A Jasper Morrison retrospective at the Bauhaus-Archiv


Thingness

By Anna Carnick

On a recent weekday morning, Jasper Morrison—a soft-spoken, charmingly self-deprecating Brit, and one of the most renowned designers of the last half-century—gifted a small group of journalists an intimate tour of his first major retrospective. Hosted by Berlin’s Bauhaus-Archiv, the show, entitled Thingness, documents thirty-some years of Morrison’s prolific professional career, ranging from furniture and kitchen utensils to appliances, electronics, fashion, and more. Morrison is known for creating functional, everyday objects imbued with an understated elegance. Along with Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa, he coined the term “super normal” to celebrate “quietly extraordinary” designs that outperform and outlast their competitors because they’re driven by usefulness rather than flash. Few designers have stayed so true to such a clearly articulated vision.

In the main room, objects are arranged chronologically upon simple, easel-like structures, accompanied by hanging archival documents—texts, sketches, photographs. Everything is intentionally within reach; no glass separates object from audience. “I think design should be democratic and inclusive and not too precious,” Morrison noted. “And if design ends up in a museum, it should be because it’s old enough to deserve it,” he said with a soft laugh. “There is perhaps an exception for them”—he nodded at the installation—“but I like the pieces to be close.”

Thingness first launched at the CID in Grand-Hornu, Belgium. And while Berlin is not the show’s first stop, Morrison noted that the German capital’s incarnation has special significance for him. In addition to citing the Bauhaus school and architect-designer Marcel Breuer in particular as major influences on his work, in 1983, Morrison completed a year of his postgrad studies at Berlin’s Hochschule der Kunst (HdK). Then, a few years later, in 1988, design writer Christian Borngräber invited him back to Berlin to create an installation for DAAD Galerie. The result was Some New Items for the Home, Part I, a raw, sparse, plywood-covered room—a stark departure from the more fantastic postmodern aesthetic of the time. 

Pointing towards a large-scale photograph of this early project, Morrison reminisced, “This was really a strong reaction to Memphis. When I went to the [opening] of Memphis in Milan, I can remember breaking out in a sweat, thinking this is something big that’s happening here, and I’m not part of it. And it’s good and it’s bad. I didn’t like Memphis very much. And later, when I calmed down,” he said, smiling, “I started to formulate a response. I felt that Memphis was design made purely for museums, for collectors, and that was so far from my interest or belief in what design was for. So that room was a reaction to that. To say design is really about everyday life, it’s about making everyday life more enjoyable.” He later noted, “That room really kicked off my career.” With Thingness, Morrison happily brings the “Berlin Zimmer” back to its original home—almost thirty years later. 

Walking through the exhibition, Morrison also discussed the influence that Scandinavian design has had on his work. “When I was about three years old, my grandfather—who went regularly to Denmark for business . . . and picked up on this Danish design thing—made himself one room in his country house that was modern. And to a small kid growing up in England at that time, [in contrast to the] sort of over-upholstered atmosphere of houses at that time, to be in that room made a dramatic impression. And I think I never got that out of my system.”

Jasper Morrison’s Thinking Man’s Chair, 1986, produced by Cappellini Photo by James Mortimer, © Jasper Morrison Ltd Describing one of his most famous pieces, the Thinking Man’s Chair, which was ultimately produced by Cappellini, Morrison recalled, “I never did more drawings for a product than that one. It was ’86 I think. And [the idea] came from [another] chair I saw—an old antique, I think it was a Spanish armchair, which had had its seat removed to be repaired. And so it was just the structure of this chair . . . It was kind of a raw, curvaceous, exciting little thing, and with the seat removed, it looked very modern. So I picked up on that and said maybe I can do a chair that is just structure. And then I started drawing and drawing and drawing.”  The piece was first to be called The Drinking Man’s Chair, but as Morrison notes in one of the exhibition texts: “On my way back from a tobacconist’s shop with a packet of pipe cleaners to make a model of the chair with, I noticed the slogan ‘The Thinking Man’s Smoke’ on the packet, which I quickly adapted as a more sophisticated title.”

Gesturing towards a nearby archival document, the designer pointed out one of the tenets of his approach. “That was a text I wrote in ’91, which I think still holds very true about design. It’s not all about form. Of course form plays its part. But form can develop among the other ingredients of design, like the atmosphere an object makes, the material combination, the comfort, the cost, all the things all together, rather than everybody endlessly talking about form. Because that’s not important. Form will come, but it’s not the most important thing.”

Thingness also includes a series of photographs Morrison has taken of everyday life over the years as inspiration, complemented by his thoughts. (Some of these were included in his recent book, The Good Life.) They offer a lovely, unexpected window into his creative mind. In one, an image of what he believes to be a bus stop in Auroville, India, he contemplates the composition of the object itself and people’s potential interactions with it. In another, he waxes poetic about the beauty of a storefront window in Porto showcasing myriad wheels. As Morrison explained, “This project really came out of the photos I take along the way that are not directly connected to design, but which play a big part in a visual memory of shapes and things and atmospheres . . . The idea of this was a sort of educational guide to [reveal how] I look at things and what kind of conclusions I draw from them. I think it’ s a very important process beside the more clinical design work.”

Additionally, a slideshow of images plays on the opposite end of the exhibition space. Explaining its backstory, Morrison recalled an earlier invitation to speak to a class, but, as “I’m absolutely hopeless at giving lectures,” he chose instead to compile a slideshow of “educational images.” Then he gave the professor the slideshow and a note, which he asked him to read aloud to the students. The note stated that Jasper Morrison would not be saying a single word in the class that day, but that he’d put together a slideshow of images instead, and he hoped everyone enjoyed it. And if the students had any questions afterwards, he noted with smiling, dark eyes, “I’d be at the bar across the street.”

Just like his work: Unpretentious. Approachable. Never flashy, but quietly extraordinary.

 

Jasper Morrison: Thingness is on display at the Bauhaus-Archiv / Museum für Gestaltung now through October 2017. 

  • Text by

    • Anna Carnick

      Anna Carnick

      Anna is Pamono’s Managing Editor. Her writing has appeared in several arts and culture publications, and she's edited over 20 books. Anna loves celebrating great artists, and seriously enjoys a good picnic.
  • Images by

    • Marco Lehmbeck

      Marco Lehmbeck

      Born and raised between forests and lakes near Berlin, Marco studied creative writing in Hildesheim and photography in Berlin. He’s also part of the organizational team behind Immergut indie music festival. He loves backpacking, Club-Mate, and avocados, and he always wears a hat.

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