, said his fear was that technology would take away the experience of making things.
Technology does not have to be the future but it can be beautiful
Dixon, the self-taught British designer known for lights and metallic teapots, said he was atypical in preferring to make a maquette of a piece over computer-aided design. Hefer said he tried going down the machinery route but found that, for what he wanted, making things by hand was better — and it preserved centuries-old artisanal skills.
That is not to say designers were not excited about technology. Newson enthused about the possibilities of rapid prototyping and stereo lithography, and how his work in the aeronautics industry has translated into fashion. Ben van Berkel, on a roll about how he wanted to make buildings healthier, told me in animated bursts how much architecture had to catch up in the tech space. Lovegrove urged me to look out for his “super interesting” new headphones.
Designers don’t share their idols
Out of nearly 30 interviews, not one interviewee chose the same person when asked whom they admired. Few landed on the same influences either. The florist Shane Connolly said the question was too hard — “is this Desert Island Discs [the BBC radio interview show about favourite music, books and objects]?” he moaned before reeling off a list of inspirations, from gardener Arne Maynard to a wander around London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
The architect van Berkel found ideas in places as far-ranging as the philosophy of Alexander von Humboldt to the music of Led Zeppelin. But salvage expert and antiques dealer Adrian Amos gave my favourite answer: the George and Vulture pub in the City of London: it features nearly 20 times in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers.
Taxidermy is divisive
American interior designer Jonathan Adler said he would never allow taxidermy in his home. “Taxidermied anything” was out of the question, except his husband — if “he kicks the bucket before me”. Likewise, architect Annabelle Selldorf said she would ban any furniture made from trophy animals.
Antiques dealer Fisher, on the other hand, is a fan. He even went as far as to describe good taxidermy as “phenomenal” (shouting down the phone to me from a field in Dorset, southern England). Bad taxidermy, on the other hand, he called “a travesty”. The lesson appears to be: if taxidermy is your thing, be careful what you buy.
On the whole, if you love it, it will work
When asked for tips, nearly all designers echoed Adler’s words: “Forget about rules.”
Photographs: Ross Lovegrove; John Makepeace; Duncan Snow/Alamy; Peer Lindgreen; Iwan Baan; Fernando Carniel Machado/Dreamstime; Alamy; uk.jonathanadler.com