Plinth writer Emily Watkins meets world-renowned interior designer Ab Rogers (and his dog) in his Shoreditch apartment...
So what’s on your piece of paper?
Well, a list of questions - depending on how chatty you turned out to be…
I’m quite chatty.
I'm glad! A conversation is more fun.
We have lots of arguments with very important people about colours, and we win some and lose some.
I think conversation is really important. Design is an extended conversation, as soon as it becomes one-directional it loses its significance, its breadth.
Do you enjoy being guided by the geography of an existing space, or do you prefer a tabula rasa - to begin a conversation with what’s already there, or start your own?
I love working with really interesting spaces, and if we begin with an existing space then we’ll try to create objects in space rather than creating additional architecture. So, for example, when we did the Tate public concourses, we were going into this William Scott building, incredibly converted by Herzog and de Meuron, and what we wanted to do was to sit a series of objects in it which brought new function but didn’t compete with the existing architecture at all. We made a cinema that sat free-standing on the stairs, and then cushions on the stairs for people to sit on so they could watch films. It’s about trying to maximise what you’ve got already. There was an interactive bench where you could watch videos but you could also look over and see the Turbine Hall.
We do not believe in being a slave to the digital, you know – we believe that art is about the physical experience, that’s much more important. We talk a lot about tactility – it’s really important that the installations are tactile, that the work is tactile.
Elsewhere we had this amazing oak floor and we wanted to set it off with furniture in a really sumptuous red. Red is such a dominant colour in 20th century art. Nick Serota wanted the furniture to be blue, which I think was maybe an arbitrary thing… We have lots of arguments with very important people about colours, and we win some and lose some.
And you feel very strongly about colours.
Yeah, we’re well known for our use of colours but it’s only one of our tools. I think as we get more mature we’re using a wider palette of materials, and a more natural palette. I was always interested in colour, and there was lots of colour when I was growing up. People talk about how blue the sky is, and then you put that blue in a room and people sometimes complain.
When we did Comme des Garçons in Paris, we always had it red. And then halfway through Rei Kawakubo said ‘it can’t be red’, and we said ‘well, it has to be red’, and we spent three weeks protesting – adamant young designers! We just kept writing back… Anyway, at the end of this three weeks she said, ‘I was only joking, I just wanted to see your response. Of course it has to be red.’ And at the end of the project, Rei Kawakubo said that red is as powerful as black. And so we felt suddenly, age 29, that we were part of the world of fashion which was terribly exciting. Immersion, and the sense of a brand, can be achieved with colour.
Yes, that’s an interesting thought, regarding brands and design – perhaps it’s like my last question, but how much do you try and fit into an established aesthetic, and how much do you strive to create a new one?
Yes… The word ‘brand’ has become such an obsession recently, which is not a bad thing. I think we just have to accept that ‘brand’ is the collection of parts which go towards representing a ‘thing’ – everyone’s got their own brand and we have to deconstruct it and try to understand what the ‘brand’ is. The key is to get under the skin of the brand to transform it. So if you go back to colour, after we did Commes des Garçons we did Joseph, and we got a series of referrals from smaller clients, one called Michel Guillon. So he came to see us on the back of Joseph, and he wanted a beige optician’s. He said beige.
And how did you feel about beige?
Well, we were interested – he was a scientist, and we loved science. So we went about designing it, but it was never going to be beige…
We wanted it to be a very powerful blue, a single colour throughout the space, and we persuaded him eventually to do it. People would come into the shop, not to buy glasses but just to see it – and then they would buy glasses. At that point we didn’t realise the importance of being commercial, in fact we liked the idea of being anti-commercial but as designers there’s only so long you can sustain that. Anyway, the colour brought people in and then we set up this row of glasses along the top that moved, they popped in and out, and the ones we displayed like that sold more. So not only had we designed an optician’s, but we had created a brand. They became famous for being the blue shop, with kinetic intervention. Design is about having a wide tool range, and also about concentrating on who or what the hero is. If you have too many heroes, you lose sight of the story.
So we went about designing it, but it was never going to be beige…
Yeah, I expect if your brief comes from a clothes shop, for example, then it must be a challenge to make the design a feature while not drowning out the clothes themselves.
Completely. And some people do that brilliantly and some people do it terribly. I mean, one of the earliest excellent retail designers was Eva Jiricna, who says it takes only three materials make a palace. I think that’s really true. And you must always be sincere to what you’re designing for. Her other one is… ‘a thousand dumb ideas kill the ox’, which I think is an old eastern European saying, about clarity of vision.
And is that easy to explain to your clients? Because if someone’s paying you, you’re bound to their vision, aren’t you?
Well yes, I think it goes back to what you were saying about dialogue. We try to get a real dialogue with clients, and then between the objects and the space. I suppose it’s a question of whether you go with contrasting objects in space – more of a feisty argument, which might be what we did in the Tate – or you go for a real sense of elision between inside and outside. So when we went to redo Birmingham Selfridges, we went in and it’s this amazing building but from inside, from the interior, you’d have no idea. They’d completely ignored the principles of the architecture. And maybe that’s how we’ve become such conservators, creating something respectful of the architecture.
Interesting what you’re saying about the Tate – I wanted to ask you about art and domestic spaces, whether you leave room for art, people’s own art, to be applied once you’ve disappeared, and how much you consider what you do to be art in itself.
No, I do design, and it’s not at all the same thing. Even when we get briefs and we do funny things, I don’t see it as art. I mean, you get lots of artists producing objects but they’re still artists.
So you see the two disciplines as totally separate.
Lots of designers in later life like to become artists, which I find slightly irritating. The most irritating thing is when you get design students who say oh, art is just design without function, which I think is just so stupid as a notion. We don’t design a lot of domestic spaces, we try to keep out of that, but we are designing at the moment ‘micro-apartments’. We call it compact living, and they’re tiny, 19 square metres each. You sleep above the wardrobe so you don’t see the bed, and for us the greatest achievement is that we’ve got all the services, sleeping, cooking, washing, into 50% of the flat. So half of it is a completely empty box, with which you can do what you want. I think it’s really important to give people space to interpret themselves. And I hate the hanging of bad art. My dad was in hospital recently and he had to look at these awful illustrations of Battersea Bridge – so tokenistic. I sit on the board of Imperial College Healthcare in Hammersmith, and one of the enduring questions is how can we make art more integral to spaces? How can we get it to hang better? There’s a site specific Bridget Riley on the third floor of St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, and it’s a good example of how you can change a medical space with the implementation of well-curated art.
The most irritating thing is when you get design students who say oh, art is just design without function, which I think is just so stupid as a notion.
Art in institutions is an interesting problem – not one which I think I know how to solve…
Well, you solve it by understanding a space, and not just sticking things on the walls.
You get the feeling – I think hospitals are a good example – that they feel obliged to hang something…
We do a lot of these spaces for free, or not-for-profit, with a tiny budget. We’ve just done a breast cancer screening unit. You know 1 in 10 people will get breast cancer, and have to deal with it in unloved spaces. We’re also doing an early pregnancy unit, and there’s plenty of stress and trauma there as well. So whatever you can do to change these experiences is a real achievement.
I wonder what hangover that is, the separation of art and institutional spaces which ought to be about light and comfort and joy and, you know, human beings, but they’re sterile…
Maybe part of it is that people think it’s irresponsible to spend money on art when you’re trying to save people’s lives, but I think it’s the opposite.
Have you designed many restaurants?
The Fat Duck… Pizza Express...
I think, for a small studio, our breadth is one of our biggest strengths. We do everything from restaurants to student accommodation to culture. Everything is design, but for me it’s important that our work is approachable on different levels. So when we’re designing Pizza Express or Little Chef, it’s every bit as important to us as designing the Fat Duck. Heston’s trying to reinvent the experience of eating, but it’s like that conversation about the gallery, the perfect gallery is a white box… Discuss, debate, whatever, but you can certainly have a very good gallery in a white box. And I think that when you’re dealing with food like Heston’s you want almost a gallery space, you don’t want distractions. The food is at the centre. We had to design a chair, which is both very luxurious and very ergonomic. You have to sit there for four hours, and it couldn’t take up too much space. It’s quite difficult to design a chair that someone very small and someone very big can both sit in comfortably.
Do you think – or could there exist – a perfect chair?
Well, perfect for what?
Well, exactly. I’m sort of thinking of Plato…
Gerrit Rietveld’s Red and Blue chair is pretty extraordinary for me, but it consumes a lot of space. I’ve got a chair from China which cost me two dollars and I love it. And then there’s the ladder chair…
I was going to mention the ladder chair!
It uses the wall to stand up, without the wall it wouldn’t work. And at the top of the ladder is a very comfortable seat. It gives you a different perspective on the room. When people have a bit to drink at dinner, they’ll suddenly decide they feel like climbing up there.
Seeing art is how I spend my spare time.
Seeing art is how I spend my spare time. Sometimes you see some terrible things, which can make me cross… But my favourite place to see art in London is Raven Row near Liverpool Street Station, they have such exquisite shows in an exquisite space by 6a Architects.
Often, I think, what you don’t show is just as important as what you do. Good curatorship can make or break a show.
Yes! It’s like writing, editing.
Maybe they’re equivalent jobs, editor and curator.
A lot of curators in London now seem to have come from editorial backgrounds. It’s about narrative, and that’s important in our work, too. If there’s no story going on then there’s nothing to pull you around the space. If we’re doing a hospital it needs to be distracting. If you go to an amazing exhibition, do you want to remember where you are? No, you want to be with the art. The creative narrative is so often about the removal of the concrete, an other-worldliness. When our work is successful it’s about totality – many components should feel like an experience.
It’s like suspension of disbelief – when you’re reading you don’t want to be reminded that it’s fiction, it’s a novel.
We’re working on an exhibition about science fiction films, and that’s interesting because how do you tell that story? Exhibitions used to be about art, science, but now they’re about… phenomena. ‘Digital impact’ or ‘celebrity’ - the Rolling Stones, which I didn’t much want to see, or David Bowie, which is more interesting.