Category Archives: Food

Design Means…

Made in Peckham, by Hendzel and Hunt

What do composing the audio-brand for a Chinese TV channel, building furniture from old pallets, and making ice cream in liquid nitrogen have in common? These were all activities described by my fellow panelists Joe Glasman, Jan Hendzel and Mike Knowles at a discussion earlier this week at Goldsmiths University. The rather open topic of the debate was ‘Design Means…’, with a more provocative subheading: ‘Can anyone be defined as a designer?’

Earlier in the day, in preparation for this debate, I had been reading a paper about the vexed question of ‘design thinking’. This concept suggests that there is some unifying capacity that underpins all design disciplines. It has been used – mainly by certain design consultancies – to promote the idea that designers’ skills might be valuable beyond the traditional realms of design: such as business management, for example.

There are indeed numerous examples of designers doing good work outside of the discipline they trained in. But it is still a somewhat flawed concept: one learns to design, and practices design, in an iterative loop of thinking and doing. It is entirely questionable whether the thinking element can be meaningfully divorced from the doing. One can’t move a design problem forward by thinking alone. But when the doing bit happens in such different spheres as cooking, cabinetry and composing, can there still be said to be a common process?

By the evidence of the debate on Monday night, I would say, tentatively, yes. As I listened to Joe Glasman explain the process of composing music and sound for various clients, I understood him to be describing a design process. And there were clear similarities to how the other speakers described their own practice: Mike Knowles of culinary troupe Blanch & Shock on how to make the perfect meringue; furniture maker Jan Hendzel of Hendzel and Hunt on constructing a table and chairs from reclaimed materials. All are directing their creativity and craft expertise to a desired (and sellable) end, working to certain constraints and briefs.

Exploding cake, by Blanch and Shock

What so evidently unites them, beyond an inclination to be creative, and a client whose needs have to be met, is the craft expertise underpinning their work. They have all, painstakingly in some cases, amassed their ten thousand hours of practice, and more. This incredible breadth and specificity of knowledge about their domain was immediately apparent in the way the spoke. And also – to me at least – in the quality of their output. This is what qualifies them for the title of designer.

But ‘design thinking’ potentially challenges the supremacy of the professional designer. It implies that non-designers might learn to do it, and that there are ‘design tools’ which could be wielded by anyone, regardless of their professional background. This is particularly relevant in relation to the question of design in policymaking. If policies and public services are conceived of as ‘designed’ processes, that implies the need for some new skills to be embedded across the public sector. But as the public sector is not about to fire all its economists and hire a load of designers (crudely), one seemingly obvious way to get more design nouse into the public sector is (re)training of existing public sector workers.

Is this valid? Can anyone be a designer if given the right toolkit, without those years of practice?

I suspect there is a happy medium somewhere, but another commonality between my fellow panellists was what they saw as a lack of appreciation of their hard-won mastery. Joe Glasman commented that the development of some DIY design tools (such as photoshop) has led many people, clients included, to believe they really can do it themselves, rather than paying a professional. And Jan Hendzel commented that it was always a battle to convince clients of the cost incurred in hand-making beautiful furniture.

Advent Calendar Cabinet, by Hendzel and Hunt

I would suggest this is because, at present, design sensibility within the general public is minimal. And I would question whether it’s possible for anyone to develop an appreciation of a skill without understanding it a bit, and having, at some point, had a go themselves. So I think it’s important for everyone to have had some experience of designing, specifically in order to be better commissioners and clients. But this doesn’t make them designers.

Whilst I am inclined to take a very broad view of what design means, I don’t believe that just anyone can qualify as a designer without some hard graft. My favourite definition (perhaps because the latest and newest) is to liken design to physics: an attribute of almost everything, evident everywhere in the man-made world. And while most of us may understand it a bit, and all of us are undoubtedly affected by it, not everyone can be a physicist. Or a designer.

Many thanks to Lior Smith and Marion Lean for organising this debate.

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Sir Terence Conran: An Old Hand at Sustainability

Hard to imagine now, but Brompton was flagging until Conran refurbished the historic Michelin building and moved in.

The FT and The Earth Awards recently hosted a day-long conference (or ‘Summit’ as these things increasingly seem to be called, as though that implies some tangible outcome might be achieved) on the subject of ‘Investing in Innovative Design and Technology’. In reality the topic would more accurately have been described as innovative design and technology solutions to sustainability issues, but perhaps they were worried the less sexy ‘s’ word would turn people off.

It’s always difficult to summarise an event such as this. We listened to 24 speakers on 6 different topics, in a blend of ‘keynote speeches’, panel discussions, and Q&As, all expected to distill a career’s worth of wisdom into ten pithy minutes.  Thus, so many potted ideas and potentially inspiring solutions and ways of conceptualising the problem arise, that it becomes – whilst fascinating and educational – overwhelming. Conference fatigue kicks in and highly intelligent, well-mannered delegates drift off like tired schoolchildren. Which in this case was a shame because the final speaker of the day, Sir Terence Conran, was by far the most thoughtful.

Chairing a pre-lunch panel discussion, Nick Jankel (whose bio, rather nauseatingly, declares he is a ‘leadership, collaboration and social innovation expert, a public intellectual, TV presenter, inspirational speaker and transformational coach’) complained that in Britain we don’t ‘celebrate the maverick’ enough. This came out of his mouth alongside other such catchy, probably ‘TM’, concepts like ‘innovation inoculations’ and ‘zoom thinking’ and irritatingly referring to the panel in the collective as ‘you guys’.

I would like to propose that, if that is true, we also don’t consult the older and wiser enough, particularly in public life (the trend for baby politicians is scary), and particularly on the subject of sustainability. Of course, the era of instantaneous media favours the younger and more photogenic. But it is as though, because climate change is a ‘young’ concept, we are bound only to look to the younger generations to solve it – maybe because the younger generations hold their elders responsible for making the mess in the first place. But there have been wider forces at work than pure ill-will and meddling, and some such elders, like Conran, have always operated their businesses on ‘sustainable’ principles: the word just hadn’t been invented yet. It was probably called something like ‘waste not, want not’ or ‘thrift’.

Refurbishment – which has been a hallmark of Conran’s architectural projects – is an inherently sustainable approach to rejuvenating urban areas. His furniture will outlive its owners. The food in his restaurants is locally sourced. On finishing the FT every day he rolls it up and saves it as fire lighter. So after the carousel of innovation gurus and panicky environmental agitators, the calm ponderousness of Conran reflecting on a life lived sustainably was reassuring. He even explained how to make good stock from bones the butcher will give away for free.

Of course it is very easy to level the accusation that the Conran empire, however well-principled, caters only to the upper middle classes. The people who eat in his restaurants and shop in his shops are those who can afford both sustainability and luxury: ironic for a business built on a personal philosophy of thrift. But then the issue of over-consumption, at least in our own country, went hand in hand with the exponential growth of the middle classes – the lower echelons aspiring upwards via the accumulation of stuff. Surely Conran’s model is a much better one to aspire to? His designs are high quality made to last: his customer is not the insatiable consumer, but someone who buys an armchair for life. His products are only expensive by comparison, their price tags just reflect the true value of things (if not outsourced to a sweatshop).

It did occur to me, listening to him speak, that the climate-change-induced panic and confusion and calls for ‘game-changers’ must be baffling for someone of Sir Terence’s generation, for whom a much more (if not totally) sustainable way of existing is well within living memory. (Equally, I know of my own grandfather bemoaning the lack of community support in his old age, sadly comparing it with what he could remember as a child. What paid carers do impersonally now, conscientious neighbours would have naturally done in the past – economically far more sustainable, as well as pleasant.) We were doing it not all that long ago. And as one of the many panellists pointed out, ‘We all know what a truly sustainable city looks like, because they’re all around us: the pre-industrial city.’

Although it is starting to figure, the question of ‘what makes us happy’ gets too little airtime in these discussions. If people are ambivalent about acting to mitigate climate change, it’s at least partly because it’s such a terrifying concept. Being assured that the end is nigh is of course likely to make the average citizen close their ears to the debate.

The benefits of a more balanced way of life need better marketing. Who would object to less time at work, feeling healthier, eating better quality food, no traffic jams, being supported by your community? But part of that is also learning to be happier with less; which, after centuries of culture and decades of advertising convincing us that getting stuff = status = security, will be a hard conceptual leap for the generation whose parents were the resource-guzzling baby-boomers, who have never known anything other than to expect increasing material prosperity as part of the natural order of things. How do you explain that turning off the lights when you leave the room, or having fewer clothes, is somehow equivalent to a better quality of life? This is the real challenge for the next generation of Mad Men: getting us to stop buying.

As it has often been said, tritely enough, that money doesn’t buy happiness, there is a growing mountain of research pointing to, at least within the OECD countries, an inversely proportional relationship between material wealth and health and well-being. Applying the carrot and stick model to the sustainability problem, it’s increasingly clear that too much time has been spent wielding the stick over the heads of relatively powerless citizens, and not enough thinking about what the carrots might be.

More on Conran at the Earth Awards here: http://whatsgoingonatconran.wordpress.com/2010/09/20/conran-at-the-earth-awards/

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I Am Love: Gorgeous Melodrama

Eleven years in the making, Luca Guadagnino’s film is a tale of tradition and customs unravelling in the face of modernity, enlightenment, and love. It is also an exemplar study in sensuality on film, as co-producer and star Swinton herself so often seems to be.

The protagonist, Emma Recchi, is a Russian married to an Italian patriarchal dynasty of industrialists, whose contributing role in the downfall of the family is to allow herself to fall for a younger man. A chef called Anotnio to be precise, and it is his food that she is initially and instantly captivated by. Throughout the rest of the film, the contrast between the enlightenment of the senses that marks her experiences with Antonio and the strictness of her family life is carefully built and enhanced by Guadagnino, with caged bird metaphors popping up all over the place (a moth caught in the lamp beside her bed, a pigeon trapped in the dome of the family chapel). Insects also provide the clue to the difference between her Lady Chatterly-esque life with Antonio and her staid marital bed.

The Recchi family itself reflects the steady onward march of industrialism – they built a factory, moved up in society, hired an architect to design a beautiful modernist fortress (all hard lines and sumptuous materials), and their children and grandchildren study finance and the arts. The film is set at a tipping point in the history of the family, when it all begins to implode, the begnning of the end marked by the death of the grandfather. As well as smaller hints, such as Edo (the eldest grandson)’s failure to win an unspecified race – victory being a family tradition. Tellingly Antonio, the source of Emma’s later downfall, is the humble victor. The postscript scene finds Emma in a cave with Antonio, almost like a reversal of the process of civilisation that has been the hallmark of her husband’s family.

Although in a literal way, the only senses that can truly be affected by watching a film are sight and sound, some utilise these two to such effect that the other senses are brought into play. This must be one the few films where the first love scene is between a woman and a plate of seafood, impressionistic and seductively filmed, like a Marks & Spencer advert on overdrive. There is a scene where Emma grasps a handful of leaves from a bough and inhales, the camera paying such close attention that the audience can almost imagine the aroma in their own nostrils. In a classic deployment of pathetic fallacy the weather/ seasons are in keeping with the plot – from a cold wintry city scape to a hazy buzzing summer countryside. And Emma’s person is perfectly detailed, the cut of her hair and colour of her clothes reflecting events and her own mood.

Dealing with such classic themes as nature/ freedom vs captivity/ construct, it would very easy to tip over into obvious or trite symbolism. However the whole film is so carefully nuanced and layered, with references reachingback and forth through the narrative, and it is so beautifully detailed, that it glides past this potential trap.

Nevertheless it is unashamedly melodramatic. The dialogue is sweeping and grandiose: ‘You no longer know who I am.’ The music (by John Adams) is fundamental – perpetually heightening the drama, particularly in the closing sequence. But it is forgiveable precisely because it is so unapologetic, and because it works: the soaring violin really does tug on the heart strings. And for an English audience, no doubt the fact that it is Italian also excuses.

A delicious romance, refreshingly, the unfaithful wife gets away with it. She escapes, a pleasing result to the viewer because it really does seem like the ‘right’ thing. And, ultimately, who doesn’t want to run away to a picturesque hill farm with a lithe young chef who can cook food like you’ve never tasted before.

In summary, there is nothing new here, in terms of technique or concept – it’s just all done to utter perfection.

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Slow Food

The Bonnington Cafe

The Bonnington Cafe

On paper, it doesn’t sound like a winner. Run exclusively and haphazardly by a collection of hippies, serving only (shh…whisper it) Vegan food and with no license to sell alcohol. You may have to wait an hour for your dinner, suffer the ignominy of the table who came in after you being served first, and the quality when it arrives is admittedly variable. But nevertheless, it’s fast becoming one of my favourite places to eat in London.

For a start, it is brilliantly good value. £13 for 3 courses, all lovingly hand prepared. And if you can forget some things you might traditionally expect of a restaurant, it is incredibly relaxing and friendly. This is definitely slow food, in a good way. Every night a different local resident manages the cafe – takes bookings (via their mobile the day before), prepares the food, ropes in a 15-year old daughter as the waitress and clears it all up at the end. The décor is invitingly informal – cosy with a rather ad hoc selection of furniture. It’s not far off going to their house for dinner – except with rather more guests: a daunting task for the host. So a pinch of tolerance for confusion is a necessary accompaniment to dinner. On arrival there’s normally been a mix-up over the bookings, but no-one complains: here, the laid back hippy attitude is infectious. They’re right of course, it doesn’t really matter, you’ll get your dinner at some point and you’re not going to starve in the mean time.

So jammed in elbow to elbow with complete strangers, you sup on a tumbler of red wine and overhear juicy morsels from other people’s conversation. Strangers can, and have on past occasions, become conversation-mates. However the majority of the patrons are already acquainted, being residents (or friends thereof) of the beautifully cultivated Bonnington Square, a little eden just off South Lambeth Road, with a thriving community. Hence the tolerance for the overloaded cook, bustling backwards and forwards to the kitchen, mopping their brow or with plates stacked high, nodding left and right, concernedly asking how-was-it-would-you-like-dessert?

This is a lively and entertaining dining experience and I would thoroughly recommend it – even better, weather-permitting, take a bottle of wine and glasses for aperitif in the haven that is Bonninton Square Garden. Just don’t be in a hurry.

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