Conran's Wish List

September 2014

Creating the desired object
Tools at Benchmark used by Nathalie de Level, for designing the thermally modified Americanash shed for Paul Smith. Picture: Petr Krecji.
There is nothing quite like the experience of having to produce, with your own hands, the product that you yourself have designed. Gaining practical experience and learning a craft helps one understand how things are made and how the material greatly informs the design process. The Wish List is a project that asked emerging designers to each make a different given object (for an important established designer, no less!) out of a single material and in a very short space of time. To reward the adrenaline rush that this exercise must no doubt have caused, was the destined display of said object at the V&A Museum during London Design Week.
"What have you always wanted in your home, but have never been able to find?" Terence Conran, cofounder of British design company Benchmark, has asked some of his eminent friends this question, among who are illustrious names in architecture and design, like Sir Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, and Paul Smith. The inquiry gave rise to a project entitled The Wish List, on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum during the London Design Festival (13 -21 September), in which a group of emerging designers had to take-on the responsibility of designing the desired items. Their challenge was not only to meet the expectations of such well-known and experienced professionals, but also to produce each object in just one week and in a single material, namely American hardwood, as part of a collaboration between the American Hardwood Export Council and Benchmark Furniture aimed at celebrating the versatility of timber.
So, what did the designers wish for? Sir Norman Foster delivered a romantic image of the architect when he requested a pencil sharpener for three sizes of pencil from Japanese designer Norie Matsumoto. Zaha Hadid asked for tableware from British designer Gareth Neal, who turned a water carafe into something more sculptural, reminiscent of Hadid's own work. Paul Smith's object of desire was the largest of The Wish List projects: a shed by furniture designer Nathalie de Leval, where he could go to switch-off and relax. At 3m by 3m, it's the same size as Paul Smith's first-ever shop in Nottingham, but de Leval's inspiration actually came from the Skyscraper fishermen's sheds in Hastings and Louis Barragan's house in Mexico. Amanda Levete, the architect in charge of the new extension at the V&A, commissioned a sculptural, extendable fruit bowl from Win Assakul, one of her former students. As she often hosts dinners at home for 18 people, the bowl had to run the length of her 4.8-metre-long table.   London based designer Ab Rogers, known for his playful and colourful objects, asked Xenia Moseley for a ladder. "I chose a ladder because they are special and are often overlooked, seen merely as ordinary", Rogers explained. "They deserve to be elevated by thoughtful design. As an object, a ladder offers an exciting way to move; it helps you rise to a new place, to get somewhere you cannot otherwise reach, and to see a familiar space in a different light." 
British sculptor Allen Jones – famous for his seats supported by a contorted near-naked woman – came up with an idea he had been wanting to realise for a while: a chaise longue in the form of an androgynous figure that can alter its gender according to the insertion or removal of a wooden peg. Vietnamese designer Lola Lely was chosen to work with him on this. The inspiration came from Marino Marini's sculpture of a horse and rider made for Peggy Guggenheim's palazzo in Venice. The statue of the rider included a fully erect phallus that could be screwed in and out, and that, according to legend, Guggenheim used to reinsert every time a group of nuns passed by. Terence Conran himself expressed a wish, too: he commissioned Sebastian Cox to create a cocoon-like desk for his office, to enable undistracted, creative thought. 
Mentorship, craftsmanship, and sustainability are key words in The Wish List project. "It is a project that looks to the future in so many ways", as Conran said in an interview published in The Wish List catalogue. "Supporting young design talent, promoting the importance of craftsmanship, and practicing sustainable, ethical design." As a matter of fact, all objects were subject to Life Cycle Analysis, a scientific tool that assesses true environmental impact. And about the making of the products, Conran states: "I cannot emphasise enough how important it is for young designers to get practical experience and learn a craft, so they can understand how things are actually made and how different materials shape the design process. I have always concerned myself with what one may call the practical aspects of design, and tried to relate my work to the manufacturing process. I have never designed a product that I wouldn't know how to make myself." ‹
Gwendolyn Kerschbaumer (Atelier Areti) working on the triangle shelves. Picture: Petr Krejci.
Xenia Moseley with Ab Rogers, who’s perched on his American red oak ladder. Picture: Petr Krejci.
Barnby and Day working on their American tulipwood dining table designed for Alex de Rijke. Picture: Petr Krejci.
Gareth Neal working on the Americanwhite- oak tableware he designed for Zaha Hadid. Picture: Petr Krejci.
Making of American-tulipwood pencil sharpeners by Norie Matsumoto making, designed for Norman Foster. Picture: Petr Krejci.
The soaking, steam-bending, and working of American red oak for use in Terence Conran’s new workspace, designed by Sebastian Cox. Picture: Petr Krejci.
This article appeared in DAM46. Order your personal copy.