Q&A: Designer James Morrison on the Supernormal, Vitra, & Design Today
In a recent exhibition, Jasper Morrison coined a term for a collection of humble, well-made objects. His own work exhibits the same simplicity of purpose.
When it comes to promoting new products, the idea of a designer wearing a synthetic pink suit, feigning boredom, or throwing a temper tantrum for the media suddenly seems so last year—especially for Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa , who have spent their careers designing well-made products without resorting to stylistic gimmicks or personality quirks. Their low-key, let-the-object-speak-for-itself approach (with maybe a little promotion here and there) has worked exceptionally well for them. For the past three years, they’ve had the design world abuzz with their refreshing exhibition celebrating normality in design and the beauty of simple, well-made everyday objects.
Morrison came up with the idea for the exhibition a few years ago when talking to a Muji employee about Fukasawa’s Magis stool. He remarked that both the stool and the cutlery he had done for Alessi seemed like examples of a new way to design. They looked like unassuming objects but shared a quality that went beyond the visual, utilizing sturdy materials, simple forms, exacting details. Morrison called it supernormal. It’s a philosophy that seems all the more relevant in a stalled economy. Recently I spoke to Morrison, who works for Alessi, Flos, Muji, and Established & Sons, about the exhibition, his new work for Vitra, and the state of design today.
How do you define supernormal?
The key point is that it’s designed so that the visual characteristic is not the most important one, or it may even be suppressed. It’s about unsensational-looking objects that perform in a sensational way. In fact, it may take time for you to notice how well they work.
Aside from function and durability, what makes an object supernormal?
If you take all the stuff out of a room, all that’s left is an architectural atmosphere. As you start to bring things into it, the atmosphere that develops in this space is very different, whether it was an antiques dealer’s store or a dental practice. The atmosphere is made out of the objects as well as the architecture. Architecture is like the background, and the objects have their effect.
So the atmospheric effect of any object is a tangible thing. That’s the most interesting thing about design: knowing what to put into an object to make a good atmosphere. Supernormal objects all have that ability to make good atmosphere.
One example: about ten years ago, I bought a chopping board, and after about five years, I started to appreciate it, and then I started to understand how great it was. Sounds a bit over the top, doesn’t it? That board was cut at a slight angle, which allowed me to remember not only which side is which—in case you want to cut onions on the top and meat on the bottom—but when you wash it, you can set it against a wall to dry, and the edge doesn’t sit in a pool of water. Little things like that, which are almost imperceptible when you first become acquainted with an object. You’re subconsciously aware of those things, but not on an everyday level. And that makes good atmosphere for everyday life.
So much design these days is about going for a magazine cover and making a big show. In reality, if we take these objects home and try to live with them, they just mess up your atmosphere and, more than likely, don’t work because so much attention has gone into how they look.
Did you have some specific objects in mind that you wanted to include?
We looked across a range, from furniture and kitchenware even to outdoor stuff. We looked at many catalogs and companies. I liked those Fiskars scissors with the orange handles and had to find out where to buy them. It was quite a lot of effort to bring it all together, but there’s plenty of stuff missing.
In the case of cutlery, you had so much to choose from. Which one did you decide to include?
I picked my one. (Laughs). There’s another one by Sottsass that is very good. We included a very basic range of six or so spoons that are all supernormal in a slightly different sense.
What did you want visitors to come away with from the Super Normal exhibition?
It’s a reminder to think about why and what design is for. If you are a designer, think about why you’re doing it. And if you’re, as we all are, a consumer, then think about what you are buying, and don’t be duped by looks alone.
The Basel chair for Vitra is another interesting example in the progression of your work. Can you explain the thinking behind it and what it does?
It’s all about atmosphere. I realized that designing a good-looking chair may be not enough. If you put forty of them in a restaurant, do they make for a good atmosphere where people will be relaxed enough about their surroundings to enjoy their lunch? Usually not, because the effort to make them look good has prevented the designer from considering their effect on the atmosphere, and the result is an overload of unnecessary, four-legged attention seekers! Having realized that, I started to think about the kind of chairs that avoid that problem, and that’s how I came to the project of the Basel chair. It’s actually a sort of apology because there’s a sushi restaurant in my neighborhood in Paris that has forty Air chairs, which I designed, on the pavement in pink. That’s a great example of the visual pollution of design. The Basel chair is trying to correct that. Am I going to try to buy all those pink chairs back? I should, but as the whole interior of the restaurant is also pink, I don’t think it would work. The chairs are all right, but the color just isn’t for Paris.
You talk about how design is breaking down into two schools, one driven by marketing and the other by the designer. How would you characterize the designer’s point of view?
I would characterize it as the truer point of view, where the interests of the user and the environment are put before the spin of selling things with cutesy stories!
Your Crate series is beautiful and stirred up some controversy in the design world. Explain the thinking behind these pieces.
When I moved into my apartment in Paris, I used an old wine crate the builders left behind as a bedside table. I stood it on end, stacking books below, and used the top side as a table. It worked so well that I became very attached to it, and when Established asked me for a project, I had the idea to get them to remake it. When it was shown in Milan, people were outraged, accusing me of a cynical approach to design, which surprised me. It was the same year that one of my colleagues (who shall remain nameless) had the idea to present a chair that could wear clothes! After that, I decided to prove how uncynical I was by expanding the range to satisfy as many functions in the home as I could. I’m not sure it’s finished yet.
Is the media to blame for promoting bad design?
The media is to blame for presenting design as a kind of visual game in which considerations for the everyday reality of an object are set aside in the interest of selling the magazine and getting everyone all hotted up about how glamorous it is. It’s understandable that they would do this, but unfortunately it has a distorting effect on our perception of design. We have started to think of design as we do fashion, as something temporary that keeps us up-to-date and in the know. But like the Christmas advertising aimed at preventing people from buying pets that they later abandon, a sofa is for life (almost). The other point is that despite all the creative juice that goes into making these showstoppers, the results don’t make for good atmosphere. They make for something fake and trivial and uncomfortable, the kind of atmosphere where you ask yourself if your trouser legs are cut thin enough! An atmosphere for people who choose to hide from life behind a veneer of style. That’s enough moaning from me. I don’t mean that design shouldn’t look good or that there isn’t a lot of good design around, but you get the point.
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