When more of us are living nomadic lifestyles – moving between homes, cities or countries with increasing regularity – Peter Marigold (1974-), a recent design graduate from the Royal College of Art, has developed a series of transportable and modular shelving solutions that adapt to the quirks of temporary accommodation.
Having first trained as a sculptor then following a career into theatre scenography, Marigold is well versed in designing for both sensitivity and practicality. His Prop design – a guileless but carefully calibrated pole support – elevates objects above floor level offering raised storage to tenants unable to attach anything to walls. The simplicity of Prop’s purpose belies its unique and captivating qualities. The luxurious surface texture and decorative detailing elevates Prop above soulless and ubiquitous off-the-shelf storage solutions. It is, according to Marigold, a bespoke item somewhere between ‘product, furniture and architectural intervention’.
Designing and making beautiful objects simply and inexpensively – often through DIY solutions and improvisation – is a major impetus for Marigold. In Make/Shift – a shelving system that expands and contracts to fill awkward gaps – the starting point was the humble wooden crate. The units can be used as boxes to move house and simply wedged into place when unpacked, with no screws or drilling required. Having worked through Make/Shift in wood, the design is now in production in expanded plastic foam, or polypropylene, through the manufacturer JSP.
Marigold’s formally elegant objects reflect an emerging austerity in design and a celebration of the basic qualities of materials. Their rejection of ostentatious and wasteful ornamentation reveals a new direction that is refreshingly free of pretence.
Q. When did you first become aware of – and interested in – design?
A. At the age of three I declared that my favourite things about a holiday in Italy were ‘the taps’. As a child I was obsessed with finding interesting man-made things in the street – and collected these various bits of metal and plastic in containers labelled ‘bits and bobs’. I became concerned that I might miss ‘something’ and subsequently developed a scouring stoop that I was laughed at for in school… though I did have a prize collection. In my twenties, Michael Marriot’s banana box shelving system was an inspiration. I saw that I was not alone in my dark fetish for fruit boxes.
Q. Why did you decide to study design and what was the influence of your design education on your work?
A. I always intended to study design, but I was persuaded to follow a path into sculpture. Returning to a design education has been a long overdue step.
Studying at the Royal College of Art taught me to explore ideas rather than ‘come up’ with ideas. During this time I have learned to think more with my head than with doodles in my sketchbook. If anything, I have come to realise that coming up with ideas is not the problem, but rather deciding which ones to develop.
Q. How have your objectives evolved since leaving the RCA?
A. The decision to find a workshop/studio space is an acceptance that I do, unfortunately, like making things and cannot exist solely in virtual space. I honestly feel that the world is already over-populated with stuff, and I feel tinged with guilt that I should be creating more of it. But I think that’s what they mean by following your calling.
Q. Which of your early projects was most important in defining your approach to your work?
A. Christmas 2005 we were given a brief to design a table leg of a specific height. My planned leg ‘fell through’ at the last minute and so, in desperation I removed a leg from my table at home and chopped it diagonally in two, fixing it at the required height with cable ties. Unexpectedly, it looked quite nice.
I think that my best work has evolved out of some sort of desperation.
Q. How did the design of the Make/Shift project develop?
A. The Make/Shift shelving system followed directly from the table leg project. Originally I wanted to abandon it as a concept, thinking it just a throwaway idea, but gradually learned to accept that the desperate makeshift qualities of the table leg actually reflected real interests in my life.
The world that I live in is chaotic and densely populated by junk, both collected things and simple rubbish. It’s not a perfect place but it is consistent. Like wise, English homes are usually consistent in their shared irregularities – pokey architectural spaces, weird under-hangs, and unusable corners. I was interested in how a piece of furniture might adapt to and therefore reflect our acceptance of living with these innate problems.
I began chopping up the geometry of simple fruit boxes, learning how the ratios between top, bottom and sliced side worked best in terms of versatility of the overall dimensions and physical behaviour. I then progressed to larger units that also incorporated crate making materials and elements – such as cheap shuttering plywood and cut out handles. I was interested in how the dual identities of the units – as shelves, and as boxes – could suggest a feeling of temporary existence (as well as adapting to the different spaces, the units can be used as packing crates when moving house).
I also developed a smaller variation that can be wedged into window frames – useful for people who can’t fit shelving into walls. Again, it explores notions of ad-libbing with architecture that fits our modern lives.
Q. Does Make/Shift have commercial or mass-manufactured potential?
A. I started to explore the possibility of the units being made in other lightweight materials, and made contact with a manufacturer of expanded polypropylene – which is often used as a packaging material. The original designs that I sent them were basically interpretations of the wooden versions in EPP. They were interested in working with me but insisted that I develop the design beginning with their material in mind. The subsequent evolutions of the design are easily mouldable and the corrugations mean that no additional connecting elements are needed, making it a single material product.
Q. How would you describe your working methodology or approach to design?
A. I have a perverse view on this. On the one hand, I hope that my designs have an impact on people’s lives – through altering behavioural patterns, or slight environmental adjustments that make them feel differently. On the other hand I hope that the objects also involve a degree of hardship or effort on behalf of the user. Perhaps due to an upbringing touched by a Protestant work ethic, to simply enjoy a design seems frivolous. I would like the experience of my objects to feel something like putting up a badly designed tent – both a painful and rewarding exercise. (Have you read the directions on how to install Ron Arad’s ‘Book Worm!…). I think such an approach might help the user feel like the well dressed cave man – primitive but triumphant.
I believe that such small physical ‘trials’ may go some way to explaining the popularity of IKEA or flat-pack furniture, whereby the consumer (normally the male) is made to feel positive about the end product through physical exertion and problem solving.
Q. How important is the balance between commercial and conceptual in your work?
A. The opportunity to work directly with an industrial manufacturer (JSP) has been enlightening on a personal level. I am not too precious about the forms of my ideas, and I was happy to develop the design for the Make/Shift shelves to fit their understanding of how the product would work best commercially. If anything, it was an opportunity to let the product evolve out of necessity rather than due to my conceptual direction.
Whilst living in Rio de Janeiro, I made a few sculptures. The coconut radio, built from a discarded coconut and a salvaged radio was a direct response to my personal feeling of being far from home, yet still maintaining contact with another place. It turned out quite nice, so I redesigned it as a product to sell on Ipanema beach. I don’t think the concept was lost, even though it had been ‘commercialised’, if anything, the idea could be enjoyed by more people.
Q. What do you see as the role of design today?
A. I am interested in objects, and the vast bulk of objects that we experience have been, at least in part, mass-produced. In this respect, as with my impulse to become a ‘proper designer’, I feel a real impulse to ‘fit’ with the aesthetics surrounding me. However I am also conscious that most of the products that I see today, idealise a world that I doubt I will ever experience, unless through the media. I’m probably doing something wrong, but my house never looks like that, and I think there are probably parallels here with how the fashion industry actively encourages anorexia in women. It might look innocent, but, intentionally or not, a beautiful surface with perfectly rounded corners is a good way to convince a human that he is little more than a contaminant in the product process.
As someone who makes things, I find it a bit weird that we (designers) seem to try as hard as possible to emulate things that have popped out of a machine. On the one hand I can appreciate the seductive qualities of mass production, but why should we (people who make things) be attempting to imitate such processes at the initial stages of product development?
There are universal truths in beauty, but I don’t think our current obsessions healthily address them. There is simplicity, and then there is boring fetishism.
Visit Peter Marigold’s website at petermarigold.com