Industrial/Product Designer, 1958 –
Supernatural: Ross Lovegrove, 2004.
“I have a non-linear mind that is stimulated by the rare and the layered. I assemble ideas from a seemingly unrelated plethora of sources that gel into being over time and when the moment is right for a concept to materialize. I have few preconceptions and respond to circumstance. Indeed whatever environment and whatever culture I am in at the time will totally affect my perception of modernity, physicality and creativity.”
Highly experimental and with a commitment to transcending the boundaries between science, technology, design and architecture, ROSS LOVEGROVE considers himself more ‘evolutionary biologist’ than designer. Born in Cardiff, Wales, from a military family, Lovegrove’s design education began at Manchester Polytechnic where he studied industrial design before going on to complete the Masters of Design program at London’s Royal College of Art.
Post-RCA and during the early 1980’s, Lovegrove worked for Frog Design in West Germany on projects such as Walkmans for Sony and computers for Apple. Later he moved to Paris, working with Knoll International and authoring the highly successful Alessandri office system. During this period, Lovegrove was also invited to join the prestigious Atelier de Nimes along with Jean Nouvel and Philippe Starck, consulting to amongst others Louis Vuitton, Hermès and Dupont.
Since Lovegrove’s return to London in 1986, he has completed projects for a diverse range of clients from nearly every corner of the globe. Highlights within his collective portfolio include a sensuous water bottle for Ty Nant, an outdoor lighting range for Luceplan, the Super Natural chair for Moroso, and his more recent research and study models pursued through the framework of the Aluminium series and recently exhibited at New York’s Philips de Pury gallery.
Lovegrove’s Notting Hill headquarters reflects this diversity of commission appearing more as laboratory than studio. The expansive space is strewn with experimental models and works in progress while dominating the centre of the floor plan is the elegant composition of Lovegrove’s DNA spiral staircase. Increasingly merging the boundaries between design and architecture, Lovegrove continues to refine what he terms ‘organic essentialism’ and in doing so brings a highly resolved and experimental quality to his expanding practice.
Q. Can you explain some of the conceptual underpinning surrounding the notion of ‘organic essentialism’ – how has it progressed through your research?
A. The concept has been a preoccupation science I was a student. I always had a more experimental, scientific approach to generating ideas. Even as a foundation year student, I was more interested in mapping the idea of transition or a state of change. I traced and documented over three months the decomposition of a tomato as a kind of scientific document so maybe I am a frustrated researcher! However, I do see these ideas as highly relevant to design and architecture. All the people that I admire are rigorously conceptual. They have a commitment to research and an overall methodology behind what they do. The notion of organic essentialism in simple terms is the intelligent evolutionary economy of form in unison with what you need – nothing more. I am not interested in trying to push anything further than what is ultimately essential. I believe that if I spend the time to study the earth, evolution and time, it will give me something that is organic, biological and where form grows where you need it. That’s what nature does and that’s how I design.
Q. How do you balance your research with trying to deal with the more commercialised world of product design?
A. It’s not easy because often I am not autonomous and I’m working with people that have other motivations. There is often a sense of dislocation between my need to research and to push ideas and the commercial ideology of the people that manufacture, distribute and sell what I do. The irony is that this commercialised context is often completely distanced from the personalised solutions that we are offering.
Q. Do you feel that the production process can become too focussed on business strategies and marketing than on the inherent value of the design itself?
A. I think it’s just the reality of the way the industry functions and I am interested in the concept of industry. If a concept is, from its origins, rigorous and critically thoughtful and then put into production then you can continue to replicate a very good idea; as is the case with Apple computers. Equally, if it is something that is done without too much intellectual investment and then replicated, we end up with a negative situation which just devours time and energy. We live in a world where we are extremely aware that we have limited resources. I think we need visionaries, people who live beyond their own time and project themselves into the future. To stand still and create within the confines of the day you live in is not enough.
Q. Your work seems equally engaged with the realm of architecture as it is with design. Do you perceive any difference in the disciplines or are they simply all part of the converging whole?
A. There is definitely a convergence between architecture and design right now. I can’t speak for other designers because I think that there are very few designers who are really interested in participating in architectural discourse but I am and I feel embraced by the architectural community. I think I’m seen as a designer that can collaborate effectively with an architect or structural engineer to support a new ambition.
Q. Are there particular artists or architects who hold an influence over your work?
A. From a historical perspective, I have always loved the work of artists who could effortlessly combine their art with academic writing and public speaking. From a contemporary perspective, if you look at Norman Foster, Kazuyo Sejima and Zaha Hadid – they can all do that. In many ways their practice goes beyond design. They are simply great thinkers and so the debate surrounding their design goes beyond a simple discussion of aesthetics and taste. The problem with industrial design is that it often comes down to a discussion of taste. A product can be so perfectly modelled with digital technology that you risk the client refusing to produce it simply because they don’t like the look of the inanimate model. So there’s no debate or dialogue: just a confrontation of taste. It’s very frustrating! I prefer to have a wonderful idea on paper than a compromised idea realised. I am just not interested in contaminating this planet with irrelevance.
Q. The notion of ‘limited edition’ design is very topical right now. Do you have any reservations about the term?
A. I don’t even like the idea of ‘limited edition’; it immediately grounds it in something saleable. Often you become simply a portal for a brand to sell an object and that makes my skin crawl. The objects I create are a by-product of me, not the other way around. The production of limited editions is a very emotive subject right now and it seems to have inflamed itself within months. The pieces that I exhibited in New York recently at the Phillips de Pury gallery are derived from research that I have been doing for years. It’s absolutely not something that I have produced in order to make large amounts of money but I do think there are some designers that do that. That’s unfortunate. However, if we try to forget about those few for a moment and look specifically at someone like Zaha Hadid who creates incredible paintings and models to inform her work that are predominantly self funded. This is research work and a genuine investment in order to promote and evolve her message and philosophy. So it’s a bit simplistic to simply call that work ‘limited edition’.
Q. Tell me a little more about the research pieces within the Endurance range?
A. I think that the pieces are absolutely pushing the limit of what I am capable of at the moment. For example, the Ginko carbon table totally conforms to my belief in organic essentialism. One of the reasons I am committed to producing my own work is because I am interested in permanence and yet, as a designer, I am often working on products that by definition are impermanent because our throwaway culture and that’s a source of frustration for me. It’s certainly true in the case of electronics where there’s an inbuilt obsolescence because the technology changes so rapidly. So the New York exhibition was called Endurance to allow me to challenge disposability in design.
Q. Your work seems to be increasingly extending into the realm of civic built form beyond product design – can you describe the street lighting project you’re doing with the MAK in Vienna?
A. The Director of the MAK, Peter Noever invited me to present a concept that would to bring art and light to Vienna’s Ringstrasse and invited me to come up with some speculative concepts that fulfilled both a community and environmental agenda. So I’ve come up with a concept for a kind of solar tree which is made with a progressive technology for pipe bending – a technology which I’ve developed recently for a project with Knoll. The ‘tree’ can be either independent of the city power grid through the use of solar power that means you can literally ‘plant’ them in different situations. The language is derived from plant life and gives a sense of beauty to the urban landscape by being both a functional street light and a piece of sculpture. The secondary idea is that you will be able to recharge your phone between the tubes or power up a laptop. Give back some power to the people if you like. I am not an architect but I am trying to penetrate the built realm with ideas on transportation or lighting. I’m interested in the things that human beings interact with which are micro or macro in scale. It’s like the DNA staircase in my studio; it’s not architecture but it’s not design either – it’s a moment between the two.
Q. If you had to sum up your overall personal agenda and ambition, how would you describe it?
A. My personal objective is about defining a language for our times that is derived from my particular philosophy – my design language is a product of conceptual thinking not a product of the design process. I think sometimes it’s important to isolate yourself from the commercial reality of design and focus on examining your own intent. That’s what all the great thinkers did. I don’t go to trade fairs and I don’t go to shows. I prefer to look to other sources for inspiration so I’ll go and look at dinosaurs within a natural history museum to better understand how time and context can influence evolutionary form.
A few years ago, I pulled out an obituary column from the paper that I think is the most clearly defined image that I have ever seen of a person and their life work. The simple yet beautiful image illustrated a white-haired elderly man standing in front of a glass case with a small whale skeleton and it stated: ‘Earnest Mayor, 100 years old, Evolutionary Biologist’. I have never known of such a clear definition of anybody. I kept it and framed it because I think that is absolutely at the core of what I do. There is something in that simple image that I find incredibly resonant and it continues to inform my work.
1958 Born Cardiff, Wales
1980 Graduated Manchester Polytechnic, 1st Class BA Hons Industrial Design
1983 Master of Design of Royal College of Art, London
1997 “Ross Lovegrove Objects”, exhibition Stockholm
1998 “Ross Lovegrove Design”, exhibition at Danish Museum of Decorative Art, Copenhagen. Awarded George Nelson Prize. USA. Receives Medaille de la Ville de Paris.
1999 “Organic Dreams” exhibition at IDEE Gallery, Tokyo
2000 ID magazine Good Design award. “Sensual Organic Design” exhibition at Yamagiwa in Tokyo.
2001 Designer of the Year by the magazine Architektur & Wohnen, Germany. “Material Transition” exhibition at Rheinauen Space, Cologne
2002 “G” Mark Federal Design Prize, Japan. D&AD Silver Medalist. “Expanding the Gap” exhibition with Greg Lynn and Tokujin Yoshioka at Rendel&Spitz Gallery in Koln. Editor of The International Design Yearbook.
2003 “Delighted” exhibition by Corian with Marc Newson and James Irvine at Milan Salone and “Latent Utopia” exhibition curated by Zaha Hadid and Patrik Schumacher at the Steirischer Herbst, Graz
2004 Royal Designer for Industry by RSA, UK. “Designosaurs” installation At Segheria Gallery, Milan
2005 World Technology Award, USA. “Superliquidity” installation at Le Bain Gallery, Tokyo
2007 “Endurance” limited edition art pieces at the Phillips de Pury & Company’s, Gallery in Chelsea, NYC