Jasper Morrison is one of today’s most influential industrial designers. Born in London, he is renowned for his ascetically elegant, quietly humorous style and has designed everything from a tray-table to a tram system.
Anyone who wants to understand Jasper Morrison’s work should flick through A World Without Words, the collection of images he compiled in 1988 from his collection of second-hand books and postcards. From one of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion houses and Gerald Summers’ one piece plywood chair to a fisherman’s hut on Hastings’ shingly beach, each image illustrates the wit and elegance with which Morrison has revitalised rationalist design.
Born in London in 1959, Morrison grew up there and in New York, when his advertising executive father was posted in the US. He studied design at Kingston Polytechnic and the Royal College of Art. In 1986, a year after graduating from the RCA, Morrison opened his Office for Design in London.
He cites his early inspirations as his grandfather’s study – a light, bright room furnished in the modernist style and an Eileen Gray exhibition he saw at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. During his student years, Morrison became interested in the work of modernist pioneers – such as Buckminster Fuller, Gerald Summers, Jean Prouvé and Le Corbusier – that he discovered in the second-hand books he bought and sold to raise extra cash and later turned into A World Without Words. Another inspiration was the flamboyant furniture he saw at the Memphis movement’s first exhibition in Milan in 1981. Morrison later described the experience as: “Just fantastic. Here was proof that none of the old design rules mattered any more.”
Even as an impecunious young designer, Jasper Morrison was determined to design for industrial production. Rather than making pieces by hand as many young designers do, he scoured London on his Honda 90 moped looking for small industrial workshops which would make up small quantities of objects from ready-made industrial components. His 1984 Flower Pot Table, for instance, was made from a glass circle supported by a stack of ordinary flower pots.
“It was the Thatcher era and those small workshops were being forced further and further away from central London,” said Morrison. “When I started it was a manageable circuit, but as time went by I felt doomed to ride round in ever-increasing circles as they moved out to the suburbs.”
Slowly he won industrial commissions from SCP in London; FSB, the German door handle maker; Cappellini, the Italian furniture manufacturer; and Vitra, the Swiss furniture company whose chairman, Rolf Fehlbaum, contacted Morrison after seeing a slide presentation of A World Without Words.
In 1988, Morrison designed a room set for the Berlin Design Werkstadt exhibition. Entitled Some New Items For The House, it consisted of chairs, tables, a chaise longue, four walls and a door – all made from plywood. At first glance, the objects looked banal with their simple lines and familiar forms, but closer inspection revealed the quiet intelligence with which Morrison had refined them. The critic, Charles Arthur Boyer, later described Some New Items as aving “crystallised” his design ethos: “to produce everyday objects for everyone’s use, make things lighter not heavier, softer not harder, inclusive rather than exclusive, generate energy light and space”.
Jasper Morrison has pursued those goals ever since. Still working for Vitra and Cappellini, he has now nurtured a strong rapport with other clients including Flos, the Italian lighting company; Magis, the Italian plastic manufacturer; Rosenthal, the German porcelain producer; and Alessi, the Italian metal maker. The perfectly plain 1998 Tin Family steel kitchen tins he produced for Alessi and 1997 Moon tableware for Rosenthal echo the apparent simplicity and underlying subtlety of his New Items and the “archetypal objects” that Morrison searches for constantly. “If I watch a film, I often spend more time looking at the details of objects in the background than keeping up with the plot,” he admitted.
Always keen to collaborate with fellow designers – such as James Irvine, a friend from the Royal College of Art, and Andreas Brandolini, with whom he formed the Utilism collective in the mid-1980s, Morrison has commissioned products from them and other designers. He and Irvine worked together to compile Cappellini’s 1992 Progetto Oggetto range of household objects.
Critically, Morrison’s clients have also allowed him to experiment with new materials and technologies. The results include his 1999 Low Pad Chair for Cappellini, which was inspired by one of Morrison’s favourite mid-20th century chairs – the Danish designer, Poul Kjaerholm’s 1956 steel and leather Chair, but used a new method of condensed upholstery to create a comfortable, but durable padded leather seat. Another technical coup is his 1999 Air Chair, an elegant, relatively inexpensive moulded dining chair made from a single piece of plastic using Magis’s new gas injection technology.
Morrison has tackled more complex commissions: notably by designing a tram system for the city of Hanover in what he described as “an exhausting, but not unenjoyable” two year project. He also collaborated with Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss architects of London’s Tate Modern museum, to furnish its public spaces with his Low Pad Chairs and 1998 Op-lá tray table for Alessi.
In 2000, Jasper Morrison departed from his self-imposed rule of concentrating on industrial production by accepting a commission from a museum in the Provençal village of Vallauris to produce a limited edition of ceramics made by local artisans. The result, as Morrison himself admits, shares the sleekness and formal clarity of his industrial designs. Rather than being flattered by his interest, the European craft community was outraged. “Why work with the ancient skills of the Vallauris potters,” railed an editorial in one craft magazine, “to make something that looks as if it came from a factory?”
In the early 2000’s Morrison set up a new studio in Paris and proceeded to divide his working life between there and London. He acquired new clients such as Rowenta, the French household appliances manufacturer for which he is developing a new range of kitchen products including kettles, irons and coffee machines. Morrison also sustained his relationship with established clients by designing new projects for Cappellini, Magis and Vitra.
CORK FAMILY FOR VITRA