Federica Zanco: I would like to understand how you got started with Design, when you were first interested, and to know a bit about your studies.
Jasper Morrison: Well, let's start at the beginning. Probably one of the first design exhibitions on a sort of museum scale which I happened to see was the Eileen Gray exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I saw a language which I could relate to and which I understood.
FZ: How old were you?
JM: I think I was probably about seventeen and ... or, no, probably younger actually, sixteen maybe. But before that I'd sort of played with the idea of being an architect or an engineer or either of these two things. But when I saw that exhibition I saw something on a scale which I could imagine was manageable. On seeing those objectsI saw something which I could do and I think for most people seeing what you can do is an important factor in deciding what you're going to do.
FZ: In which way did you think this would be what you could do rather than, say, architecture or engineering?
JM: When I say engineer I mean that I had a motorbike and I fixed it, and for me that was kind of ... mechanics. And then on the other hand I thought about architecture as something which has more to do with living but somehow furniture seemed to involve both sides. I think that probably this also related back to an important thing which was the first time I happened to be in a modern space. The England that I grew up in was very dark and kind of over upholstered. Every interior had curtains and carpets and to be in a modern interior suddenly was a very new experience and a very positive one. This is a memory from the time when I was very young, which impressed me a lot.
FZ: Where was this room?
JM: It was a room of my grandfather's, and much later I remembered being in this room and the atmosphere of the room, and my feeling better in that room than......
FZ: Than at home?
JM: Than stuck indoors on a rainy day in London.
FZ: In which sense was this a modern space? Was your grandfather active in that field in some way?
JM: It was the only room in the house which was modern. He was interested in art and he painted, just as a hobby, but he must have said to himself: “Oh, one room I will do modern”. So he had a Braun record player and this kind of thing. And there were carpets – we call them “shag pile carpets”, white carpets with long hair. And a wooden floor, light wooden floor and modern furniture. And for England that was probably a very rare thing. It certainly left an impression although at the time I probably didn't think anything of it. It ‘s a memory that survived.
FZ: Were your parents sort of interested in the Arts or did they encourage an artistic direction in you?
JM: My father was in advertising and he wasn't that enthusiastic when I told him I wanted to go to art school. He was quite critical of the idea, but not in an heavy way, he just advised me that it might not be the right decision. But he soon gave in.
FZ: What was the school you first entered?
JM: The first school was a sort of foundation course where you do a bit of art, a bit of design, a bit of sculpture etc. And after that I went to a school called Kingston Polytechnic, which was a traditional design school where you were taught how to do professional drawing of objects with felt tip pens and to develop an idea from the back of a notebook. So you would draw, you would analyse the problem and you would come to the conclusion: “these are the points which have to be considered” and then you would literally start from the back of a notebook doing a drawing then putting the next page on top of it and so on. It was a kind of logical and dry way of designing, which was the mood of the time.
FZ: Were you quite happy in that school?
JM: I wasn't, no I wasn't happy with that, I was very bad at that kind of, uhm ... exercise.
FZ: Was the method too rigid?
JM: I think the idea that you should solve a problem in this way wasn’t comfortable for me, my approach was much more idea-based, so i’d much rather have an idea which could lead to an object than analyse a problem in such a dry way.
FZ: Was the theme of a project presented as a problem that had a clear, right or wrong answer?
JM: It seemed to me there weren't any clear answers, it was a false basis to work: if the problem was how to cut the grass in the garden then there's a lot of different ways you can cut it, and the fact that you are already working with a kind of imaginary client made it worse because you already had their solution to look at. So where was the job? The grass was already cut. And it fairly soon seemed to me that this was a kind of packaging exercise where... there was already the motor, you had to make the box around the motor and make it more desirable. And I can remember having some arguments with the teachers saying “this is packaging, you’re giving us the works and asking us to cover them with a new shape”. And so it didn't seem terribly interesting, and during the same course I can remember another situation where we had a project to do and I did the project and scored enough. We had a very academic system where you had to score a certain number of points to proceed to the next level, and I scored enough, but they called me in and said: “Your work is only based on ideas and that's not enough, one day you could run out of ideas and, uhm, that's not Design”.
FZ: At that time who were, or what were, your references?
JM: I think I was pretty open, pretty wide. At that time, to supplement my student money, I was a book dealer. I had a small business buying and selling books, picture books, art books, books on cinema, design and architecture. And so I was already drawing inspiration from a lot of different sources.
FZ: Was there any particular figure or were you just in that stage of curiosity where many things are interesting?
JM: I was probably most influenced by Bauhaus, Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier, this kind of era which was very much in revival, and so there were exhibitions and books being published. That kind of way of dealing with design and the concept of working in interiors seemed very relevant to me, I could identify with their approach.
FZ: Did you feel that in the British context there was maybe a particular need for ideas like the Bauhaus?
JM: Probably not, I think I was probably working in such a state of idealism that it was irrelevant how English people were living at that time. But it was probably also a reaction against the way they were living to imagine that this ideal existed and one should work towards changing the way people lived or changing the objects they lived with.
FZ: Did you make a big jump from that? Has anything fundamentally changed in your attitude or is that still the basis where you draw your energy from and is that still your belief system?
JM: Yes, I think in general the most exciting thing for me is how people live and what they live with, and the influence objects have on everyday atmosphere, and that's what gives me the impulse to do new things and to try to get them right.
FZ: Do you see a relation between objects and architecture? Is your curiosity for architecture related to your interest for the way people live?
JM: Exactly, yes. You could take this room and put in a completely different set of objects and I believe we would be in a different place, really. So for me it was always interesting to see, after the architecture, the power of an object in a space, its effect on the atmosphere.
FZ: Don’t you think that architecture somehow has been taken away from the people, and delegated to the so-called “experts” whose attitude is mainly to communicate and relate only among themselves, while everyday objects still seem closer and more accessible to a wider public?
JM: Well, going back to the period when I started to study design, I think that design was in a similar state of crisis: it had become a sort of logical and dry issue, and self serving. It made its own rules and they had to be stuck to. It worked its way into a corner and wasn't really serving the public so much as it was serving its own cause. Which you could say it still does, but I think it breaks out of that in certain areas.
FZ: Did you have the sort of the inspiring teacher to help you build your own way out of that situation?
JM: There were inspiring visitors. The permanent staff worked in another way which provoked reaction. And that's also a very powerful way. You know, if you think enough to criticise their philosophy or their way of doing things that can almost be a more speedy way to arrive at some kind of results than to be inspired by someone who does something well. In fact, we had this system of pedantic regular staff and very interesting visitors, which worked very well, I think.
FZ: Can you name visitors that impressed you?
JM: There was Dinah Casson, I don't know if you know her. She’s the daughter of Sir Hugh Casson, an English architect who did many modern architectural works. And Jane Dillon. It's difficult to remember others, but some of them came from a product design background and were interesting because they were working in the real life.
FZ: Did you feel alone, at the time, with this sort of thinking or did you share your thoughts with your colleagues and peers?
JM: I think we were probably a generation that was a bit fed up with the system and, uhm, to put it in perspective, it was probably in the middle of that first school period that there was Memphis, which sent shock waves through the academic world in Europe, for sure. And suddenly you could say: “But why can't I do it this way, it's valid, if that's going on”. It's maybe not the most practical kind of design but it had the effect to free everything up, to show that we don't have to accept all these constraints and all these ridiculous rules about how one should design. Design should be open to different ways of working. You know, you don't say to an artist: “This is how we paint and here's the canvas and we generally use these colours and develop it first in sketches and then proceed to oil painting”.
FZ: How was the Memphis experience communicated? How did it reach you?
JM: I was in Milan. I can remember a kind of cold sweat at the opening. I went with religious dedication to the fair in Milan every year, and that Memphis opening, I don't know how I got in, but I got in and, uhm, I can remember the sort of feeling of shock and panic like: “It’s already happened!”
FZ: So you got the point immediately?
JM: It was the weirdest feeling: you were in one sense repulsed by the objects, or I was, but also immediately freed by the sort of total rule-breaking. So it was a very confusing emotion and I came back to college and immediately did my one and only Memphis piece. Which hopefully has now disappeared forever.
FZ: What was that?
JM: It was a bookshelf with a kind of terrazzo base which was wedge shaped, with a piece of wood that came up slightly leaning to one side of it , with a horizontal roof and shelves which stepped down, and two poles which came back down. I think it was very helpful to have done that, to kind of clear myself. And to see the mistakes pretty soon. Even to be embarrassed by it was probably very helpful.
FZ: But was this your private embarrassment or was the piece produced?
JM: No, no, it was public. I mean it was shown at my school. It was only a prototype. I think it was published in one book in Germany. But in general Memphis was very liberating. And Alchimia also, of course.
FZ: How old were you at the time of these events?
FZ: And how did school go on after that sort of experience?
JM: Well, within Memphis there were people like Andrea Branzi who applied a more rationalist approach to that freedom. This was much more interesting to me. And the objects he did for Memphis, I thought, had much more depth and much more future. And the that experience combined with looking through books, with sort of discovering rationalism in Italy and the Bauhaus and Werkbund. And pretty soon after that I had my poetic period, when I totally rejected that approach of laying paper over drawings and re-drawing, and went full steam for the more idea-based approach, and was convinced that the ideas should be found in daily life. And this allowed me to spend my day looking around in town.
FZ: Once you said in an interview that you are always looking, so to say, for issues behind the main event: for instance, while watching TV you actually look at the set. Could you explain this?
JM: I think that there was a phase when I learnt to really look, and it was partly by trying to find books to sell. And in trying to find books you look very quickly at the shelf, you become very quick at judging, not even judging a book by its cover but judging a book by its spine. And it's not a superficial way of looking at things, but it is more a kind of instinct for judging and deciding whether a book was worth a look or not worth it. So that this quick decision would lead to the next stage: you would look through a book very quickly and see what was interesting about it.
FZ: You seem to have always been very interested in images. Is that right?
FZ: And did you take these images mainly through reproductions, more through the book than through looking at the real world?
JM: I think the two run in parallel because along with my looking at books was my looking in the streets and seeing real life and getting inspiration from it. In retrospect I think that this was my education. I was learning how to look, and if I ever teach I try to communicate that the most important thing is to learn to look and to judge and evaluate objects and situations and problems.
FZ: Did you travel at that time?
JM: I was a keen traveller. There was this wonderful railcard. A time when very cheaply you could buy a ticket which would give you three or six months or one month of travel on railways within Europe, and that was a fantastic thing.
FZ: Did you know at the time that you wanted to be an independent freelance designer?
JM: I remember that in the second year, no, at the end of the first year of the Royal College I was fed up with the school, it seemed to be too slow, too academic. I went to Milan as usual for the fair and then I made trips to studios, I went and saw Sottsass and Branzi and George Sowden, just these three. Branzi was by far the kindest and the most interested and he said: “If you're in Milan I will give you work”. Which somehow was a bit too early, perhaps I was even quite shocked by that, I wasn't ready for that kind of proposal. But it was encouraging and I came back to England and got a scholarship to go to Berlin, which got me out of the Royal College at a time when it seemed to me too boring. So that I had a fantastic year in Berlin. Which I should probably put into perspective, we'd better go back a bit: at the end of the first school, which was Kingston Polytechnic, travelling to Milan, again, I had one name in my address book, this was from an Italian girlfriend who knew this journalist that wrote for Casa Vogue at that time, called Beppe Maggori. And at one of those Italian events for promoting a magazine, I think it was a Casa Vogue party or Abitare, I was talking to some people and said to one of them: “Do you know this guy, Beppe Maggori?” and he said: “That's me”. Just one of those lucky chances. I met him the next day and showed him three pieces of work which was all I had done and he said: “Well, tomorrow I'm going to Austria, we're having a design meeting, called Rastlos, Design on the Border” and this was a meeting of Italian, Austrian and German designers which was held in a 1950’s abandoned motel, on the border with Hungary, where we stayed for three days and showed our work and talked. It was a very, very good event, and very important for me because it brought me in contact with other “Restless” designers. There I met Andreas Brandolini and so a couple of years later when I went to Berlin he was my contact there. He was teaching at the Hochschule and I was a kind of a student there, although I didn't bother to go to school because I was in my poetic period. We were more interested in going to bars and ... thinking how the world should be that way.
FZ: Were you interested politically?
JM: Uhm, no.
FZ: Did you want to change the world – if at all – through objects and not through political process?
JM: Definitely. Although within that it probably had a fairly democratic slant to it. But... ordinary life was the best, and drinking in a bar was definitely better than having lunch in a restaurant.
FZ: So now we pass from polytechnic to a new dimension: maybe just in one phrase, could you explain why you moved from the polytechnic to the Royal College, is that something like a normal move?
JM: In England it was, if you could get into the Royal College it was a kind of a good step to take, and at the time I definitely didn't feel ready to be a designer, to work as a designer.
FZ: Was that a postgraduate study course? And did you ever finish that course?
FZ: Who were the teachers at the Royal College at that time?
JM: Well, that's a good question.
FZ: Don't go on, it says everything.
JM: I mean there was a professor who was never there ... and there was a nice man who was the head of the school, but mostly a manager figure. We were left very much to do our own work, which is a criticism you could still level at the Royal College. You go there and you do what you want to and you leave. But for me it was important, it gave me the time to develop a little more. When I graduated I was twenty-five, twenty-six. There was one good professor, teacher there, called Fred Scott, who did the Suporto chair. He was the only one with industrial experience. We were really starved of that industrial experience except for him. He was the one you could ask: “If this was made in production would you do it this or that way?”. He was there one day a week and everybody grabbed him. I mean, to this day they divided product design from furniture design, and I was studying furniture design, while the logical thing to do would be to put the courses together and have a design course which reflects the work that designers do. But in fact they did the reverse and they put the furniture design course with architecture, so it became this more specialised commission-based ... A huge mistake. And it just really reflects the sort of lack of understanding in England of industry and even of the academic world of what design is. There's nothing between a factory that makes domestic appliances that hires a designer and somebody who has a woodworking shop making hand carved chairs from a tree trunk. It's quite strange but it hasn't changed at all, there are no companies who cover that gap.
FZ: And at that time did names like Robin Day mean something to you, or was that not relevant?
JM: It meant a little bit . But an object like the polypropylene chair he designed was so much seen in every cheap cafe, everywhere, that it almost lost its identity through over exposure. And there weren't any books on him.
FZ: So in other words most of his work was not very visible.
JM: If you got a book on sixties design you'd find that chair and you might find some other projects but there were no exhibitions of his work or other kind of presentations.
FZ: So in general the references came from abroad?
JM: Definitely, the example came from Italy that designers could have their own studios, could work for companies that understood design. The other example was Germany in the 70s, before it hit the sort of cul de sac that it did. The sort of inspiration I was drawing from that design seemed not to be reaching German designers of my generation or even younger. And I think that perhaps in Italy it‘s now the same situation: the past is too close for them to see it, maybe it's why I didn't see Robin Day. What comes from your culture from an older generation is not as interesting as what comes from another culture. And I've always thought that German designers would take up that sort of German rationalism again. But in fact throughout the 80s and most of the 90s they've done the opposite which is to try to get as far away as possible. There's this one guy: Mormann, and a sort of revival of honest objects without any frills. But I also noticed that in France now there are a lot of young designers who reject the sort of decorative French design, and are interested in 70s France, a harder approach.
FZ: I have recently heard that you are taken as a role-model by young French designers.
JM: That’s interesting to me because I get so much inspiration from French street life culture, I don't mean sort of youth culture, I mean civic culture: the attention they put into dealing with very boring everyday things like pavement surfaces and bus stops, and similar issues. They have the highest quality of attention to that subject.
FZ: Do you mean in present time? Is the civic tradition still alive?
JM: Very much alive, yes and I think un-rivalled in a sort of understanding of the importance of treating the city surface beyond the building. And this includes everything. Take just the fact that they use granite for paving instead of a cheap six inch square of concrete, which is what we do in England because it's more convenient to fix the pipes. That material will be there for 100 years. And that's so important, and it sits so well with the old French architecture and the new, to create a city space which is very atmospheric, while in England we're busy killing every atmosphere that there was.
FZ: By doing what?
JM: By decisions being made by civil bureaucrats who have no understanding of the problem.
FZ: Besides countries like Italy and France, were there other environments or cultures that gave you either pleasure or inspiration for your work?
JM: Yeah. I think the travel was ... at the time I was doing it I was probably not looking for design, but definitely looking for atmosphere. So arriving in Barcelona when I was sixteen was fantastic because it was another world, another era. And the same with going to Italy in that period, it’s changed so much in the last twenty years. It was a kind of absorbing process: looking at different cultures and ways of life. In general it was a great education not to be localised, not to be looking only at one's own culture.
FZ: Did you go to Scandinavia?
JM: Not until much later. It's difficult for an Englishman to travel north. Quite wrongly one thinks that the interest is lying in the things with greater contrasts and so I always headed south. But more recently I have been up there.
FZ: And are there other places that are still inspiring for you, now?
JM: I think in Europe it probably gets harder because one’s seen it earlier and seen it more typically perhaps. If, just for example, you go to Bordeaux you see the same chains of shops you see everywhere else and it’s disappointing, in contrast with travelling at the time when there weren’t any of these shops, when there was greater difference between Countries.
FZ: So now you're obliged to go far from Europe.
JM: Yes, the further, the greater the differences one sees.
FZ: Did travels provide what you missed in school?
JM: In retrospect what I missed in school and what I spend every day trying to get back is the technical side. And that's the hardest. It's probably something which is impossible to teach and probably something which you only learn through the luck of having a project to do. It's such a difficult thing to acquire, this kind of knowledge of industrial process. And the more you do the more you learn. It's such a trap for young designers: if they don't get the luck, if they don't get the chance, they can be trapped forever in this kind of world of half project - half realisation.
FZ: And would you think there is a possibility of providing a more useful education?
JM: You need people like Fred Scott who are working designers. And the problem with teaching now is that if I go to teach or if anyone in my position goes to teach, it very often turns into a kind of question session on how to be a successful designer. Not how to be a designer, but how to be a designer who is taken notice of. And that's the tragedy. The best thing about the system at Kingston Polytechnic and the Royal College was that visiting designers came and gave us a project, they came and looked at what we were doing. And criticised it and gave us advice and information on how it would be done. And that's probably the best teaching system you could have, that somebody who is very involved in designing for industry comes to the school and brings his own impression on what students are doing. And that certainly worked in my day as a design student. It's much more difficult now because the students are much more aware of the possibilities. When I was a student one wasn't aiming to be Castiglioni or Magistretti. One hoped to be able to design in a similar way but didn't think of fame. They weren't even famous, they were... within the profession they were the examples one admired. And since then it's become very peculiar that students have this appetite for being a designer who is well known more than being a designer that's simply doing good work.
FZ: So they ask you more about how to deal with the media or how to get attention.
JM: Well, the classic question, is: “how did you get first break?”.
FZ: But that is a very important question, isn't it?
JM: Well, it is and it isn't. I would have thought it wasn't the obvious question because if you are going to be a designer, and you hope this will happen, it's not ... you know, I didn't ... I don't think anybody makes a strategy about how they're going to be successful, beyond doing your work and doing it well.
FZ: But, on the other hand, what are young designers are supposed to do? They certainly need exposure, to get started. Though what makes an accomplished designer is also a certain combination of talent, capacity of communicating with media, skills in dealing with the client, in running a business, etc.
JM: There is no clear cut answer, there’s no recipe that one could follow. And that's why it's such a boring question, you know, at the end you follow your own way.
FZ: Do you mean that the answer would be: “If you have that sort of questions ... you are not the right designer, you won't get there anyhow?”. I mean, this would be the cruel answer, wouldn't it? Probably the extraordinary talent doesn't need advice, as the extraordinary talent doesn't even need a school. So what would be the good advice, what should a school for the good average student be, would you have an idea to suggest?
JM: When I did teach, and I haven't taught for some time now, I did it in the sort of English tradition of looking at students' work and giving them advice, which is completely exhausting, and for three days afterwards you're useless as a designer because you looked at other people's work and you tried to imagine how it would be done and at the end of the day you've even said to yourself: “I'm just telling them how I would do it”. In another effort to teach I tried with another system, by setting a project which had to be realised within one week: projects to design door handles or, for example, making something with an particular material. The problem I always had with teaching is the fact that I'm just giving my example of how I would do it, while somehow design is not about everybody doing it the same way or one way being right or there being a rule about how a thing should be done. On the contrary, it's a very personal thing. I'm sure you don't find many designers who really appreciate other designers' work because they have other interests, and other areas of research. That's why I think it would be good to build some sort of database of images which could be used to develop peoples ability to see and evaluate, and to be aware of what’s around them. That’s the most important thing along with developing a technical awareness.
FZ: A sort of visual education.
JM: I really wonder what would happen if one was suddenly blind and unable to refresh your image bank or your visual encyclopaedia. There is a sort of constant replenishing, the more you look, the more you put on the top. But you still have things at the bottom that definitely need to be refreshed by seeing new things, by evaluating new situations.
FZ: Well, it would be interesting to understand whether there is a “Blind Design”: is design so linked to the visual domain?
JM: It would be fascinating to know what would come from somebody who was blind. I mean I can't imagine.
FZ: Does Design exist outside of the visual domain? This question goes back to the problem of Form: you always pointed out the unimportance of Form but now we are talking about how important vision is.
JM: I have a kind of on-going monologue with myself about Form, visual things, objects, situations, atmospheres, and it becomes a dialogue through seeing. So that you compare what's in your head with seeing new things and that comparison creates new ideas and these create different approaches, a sort of refreshment of the visual encyclopaedia.
FZ: If vision is the most important part in the structure of your way of thinking, can we say that it’s important how the object looks, both in your sources of inspiration and in your work? Isn’t this in contradiction with your general aim of turning down the importance of Form?
JM: But just as when you meet somebody and you look at their face: you make an instant evaluation, there's more to it than just that. And take for instance when you cook: you use different ingredients but the final result is more than the components. Form is a component on the road to a final solution and a very important part of it: you can't divide it from function, you can't divide it from other aspects of design and in the end a suppression of Form is necessary, I think. We've reached a stage where you have to suppress some formalistic tendencies to get a better object and that makes the character of an object, which in the end is the important thing, and part of that is the form. But not every part of it.
FZ: So should Form be intended as archetype?
JM: Perhaps my instinct is to suppress Form by trying to seek out more archetypic forms because that procedure very effectively suppresses the formal part of an object. When you look at an object, if the overriding impression you get is that it's something you never saw before, then probably that's Form speaking louder than everything.
*FZ: Does it irritate you because it also has to do with a strong desire to sell inconsistency?
JM: Uhm, it probably goes beyond that into a kind of moralistism where one feels a responsibility for putting an object on the market and one wants to feel that you didn't do something ridiculous or without value.
FZ: Is there a Design ethic? What is good design, bad design and where is the difference between design and styling?
JM: Before we go on, Design is also a job that you could compare with any other job and maybe if I was a postman I would also find a pleasure in being a postman in the way that I felt was being a good postman, whatever that might be, I can't imagine.
FZ: To put the letter in the letter box in a nice way or what?
JM: To do your work in a nice way. I'm sure every job has that aspect.
FZ: There is a sort of general demand in one’s life or others’ lives for basic decency I would say.
JM: Occupational decency.
FZ: I think all decent people have that desire to do something consistent, necessary, meaningful. We’ve talked before of moralism in Design.......
JM: And that’s also.....I mean that now puts Design on the platform. We have to think about what Design offers, and for me Design always has this problem of relating to normality, to avoid being this special thing which is only available to a privileged few who can understand it.
FZ: Which is the idea of modernism.
JM: Probably, but still very valid.
FZ: It could be argued that Design which doesn’t bring about Reform is nothing more than a service providing better marketability for products, would you agree that Design as a profession or as a discipline has an ethical responsibility? How would you define the role of Design?
JM: Let's first of all consider Industry working without design, what would the result be. Would we have objects which functioned very well? Probably. We'd have efficient objects, we'd have objects which fitted the right price and we'd probably have quite a confusion ... For the customers it would become quite ... arbitrary which product they took. And the problem with all that might be that the objects which filled people's houses, which formed daily life, would definitely bring an atmosphere, because every object brings an atmosphere but would it bring a good atmosphere or a bad one, or a dull atmosphere, or an exciting one? For me Design's role is to improve atmosphere, to improve quality of daily life on the most fundamental level. That to me is the most important issue. And then from that comes a kind of duty to make objects which fulfil that role. And so making objects only for excitement or only for marketing purposes is really a shallow approach to design. Objects have to go beyond that level and succeed in everyday life, and that's the test, more than sales and more than design praise in a small world. And of course then it becomes a complex issue about what the market is, how sophisticated it is, how receptive it is to that. At one extreme you have people like Enzo Mari who are uncompromising in their offering and don't give a damn for market opinion or sales figures or anything, but his sole objective and responsibility is to make objects which he considers good objects. While at another level you have designers who are much more interested in mass marketing and selling for one year in a very big way. Objects which might be disposable the next year.
FZ: Do you have an explanation of why so few environments, especially in the domestic field, are of quality? Why in the end the battle against fake and pretentious objects that design started hasn't been won in almost a century of work? Or has it been won?
JM: No, I don't think it has been won and probably it won't be until design ... I was going to say until design infiltrates industry on every level, but it could equally be the other way around, that industry saturates itself in design, and that's a trend which is ongoing. But the battle for me is not within a Design arena, I think the real competition is with interiors or ways of living which do succeed without Design. I'm sure that a lot of people live in very satisfactory ways in interiors where design is irrelevant, simply by buying objects from normal shops, objects which serve a purpose and together have a kind of integrity which lead to a much less fussy and much less style-conscious way of living. Which is probably more real. For me that's the competition and the goal, to do the same thing with Design.
FZ: On the other hand, when we go to a furniture fair, take the Milan fair, we look at no more than the two percent of the offering, and we don't even consider the rest. But the presence of this 98 percent is much more of a reality in everyday life than the 2 percent made by Èlite producers. So is the ideal competition you mentioned making sense, is it really existing, have you seen it?
JM: Let’s give two examples: one is a shop which, on a superficial level, is a Design shop: Vinçon, in Barcelona. Behind the kind of object-based, immediate-impact sales technique there are many everyday objects. For me this is an ideal shop, a shop which isn't only dealing with Design, but covers a much wider range of objects which are chosen for better reasons than just Design. Then, another example could be a small hardware shop in a city wherever you might find such a shop. There are many objects in shops like that which provide perfectly adequate, even better solutions to what you could find if you went to Cologne or Milan or Frankfurt where they have all these Object fairs. You know, until we take Vinçon as a sort of role model, until we've reached that level where the barrier is more blurred, Design won't be able to create the ideal atmosphere or way of living.
FZ: Does it have to do with cost and price and availability? Is good design too expensive?
JM: That’s an easy criticism to level at Design and a hard one to defend as a designer. But one is really fixed by systems, especially in the field of furniture, by the way furniture is sold and distributed: how it gets marked up, the problems of competition and limited production. And then probably the sort of Ego system of Design creates the bigger problem. The system is based on designers showing what they can do and very often that leads to objects trying too hard to express the designer’s ego.
FZ: You often talked about Good objects and the sort of correctness these have, for the fact that they serve for a long time, so that they are not over-stated, over personalized, they are not imposing themselves on people. That's fine and that's certainly a good service. On the other hand for feeling attracted, for enjoying an object, you need also an additional touch. I have the impression that the merely serving object in the end doesn't have it, for, in general, one doesn't notice them. I mean, you can talk about their hidden virtues but you don't notice them. You can make an interesting lecture on Good goods, and you can like good goods, but in the end you use the rope, you don't look at the rope and you don’t say: “Wow that's a rope”. But we live in a market world of products and attractions: how do you feel about that? What goes beyond the Good object and what makes the attractiveness or the sexiness of the objects? What does it mean?
JM: First of all I think that Sex is to some extent, and probably greater than one realises, a powerful factor in creativity and that one probably puts into objects a kind of ... sexual tension. Appreciation of Form is also a physical thing and perhaps an object draws on the same level as human sexual attraction and objects can have a kind of eroticism of their own which is put there almost in an instinctive way. A bit difficult to explain. It's interesting. You can look at a garden rake made in this kind of bent wood structure and the way it's split and then rejoined at the end is extremely ... I hate the word sensual, but let's say sexy, sexy is a better word.
FZ: Do you think that this has something to do with a direct hint to the body? Take the chair, for instance, which is really made by a recognisable composition of legs and bottom and back, in a sort of very human way.
JM: Yes, I think you're right, and perhaps also these more mass produced objects, though in a much less subtle way, all exhibit almost pornographic tendencies if you start to look at them in that way. And perhaps because they're made in plastic and steel and they are the result of industry one doesn't think that on a conscious level, but I'm quite convinced that on a subconscious level the communication is very strong.
FZ: On a more general level isn't looking at an interesting object able to create a tension? I mean, a “special” object is able to create a tension, while sometimes the totally harmonious object doesn't, for it leaves you in a state of benevolent peace. The interesting objects all have a tension in them, perhaps determined by something wrong or unexpected, as it happens in art: you are disturbed, you build up the tension and the pleasure. You get a tension when you look at something not easily understood, something that has an absurd or unbalanced aspect which you try to bring back into your own system. And the principle of enjoyment is the building up of a tension and the release of it.
JM: Yes, and I think also that better forms, better objects, good things, have a slightly stupid appearance or stupid character. If I look at that ladder, in one sense, it’s a ridiculous object, if I look at this corkscrew, I find it ridiculous. The telephone in many ways is also a kind of stupid form with a foot connected to a sort of antennae. And for me the tension that you speak about comes through this kind of not trying to get an object in perfect harmony but trying to give it character, to give it sympathy, to give it an emotion that brings sympathy. Probably we try to make objects that will be loved as a kind of second step from wanting to be loved ourselves. And when something looks too perfect, too clever, too right, you don't want to know it. The nice thing about human relationships is accepting and enjoying ridiculous parts and ridiculous characteristics or stupidities or even banalities, in other words a more complex combination of qualities and lack of qualities. I think we spoke a lot about qualities but we didn't speak about lack of qualities. And perfection, apart from possibly being unobtainable, it is maybe also not that sexy. If something is too perfect it's like a glossy magazine picture. It’s to be consumed in one second and doesn't become part of reality because it's too perfect.
FZ: Besides this little touch of sexiness, isn’t there also a sort of graphic inspiration in your work?
JM: A point I forgot to mention is the influence of these children's books like Tin Tin and early Walt Disney cartoons, this kind of distillation of objects into almost ridiculous simplicity. I think the simplicity of line, the economy which was necessary to create them, probably brain-washed me at a very early age, so that anything which is visually complicated, to me represents wasted effort.
FZ: By the way the animation of the object (that in this way becomes almost a little being), is a very odd thing and some of the most successful designs are very close to that. For me, your work has a sort of graphic quality, a flatness, together with the three dimensionality. Visually, it is more close to a line in the space than to a volume. Do you agree?
JM: Yeah, it's a kind of play-off of 2-D and 3-D. Lines seen from different angles, lines which describe a volume rather than creating one. In a book that was published about eight years ago on my work, there’s a good passage in the text written by Peter Dormer. He compared my work to Typography, and in one sense I completely identify with that, although Typography is completely two dimensional, reading the shape of the letter results as much from the empty parts or the spaces between the letters, as it does from the lines themselves. I am interested in this perception of line and space and volume which you get from typography. I find typography incredibly seductive. I'm often caught by these neon advertising and the colour and the light and the shape of the letters and even the names.
FZ: Do you see a limitation in this kind of attitude and approach? Does it limit you from developing other approaches?
JM: Probably. But no, I think you can't do everything and you can't be perfect and even if you were, nobody would like you anyway.
FZ: I'm just looking at the images in your book “A World Without Words” to see whether there is some thread to end this part of the interview with.
JM: There's one picture which is a completely astonishing image: it’s of a building completely covered with raincoats. It came out from a book about window display and the art of arranging a window to sell a product. And that's also such a kind of precise art. How do you really communicate what you've got to offer? The conceptual side of that is fascinating: the idea to put all those raincoats on, to cover a building and the kind of thinking that must have gone on.
FZ: It's completely crazy.
JM: Were they left for ...
FZ: When it rained?
JM: Were they put up for the day or were they left for a year? Did the people inside live in the dark for long?
FZ: Completely unreal. Did they sell umbrellas inside?
JM: Did it work? After that did they sell three times the raincoats they sold before?
FZ: Perhaps there is no building and they had just the raincoats.
JM: Maybe, maybe it was just a little corner shop.
FZ: A steel frame.
JM: A Hollywood film set.
FZ: Looking at your book 'A world without words', one of the most interesting characteristics one notices is its pluralism in the choice of images, which is somehow in contradiction with a stereotypic way of classifying your work as 'minimalism': how did you come to that selection?
JM: Actually I think they all relate in some way to my work, one should look at everything. Influence comes from everywhere. The individual interpretation of what surrounds us leads to indivudual expression.The selection I made was a way to communicate without talking, which would have been a disaster, it was really an attempt to make a visual lecture. Originally it was a slide show which I put together for the first lecture I made, at the Instituto Europeo in Milan. The selection was made more or less instinctively, from books and postcards which I came across at that time.
FZ: It s a great idea to make a lecture without words: did you manage not to say anything?
JM: Yes, definitely, I didn’t say a word.
FZ: Is the choice you made still meaningful to you today?
JM: I was tempted, at a certain point to make a more up to date version of it, perhaps somehow less romantic, more dry, but then, when it was time to reprint the little book we decided with the publisher not to change it. I’d rather make another one, although I’m not sure it would say anything different. I think this one is still valid, I don't find any image in it which is embarrassing, today, or a terrible mistake. Also, there is a certain safety in the number of images, the combination of some of them is more important than a single image. There are some images which are not particularly meaningful on their own, but which work in the context of the overall selection. They are there just because they were in the books I found when I was making the selection.
FZ: This reminds me of the method of Bob Wilson, in whose works there are things, objects, happenings mixed together with others not because these make a particular sense but because he happened to see them together at the time he was working on the theme.
JM: I think I used a bit more editorial control than that, the images had to fit in with a quite loose criteria of communicating some emotion within the first second of looking at them. I think I developed this quick assessment of imagery during my time at the Royal College where I used to look for relevant material by flicking through books, very often I didn’t know what was relevant about them, just that they communicated something. It got to the point where I would buy a book for a single image. Later on I realised that all these images had a strange relevance together, and that it would make sense to bring them together.
FZ: How do you pass from two-dimensional imagery to three-dimensional objects?
JM: I think you can be very inspired by a photograph, even if it is a black and white and difficult to understand what the reality could have been. Sometimes it is even more inspiring not knowing the reality because it gives the imagination room to work. Design is a funny thing, you really need these feelings, of sensing atmosphere, possibilities, materials, qualities. Atmosphere is better than any other term for expressing what I mean.
FZ: Is there a direct link, sometimes, between image and product? Could you give an example?
JM: Yes, it could be, for instance in the “world without words” book there is an engraving from a catalogue of carriages of a coach handle which lead directly to the FSB door handle I designed. This a very direct example, it isn't always like that. Sometimes it can happen walking into a room like the one we’re in now, and being inspired by the general atmosphere, it can also happen that one is inspired by something from a kind of visual memory catalogue, a form vaguely remembered can be reinterpreted and applied to a new situation.
FZ: Is this a process of thinking in terms of environment, trying to find a context for an object while designing it? Even a two-dimensional environment, like a photograph for example, rather than working on the isolated object, isn't this an attempt to put the object in a context. In architecture, for example, one has the possibility to work on creating or at least controlling a full context, the inside, but also the outside, the environment and the landscape. The project is rooted to it’s context. While in design one of the great difficulties is that one is working without a specific context, without control or relation with the surroundings, for instance, one has to design a door handle, but without having a particular door to refer to, neither a room, nor the house which contains that room. Is there a link here to the early room installations you made?
JM: Yes, definitely. These were genuine attempts to check the effect of things I was designing at that time on the atmosphere of a theoretical space or room. It’s interesting to think now that this was taking the process full circle, from inspirational atmosphere to object and back to atmosphere. The question in the back of my mind must have been “Will I lose definition in the process of scanning and reprinting?” I’ve never had the ambition to be a creator of new form. I'm sure there are people who are creative enough to invent from nothing but for me it’s always been necessary to have a starting point.
FZ: Could you get an idea by thinking about a specific material, for example?
JM: Yes, for instance this summer, thinking of a chair, I saw samples of gas-injected technology, a kind of elliptical shape, and it suggested the leg of a chair to me. I’ve designed the chair from the legs upwards, which is unusual!
FZ: Do you think that this necessity of stimulation is due to the fact that design is a discipline which is confronted with a world already full of stuff, not anymore driven by the concepts of necessity and progress, but rather by a highly sophisticated and refined way to create and follow its own metaphors?
JM: Well, yes, it becomes more and more difficult to justify: one has to think and work much harder to achieve valid results. On the other hand tools like hammers have been evolving this way for centuries, maybe chairs have finally caught up.
FZ: Now that the basic problems are solved, the basic needs fulfilled, one can concentrate more on the 'how' than on the 'what'. In other words, perhaps the contemporary condition of design allows the freedom of working on the refinement.
JM: I think all the early arguments of design like form follows function, etc. were all concentrated on the object isolated from the context of everyday life, these were logical but short sighted theories. In reality objects enter interiors and have a profound effect on the atmosphere, this is a part of designing which is often neglected and an area where you could say there is room for improvement. So that after having defined the function of a chair over the centuries now is perhaps the time to look at the problem on other more mysterious levels. A parallel in architecture would be how buildings meet the ground, what happens at the join and how they relate to their surroundings.
FZ: This parallel suggests another question: while in the past architects seem to have been the better designers, this is not true today, especially in the first decades of the century they certainly seem to have been able to add this special 'extra view' to their approach to objects and furniture, and then it completely vanished. Do you have an opinion on that?
JM: I think they had a license to do it, which designer’s have ignored, it was a sort of experimental work, with a particular consciousness of space and the relation between objects and space. For me the best example is still the Corbusier’s interiors where he selected the Thonet chairs, and certain objects.
FZ: Don't you think that they also had the chance to devote their attention to a new way of living, and that the results were more relevant for being related to really innovative ideas of inhabiting, and that therefore these objects and furniture were deeply influenced by this new approach, by the manifestation of modern living? While today nothing new happens in this field: we are still living in the same kind of interiors and environment defined by the experience of the modern, eventually filtered through the contributions of the 50s and 60s.
Do you see in the recent changes in the organisation of work, in the 'invention' of the home-office, a possibility of reviewing our idea of living spaces?
JM: Uhm, in reality I think that the problem with this concept is that these developments are very often the expression of a money/space saving process, a very incomplete theory which is formulated at the business end rather than the home end, so that people are sent back home to work and initially maybe they think that’s wonderful, but they are then isolated from the world. Perhaps creative work can be done like this, but then, for most of us, our work involves other people, and meetings and discussions and going out.
FZ: This is certainly true, but I was not thinking of people who are told to stay home and do their paper or computer work in a less expensive way, but rather of the growing number of independent individuals who, thanks to the new technologies and links, can establish themselves a sort of one-man-company, requesting and providing services and products which were probably not existing or simply differently organised before. Do you think that this new phenomena will affect and change our homes? Is the fact that we will use the home differently going change something at home? In that case the home may become not jut the space to escape from work, or the opposite of your public life, but it may become the full expression of most aspects of your life.
JM: I don't see such a clear cut between living and working, in the sense that you probably don’t need special equipment for defining a working space within the living space. Perhaps the home will become a more creative or replenishing place for having some kind of work element and not just the place were you go back exhausted, fall down and watch TV.
Sometimes there are also surprising consequences of the so called ‘technological progress’: take the video recorder for example, this in fact gave us the possibility to escape TV, since it’s possible to record one’s favourite program and watch it when one has time, which at first seemed to allow the greatest form of TV addiction, but in reality the result is that, reassured by the fact that it has been recorded, one simply forgets about it, and never watches it at all. Also, the possibility of seeing good programs independent of TV’s schedules had the consequence that the good programs have been relegated to very late at night, so that when you watch TV at normal time it’s so boring that you are better off going out, new technology can be liberating in unexpected ways!
FZ: I wonder which is the role of the design, of the designer in all these events. Of course these depends on general changes of the society, not on design's interventions.
JM: If I think at the situation in London, at the moment, where a new restaurant opens every week, it is more and more rare to be invited to somebody’s home because there are all these things going on out of the home, maybe this kind of neutral territory is easier for people, but at the same time the home becomes more personal and the time you spend in it perhaps more and more important for being rare, so I could imagine that after all we have talked about the internet and the technology, that home actually becomes a more private space again but treated with a lot of attention perhaps for the reason that it is in the end the most important and private space we have.
FZ: In this sense, the choice of objects in a home becomes very meaningful, because they respond to different emotional expectations.
JM: Well, perhaps this is a sort of liberating process in the sense that the 'status' fact of the object becomes less important, whether you want to express the fact that you are an antique collector or an art collector, it is much less important if nobody is going to come to your home. So perhaps objects become more personal, and are chosen for better reasons than status.
FZ: On the other hand people perhaps won’t spend money on furniture, if nobody sees it, while they could have for instance a great car, or clothes.
In reality we know almost nothing about how people really live, in their homes: sometimes a photographic book, like the old Electa one (title), shows, in an almost voyeuristic way, slices of life, which are somehow always a surprise, compared with the ideal scenarios of the 'designer home’. Is there an example of an interior which is particularly significant to your work?
JM: I always remember staying in a cell at the convent La Tourette designed by Le Corbusier, which I consider an example of 'real' minimalism: a very simple room which has everything you need, a perfect room, where in about 10 sqm you have an apartment: when you enter the door on your right you have the bathroom and a cabinet which divides the bathroom from the bed, in which you can put from one side your clothes and from the other your book or whatever; after the bed you have a table and a chair and then in line with the door to the room there is the door to the terrace and the terrace is no more than one meter deep, but it’s enough. So I had this very nice night, in a room with a lot of spirit, a lot of character, where I felt completely comfortable.
The next day I went to a hotel in Germany, a kind of businessmen’s hotel, with a big room 4 meters by 5 meters with carpets and curtains and minibar and TV, and double bed and separate bathroom, everything in brass, it was so depressing, the contrast was so strong. This experience made me think about the amazing power of architecture, a power that allows you to transform concrete walls, which can look like a prison if left empty, thanks to good planning, into a room which is 100% comfortable and practical, where you really feel good. And then with bad planning and stupid products you can make a room which is closer to a prison. I had to put my bag down and go out immediately.
FZ: A monk’s cell has often be quoted as an example of the so called 'existenzminimum', the minimum dimensional requirements for living.
JM: But in terms of fulfillment of human needs it is the opposite, it is the maximum, you have everything you need, and there is the real difference. The La Tourette room is dealing with real human needs while the German hotel room is dealing with expected needs or needs which society builds up, which aren't real.
FZ: Is there a way for the designer to point out such needs, to underline them and make them visible to people, or do you think is it too late for this kind of role?
JM: This is a difficult subject because as a product designer you are only responsible for the chair, the table, the drinking glass. It’s something between Architecture and Design, it’s a difficult subject because an interior designer is very often not qualified enough in architecture, or in product design to create that correct atmosphere.
FZ: Do you think there is a substantial difference between architecture, interior architecture and design or do you see these issues as something that developed in a sort of unity and then differentiated in the latest decades?
JM: If you look at architectural magazines, you see that architects insist on having their buildings photographed before any things are moved in, as if the introduction of objects will spoil the purity of the space, and this is a kind of missed opportunity because I think architects should be more aware and accepting of how people live in their buildings.
FZ: On the other hand one should also consider that when an architect takes over the interior decoration it is often a real disaster, they seems unable to restrain themselves or to handle it in a proper way, which was not the case with the great architects at the beginning of the century, just think of the great interior of the The Four Season’s restaurant made by Philip Johnson in the Mies van den Rohe building. But today even great architects produce objects and furniture which, though sometimes conceived with a lot of attention and expectations are really poorer, in visual and technical qualities, than a good product. Why this original capacity has been lost?
JM: I think there are some architects who are much more involved in the interior projects, by choice and by necessity, without being over architectural in their approach. On the other hand the two disciplines imposed by buildings and objects are almost opposites. The latter is referring to identical reproduction, while the building is always or nearly always a unique situation, a prototype, it has as much to do with the outside as with the inside and it is difficult to take it in in one glance to see its structure or form, it’s a more complex problem.
FZ: Is it that an architect perhaps invests too much, use too much of this complexity for something that, at the end, requires a certain simplicity, clarity, a capacity for pointing out and solving a few basic human needs?
JM: It is also interesting to notice in photographs of new buildings, controlled by architects, that when they do put in furniture they nearly always select Le Corbusier’s chaise longue, or some similar totem, it’s a very strange insecurity or fear of objects competing with architecture, but if you put Le Corbusier’s chaise longue in a room it’s just a statement which says 'this is an architectural piece of furniture' and not 'this is a real piece or furniture'.
FZ: What is the role of a design oriented furniture company in enhancing good design and blending this with good architecture?
JM: The best way I think is that the pieces have some consistency together, and in an overall exhibition or commercial fair the company is able to communicate an atmosphere which the piece combined or individually is capable of giving. In my experience the companies which work the best with design have an individual at the top who has a strong vision of what the company is and will be.
FZ: In a sense, would the conclusion be that it isn't possible to create or maintain a Design oriented company without this strong personal approach.
JM: In the case of furniture production, I think that its a kind of very personal, almost private industry in which companies don’t work so well when they become too big, at least when they become so big that the communication between designers and this mysterious individual with the vision is broken. Whenever the designer is not able to communicate directly with the person who’s vision the company is the results will suffer.
FZ: Do you think that this kind of process is still more in line with the traditional client-architect, or client-designer personal relation, a role which cannot be easily delegated to or substituted by a committee, department or managers' group?
JM: Well, I believe that one needs the kind of situation I mentioned, for good design to become a reality, just as one needs a good engineer and a strong technical department, Design is increasingly part of a teamwork, in spite of the image of the designer as ‘creator’. There is something in the mix, which is necessary and it’s a very complicated chemistry.
FZ: Can you give an example of companies you have worked with, which follow this vision?
JM: FSB, Cappellini, Alias, Alessi, Vitra, Flos, Magis, SCP: these are all small to medium size companies, with a person in control who has a clear understanding of what he wants to achieve, and an interest to work directly with the designer and not to have the designer meet with managers below him.
FZ: What happens in case of more complex products, like the tram you designed, for which you surely don't deal with a single client, but with a group, or a committee: how do you manage these types of projects?
JM: I was very lucky in the case of the tram. I had a project leader who was more of less this kind of client or partner in the project and who worked very well and was enthusiastic to producing something different. It was his first project, and perhaps if this person had done several projects like this one, knowing all the dangers, problems and difficulties, it would have been more difficult to achieve anything different.
FZ: Is it possible that collaboration with other friends designers, work in a team, would lead to good results? Could colleagues play this role of ideal partners?
JM: I think that there are projects which work much better in a team, perhaps not so much the product projects but for example exhibitions design, town planning projects, urban interventions, where you need somebody else with a different point of view and where the richness of the project comes through this dialog.
FZ: Is this the case of your collaboration with Andreas Brandolini?
JM: Certainly. We did three urban projects and one exhibition design and few others, and these were all very satisfying works. We called our collaboration Utilism International, which symbolised our approach which was ironic in a sense but also very sincere: to remove the ego of the designer from the projects and to say 'we think in terms of the end user, we think in terms of practicality, and we think in terms of spirit and atmosphere of the end result an so we are not looking to create sensation but for the more discrete and charming aspect of practical solutions' and everyday life.
FZ: Was this also a way of giving up individualism, or the sort of personal branding that so often accompany the designers’ work? Was the goal to arrive at a sort of anonymous result, or common result in which the single contribution was not anymore recognisable?
JM: Yes, to come to a genuine result which we tried not to advertise, not to say 'look, here is what we can do' but we were working directly for an end result which was 100% practical, atmospheric as a result of function and full of real life. It was very refreshing to have the chance to work like that, and not to worry or even think about having your name on the project or what people would think.
FZ: Is there any particular difficulty in this team work?
JM: I think we had a sort of common feeling of what the project should be and we were very quick to see which contributions fitted into that frame, so that the ego-part didn't bring particular problems.
FZ: Is the team work also a way for bringing in a fertile complexity, or the appropriate plurality, into the approach to a urban work?
JM: In East Berlin we did a nice project. Several groups were invited to intervene in different parts of East Berlin with the idea of the unification and we called our project “zero to five meters”. We were only concerned with the surface level and up to this height of 5 meters, which more or less changes the goal from architecture to something more fundamental. Basically, we were thinking from the point of view of the pedestrian and we did a very practical project which was hated by the people who organised the competition.
JM: I think they were looking for something more monumental. And Utilism International faced many situations like this where our work was not appreciated at all because it was insufficiently monumental. We did another project for a park outside Paris, it’s an area which has been designated as a regional park. We thought the most important thing was that the people who live in that area should not feel they are in zoo, ok, it could be a nice park, it is already a nice park and we don't have to decorate it and to make it a kind of a tourist centre, because that doesn't change how nice the park is and so we took that approach and did very normal signage system, street furniture etc., a very practical approach and we were almost thrown out of the meeting, they wanted something made by a blacksmith, something fancy which would give the area a ‘special’ identity.
FZ: Is there any particular individual in this field who is inspirational or do you usually refer to some anonymous environment?
JM: I think we had already started when Rolf (Fehlbaum) sent me the book by Christopher Alexander “A Pattern Language” and we already found we were on a very similar line but it was very interesting to look at his research, at his writings and I think there is a lot to learn there. Even if sometimes it has a slightly dated almost hippie-like commune feeling to it, the basic philosophy I think it is 100% on track.
FZ: Are there other significant cultural references you see as important for your development?
JM: I discovered the work of Franco Albini much later than Jean Prouvè, Eileen Gray, and others I already mentioned, these were my initial influences and much later I came across a book on Albini. I immediately felt a great affinity with his work, in a way that I don't think I’ve felt with another architect or designer, just the general spirit of the work is so great.
FZ: And what about friends, acquaintances who might have influenced you or you might have interacted with?
JM: When I was still studying at the Royal College James Irvine was a year ahead and he left the college and went to work for Olivetti, in those early days, going to Milan and staying with James was for me very formative and we had a great time. James was the one person I could talk to about design, in many late night sessions, with a similar enthusiasm and shared values. The contrast between me being more or less unemployed and him being already in the design world was also very nice. I was envious of his position, his immersion in that professional world which has taken me so many years to get in, even now I'm not sure if I consider myself a professional.
FZ: What was for you the first experience which gave you this kind of professional status or consciousness?
JM: It’s something I very very slowly acquired. But the first big break I had was an article in Domus and from that came a door handle project with FSB and another with Cappellini. And though these were at the beginning very basic industrial projects they were real, they were industrial, and you need that as a starting point. I think it was really a slow process of growing from one project to another, learning from each one, learning about the business of production step by step. That’s not something you can learn at school.
FZ: How has your relation with Cappellini developed? What is your role now? How do you see your contribution? Is there something special and unique, not easy to reproduce or something you think other designers could develop with other companies with similar goals?
JM: I think I'm very lucky in having found Cappellini, in meeting Giulio (Cappellini) I was lucky enough to find somebody with a vision very close to my own and I think still today we have a very good communication on the level of what a project should be, which kind of pieces Cappellini should be producing, the general atmosphere which the collection represents.
FZ: Can I say that in a certain sense this is another designer's task: to imagine and design a scenario, an environment composed by the overall production, irrespective of who materially made the design of the single products?
JM: Especially in the exhibitions we have made for the fairs, we’ve made a great effort to show furniture not as individual pieces but in a collective environment, to try and show something more to do with living than just Design. One of these was “The House of Cappellini” and another “Progetto Oggetto” which in retrospect I think anticipated the re-evaluation which is going on now for smaller domestic products. The great thing about Design is that it concerns itself with everything, from the small factory which can do something interesting to the environments which surround our daily lives.