Jasper Morrison on Emeco, Getting Older, and Giving in to Compromise
The celebrated British designer discusses the process of developing the Emeco 1 Inch collection, his new book, and his challenging foray into interior design.
Designer Jasper Morrison specializes in the unspectacular—sensible works of design whose quiet beauty lies in their perfect proportions and soft forms. The Emeco 1 Inch collection, which launched at the Salone del Mobile in April and was showcased at ICFF in New York this week, has a deceptively simple recycled aluminum frame (in reality, the complex curves proved a challenge) and a range of sustainable material options. Metropolis caught up with Morrison on the floor of ICFF to discuss the process of developing that collection, his new book, and his first foray into interior design.
Avinash Rajagopal: What was the impetus for the Emeco 1 Inch collection?
Jasper Morrison: It was the result of a conversation with Gregg [Buchbinder, CEO of Emeco] and with the engineer about how they could make an affordable product using the materials in their control and find a way to make a cheaper version of the navy chair. We decided we have to do a stacking chair and it has to have square tubing. Where we can save money is by not welding the seat in the back. Plus, we used this very beautiful recycled polypropylene wood chip. To me it has a lot of character—much nicer than regular polypropylene—it looks antique, not recycled.
Combining all these thoughts and parameters for the project, we set out to design a chair that will work in bistros and restaurants, but could also be in a company canteen or in someone’s kitchen.
AR: Why the square profile for the tubing? Because of the square profile on the Navy chair?
JM: Yeah. When you start a conversation with a company, especially as one as pure and simple as Emeco—they only do one product a year—it is not about, “What else are you doing this year, and what have you done in the past?” The question is, what should we be doing next year? It is so strategic. If you are going to Milan or ICFF with just one product, it really needs to work.
We have had a lot of discussion about narrowing down what the project should be. And trying to imagine what Emeco should be with it. If you have only got one product on your stand, it has to speak of your company. It is the voice of your company, visually speaking.
So the idea was to find a path for Emeco to go in the future. I enjoy that.
AR: Were there any manufacturing challenges with this collection?
JM: Yeah, absolutely. We had never tried bending a square-profile aluminum tube in compound curves. I didn’t think it would be quite as difficult as it has been. We have drawn it, adjusted it, about 8 times. With the first one, the aluminum tubes were just buckling. So we had to adjust the curves, with a slight twist. This leg at the bottom is twisted slightly.
We had to have a bit of flexibility about what happens to the material. If I had said, “No way, it has to be absolutely straight,” as I might have done a few years ago, we probably wouldn’t have succeeded. On any design project there is compromise. When you are a young designer you think, “Compromise is destroying my design.” But when you get a bit older you understand that a compromise is how everything is done. Use it to your advantage.
AR: Sustainability such a big part of the Emeco brand. What is that like for you as a designer, to have sustainability front and center?
JM: It is especially good for several reasons. One is that it leads you naturally to interesting materials—of course, some aren’t going to work because they aren’t strong enough, or they don’t look like nice enough. Two is that it is a great message for consumers.
My approach with other companies, in general, is to design things that will be around for a long time. But it is even better with Gregg because he is so committed on the materials side.
AR: Let’s talk about a few of your other projects. You have a new book coming out, The Hard Life.
JM: That is a long-term project, the result of me discovering a collection of everyday objects from the early 20th century and late 19th century in Lisbon, in the Museum of Ethnology. When I am traveling, and I have little time, I dig out a museum like that and have a look.
The collection was so spectacular. Better design than what we professionals are doing. So many examples of great design, nice thinking, and beautiful objects. Did you ever see a book called Architecture without Architects, by Bernard Rudofsky? This has a similar idea of looking at things that were done before design was professionalized.
AR: You’re also designing a restaurant space in Lisbon? Is that your first interior design project?
JM: Yes, it hasn’t quite opened yet. It is in the EDP building by Aires Mateus. The ground floor has a piazza between the two wings, that’s where it is, and it is open to the public.
We found a way to bring in a modern version of a brasserie. In New York, a brasserie is filled with brass, with rails and old fashioned coat hooks and things. So we tried to do a modern brasserie, basically.
I don’t usually do interiors, and after this project I realized why. It is so much work. When you do a chair you have got a couple of people to talk to about it. It is so easy to focus on that one thing. Here, I learned about dealing with this air conditioning stuff, for example. It is just a pain, we were losing roof height by a foot everyday, the ceiling was coming lower and lower. Then there was always something else, like the sprinkler system. Horrible. So I am not sure I am going to do too many more interiors. But it was interesting.
AR: And what about technology-related projects? People still reference your phone for Punkt—Deyan Sudjic [director of the Design Museum London] recently discussed it with me in an interview. Are you in the process of doing anything else like that?
JM: That phone has been out for years, maybe people talk about it because it’s a vintage piece now!
We do have some new ones in the pipeline, but unfortunately I cannot tell you about it yet. Some of them are for Punkt.
I find those projects interesting. They are very different from doing a chair. It is nice to do something smaller—a different side of life you know? It is very good for us as well to tackle different types of projects. Otherwise people say, “Oh yeah, they only do chairs. They only do boring chairs. No real character.”
AR: Well, the elements of the 1 Inch collection might be minimal, but it is definitely full of character!
If you liked this article, you may want to read about how Herman Miller remastered their iconic Aeron chair.