words Marcus Fairs
Maybe we were looking in the wrong places. But while there are some designers you can't avoid, the one we were really looking for was never there. Not at Milan; not at any of the parties over the summer; not at the show openings. We once thought we saw him at the Design Museum but before we had made our way across the room, he'd gone. People said he was painfully shy; that he never went out; that he had moved to Paris.
Yet it turned out to be really easy. We heard that Jasper Morrison was designing a new desk system for Vitra, so we asked them to help us track him down. A few days later, they provided us with an email address. We wrote him a little message asking for an interview and he sent a polite little reply, along the lines of: "Sure, no problem, come and see me next week."So we find ourselves climbing a narrow staircase in an old building in Hoxton Square, East London, and at the top Jasper Morrison is waiting for us. He looks rather unassuming and not at all like one of the greatest contemporary British designers. After a brief look round his tiny studio we pull up a couple of chairs on the roof terrace and ask him why he keeps such a low profile.
"I looked at it from all directions and came to the conclusion that it's better to just get on with the work, rather than have the distraction of having to live up to whatever image people expect of me," he says in his slightly nasal voice.His modesty permeates his work. Unlike the overwrought styling of many of his contemporaries, the objects Morrison has designed appear at first sight almost not to have been designed at all: pared-down, essential, simple, yet always displaying something - a particular radius on a corner, perhaps, or a slight taper on a table leg - that discreetly reveals the care that has gone into them.
"I think a lot of what we do is reprocessing," he says, meaning that he tries to adapt and improve on existing objects, rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel with every job. "When you're young you're just designing stuff, but 15 years on you're just repeating typologies. You realise there's no point in doing it again unless it's going to be better than it was."
When asked to design a new dining chair, for example, he'll seek out what he considers to be the most perfect existing chair and see if he can reduce the weight a little, or make it a bit more comfortable.
"The main guiding principle is that it's got to be long-term useful," he says. "It's got to get better with use. I'm sure you have things in your kitchen that are like that - things that become more than what they were when you first got them." His home is full of his creations: "It's quite a good way of finding out if it's up to the mark."
Morrison likes to take his time over things. Occasionally, the design comes out effortlessly - the shape of his new folding chair for Magis "came very quickly," he says - but more often than not it's a long, drawn-out process. He often puts incomplete ideas to one side, waiting for them to mature in his mind or for the right manufacturer to come along. Instead of sketching straight away, he'll mull over ideas in his head for a while. "If you sketch it, you define it too much," he says. "There's a stage when you've had the first idea and it's better to keep it in your mind, play around with it, see it in different ways. So there are three levels [to the design process]: mind level, sketch level and then the computer level."
On the table in his studio, there are dozens of prototypes for a new cutlery range he's working on for Alessi. "It's taken an incredibly long time," he says, explaining how he approached the project with typical rigour. "We look at everything that's on the market, everything historical, get to know what a fork is, and then we almost distil it to the essence of cutlery."
He continues: "A fork is something that has developed over thousands of years... you'd think you'd know what a fork is but if you just draw one, you get it back [from the prototyping factory] and it's just a flat piece of metal with some spikes. It doesn't balance, there's nothing refined about it."
Why go to all that trouble over something as humble as a fork? "I dunno. Sometimes we suffer. We'll do it, and people will say that's not the best fork we've ever seen. So it's a waste of time."
Morrison opens his PowerBook and brings up images of his desk system for Vitra. It consists of a simple table on to which users can clip a range of components. "The idea that in its simplest form it really is just a table - that's how it starts. It's as simple as that, and then it develops," he says. "We tend to start all projects thinking there's nothing on the market that we feel is the solution. So we start by looking at the shortcomings of what's already there. The main one [with office furniture] seems to be that all these desk systems are unintelligible. Once the sales rep has set them up and left, it's very easy to forget how they work."
Morrison works mainly on small-scale projects - he's also developing a range of kitchen appliances for Rowenta - but he has occasionally ventured into larger works. The most significant of these is the tram and bus shelters he designed for Hannover in 1997 and some urban planning and landscaping in Paris and Berlin. He admits that he finds the responsibility and attendant bureaucracy of these projects stressful and frustrating.
"I enjoyed it but it's hard to get it past the politicians," he says, adding that his forays in this field have never come to much.
The exception to this was an urban design project in Graz, Austria, where he deliberately set out to avoid adding to the urban clutter and instead succeeded in making a few modest interventions, such as removing travel company stickers from the windows of the bus station café, so that passengers could see the buses arriving, and adding a couple of speedbumps.
In his book Jasper Morrison - Everything but the Walls, published last year, Morrison sets out the thinking behind such projects. He describes his approach as "utilism" - a reaction to the uselessness of most architecture and design. "It seemed to us that a lot of projects were being made with the sole aim of courting publicity and raising individual projects, without any genuine effort to be helpful," he writes.
Describing the feeling of achievement derived from the Graz project, he adds: "You may laugh about it, but the sense of freedom at making decisions that were 100 per cent practical was enormous, as if all the nonsense which we put up with in our daily existence were swept away and replaced with a very simple system where practicality and common sense are more important than all the stupid reasoning which normally shapes the world."
Morrison, 43, first realised that he wanted to be a designer when, as a child, he was taken to an Eileen Gray exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. "That's what really converted me," he says. "It definitely triggered something I realised I could definitely do."
After completing an MA at the Royal College of Art, he caught the eye of London retailers SCP and Aram, who exhibited his work - which at the time consisted mostly of simple furniture made out of found objects, such as his flower-pot table (a circle of glass resting on a stack of terracotta flower pots) and his hat stand (a length of air-conditioning tube with an office-chair base inserted at each end).
The shows brought him to the attention of Cappellini, and Morrison's career - like that of so many other talented British designers - took off, thanks to Italian manufacturers.
"That's what's really missing in this country - that large-scale production," says Morrison. "I don't think there's any awareness in UK industry of what design is. It's still dominated by an engineering approach. The MD will feel more comfortable using an engineer rather than bringing in a designer, whereas successful companies abroad will have a designer and an engineer. But it's inevitable that it will change - or UK firms will start to lose out."
Morrison now divides his time between London and Paris, where he also has a studio. "London is a good place to be a designer," he says. "There's something in the air; it's a proper working city. It's not known for its beauty but there's something else that makes up for that."
He says he spends his time eating, drinking, travelling and writing. "I love writing, reading. There are affinities. If I read someone like [English travel writer] Norman Lewis, there's something close to design where there's no excess. It's very pared-down but there's still room for it to be beautiful. And I love looking; I spend a lot of time when I'm not working just looking at whatever's in front of me."