Objects of Affection

“Thick as two short planks,” Ross Lovegrove says twice—first before I even sit down in his studio, and then again for the benefit of the tape recorder. Roughly translated as someone stupid, it’s one of those traditional British sayings you’re more likely to hear from those mythical salt-of-the-earth types with cockney accents than high-profile designers living and working in the rarefied surroundings of London’s Notting Hill.

The dim folks in question are drivers—a group that gives Lovegrove no end of frustration—like the road crew currently outside his office who leave truck engines idling while ripping up the street. “I tell them the exhaust is coming into our building, but people just don’t think. They are so unaware of the environment.” He shakes his head and flips his hands over in a what-can-you-do-about-it gesture, apologizing for launching so soon into what he calls the “tirade.”

Lovegrove sits at a table in his studio on one of his Go chairs, with its praying mantis legs. The space is all minimalist luxury with poured-concrete floors, glass, silver edges, and translucent plastics. Designed by his wife, architect Miska Miller Lovegrove, the studio’s look is harder and more angular than his curving organic forms. Downstairs in the subterranean studio a complex computerized lighting system simulates daylight. Tables and shelves are lined with the old, the new, and the techno-advanced. There are models and materials—everything from carbon bike handles to ancient stone tools; there’s even a straw hat with a solar-powered fan Lovegrove found in Jerusalem with Shigeru Ban. Just over the designer’s shoulder sits his gleaming Audi A2, parked in its garage and displayed behind glass like an art object. That itself could be a metaphor for his complex feelings about cars.

“They’re a hyperemotive subject,” says Lovegrove, who is wearing a zippered green cardigan, white T-shirt, khaki combat trousers, and old-school sneakers—the hip designer’s standard look in our day and age, but with his white hair and beard he resembles the design world’s Gandalf minus Ian McKellen’s swirling robes. Lovegrove speaks with the barest hint of a Welsh accent, which gets stronger when he talks about his childhood—or when he gets angry. And cars, they make him that.

Lovegrove nearly came to blows in Hyde Park over them. He drove there with Miska to take a walk, and when they parked, “The guy in front of us was just running his engine, and this was a park, so I went up to him and asked if he had kids.” The man looked dumbly (think two short planks) at Lovegrove and said yes, not knowing what was coming next. Lovegrove asked if he cared about their future and lectured him about leaving his engine running with exhaust belching out. The ensuing argument attracted stares from all the passersby (“including,” Lovegrove adds, “the lead singer of Dire Straits”).

Now the self-styled “Captain Organic” (his tag as he signs off e-mails to his friend Greg Lynn) is turning into an eco-warrior. But unlike most people who worry about cars and the environment, Lovegrove doesn’t sign a petition or wring his hands or curse Hummers and SUVs under his breath. Instead he wants to tackle the problem head on. “I don’t get out of bed and go, ‘Oh, I’d love to design a fax machine or another Anglepoise lamp,’” he says, leaning forward. “I mean somebody else can do that. But to take on the issue of the car with logic and beauty,” his voice trails off for a second, “they don’t have to be excluded—you can have both with a car.”

At 48, Lovegrove is one of the design world’s stars, famous for his rounded shapes that push technology and materials. He recently received the World Technology Award for Design given by an influential think tank. In Japan kids stop him on the street to ask for his autograph (and not because they mistake him for Ian McKellen). He has won countless design awards and has been in shows at MoMA, London’s Design Museum, the Centre Pompidou, and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. At the Salone del Mobile in Milan this year, Thonet exhibited Lovegrove’s 8 chair, which riffs on the company’s bent-wood classic; and downstairs in his studio an assistant is working on another exhibit for the fair, bathroom designs for the Turkish company VitrA. With more than 100 pieces in it—everything from tiles to taps and bidets—it’s one of the biggest bathroom projects ever by a single designer. Then there’s the lighting for Yamagiwa to come out soon in Europe and the United States, a new TV for Sony, cell phones for an upstart Finnish company, and new wire-frame seating for Knoll, not to mention a car for Swarovski’s Crystal Palace series.

Usually designers make some sort of crystal chandelier for the Swarovski exhibit at the Milan furniture fair. (Past participants have included Hella Jongerius, Tord Boontje, Ron Arad, and Ingo Maurer.) But Lovegrove insists he’s not the chandelier sort despite his hugely inventive lighting for Yamagiwa that rethinks the shape and function of fluorescent tubes. Instead he’s making a solar-powered concept car, in keeping for a designer who made his own windmill when he was a teenager.

Lovegrove grew up in Wales, the child of middle-class parents, which in postwar Britain meant a small house, four kids, thrift, and a keen admiration for technology and optimism about the future. His parents never replaced things or threw them out. In fact, a VitrA toilet has been in his parents’ house for decades, and they still reuse the plastic water bottle Lovegrove designed. He was influenced by his frugal upbringing but also by the rugged Welsh coastline. “It was this raw, pebbly beach, brutal and gray with incredible geology. And I don’t know how many billions of pebbles there are on a beach, but every one fits your hand.”

Of course, when Lovegrove was designing his VitrA bathroom he went home and collected some of the rocks and turned them into the handles. “Nature does all the work,” he says in one of his trademark statements about the power of nature in design. Lovegrove still reads the local paper each week, and as he talks about his village, Penarth, he says he’s convinced that King Arthur once lived there. In talking about Arthurian legend he has something of Gandalf about him—or perhaps Arthur’s own wizard, Merlin.

Lovegrove walks me over to a shelf and in a well-rehearsed gesture picks up a bear skull that sits next to an old meringue. “This is made from protein and polysaccharide,” he says, “and it’s so strong you can stand on it, but that”—he waves toward the meringue—“is made from protein and polysaccharide too.” And magically with a small flourish of his hand, he adds, “But you pour water on it and the meringue disappears. Could that be the future of packaging?”

On the phone from Los Angeles, Lynn explains, “Ross is evangelical about new materials and technology.” I’d expected L.A.’s king of computer architecture to be the high priest of material innovation, but Lynn says that title belongs to Lovegrove, adding, “Ross looks for interesting ways to manufacture, and that makes him think of new things. Instead of it being simply ‘I want legs of a chair as fast as possible,’ it’s, ‘So what is this material and what can I do with it?’” Each of them is always turning the other on to new technologies.

For his VitrA bathroom line, Lovegrove wanted to push the material possibilities of ceramics and used everything from conceptual art to flirtation. He started out with the art: “I had this idea of liquefaction of space and wanted to see how structural form flows from the wall, down the ceiling, and up from the floor.” It was part of trying to capture the ceramic qualities in the individual products, he explains. “Ceramic goes from solid to liquid to solid again. In the factory there are these rivers of liquid slip with pink earth tones so sensual that you want to touch it, and then it can be molded into a hard material. I wanted that.” Inevitably, achieving this meant pushing the company.

Lovegrove flew out to VitrA’s factory in Turkey to show the company’s senior man his design for a one-piece freestanding washbasin. The factory official was not impressed; he called it impossible, saying, “I’ve been in this business for forty years,” which Lovegrove says “means he knows what he’s talking about and I don’t, and, well, one has a high level of diplomacy after a while.” So Lovegrove touched him on the shoulder and said very calmly in his nicest voice, “Could you please try? I sense it’s possible.” Two months later it was, and as Lovegrove recalls the experience, you can see his seductive side, pushing clients to achieve his material dreams.

“He’s a challenger, such a challenger,” Yamagiwa’s spokeswoman Minako Morita says. (She is also Lovegrove’s close friend.) In designing the System X lighting for the company, he worked closely with the chairman in the struggle to get it right. Lovegrove began by wanting to make something to fit with contemporary architecture, pondering fluorescent strip lighting. Economic and environmental, it doesn’t use much energy to run and, Lovegrove points out, “It’s never been reinvented.” He liked the idea of nets to create lighting that could be arrayed in grids or circles to fit in large spaces; he played around with four single strip lights to make an X, but it created too much shadow. Finally he designed a small ballast to get rid of the shadow. “It worked, but when I was out there, I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a fluorescent tube that bent?’” Of course the company said it was impossible, but when Lovegrove went back to Japan the next month, there was one on the table waiting for him. Perhaps Lovegrove’s most mysterious quality is how he can magically convince companies to make such things. But, as he explains, such innovations are good for the companies. They get something incredibly valuable—an innovation they can patent and protect.

Lovegrove leads me down the spiral staircase to the studio’s shiny white carbon-and-fiberglass basement. It’s a bit scary trying to clutch a notebook, tape recorder, and pen while struggling to take notes and hold onto the slender floating handrail, which spins double-helix style around the stairs. Lovegrove talks fast and his arms wave as he explains his car project: “A car is not a car. It’s just a large product. If you treat it that way, maybe you’d think radically, more economically. Instead of a car having twenty to thirty thousand components, maybe it could have only three hundred, which is itself a resourceful attitude.”

Downstairs at one of the many computers lining the wall, an assistant finds an image of Lovegrove’s Kyoto concept car. Like an Apple mouse on wheels, it looks very Jetsons. “Not this aggressive Hummer-type language,” he says of the rounded design, with LEDs bonded directly to the windshield, thin natural rubber tires, and mesh seats. It diverges completely from almost anything we’d call a car.

“We’re not going to get rid of cars. But in terms of design they shouldn’t be such a problem,” he says and leans over another assistant at another monitor displaying his Swarovski car. Its shiny metal form looks like a Star Wars land cruiser. Inspired by the solar race cars that compete across Australia, the bottom will be hand-polished aluminum and the top shell will be thermoformed acrylics containing 1,200 photovoltaic panels with Swarovski crystals in them. The crystals are the part that excites Lovegrove most. He had the idea that they could amplify light onto the photovoltaic cells, making them more efficient. Swarovski’s labs tested it, verifying that the idea works. While the car won’t run, he hopes it will inspire others, “even if it’s just ten or twenty design students.” But given that the car will be displayed alone in a mirrored silver heat-stretched polyester room, no doubt countless others will notice it as well.

Outside, his mews road is now quiet; the workers are all having lunch, and we walk down to the bistro at the end of the block. “I really don’t know what the answer is with cars,” Lovegrove says. “You know, in China only 2.3 percent of the population has cars? In the United States it’s 92 percent saturation. But if that 2.7 percent of cars is currently 30 million, imagine when China goes up to 30 percent.” This is why he feels driven to deal with the situation. “So where’s it all going?” he says, shaking his head as he opens the door to the restaurant.

Inside, everyone knows him. The maître d’ guides us to a corner table with a view over the whole place, the light glinting off the plate-glass windows. “Where do these big issues go?” Lovegrove asks after the host leaves. A few years ago he interviewed Ford design chief J Mays at the Geneva Motor Show for a Japanese magazine. “I’m sure he thought I was after a job,” he says. That is, until Lovegrove’s parting shot. He was plugging Mays about the environment, only to be given some standard line about “how cows produce more global-warming pollutants than cars,” Lovegrove sniffs. “When I left, I thanked J for his time and asked, ‘When can I see the new Ford cow?’”—which sounds like a funny riff on the Ford Ka, its miniature car produced for the European market. Whether Mays heard cow or Ka is unknown, but Lovegrove would be thrilled to work for a major carmaker like Ford.

“I’d love to do a new Model T,” he says. He’d also like to be photographed like Buckminster Fuller. “There’s a shot of him next to his dome house and his Dymaxion car. I’d like to be shot next to my round Cranbrook building with my concept car,” he smiles. Somehow in his campaigning, contrary nature, there is something in Lovegrove that’s similar to Fuller—trying to push design and talk people into being more reasonable. “You need to provoke and push a bit,” he says as we part just outside his studio, this time yelling to be heard over the jackhammers.

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