The most recent furniture that you've designed is your Universal System.
Storage has been quite a neglected area in the last ten years - in design terms, anyway. It's not really glamorous enough; there's not enough potential to show wild lines. So it was a nice fresh subject.
Is it true that the idea for the Universal System sprang from your use of the Apple Macintosh?
I think it put me in the frame of mind to think about storage of physical things. The difference that machine made to me is so enormous. I'm not a very organized person, but it taught me how to put things in order. I'm still not very well organised, but I've improved. I work on the Mac every day, and I think the constant process of putting documents into boxes must have rubbed off.
So would you like this room to have lots of boxes, and for everything to be in the right place every day?
Oh, that would be a dream. I'm always jealous of people who keep rooms like that. It would be so comfortable. Even if you're not an organised person, if you have enough places to put things then you wouldn't have things moving around the room all the time.
But there are people who think that tidy people get less done because they spend all their time tidying.
I was one of those people before I got my computer. l think that's a pretty romantic notion that chaos can help you. I can spend whole days looking for a single piece of paper. It puts you in such an awful mood.
So would the Universal System work?
If you had all these boxes here, would this room be tidy? Yes. I think the greatest problem is little things, and where they live. The solution is for everything to have a home.
What I like about the System is that it has really beautiful detailing, but the fixtures that you use, such as the wheels, are very utilitarian.
Well, wheels are wheels. You can't redesign wheels for something that's not going to be a big seller. Very little modern furniture sells enough to merit that kind of investment - you just have to choose something like a wheel. For me, that's perfect. I like the fact you don't do more than necessary.
So it's a practical decision rather than an aesthetic one. It's both. You can't separate them.
Do you think people are now looking for more simple design solutions?
I don't really know - I could never understand the whirlwind of weird, neo-baroque return to ornament. It wasn't my idea of the way design should have gone as I left college, but that's how it went. Maybe now there is a return to the simpler things.
You're quite scathing of Post-modernism in relation to design.
It's quite clear that we have left behind an era which you could call modernist but I'm not sure the way forward is in disneyfying symbols of early culture. The way I see it progress can be made by denying extravagant form in the hope that new qualities will emerge. As we enter an era in which the technology of communication becomes more and more invisible I think it's appropriate to look for less obvious-invisible-qualities in objects.
Your furniture combines simplicity with a certain quirkiness. Like the wheels on the Universal System, much of your work looks as if it hasn't been finished yet, but still looks complete.
The quirkiness is something quite important. When I decide that a piece of my furniture looks right, generally it looks a bit awkward. Not perfect elegance, but a certain slightly awkward isolated look. You should feel a sympathy for the objects you live with and not have them showing you an unattainable perfection which your own character can't live up to. That leads to resentment.
You made a chair that was shown at the ICA called the Thinking Man's Chair, which had dimensions of each part written on it.
The chair was originally made for a show in Japan, and when I'd finished it I was amazed by how bland it looked. I ended up scrawling on the dimensions. Since it was going to Japan, I thought 'They love to copy. Why not put the dimensions on? At least they'll get it right' My work has always involved a certain struggle against whimsical ornament I understand people like ornament, so I've tried at various times to put some ornament back as a part of the concept or production process. The handle on the Universal System is part of the concept, part of the way it works, and part of the process of cutting plywood, and yet is probably the most decorative part of the whole thing.
Do you feel there is more public awareness in Britain of design now? We now have the Design Museum, a recent quiz show on design - even the British high street has become enormously design-literate in the past decade.
In the last decade, a lot of shops like Oggetti opened up, selling designer nick-nacks. The sort of things that were promoted were rather superficial. I think it must have peaked in about 1988.
You've said that you dislike the designer-as-superstar concept, but you don't want to be known as a designer-craftsman, either. You've shown at Documenta, and in Europe it seems that you're not treated as a designer or an artist, but as someone who does all these things. How do you see yourself?
What I dislike about the designer-star element can be seen in Ogetti, where you can buy a kettle with a bird on it made by an architect. You end up with an appallingly useless product. They use the guy's name and status to sell the product, and likewise use the product to beef up the architect's public image. Having said that, if I wasn't known I wouldn't get any work. There simply isn't any other way.
I remember reading Aldo Rossi's writing in the early '80s about the collective memory of the city, and then going into an Alessi shop and finding these little coffee percolators with domes on the top - as if this were supposed to be a really big statement. That really upset me.
There's quite a good story about that Rossi espresso pot. l was in Italy staying with some people, and the top of their Rossipot kept blowing off every time the coffee came through. Their local handyman was there, waiting for his coffee, and saw what was happening. So he said he'd fix it. He brought it back the next day, and all he'd done was drill a tiny hole in the top to let the steam out. It never blew off again. l think that's a good example of a product where more attention has been paid to what the product symbolizes than to what it is.
Do you go to many art exhibitions? Not many. I love to go to exhibitions, and the more weirdly conceptual, the better - I love the cartoon of the guy in the gallery looking at the ventilator pipe and asking the dealer how much it is. I enjoy being in that situation. Although I'm certainly influenced by art, what l do is a different discipline. You can't call it art, and I never would. I'd like it if people found art unnecessary and got the same pleasure they get from art from the things they live with. But you were invited to create a room in Documenta 8. That was strange. There was enormous trouble with artists like Anselm Kiefer, who said they weren't coming if the show was going to include designers and architects, because it was too commercial or something. l really enjoyed that situation of being thrown in with artists, and so I tried to think of a way to create a room which would be a relief from looking at endless pictures and artistic endeavour. Big shows are almost impossible because you see so many things, so my intention was to remind the public, on their way round, of reality. I thought the way to do this was to supply a news centre which provided all sorts of information - weather forecasts and everything. l used the old ticker-tape system of news distribution as well as the new one - teletext. Reuters supplied all the equipment. The idea was to involve the public, which certainly was more successful than I had assumed. There was more news than I'd expected, too. By the end of Documenta, the public had completely covered the walls with the ticker-tape.
Could you talk about the three green bottles?
I was given the chance to do an exhibition in Berlin after Documenta. For me it was a chance to explore what rooms are really made up of: what gives a room its character. So I thought about the kind of objects that might be in a room, and made those objects. There wasn't a glass-blowing furnace in the whole of Berlin, so there was no way I could create my own bottles. I realised that perhaps we didn't need to blow them - we could use existing wine bottles and just adapt hem. So I bought the wine bottles, drank some of the wine, threw some of it away and found someone to heat up the necks and fold them down. I do like the economy of not making hundreds of useless products, and in this way not bringing a new product into the world unnecessarily. The design of these handles began with the discovery of a long forgotten archetype, the coach handle. l was impressed by how easily it expressed its purpose. After all a handle is as much a sign as it is a tool and the better it communicates its purpose the easier it will be to open the door. It occurred to me that while archetypal forms are often involuntarily replaced through changes in technology, in this case the technology was more or less unchanged and the form had simply been forgotten by the search for new form, often less appropriate. There are few products so closely involved with architecture as the door handle. As soon as it is fixed to the door it becomes a part of the building and from that point on it will have an influence on how the building works. The importance of smaller details in architecture should not be overlooked even if the user is unaware of them.
There is a real sense of humour in your work. Objects such as your door with the panels drawn in are like jokes that are so obvious that no one makes them, but when someone does, they're really funny.
I certainly enjoy the tongue-in-cheek element to things. The coathook is a good example. l want to show people that you can really appreciate very normal, everyday things, and that they can be just as beautiful, just as good as special things. It's very optimist in that normal life is perfectly OK. The joke for me is that in the past, people have bought coathooks and put them on a board, but they've never been able to buy them already on a board. So using a plank of wood with five coathooks already on it, there's a new product. Again, a bit like the bottles, it's economical.
What are you working on now?
Recently I've been working with a group of other designers that I've known for about ten years. We started on an area of park that is overlooked by an aircraft tower of a stupendous size. It looks ridiculous - it has Mickey Mouse ears in the corners where guns used to be, and this park is just a slab of concrete. The Austrians don't know what to do with it. They can't just destroy it - the dynamite would be too dangerous, and would destroy the whole area. At the moment there's an aquarium inside this bunker, and it belongs to the army. We had to look at the whole area and make proposals for the tower. The area is very close to something like Oxford Street. It's turning into a hi-fi centre, and all the local shops are turning into jewellery shops and trendy gear shops. I proposed building shops into the old wall of the park, which would be locally run franchises. So it would be a bit like walking through Shepherd's Bush Market. Our latest project is for a really depressing area of East Berlin. We've been tacked on the end of architectural groups, working out how the city should be. So we've called our group 0-6 metres - in contrast to all the architects drawing up massive housing grids, we set out to concentrate on the street and the services we find at that level. We've found that it's not always the right answer to condemn the existing order. We want to look at schemes to promote local shops, to provide information such as local maps. When you look around the streets, there are hundreds of posts. They could all be used to convey this information, and it could be paid for by local ads. As cities become bigger there is a tendency for local networks of services and facilities to be eroded by the spread of decentralised shopping centres and low rent 'convenience' stores outside residential districts. Local shop rents spiral as specialist luxury goods traders move in, offering what people aspire to rather than what they can afford, the small shop keepers offering essentials are driven out. A modern and pathetic situation. A trading system which developed over a thousand years or more could disappear in twenty and with it the main component of local spirit and atmosphere.
The '80s seemed to take away social responsibility from designers, architects and artists. Perhaps now, surface ornament is beginning to lose its appeal.
For me, the pleasure in these town planning projects is that we're not architects. We don't need to make a name for ourselves forming buildings. It's extremely exciting not to court publicity, but to be 100% practical about what's good and what's bad, what needs to be encouraged or kept before it disappears.