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London’s new design culture

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Decoration being applied to plywood for one of 6a’s designs Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) 0 Save to myFT 9 HOURS AGO by: Edwin Heathcote When a city stops making things, it loses a bit of its soul. And London has long since stopped making much apart from money. Sure, there are a few holdouts, small factories still making interesting things, but they are very much the exception. The capital has been cannibalising its factories, warehouses and leftover workshops to make lofts and industrial-style apartments. The aesthetics of manufacture have been commodified, while making itself has been conveniently forgotten. This pushing out of production has led to a curious phenomenon, one that is symptomatic of a post-industrial condition: a yearning for the authenticity of making. The decorative fringes of this phenomenon can be seen in almost any new coffee shop, bar or speakeasy from Brooklyn to Auckland — the workbenches repurposed as tables, the naked lightbulbs, the machinists’ chairs and cast-iron girders. But London has refined a culture of making that is, in a curious way, a riposte to the inauthenticity of this relentless quest for the authentic. Architects and designers are instead looking to new and different models of making — self-production or self-assembly — reacting to the increasingly globalised nature of their field and to the ubiquity of classic products, the overfamiliar forms of an Eames chair or an Aalto stool. So what is this new culture of design? And is it possible to identify something that is peculiarly London? I think it is. We could start with an architecture practice, one of London’s most interesting, 6a. Formed by Tom Emerson and Stephanie Macdonald in 2001, it has defined a kind of London-ness that is informed by international influences from São Paulo to Zurich, one that is arguably more interested in influences from film, literature and art than from architecture. 6a’s ‘Dust Free Friends’, featuring plans for easily assembled furniture When they turned their attention to furniture, 6a eschewed familiar notions of craft in favour of a series of deceptively simple pieces designed to be made and assembled by anyone with the most basic knowledge of carpentry. These pieces, featured in their 2016 book Dust Free Friends, build on the radical legacy of Italian designer Enzo Mari, whose 1970s furniture was intended as a political provocation to a global industry and capital. These are useful things made from cheap materials — plywood and screws mostly. They are elegant, eccentric and practical. Open to change, they can be hacked and bastardised. As well as producing their own work, 6a have, both as teachers and architects, become an influential mothership of London design. Architect, designer and maker Simon Jones, for instance, worked at 6a before setting up his own practice. Jones now manufactures his own furniture in his north London studio, and his pieces have become a kind of cult in the capital — his deceptively simple, self-effacing joinery can be seen in galleries and restaurants all around town, confident in its discreet, elegant presence. His most distinctive and successful piece must surely be his trestle, a wonderfully stripped-down design with a slightly slouchy attitude suggested by its crossed legs. Simon Jones’s trestles © Simon Jones Studio Once you’re familiar with Jones’s trestles you notice them popping up all over the city — there is a whole stack of them in photographer Juergen Teller’s new studio. They are designed so that they fit together for storage, their legs wrapping intimately across each other, and a row of them looks remarkably sculptural — a beautiful, practical design. A similar principle can be found in the stacking chairs Jones designed for Fogo Island Inn, the exclusive, arty retreat in Newfoundland (subsequently simplified a little so that local fishermen used to repairing boats would be able to make them). There is also a screwtop-leg stool, a handsome piece of comfortable, demountable furniture aimed, perhaps, at a generation constantly on the move. It is, I think, one of the best stool designs of the past half century.