The Utilistic Optimism of Jasper Morrison

We dislike extravagance in design, and for us Jasper Morrison is a key influence as the difference between his work and many contemporary designers is it’s obviousness -and it’s obvious charm. He can be seen as a modernist, as he is scathing about postmodernism, and much of his work owes a debt to the vocabulary of modernism and it’s materials. He is not, though, old fashioned. The modernist faith in design as a vehicle for improving life provides the link to the work of Morrison he describes as Utilistic Optimism.

Morrison’s objects possess a comforting simplicity and yet solid presence of which he asserts; “Simplicity is a state of mind, a philosophy of life and of things. I am not interested in looking for new forms, or forms at all. In fact, if you don’t think that form is important, you can develop a different sensibility which lets you appreciate other qualities of objects. I like ideas like normal, soft, comfortable, easy to use. Don’t forget that people have to live with the objects we design. We need to understand how they can be used and think about everyday life. Design is something real.”

The essence of ‘good design’ for Jasper Morrison is hard to define, he can merely allude to it. He remarks that when design was good it was as though it had gone from a little to a lot. It is this principle of making something out of nothing that means he is not reliant upon grand materials or expressionistic making to carry the day,- that way you start with a lot and have merely recomposed it, you have not added much via your thinking, your intuition and your instinct. No-one is perfect and too many essays on individual designers pretend that everything that is done is by intent, which is nonsense. Occasionally Morrison will introduce or put up with a quirk in a design and make the best of it. In his defence he quotes Eileen Gray: ‘It’s possible to die from hygiene’. He says he likes the little quirk, it gives a bit of vitality and visual interest.

For example Morrison’s simple, lightweight and well formed design for a Plywood Chair that is produced by Vitra came to it’s solution through dealing with the problems of how to produce a prototype. In other words the prototype is not simply a method of testing an idea preformed on paper, rather Morrison says he needs to sometimes make the prototype himself in order to find ‘the missing ingredient’ that will give a design it’s reality.

When he came to prototype the chair he had to think how to make it in the easiest way possible,- he needed thoroughly to understand its construction so that he could hand it on for production knowing that, to a considerable degree, it could be made as he had designed it. Plywood was chosen as a good prototyping material. The raw material of plywood is provided by tree and glue, but it is not ‘timber’, nor does it have the three dimensional solidity of a piece of timber. It is a composite sheet, closer to the two dimensionality of paper or card. Morrison says ‘by the time I’d finished working it out as a prototype the chair had something it would not have had if it were in timber. It had been reduced to the most basic techniques and material.’ What he suggests is that working with relatively cheap materials and straight forward means of construction allow details to emerge that would not have occurred on paper.

Morrison recalls the main reason the chair looks the way it does is that he had to produce it himself, using the only equipment he had to hand, which was an electric jigsaw and some ‘ships curves’. And so it became a project to cut shapes out of plywood sheet and reassemble them to make something three dimensional. This particular chair possesses that inventive ‘little quirk’, in that the cross brace under the seat is concave and the seat surface made of thin ply gives slightly when sat upon, taking the form of the cross brace to form a gentle curve to acheive a cushioning effect, – which in some way compensates for other, less accommodating features. Morrison later completed a model of the Plywood chair with a filled back which he says was “more comfortable but less exciting”.

Morrison developed this process, which he afforded the name “Utilism”, within which there is room for humour, for irony and for a charm which is more usually found in situations which have not been planned, but which have evolved through necessity and the quick fix mentality of people who have enough to do without worrying how things look. Jasper Morrison has learnt lessons from Marcel Duchamp, the Dadaists and the Situationists in that there is nothing unforgivable about using and misusing objects. By incorporating found objects that are old, ordinary things and recycling them imaginatively has given rise to the opportunity to solve new problems through skillful and clever recontextualisation, back into the realm of daily life.

The manipulation of such objects incites a tension between the high and the low, cultured and popular, noble and ordinary to become something far from poor taste.  In other words, Morrison’s work projects forth that objects are not made to represent something, but are to be used.  The approach of taking ready-made components and combining them to make a new product has an economy of means which has become a common thread in his work.

Passing a local hardware shop in Berlin, Morrison observed a stack of flower pots arranged in order size giving him the idea of using them for the base of a small table. He reflects on making a lot of these “ready-mades” as a way of imitating some kind of industrial production. He has an implicit philosophy which is that of minimal interference. Like other designers before him, Morrison believes he feels that reproducing the past, (as opposed from learning from it) is somehow dishonest and has unsatisfactory results. What Morrison wants is for a product to have it’s own life; for a design to be good because the thinking it embodies is good. If Morrison’s work takes anything from the past, it is purely a sense of ‘rightness’, being deposited with a memory or a collective history which allows it to be immediately accepted.

 

Morrison has revealed that he started to notice that successful objects, that is, objects that are good to live with, seem to share certain characteristics. They were never the result of aesthetic decisions alone, nor were they purely functional. They always balance these two extremes with the additional consideration of the appropriateness of materials and their combination, of the human experience of using and living with the object, of the objects effect on its surroundings and of the communication of its purpose. He realised that certain less noticeable objects could over time become the object of daily choice by virtue of charm, stealth and efficiency. In the long term they just had more character for the job than others of the same class. Most of these objects were not designed in the marketing sense, probably due to the fact that marketing is often the driver of unnecessary change.

Morrison considers that the more developed a society becomes the more value is placed on useless objects and the less appreciation there is for something useful. He is emphatic on the need to keep this appreciation alive or we may lose touch with reality. His belief lies in the need to be truthful, or rather on the desirability of not hiding behind complexity. The language that appears (a combination of the materials chosen for the job and the methods used to put them together) is not arrived at through a painful search for something new, but as a by-product of a more utilistic process of making something in the simplest way available. We can infer from his work that Morrison’s taste is for a kind of pleasurable reduction. Not harshness but a rich simplicity that is an underlying attitude and principle to produce everyday objects for everyone’s use, make thing lighter not heavier, softer not harder, and inclusive rather than exclusive.

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