Radical Thinking

John Williams shares what motivates his creative process

Can you pinpoint the thought, whether yours or someone else’s, that led you to a career in design?

I never thought about a career in design when I was at school. I actually think – both looking back and with relevance up to the current day – that design still remains quite underserved. The curriculum addition of “Design & Technology” has moved things on to a degree, though the focus on product, graphics and computer-aided design doesn’t shine much light on spatial skills. For me, it was only when I was doing an Art Foundation course at Manchester University after A Levels that I really discovered design. I was trying my hand at a bit of everything and one of the tasks we were set was a project based on Vincent Van Gogh. It wasn’t really a thought therefore, but a moment – that was the first time I’d worked on that combination of art and space and I just knew. The connection was instantaneous and total.

In terms of the design and architecture industry, what do you consider the most radical era or pivotal moment?

The industrial revolution. Obviously, we’re now seeing its fossil fuel-burning legacy in terms of climate change, but it was a very positive leap forward in other ways too. So many large-scale buildings were built in such a short period of time to house the new machines of industry, for example, and what was truly radical about these wasn’t just their quality and solidity but their huge internal volumes and minimal visible structure. Such large internal spaces had previously only been the places of worship or high culture and now they entered the everyday lives of ordinary people – a crossover that led to a major shift in perceptions and sensibilities.

We often work on refurbishments of buildings from this era. They’re particularly relevant to contemporary usage precisely because of their character and proportions. We now understand the benefits of high ceilings and natural light much better and the way in which they contribute to people’s well-being when used in a different context. These buildings transform so well into workplaces, hospitality venues and domestic residences.

Which radical thinkers have been inspirations to you in your career?

Richard Rogers would be the first on the list. He came and gave a lecture when I was an undergraduate and just hearing him talk so openly about his practice’s work – with an insight here or a witticism there – made a huge impression. Here was an industry giant who was also a fantastic communicator and made the process seem so straightforward. Here was original thinking too, turning into real live projects with apparent ease.

Who are the radical thinkers who inspire you now?

I’m interested in people who bring insights from one area of life into another, so I’d say Ellen MacArthur – a sportswoman who brought what she learnt sailing round the world into the business world and has become a circular economy pioneer through the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Richard Rogers’s Lloyds of London building is one of the more eye-catching structures in the centre of the UK city top. Image Credit: qq7 / www.shutterstock.com

Who outside the industry can architects and designers learn from?

I can only speak for myself here, but music first of all has always been such a big part of my life and has influenced me in so many ways – the way you feel and react to solving a problem; the person behind the music and what is it that drives them politically or motivationally, lyrics and how the listener interprets them. Most of the greatest and worst moments in my life have a soundtrack, from Nick Drake to Guy Garvey, Stewart Copeland or Frankie Knuckles. A song leaves a footprint and, in a similar way, the buildings we build and the spaces we design have an afterlife and embody certain messages and atmospheres long after they are completed.

The number one teacher for all of us, however, has to be nature. If we could start again in our development of towns and cities, industry and culture, how differently would we design by respecting nature’s eco systems better and harmonising with it, rather than trying to control it and superimposing our needs over it?

What will lead the way for more radical thinking in the field?

I believe the future will be led by a convergence of the next generation, for whom a sustainability mindset is a given, combined with technological advances – very much against the background context of the climate crisis.

Could you recommend a book/article/blog that inspired your thinking?

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas had a huge effect on me in the sense of encouraging me to believe I could achieve things by being driven, by planning and then getting up and getting on with it.

Could you name two buildings or pieces of furniture that you consider radical designs of their time – or perhaps still to this day?

The B3 or Wassily Chair by Marcel Breuer was a starting point for a student piece I did that still resonates, building a living space out of scrap materials. Its beautiful simplicity was completely revolutionary – stripped down and elemental – even slightly trashy in a way. It’s a constant reminder not to overdress or overdesign.

I was lucky enough to live and work in California for a while early in my career and the influence of my time there always stays with me in terms of the joy of light and simple forms. The Getty Center by architect Richard Meier was a place I went to again and again. This series of buildings is such a beautiful example of how to use a single material and yet exploit its various textures through the way it’s cut and shaped. It manipulates the beautiful Californian sun so perfectly, with forms extended through reflections in the surrounding pools. It’s stunning.

I think best with…

a pencil.

I think best…

first thing in the morning.

Dumas’s 19 the century classic is a tale of retribution. Image Credit: Mila Zed / www.shutterstock.com

I think best…

with other people. I’m definitely suited to collaboration and the way ideas develop when everyone’s sparking together.

The Getty Centre is well-known for its fantastic views of Los Angeles. Image Credit: Mila Zed / www.shutterstock.com

The thought that keeps me up at night…

is how to keep everything in balance.

The thought that gets me out of bed each day is…

enthusiasm for what lies ahead, whether that’s work, climbing a mountain or spending time with my family. On a rare unenthusiastic day when life has the upper hand, it’s a sense of responsibility that does it.

Do you like to think with or think against?

With, definitely.

If you weren’t a designer, where do you think your way of thinking would have led you?

Another area of creativity. I’d probably have been a drummer in a band.

Could you describe radical thinking in three words?

Strength, belief, purpose.

What’s the most radical thing you’ve come across today or this week?

At the time of writing, I’d probably say the act of Patagonia boss Yvon Chouinard handing over his company to a charitable trust with any profit not reinvested in running the business going to fighting climate change. The vision of earth being ‘our only shareholder’ is a vision we all need to share in order to survive and thrive into the future.

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