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Interview with Nicholas Grimshaw at Milan Design Week

James Haldane speaks with Nicholas Grimshaw and Deputy Chairman Andrew Whalley about the Elements Exhibition

Created in association with Poltrona Frau, the Elements exhibition at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile showcased the work of Grimshaw’s industial design unit. Presented as a range of photography, drawings and models, the exhibition gave the first look at Grimshaw’s new seating designs for Poltrona Frau as well as a selection of designs that highlighted the movement from micro to macro interventions.

James Haldane: Salone Internazionale del Mobile seems to have granted architecture a new prominence this year. What do you think that might signify for the interrelations between design and architectural practice?

Nicholas Grimshaw: There are all kinds of interesting elements behind the new position of architecture at the design festival. Austerity comes into it; the furniture industry has been quite a luxurious industry up until now but that’s changing. The industry is now thinking a bit more about finding economic ways of operating. In the utility period after the war, you had a utility mark that showed a product was well-made and would last a reasonable amount of time. It seems like a hilarious idea in today’s competitive world, but I think it is creeping back into the current situation. Do you really have to spend staggering amounts of money to get something that looks nice in your home?

Andrew Whalley: When we were invited by Poltrona Frau to take part in this year’s Salone, they wanted to put their pieces of furniture in a broader context. We’ve always done industrial design, but it talks to the idea of a collaboration – that we weren’t making just a piece of furniture but a collaborative design process evolving out of the architecture. In the principle we designed for Rensselaer, importance was placed on the acoustics and how the whole room is designed as a musical instrument, but also how the seat was an integral part of the whole. Our collaboration with Rensselaer was almost as important acoustically as it was from a design and elegance perspective.

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Designed and fabricated in-house by Grimshaw’s New York studio, the exhibition’s display units double as travel cases - a testament to the company’s ideals of efficiency

JH: In the panel discussions you spoke about your interest in furniture expanding from your concern for the use of a building, what led to this?

NG: It’s difficult to work out what caused that change in thinking, it’s this idea of ‘what are they doing to my building, shouldn’t we have some control over it?’ In an upmarket situation the architect is sometimes given the chance to choose the furniture, but not very often. The opportunity is to get involved in how you use the building, rather than just choosing the furniture.

AW: At a city level, our design concerns can be seen often in fairly simple, utilitarian things. In our new bus interchange in New York, for example, we’ve thought about all the food vendors and the street furniture. We’ve designed one-off pieces like the kiosks for hamburger sellers, so the whole space is considered and it’s not a mishmash of ideas.

JH: The Elements exhibition itself feeds into this idea of in-house design, and you designed every part of the staging yourself. There’s obviously a philosophy of efficiency about that, but how did the idea of curating your own self-analysis work for you?

NG: With the title Elements, we tried to pick out that the building is an organism made up of atoms and molecules – everything from micro to macro. There are different levels you need to present it at, and I personally think we need another layer. We show the building and an element of it, but we need an intermediate layer to give the story of the element and show how everything ties together as more of a curated ‘thing’.

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The exhibition aims to articulate the many ‘scales’ of design - reflecting the breadth of Grimshaw Architects’ past commissions

AW: We wanted to design not just the content, but the whole physical manifestation of the exhibition, with the idea of movement and portability. We had to design and build it ourselves in our workshop in New York so a lot of it was done by an industrial design team thinking and figuring out all the components.

JH: You have said you want your exhibition to demystify architecture in some way, what do you feel needs to be better understood about the production processes behind architecture?

NG: I don’t think a lot of people give a damn. I think they see a building at face value. In a sense one of the things we’re trying to do is say: ‘look a bit harder, look at the detail’. It’s more of a challenge; shouldn’t buildings all have good details and good materials?

AW: I think it gives it a greater level of authenticity and honesty, things are shaped because of the way they perform. When we designed the form of our Southern Cross Station in Melbourne, Australia, a lot of people were doing shapes, and a lot of people still are. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should; our station’s roof was designed in that way so that it is ventilated when the wind blows over it – the shape is there and is aesthetically pleasing but it’s actually doing something.

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Nicholas Grimshaw and Andrew Whalley examine Elements, the building blocks of design

JH: Park Road flats in London from your early career recently received listed status, and you have alluded to the irony that they were designed with adaptability as a fundamental principle. How do you feel about the listing process when it comes to contemporary architecture?

NG: I thought it was very perceptive of them, when I read the description it was exactly what we were trying to do, and nobody realised that at all at the time. It was the only building of that size then with a single core so that you could have completely flexible space around it. Nobody gave a damn about that at the time, they just wanted 40 flats, but we thought it was so important, and in a way it’s come into its own, they realise now what we were trying to do.

AW: Every time they’ve moved the panels the residents have actually done a formal planning submission, and of course now they have to apply to English Heritage if they want to move those panels around!

NG: I think they’ve come to a compromise where they keep roughly the same amount of glass and can put them wherever they like, but it was our philosophy that pushed that at the time, and it’s come into its own, even more so at Igus in Cologne, where they’ve expanded to around 16 times their original size and kept on using the same panels, you can really say they’ve got something out of it.

Elements

When: 8 April - 13 April

Where: Salone Internazionale del Mobile Milano, Milan

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