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In conversation with Chris Dercon



Chris Dercon: Is this the first time that you’ve worked on such a large scale, for a museum?

Jasper Morrison: The only time. It’s the only time I’ve worked on anything architectural this big, yes. Herzog and de Meuron designed the built-in seating, but our brief was to design all the other furniture.

CD: What is your take on museums?

JM: Take the V&A, for example, or any other museum that collects historical objects. They tend to collect the special ones, and not the everyday ones. The British Museum is perhaps an exception, because there you can find everyday objects from thousands of years ago. But I always find folk and ethnological museums more interesting. It’s obvious why a museum would collect the more important things, but it’s a pity that they ignore the everyday factor.

CD: But then, you’re in trouble with contemporary art?

JM: I don’t talk about art. I think art is a completely different matter.

CD: In which kind of museum would you like to see your work, collected or put on display?

JM: I suppose it would have to be a design museum. I mean, that’s the reference – in as much as I try to design things that avoid messing themselves up with too much design, with an intention of too much design, so it’s very difficult to put it in any other category. It is design, you know. It’s done within the world of design.

CD: Are you an industrial designer?

JM: I don’t know if I would call myself an industrial designer. I think industrial designers concern themselves with more mechanical things. I’m probably a product designer, a furniture designer, which is what I studied. But I’m not a ‘designer craftsman’, or a ‘limited edition designer artist’. I think I’m pretty much on the production side of design.

CD: So there might be an interesting confusion, then. People coming to Tate Modern and seeing these different chairs, and different configurations, might wonder if there has been one of those new artists at work who are interested in mimicking design.

JM: Possibly. I’m trying to think which object would create confusion – perhaps the wooden benches.

CD: Because?

JM: Because they’re so reduced, so basic in shape.

CD: People might think they are minimal art!

JM: They might, but I think they’ve got a bit too much character.

CD: Your furniture is often associated with minimal art.

JM: I always hated being called a minimalist, and never understood why people did it.

CD: When did that start? The ‘Thinking Man Chair’ in 1986 was not minimalist at all.

JM: No, that’s true. Perhaps after that. Would the Thinking Man’s Chair work inside a museum?

CD: Yes.

JM: I’m not sure. I think not.

CD: Why not?

JM: I think the architects would object, for a start.

CD: Let’s forget the architects.

JM: I think the artists might even object. You know, it’s a bit too strong. A bit too eye-catching. Not discreet enough. The kind of furniture we think of in museums and even art galleries is this kind of supportive, secondary-level, after the architecture, kind of ‘We need something to sit on that won’t disturb the atmosphere’. And I think the Thinking Man’s Chair – although it has been used in certain art fairs – is a bit too much. I’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere of galleries. And when I was a student I met people like Max Gordon – have you heard of him? He used to design a lot of galleries and was a fantastically clever guy because he picked what in many ways you could say is the most enjoyable and perhaps the easiest architectural project to do: a big empty space, avoiding all the hassle of a client’s needs in their kitchen or their bathroom etc. I’ve always appreciated the atmosphere that you get in galleries, and I think even been inspired by it.

CD: Which spaces of Max Gordon spoke to you?

JM: Well, the first Saatchi place. He did some galleries in Cork Street. He always got the work. He was the go-to guy.

CD: Don’t you think these kinds of galleries look like... kind of generic? They all look the same? They are expressing a kind of domesticity yet they feel also corporate.

JM: Yes. Perhaps that’s why I found it inspiring, because it had this slightly domestic feel... I think in all of Max Gordon’s places you’d say, ‘Yes, this would make a great place to live’. The way I work is really about atmosphere.

CD: That’s also the critique on these galleries, that they are almost too atmospheric.

JM: I guess you have the same thing in design. You have the extremely neat and tidy ones, the Jonathan Ives, and you have the Studio Jobs, at the other end. I think they all have their place. It’s no longer a world where we say, ‘That’s the only way to do it’.

CD: It’s interesting that you use the term ‘tidiness’. In your own work there is a tension between tidiness and a kind of normalness which is not tidy.

JM: I know what you mean. There’s always a moment when I ask myself, ‘Does it look natural, or is it behaving naturally? Does it sit in the room in an unpretentious way, and will it therefore last? Will it maintain its character?’ Because I think if a thing is not natural – if it’s forced or overly tidied up, it won’t last. It won’t sit well in a space. I don’t know whether the same applies for architecture. I suspect it’s probably not the case. But the things you put into architecture, if they’re not natural, they don’t last.

CD: What makes things natural?

JM: It could be something as banal as the angle of the back legs, or it could be too much expression. It could be, of course, colour and things like that. It’s an intuition as well: it’s looking at an object and saying, ‘It doesn’t look really right’. If I look at these chairs now [looking at the chairs in Chris Dercon’s office] – the High-Pad chair (1998), I wonder if the flatness of the plywood on which the upholstery is put is really natural. Perhaps it would have been better if I could have got a bit more curve into it. But it was very early days, and we did things very quickly and, in a way, crudely then.

CD: 1998 – that’s the beginning of your Super Normal [school] with Naoto Fukasawa.

JM: Yes. In a way, though, it didn’t have the name until 2006. The beginnings – the gropings for it. When I look at the chair now, it seems very flat-looking. It’s still a useful chair, but it perhaps would have been more long- lasting with a bit more shape in the shell. So those are things that I might pick up on these days.

CD: Tate Modern is visited by millions of people. These millions are using the museum in quite a different way compared to the early days. They like to decide for themselves what they’re doing in the museum. They consider the museum first and foremost as a place for encounters. How much does furniture influence their behaviour?

JM: I’ve always enjoyed the conceit of design somehow creeping into those spaces, but remaining useful. I mean, not creeping into those spaces to show off, but to be useful. When I was at school, one of my great friends was the gallerist Paul Kasmin, and his father ‘Kasmin’ was a major Cork Street gallerist, so I grew up on the edge of this gallery world. I was very inspired by the atmospheres that people in that world created for themselves, whether it was in the gallery or at home. There were people like David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin and Kasmin himself. The kind of interiors that those people occupied were very inspiring.

CD: They’re like Wunderkammers – cabinets of curiosities – Pop-ish, or pop.

JM: Yes. I think you’re not born with an eye – you’re born with the possibility of having one, and I think that the exposure to those kinds of people gave me my eye in a way.

CD: And the way these people lived, Kasmin and Max Gordon and David Hockney, is in contrast with today’s collectors. There were a lot of possibilities to sit.

JM: I think there’s less possibility these days.

CD: I agree there’s less possibility. I mean, when you see collectors’ homes today, there is a lot of standing around, and it’s almost like you walk into a gallery. It’s almost embarrassing to sit. Because standing is a form of admiration, and sitting is probably something which is much more to do with yourself.

JM: Yes. You’ve probably been to the Miró studio in Palma de Mallorca, designed by the architect Sert. There are an astonishing number of places to sit. Chairs of different sizes all over the studio.

CD: In Tate Modern there will be a lot of chairs as well. A lot of different chairs.

JM: A place of that scale does need quite a few chairs. You think we’ve overdone it?

CD: People today request chairs again, they like to sit down. There is nothing more beautiful in a gallery than people leaning against walls, or finding a good corner. What would be an ideal bench for the Rothko room where the light levels are very low?

JM: I think it should probably not have natural oak legs. It should rather be a much darker thing. If I think of a hard bench in a Rothko room, I think that’s too much: you don’t need to sit on a plank when you’re looking at a Rothko. I think you need a bit of comfort. The Rothko paintings have a sort of blurred edge. I think if you sat on a hard bench you’d be disturbed by the contrast. You want something that will give a bit, to complement this kind of blurred edge effect. I remember a fantastic project Barry Flanagan did for museums, it was called the ‘Rowford Process’ – it was a series of very thin pieces of wood that were latticed. It was modular, maybe eighty by eighty centimetres, and you could put them together to make four or six, or three in a row, whatever you needed, but it was completely rigid. That was an interesting project. Completely the opposite of his hares with floppy ears. He even made a business card for it.

CD: It’s interesting that you say that, these examples are in contrast to what you said before, that furniture should be a support act. Why didn’t you propose to put chairs in the galleries?

JM: It’s perhaps partly conditioned by convention. But I think there may be good reasons why there are not chairs in museum spaces – although I always like the ones that are for the attendants.

CD: Were you ever asked to design a chair for an attendant?

JM: Not specifically, no.

CD: Would you like to do one?

JM: I think it would be a strange project. I mean, they nearly always are chosen from a type of chair which is stacking, the quick set-up kind of chairs: light, easy to carry around. This might sound strange to use this word, but I think they are more seductive if they are chairs that come from another world. If it’s designed specifically for the gallery, for the guard to sit on, it could be a bit too much. It might make the atmosphere too formal, even pretentious.

CD: What do you mean by ‘a bit too much’?

JM: I don’t know. I suddenly have images of a type of private collection museum, where the collector has commissioned someone to design the chair that the guard will sit on. It’s like nothing has been allowed in from the outside world. It kind of doesn’t work. Even when architects design their own chairs – like Oscar Niemeyer for the Communist headquarters in Paris – they’re completely crazy chairs, and they kind of fit well. But on the other hand there’s something a bit too contained when no germs are allowed to get in. I think you need to allow a bit of outside in. It would be too much if everything in the Tate was designed especially for the Tate. It’s kind of more fun if it’s a bit of a mix. Whereas going to a real extreme, where the architect designs everything for the museum, including all the furniture, I think there’d be a lack of tension, there’d be no play between seeing something that you recognise as a normal piece of equipment from the world and a new building. It helps the new building a lot, because it puts it in context. Let’s not forget, as the furniture is there to serve, so is the architecture. In the end, they’re serving the art.

CD: Or they are serving the audience.

JM: Good point! Again, I come back to that word ‘naturalness’. It’s a question of naturalness, and it’s pretty unnatural to have a room where everything is designed in one way, or from one hand.

CD: Is that also why you question uniformity? At Tate we have many different types of furniture. You like mixing different types of furniture. Has that also to do with naturalness?

JM: Partly, I mean, one of the most interesting aspects of the Tate job is understanding how specific the needs are, from one part of the building to another. In some cases there are no products on the market which do what you need them to do. Like the tables in the restaurant which have to be folded and put away. You have a fairly small storage space, and you have a lot of tables, and they need to be folded very quickly and taken away, almost every day. We’ve developed this table that folds – it’s called the Super-Fold. There’s a lever under the top: you pull the lever and slightly lift the top, and as the top folds vertically, parallel to the column, the base lifts up and rotates into the same line. So in the end, you end up with a very flat table which can be stored.

CD: You’re talking like an industrial designer.

JM: Almost! Going back to the diversity of the furniture, it’s really a function of what you need in different places, that’s just the reality. One chair wouldn’t do the job.

CD: How important is it to be able to carry furniture around? Or, are you happy with the fact that furniture sits in one place?

JM: I think chairs are better off when you can actually lift them and move them around. On the other hand, the reality is, once a table is put in place, it doesn’t get moved very much. In public spaces though, you might actually need something that can’t be moved.

CD: You are not at all afraid of mixing the old and the new.

JM: No, I think that’s great fun. I once put together an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Bordeaux – to find objects that are so complementary that even though there might be 300 years between them, in some cases people would not even notice.

CD: Did it ever occur to you to take older types and insert them in your newer work, and look back retrospectively and say, ‘Something which I did in 1998 might be very interesting, twenty years later almost, to mix it with things I’m doing today’? Is that something common, in furniture design, to look back and to bring things back – to go back and forth?

JM: No, not really.

CD: Why not?

JM: I don’t know why not.

CD: But you do it sometimes.

JM: I do it to some extent. Some old furniture works better to be mixed with new furniture than others. I mean, you can take a lot of the Danish design by people like [Børge] Mogensen and it still looks fantastic. Maybe it looks better than it did fifty years ago.

CD: You and some of your colleagues, Hella Jongerius and Konstantin Grcic, are not shying away from using upholstery and textiles.

JM: The new textiles coming out are just amazing.

CD: Why are they so amazing?

JM: They bring so much life. If you look at older fabrics like ‘Hopsack’, the one that was used on the Eames aluminium chairs, it’s a very worthy woven wool, but flat as a pancake. Totally different from the look and feel of the more technical fabrics that are coming from companies like Kvadrat today, which have so much depth and so much sympathy with other materials like wood and stainless steel. You could use those fabrics and put them on old designs and they would look completely new again. It’s the power of fabrics today: so much colour and richness which wasn’t there before, which wasn’t on offer. And maybe we’re all a bit braver. I think in the past you would struggle to find a new fabric, for a new design. The manufacturer would say, ‘This is our standard collection – choose one of these’.

CD: The furniture for Tate Modern has a lot of colour as well.

JM: In the lounges.

CD: How important is colour?

JM: The colours of these new fabrics which are coming out are so much more subtle than they used to be, and perhaps so well considered as a collection that you can mix them together and achieve something much more interesting and successful than you could in the past. And again the performance of the fabrics is so much better than it used to be.

CD: The Super Normal school with Naoto Fukasawa, how far is that away for you? Where are we now?

JM: I still think that one of the most important things for design to do for itself and others, as a favour, would be to get a little bit closer to normal everyday life, and not to be seen as the centrepiece on the table to give people something to talk about. There’s a dislocation between what people perceive as something they’ll put in their house, and ‘Design’, which they think of as something to encounter in restaurants, or in museums. I think that we need to get the two together again.

When you look at the history of the household thing, people would go out and a buy a chair made by the guy at the end of the street. You know, that was a more real situation than the one we have today, where we’re designing these kinds of fantasy objects to attract attention, to fish for customers. But it fails because we’re not doing things that are perceived as normal or even everyday options for people. People themselves don’t buy that stuff, because it’s over-designed. Too much of a statement. So that’s my interest. I still think of Super Normal as a way to close that gap. Design could go a bit closer to being stuff that people use without too much nonsense. If you make a cup of tea, does there need to be a conversation about the teapot? Or isn’t it nicer that the teapot contributes to the atmosphere in a positive way, without demanding to be noticed? Think of Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer, there’s no way in the world that somebody could avoid having a conversation about it while using one! I’m aware that they’ve sold millions of them but isn’t that completely the wrong way of thinking about objects? I feel that most ‘Design’ stuff is worse than non-designers’ stuff in terms of satisfying an everyday atmosphere. It’s over-expressive, it’s awkward, it’s unnatural, it doesn’t last very long, visually. Perhaps it’s even a misconception of the role of design – where design becomes a form of entertainment rather than a form of practicality.

CD: Does that also mean that the museum has to think twice, when it offers merchandise in the museum shop.

JM: I would agree with you there. Museum shops can for me sometimes be the killer – the least sexy part of the visit. I’ve been through the galleries, seen wonderful things, I feel that the world is new and bright, and then I come through the shop and find it’s full of junk, which brings me down to earth with a bump. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the museum bookshop could be run by a second-hand book dealer, or have an element of that? I personally find that rows of newly published art books are not really doing the trick.

CD: Do you consider yourself a British designer?

JM: No, not so much. I think I’ve broken that bond, in a professional sense – I mean, not in a personal sense. I still feel very British and living abroad you become more British than if you’d stayed behind. I’m not even sure what British design is, although I would say my work is quite British. There’s a certain dry, restrained sense of humour, completely allergic to ostentation, which I admire in the British, and try to stay true to in designing things.

CD: Your furniture is never ironical or cynical, unlike Marcel Wanders or Studio Job.

JM: Not too cynical. I’m not into that. The more you travel the more important your background becomes in a way. I think every European culture has something to offer, I mean, some more than others. I’d say Italy, Denmark and Switzerland are amazing. I’ve taken so much from all of them. And I always wondered, when I was in Berlin in the early 1980s, when I was learning so much from the German Werkbund and Dieter Rams, why German designers were ignoring these ‘roots’.

CD: How important is Germany for you, or Switzerland?

JM: Both are very important. I don’t know if you know that I had a scholarship in Berlin in ’83, ’84 – something called the Shakespeare Scholarship.

CD: No clue! I thought it was a DAAD scholarship.

JM: That was later, that was ’88. Yes, Hochschule der Künste, HDK was where I studied. The Shakespeare Prize was awarded to an artist by a Hamburg benefactor with a certain amount of money. So David Hockney was awarded that prize in ’83, I think, and he had to choose someone for the Scholarship. He didn’t have any idea who to give it to, and Kasmin said, ‘Why don’t you give it to Jasper?’ And –

CD: So you were the prize student to Hockney!

JM: Yes, so I was shipped off to Berlin. Actually, I could have chosen anywhere, but I chose Berlin. I had a friend who was teaching there, at the HDK, so it was much easier to do it that way. So my middle year of Royal College I spent in Berlin, which was fantastic. I was obsessed by all the Behrens buildings and I went to find them all, took photos of them and the Werkbund...

CD: Back to Britain. Are there still makers here?

JM: No. I think it’s a disaster. I felt it going after leaving the Royal College in 1986. Margaret Thatcher was busy driving out every workshop, stubbing out every last ember of specialist making workshops. The rents were going up, and all the workshops that were in London were disappearing, and now I think there’s no skill left, not much anyway.

CD: Nothing?

JM: It became a dirty idea that you would want to make anything. I mean, perhaps I’m giving Thatcher too much of the blame, but she certainly contributed strongly, and I think we just lost the plot. We’ve lost the skill.

CD: And what’s the role of Tate Modern in all of this?

JM: I think it’s really important to have these kinds of anchors in London. When you come in on the train from Gatwick, before you cross the river, the Tate comes into your mind – whether you see it or you don’t see it, you’re aware of something good being there, it’s reassuring.

CD: Reassuring in which sense?

JM: In the sense of being in London – a city with those sorts of cultural institutions makes you feel good about the city, a city without is a very poor place to be. Tate is counterweight against all the crap that goes on in government. All the wasted money, all the stupid ideas, all the dumb wars. It’s a kind of public compensation for all that nonsense.

CD: Talking about nonsense, what is your association with the term ‘creative industries’ invented by Labour?

JM: Yes – bullshit. I mean you know that Britain is the only EU member that allows designs to be copied and copies of design to be sold? It’s basically the back door to Europe for all those businesses that reproduce designs illegally and sell them. There’s no visual culture in government, in British government. Luckily, we still have the Tate!