A new creative space for Will Alsop and Scott Lawrie was the venue for one of the coolest parties during the London Design Festival, says Aidan Walker. It is matched in its coolness by the lighting scheme, devised and created by Russell Bagley, that accommodates the tricky circumstances of the space
This is the venue of one of the coolest parties at London Design Festival, celebrating Will Alsop and Scott Lawrie’s new multidisciplinary practice ALL Design, and the opening of a suitably multidisciplinary creative space, dubbed TestBed 1.
Over the Thames from Battersea Bridge, it’s where Alsop and his contemporaries, protegés, collaborators and a host of other creatives gather to do their creative thing. Exhibitions, sculpture, installations, forums, concerts; even the RCA showed sculpture and film there during the summer.
The building itself, on the upper floor of which Alsop’s new practice is housed, is a late Victorian dairy depot, largely untouched since it was last used as such in the Fifties, and with no significant alterations during its role as a warehouse for Domus Tiles up to the early Nineties.
The fabric is more or less as it was, the brickwork is in excellent condition, even the pre-Crittall original steel windows, complete with quaint Victorian ironmongery, are in good working order.
It’s just the place for a man of Alsop’s individual vision to plan and execute his next creative move, and just the place too for Russell Bagley’s peculiarly apposite lighting aesthetic.
‘Ideal for me,’ says Russell, a lighting, product and interior designer who has been my good friend for many years, and one whose own highly individual design vision has had a lasting influence on my own understanding of true design values.
Better known perhaps by his professional practice name of Box Products, Russell’s lighting installation for the TestBed 1 space is designed around a system of catenary cables which criss-cross the ceiling, and from which 60 or so fittings, designed with what I call Russell’s trademark ‘Isambard Kingdom Brunel’ aesthetic, are suspended at any interval you care to choose. They can be spread out, bunched up, amassed in one corner or another; the whole thing is flexibility incarnate. Should any visiting artist, architect, filmmaker or cooperative combination of same desire to do their own lighting in the space, Russell says all of his fittings can be taken down in 30 minutes.
Ideal for him, as he says, because the look and feel of the building and its vast interior space is precisely suited to his fascination with antique mechanical engineering, to his predilection for ‘natural’ or at least traditional materials (bronze, copper, brass, wood, steel) and to his ability to animate a space with functional yet somehow strangely other-worldly objects.
In one corner of this football-field sized interior is the Doodle Bar, designed by Alsop and the brainchild of his film-maker son Ollie and collaborators, which has been a pop-up watering hole for about two years. The TestBed 1 party was also by way of an opening of a proper home for the bar – distinguished by wall-sized blackboards on which aforesaid creatives, duly supplied with chalk, can sketch out their latest groundbreaking ideas, or just perhaps remind themselves to get milk. Good opportunity for chalkboard typography.
In this space, the vintage concrete slab ceiling is punctuated by massive steel I-beams. How to mount lights on that without seriously heavy duty drilling, and with no risk to the structural and architectural integrity of the place? Russell devised a fixing system based on lozenge-section pads which turn and lock up on the sloping ‘serif’ of the I-beams and hold the fittings rock solid – until you want to demount them, when they come away with no trouble.
He also come up with a light fitting that reaches out into the centres of the ceiling spaces between the beams, the ‘hoods’ of the lampholders taking the various attitudes of inquisitive tropical birds. The lamps are fed by free-looping electric cables that festoon around the fittings and the ceiling itself, reminding me of Tarzan’s lianas, hanging in readiness for a quick whoop and whizz. Talk about animating a space – here is a designer who has confidence in his own ideas.
My first acquaintance with Russell and his wife Hilary goes back to the late Eighties and a forerunner of 100% Design, The Direct Design Show, when design awareness was hitting the mainstream and the design industry was riding high on the credit explosion. They were showing, among other things, a charming tallboy, a mini-chestof drawers about 1.1m high in patinated and bronzed steel, which I immediately coveted. Even then, pseudo-Victorian ‘retro’ was not an uncommon style, but there was, and is, nothing pseudo about Russell’s work, and it’s got me wondering why.
The house where he and Hilary live on the north Norfolk coast offers a raft of clues. Sparse in decorative terms, every single little thing in it is carefully and lovingly collected, revived and placed. The biggest brass taps you have ever seen, culled from a railway siding in the age of steam, loom over their kitchen sink like gargoyles; there’s a collection of rabbit skulls and bones; a brass propeller from a pre-war lifeboat; fuselage sections from a Dornier bomber, crash-landed during the Second World War on the beach near their house. Not ornamentsin the traditional sense, but decorative in that they celebrate function.
Russell, who like many designers is not that comfortable talking about his work and his inspirations, surprises me when he tells me that his college work was entirely inspired by space travel and consisted mostly of vacuum-formed plastic. So where did the Victorian thing come from? Well, his grandfather was an engineer, and the little Russell would help him make things in his workshop.
I remember that in those heady days of the late Eighties and early Nineties, people such as Tom Dixon and Ron Arad were ‘designer makers’. Russell has always been a maker, a true craftsman, and this is why his most outlandish ideas can still carry the stamp of authenticity.
‘It’s process that is the important thing for me,’ he says. ‘I’m fascinated with machinery and with the construction process. I know how what I’m designing will be made before I start to draw it out. I get excited about something looking engineered; the whole idea of how things fit together is influencing the aesthetic, making construction visible.’
He is intensely alive to every advantage of LEDs and a host of other innovations, but he has to maintain a personal, hands-on, relationship with the objects, which is what gives them their authenticity. For him, longevity is also a crucial element of design: ‘You’re buying something for life. The approach to sustainability should be that you don’t throw anything away, you pass it down. Things look all the better when you hang on to them for 20 years or more.’
His last comment reinforces my belief that when it comes to designing and making the new world, it’s people like Russell Bagley we need to do it. The new rules are the old rules, which define a world where people design and make things that make sense, with lasting functionality and charm.
Russell, somehow, has always had a direct line to that world, and his work gives us a glimpse of it. It’s definitely a world I want to live in.
This article was first published in fx Magazine.