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My stuff is fat-free, that’s how humans, how life should be.
by Markus Frenzl | 3/29/2009
Ross Lovegrove

At the ISH Ross Lovegrove presented his new "Freedom" collection for Turkish baths maker VitrA. We talked to him about the change in bathrooms, biomorphic shapes, fat-free design, the responsibility of a star designer, and design in an age of crisis.

Design for bathrooms has changed: Companies now no longer design individual products, but instead entire bathroom scenarios and interiors. How does your work for VitrA reflect these changes?
Ross Lovegrove: There are two countries in the world with great bath cultures: Japan and Turkey. As a Turkish company, VitrA can justifiably communicate strongly on bath culture. The synergies between furniture and bathroom ceramics are becoming all the more critical. Other companies focus on concepts for the surrounding areas, while VitrA is more subtle. At a trade fair such as ISH many try to create the ambience of a real bathroom with flowing water, but that's wrong. The sensory mood at a fair is not that of the bathroom, we are all fully clad and have our shoes on. Whereas we should really all be running around naked!

Are kitchens and bathrooms no longer the neglected rooms they were back in the 1950s?
I am successful and definitely prosperous, but nevertheless I do not own a 20m-long kitchen with a Boffi kitchen island and an espresso machine, because I prefer to use the money to travel to Ethiopia. I believe that these static objects are wrong; it's like leaving the plastic covers on the seats in a new car. My parents still have a toilet that I peed into 40 years ago, and ironically enough it was made by VitrA. But they don't need to replace it because it still works. I believe there has been a functional shift from a pure service to an emotional function.

Do you think that your formal approach to the bathroom is more in line with these emotional functions?
To a certain extent the approach must be formal because you simply have to organize space. People don't have the space for large objects. As regards the bath I am still trying to preserve some sort of architectural structure. My second VitrA collection, namely "Mod", was for example very modular, modern, and modest. The new "Freedom" collection is a different, asymmetrical way to approach how we move. I am here following the lines of the materials more closely, and you should not oppose them. When you strip off and get into the bath it is like being in a sculptural paradise: sound, light, the change in surroundings, that's what counts.

You don't own a Boffi kitchen, so what does your own bathroom look like?
I fitted out my bathroom about 15 years ago when we built the house and I made a real mistake at the time: I bought a huge tub because I thought that you could sit back in it, smoke some dope with friends and have a little fun... But it wastes an awful amount of water and takes up too much space. My wife and I have separate areas. The bathroom opens onto the bedroom, and there is no door in-between meaning if you want to close a door, you have to lock the door to the bedroom not the bathroom, now that I like. The bathroom becomes an extension of the room, you can fall out of bed and into the bath. My son has his own bathroom - a disaster, he's a teenager - but I also use it: He's got a Jasper Morrison tub which has a beautiful cut to it.

Are you one of the designers who avoid living among their own objects?
No, on the contrary, but I am also not a victim of my work. My designs are destined for other people - I work under contract to a company. It would be wrong to replace something that functioned because of my ego - i.e., simply to show others that I designed it. I sleep in one of the beds I designers, carry my own case, but after a while it gets a bit boring.

Your designs are considered "biomorphic". In the bath context, that intimates a clear reference to the human body. Would your designs look different if you yourself were not so slender?
That's a new one. I would see the world differently if I were fat, although I can't really imagine what that is like. We really do have a big problem here: The economic crisis means people are eating cheaper, lower-quality food that makes them fat. People's physiology is changing, as in the States. Obesity is something I have my difficulties with. I can accept that in some cases it is a medical condition, but usually the people simply don't do any sport. Everything I do involves a certain notion of fitness, something I call the "language of survival". My work is fat-free, it's like lean bacon, and it's efficient. That is how people and life should be, too.

In your Phaidon monograph Alberto commented on your work that it "contributes to the development of our society's culture. How would you describe the contribution it makes?
If I work with a company like VitrA, then I in part do so in order to educate myself. For five years now, I have been traveling once a month to Istanbul - one of the most fantastic places in the world. I believe design should be education. At VitrA I attempt, just as I did at Japan Airlines or Artemide, to bring the company commercial and cultural growth. I work strategically with reference to the culture. Five years ago, VitrA looked nothing like it does now.

Japan Airlines is likewise not just an airline but an ambassador for Japan. They let me do what I wanted and it became the world's first organic airline seat, in which you can sleep curled up like an embryo. If you want to sell flights between America and Japan, you have to appeal to the Americans and the Japanese. So I was a kind of cultural bridge between the cultures. As a result of the Empire, we Brits are very good at swapping ideas. I actually come from Wales, but I do not stand for an individual culture, I have the role of a cultural intermediary who translates ideas.

And that also often refers to the end client? Do you also attempt in your designs to persuade people to act more responsibly and consciously?
Yes, definitely. My "Solar Tree" for Artemide, for example, is incredibly successful and has changed the company. Artemide is now probably the only corporation that is growing - because of my work.

But do you also want people to think twice about their behavior as consumers?
Yes, we must of course keep that in focus. In Istanbul we spend a lot of time talking about values, about the value of water, for example, which is now as valuable as oil. That is not just some trend theme, but really a mindset you will find expressed in all my interviews. I wanted to be a designer who was innovative and well known, who can talk about design, who has style, who has a relationship to his fellow human begins, and yet who is an earthed person, too. I don't want to name names, but among all the star designers there is not one who remotely concerns himself with the topics you are asking me about. I am the only one and I want recognition as a result.

You can gladly name names!
Oh no, they're my friends. But it does surprise me that the trailblazers in my profession do not concern themselves more strongly with topics that are of relevance to humanity as a whole. Life can't just be about unconventional design if there is air pollution, water shortages, and all the political issues. You cannot immediately address them when starting work for a company. But once you've got the company going you need to devote time to other ideas.

You have a quite unique design vocabulary, your designs can swiftly be identified as Lovegrove designs. Do you think that thanks to this repertoire you tackle a new task -in a different way than would a designer who does not have that fixed set of shapes?
I am emotional and my work is emotional. It is inspired by human nature - I don't simply copy trees. But what interests me is that a tree functions like an inverse shower system: It absorbs water from the earth and creates clouds, the clouds then rain somewhere else and keep people alive there. I am part of a biological rhythm. Making these shapes does not involve more effort. I work like a sculptor of modern technology. My water bottle, for example, was the first digitally generated product sold worldwide.

My work is fairly unmistakable, thank God. There are many who say that I create object icons, who are interested not in the brand but only in the object. My bamboo bike is a bamboo bike, and my water bottle is a water bottle, you don't need to know the brand names. And for VitrA I try to make things that are initially perceived as objects and not as brands. It is sad for an object to have to rely on a the name of the brand or designer. I try to bring my language to bear, which will then perhaps become that of the brand. That is good for the company, as I not a threat but a friend. I do not want to buy the company, I am only Ross Lovegrove.

You term your work "organic essentialism", meaning that you do not want to use more or less than is necessary. But aren't these shapes often more elaborate to produce?
Thanks for asking that. Yes, absolutely. But bathroom ceramics, for example, is a hard powder that is liquefied and then hardens again. Its natural state is as fluid as oil, which is why my forms look the way they do. Thank God we are just leaving the phase of the supernormal behind us. There are many things that were designed to look simple but are far from it. People are learning to realize that organic design is both sculpturally and emotionally valuable, as a way of achieving the most with the least, just as does nature. One of the reasons why people do not create organic design is that they can't. You need really profound knowledge to do so - and only a very few had it, such as Arne Jacobsen, Naum Gabo or Anish Kapoor. Any one can design a box, I could design this iPod here in less than an hour.

I once read that you wished to create things that intrinsically possess the "joy of life". Do you think that straightforward, straight-edged things cannot have that?
Definitely. The Tadao Ando Chapel outside Osaka is a fantastic experience. I would never claim that the one is good, the other bad. What counts is the feeling you have for a material. You could sit in a shitty wooden box up in the mountains and be entranced by the sunlight that shines through the cracks. And if the wooden box had been designed by Peter Zumthor, then it would no doubt be amazing. What counts are the materials, as with my "Gingko" carbon table or my water bottle. Take marble, one of the world's greatest materials: If you see a cube of it your hair will stand on end - all its organic properties are stuck inside it. I would most like to make something non-organic to prove to people that what is involved is the materials, the philosophy, not a "Ross Lovegrove Form Show". I do not force the form to be there and as long as I live I will never do that. I could just as well work in texts, in two dimensions instead of three.

Your works are already part of major museum collections, such as that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. How will people describe your designs in 20 or 30 years' tie?
To be honest, I believe that the world will move in my direction and not that I will move in the direction of the world. It helps if you are a little older as then people tend to believe you more. But I am already a little bored as I don't want to repeat myself and move backwards. I must get involved in a few new areas that challenge my intellect, for example design a car. I would stop if all I could do were design more pans, door handles and vases.

How should design respond to the current crisis? Does it need to become more serious?
We produce things and fill the world up with them, instead of asking questions. I believe that those will be successful that ask questions. Precisely now we need intellectual effort. I enjoy the variety of my work and have no problem with designing a beautiful piece for Swarovski, because I love crystal. I have no problem, because I am one of the few who try to create the world's lightest suitcase, and achieve progress in many other areas, too. But I was always like that: I always turn off the light; I don't throw away food; I lead a completely normal life. I don't spend 2,000 euros in a restaurant, but simply eat baked beans. You yourself decide how you spend your hard-earned money: Hard to earn, easy to burn. Products: Easy to buy and an absolute disaster to then get rid of them. There is no system in life for getting rid of the stuff again; that's ridiculous, a one-way street. Which is why design is political, social, ethical. The Germany, with guys like Dieter Rams, are really good at the ethical aspects of things. - What's wrong with a beautiful windmill in your garden? What it produces is what's beautiful, not what it is.

Ross Lovegrove
Freedom by Ross Lovegrove for VitrA Bathroom
Freedom by Ross Lovegrove for VitrA Bathroom
Freedom by Ross Lovegrove for VitrA Bathroom
Istanbul by Ross Lovegrove for VitrA