More with less
Architect Mies van der Rohe
Standing in the German Pavilion in Barcelona was like being inside a clear, ordered mind. German architect Mies van der Rohe designed it in 1927 for the international exposition in the Catalan capital two years later. It has a flat roof resting on columns and the glass and marble walls inside can be moved around since they don't support the building. Another marvel inside is two of the famous Barcelona chairs Mies also designed for the occasion.
No matter where you stand inside, you see neat lines leading the eye to other spaces. You're never just in one area, but always have a glimpse of what lies beyond. It flows seamlessly from inside to outside, where a shallow pond lined with stones stretches down to the gift shop at the far end. That was where a stern-looking man sold expensive post cards, scratchy T-shirts and DIY paper kits of the building. I bought one of each - I was a tourist and in awe.
Mies was born in Aachen in 1886, trained with his stonemason father and got his first commission for a house at 20. In 1930 he became director of the experimental design School the Bauhaus and ran it until the Nazis forced him to close down. In 1936 he was appointed director of architecture at what was later renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and built landmark extensions for the growing campus.
The pavilion, the Farnsworth House and the Seagram building in New York, where he did groundbreaking work in skyscraper design, define what made him one of the greatest architects of the 20th century. His most misused quote, “less is more”, describes only part of what made him so influential. With his emphasis on open spaces and exposed construction materials, Mies helped define modern architecture.
The pavilion is still carefully studied by modern designers. It can also change your thinking about any form of creativity. What I saw there - the form, the flow, the way space and materials are connected, enclosing without confining - changed my approach to writing. That might sound pretentious, but only until you experience the pavilion for yourself.
Maybe I'll get to see Mies's American masterpieces some day. The hour or so in the German Pavilion was inspirational. And I still wear the T-shirt.
Designer Joe Colombo
He died in 1971 on his 41st birthday, so Italian designer Cesare “Joe” Colombo didn't have much time to make his mark on the world. But in his short career he did enough to be remembered as one of the twentieth century's most important designers.
His first work was a ceiling for a jazz club in his home town of Milan in 1953 and the next year he built three miniature theatres with TV sets for the Triennale. This inspired him to study architecture and after a few years experimenting with materials such as fibreglass and polyethylene in his father's factory, he opened a design studio which did mostly interiors for ski lodges and mountain hotels. His trademark was bold curves - he disliked sharp corners and straight lines - and his ideal was to create “an environment for the future”, using new technology to change the way in which people live.
Like many designers he started with a quest for the perfect chair, which in his case would be made of one material, stackable and easy to clean. He came up with the Universale, as popular today as back then. Instead of redesigning furniture he tried to reinvent them. Many of them are still being made, like the mobile office cabinet he called the Boby trolley, the mobile mini kitchen and the Additional Living System, six polyurethane cushions which can be stuck together in different combinations.
Perhaps his ultimate creation was the Total Furnishing Unit, designed in 1971 for his own flat. It is a single unit of only 28 square metres containing a kitchen, cupboard, bedroom and bathroom, with elements sliding in and out as required.
Joe Colombo's futuristic ideas lay the groundwork for the pop art and plastic design of the seventies. He was excited by the possibilities of new technology and the improvement of everyday life. He envisaged a future which arrived not too long after his death. More's the pity that he isn't here to design it for us.
Painter Paul Delvaux
As a child, surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1896-1994) was in awe when he saw electric trams for the first time in Brussels. The memory and a fascination with trains lingered. In the late 1950s he did a series of night scenes in which a girl was shown from the back gazing at a departing train. The paintings were quite realistic, but shimmering in otherworldly moonlight.
Just as he never forgot his first tram, I can remember the first time I came across Delvaux. Turning a corner into a dimly lit room in the Royal Museum of of Fine Arts in Brussels, I suddenly stood before Train du Soir and was mesmerised by the painting's silence, mystery and sense of longing.
The rest of the room showed what Delvaux is best known for: female nudes in unusual settings like buildings in classical styles, staring into the distance and making enigmatic gestures.
Delvaux studied architecture because his parents though painting wasn't a sound career choice, but managed to fit in art classes and started producing naturalist landscapes, then moved on to the naked women… and skeletons. He had some unusual influences like the poetry of Homer, the sci-fi of Jules Verne and a mechanical Venus figure he saw at the booth of a medical museum during the Brussels Fair.
He drew inspiration from René Magritte, as well as the metaphysical art of Giorgio de Chirico: “With him I realised what was possible, the climate that had to be developed, the climate of silent streets with shadows of people who can't be seen”.
The thrill of finding Train du Soir so unexpectedly will stay with me as much as the magic of Delvaux's paintings with their shadows of untold stories.
Love and genius
Designers Charles and Ray Eames
Someone should make a movie about this pair. It could start here: he was head of design at an American college the day the art major arrived on campus to do a weaving course. It was love by design. After working with her on a big project, Charles left his wife and married Ray. Soon they were happily moulding plywood in their flat with a home-made contraption they named the Kazam!Machine. Charles nabbed the wood and glue for the job from the MGM studios where he worked as a set designer.
During World War II they made wooden splints and stretchers for the army. After that they got stuck into their famous plywood chair designs, followed by furniture in fibre glass, plastic and aluminium. Their mission statement: “Get the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least”. Imagine a 21st-century multinational working like that.
“Take your pleasure seriously,” Charles used to say. The Eameses must've had a lot of fun together. They made short films to explain their ideas, amazed their peers with a novel idea called a multimedia presentation and broke new ground with exhibitions that were never less than a great party. The house they built for themselves is considered one of the greatest post-war home designs.
Visit Eames Office and you'll be surprised by how many of their designs are still around. You might be using some of them right now.
One for the books
Publisher Benedikt Taschen
The glib view of Benedict Taschen is that he made his money with dodgy pictures and coffee table books on architecture. King of Kink is a typical headline for an article on the driving force behind the classy Taschen publishing house. He does print books other publishers wouldn't touch, but by doing that he's merely expanding the boundaries of art - and without his treasure of titles a trip to your local word franchise would be even more disappointing.
Benedikt was born in Cologne in Germany, the son of two doctors and the youngest of five children. “Nobody played with me,” he's said. “Neither parents nor siblings. Though my brother-in-law Ulli did. He was an art and music fan.” When he was eight, his 22-year-old brother Wolfram committed suicide. A distressed Benedikt took refuge in the world of comics and built up such a huge collection that he didn't have enough space for storing them. At the age of 12 he started a mail-order business and at 15 he opened a comics shop.
The market for graphic novels and comics was still small, so in 1984 he got a loan from his family and bought 40 000 copies of a book on Magritte. At a new, lower price they sold well and Benedikt could afford to print a book on upcoming photographer Annie Leibovitz. After that came more art books and Taschen's enduring reputation for quality printing and value for money.
His wife Angelika, also from Cologne, wanted to be a ballet dancer but grew too tall. She considered an operation to have her legs shortened, but thankfully her parents stopped her and she went to study art in Heidelberg. With a PhD and nothing to do she went to the Frankfurt book fair and fell in love with the Taschen brand. She wrote to the publisher, landed a job and fell in love with the boss as well.
“We never start with a huge print run,” is how Benedikt explains his business strategy. “We reprint. If you don't reprint a book, it is not a success, but neither is it a big failure, so you don't have a problem.”
The Taschen family own a unique home in Los Angeles. It's the Chemosphere, an experimental design by John Lautner, who is worth an entry of his own. Benedikt won an award for his restoration of this landmark.
King of kink? Much more than that.