Michael Marriott

Michael Marriott

I have a favourite chair. It’s a bottle-green, plastic-moulded tractor stool, bolted onto a box that covers a gas pipe. The chair is tucked into a corner by the window of a café that’s opposite a laundrette and a bandstand. I used to live seven minutes away by bike and would sit there to have my lunch on a Thursday or Friday nearly every week, forfeiting my place only on the occasion that someone else got there first—and feeling disgruntled when they did. Hi, excuse me, sorry, um, you appear to be sitting in my seat, I’d say in my mind, scowling from a nearby table, because of course I couldn’t make this claim, even if my romantic little habit would have me believe otherwise. How should I know who really owned the chair, anyway?

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

Michael Marriott is a British designer based in East London. He was born in Essex (further east), studied at the London College of Furniture and the Royal College of Art, and went on to teach at the latter. Michael’s work spans objects, furniture, interiors, exhibitions, installations, and publications, with clients and collaborators including SCP, the ICA, Design Museum, Venice Biennale, Established & Sons, Jasper Morrison, and Paul Smith. Dieter Rams used to say that good design should be ‘invisible’, and I think the same goes for good designers. Michael, despite his accomplished career, and unlike many of his peers, is not interested in authorship or recognition. He does not run an eponymous studio of worshipful interns, has not followed the rhythm of design world calendars, and will not pander to consumer trends. When he’s not working on commissions, Michael spends his time developing one-off or small-batch products, which he sells (at a reasonable price) on his online shop, WoodMetalPlastic. These items are fabricated from a combination of raw materials and the collection of found objects that decorates his workshop in Dalston. There’s a cleverness and resourcefulness to the approach, prompted not by the trendiness of green capitalism, but by an early love of the natural world and a curiosity for the way complex structures are made and can be unmade, remade. Finally, and most importantly, I learnt that Michael made the chair.

I met him a few months ago, in the run up to his Apartamento collaboration: a red-footed, steel-wired, fold-up cookbook stand, celebrating the release of the publisher’s eighth annual recipe book. Prior to that morning, I’d only known Michael through his Instagram accounts, @instamarriott and @instamarriott2.0 (the former was hacked last year), but had gathered that he was both a fervent supporter of Greenpeace and a petitioner against the Conservative party, so I suspected we might get along. Setting up at his kitchen table, I began by asking the question on everyone’s lips:

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

What did the hacker want?

At the beginning he was trying to get into other people’s accounts, saying, ‘I’m going for an exhibition design fellowship’ or something. ‘Would you vote for me?’

Not your typical spam message. At least he did his research.

‘I would like to send you 150 million dollars. Can I put it in your account?’ But yeah, more recently he’s been trying to sell Bitcoin.

I was looking at your original account earlier, and saw the final post was a side table with the words ‘Tory Scum’ painted across the top in bright orange. I’ve sat by a similar work in Leila’s Shop I don’t know how many times without realising it was yours.

Ah, yes. We’ve done the café in lots and lots of little stages. And it’s still ongoing, actually. 

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott
Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

The green chair in the window is especially good for a coffee.

It’s a prime spot, isn’t it? But if you notice, it’s sitting on a little wooden box, something that the gas pipe people did. We ended up with this thing, and I remember saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll mount a seat on there’. I’d had one of those old IKEA tractor stools for five years or so. Have you seen them? They’re really horrible, but the seat’s nice. And I’d found one thrown out on the street, thinking, ‘I’ll do something with that one day’. We knocked something together quickly, and it’s perfect! It’s so funny that quite often people see it as their seat.

Including me. Anyway, this seems like a perfect example of the way you work.

That chair was really about planning and problem-solving. I always say I try to make things that don’t feel too designed. Most design is too much design. I want to make things that feel normal and just a bit special, at the same time. Objects that you don’t even really notice.

Which is radical. Most designers want to have a recognisable style, to become a brand and be marketable. In that sense, your practice is quite anti-commercial, I think.

Well, from the beginning I was making furniture that was quite odd. It was extremely utilitarian and looked like it was made in a shed. I was trying to make things that were human and engaging and real, as well as useful and functional, and was definitely anti the slippery slope of trends.

There’s the world of Ross Lovegrove and Marc Newson and lots of people who love all that. And I think changes in commerce and industrial production and 3D capability—computers in general—have made it so much more accessible. But it’s meant that machines can churn out an ugly wastepaper bin that’s the same shape as another ugly pencil pot, for every Salone and every trade fair, and people keep buying them.

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott
Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

Why do you think we like that look? The super sleek stuff.

It feels like people have a fascination with the ‘60s idea of the future. Like Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was really powerful for me, too, but why are people still repeating that? We’ve proven that not everywhere is a white seamless bubble. I’ll go off on a rant now.

No, I agree. It reminds me of Jacques Tati’s Playtime and that vision. Maybe it was the last time there was a clear proposition.

You just made me think about sci-fi films like Blade Runner and Brazil that showed more messy, chaotic, even apocalyptic views of the world. But somehow, they weren’t as compelling as the white-bubble thing.

Yet they’re more and more real. I know this is a buzzword, but I’d like to talk to you about sustainability, because you were using found objects long before the climate crisis became a ‘thing’.

People say that, but I’d argue that it was already a thing when I was growing up. There were books on sustainable design by Victor Papanek, and Small Is Beautiful, which I often quote. Those were written in the early ‘70s. Another book that was important to me was Adhocism by Charles Jencks and Nathan Silver. There was a sentence which really struck me, something along the lines of, ‘Designers should be more resourceful’. And I was like, ‘Yeah! That’s exactly what I think!’

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

Were you interested in design as a child?

I was always making stuff, yeah. We had a big shed growing up, so I mucked about with bicycles then later bought a cheap little moped. We used to push it off road, and we cut everything off that wasn’t ‘required’, to make it run faster. And it was extremely fast for a 50cc two-stroke rally runabout.

Also, my dad worked in the antique trade, so I’d follow him at the weekends and school holidays to this wood workshop and see mostly old guys making things. Wherever we went, my dad would be looking underneath tables to try and judge their originality and whether they’d been forged or repaired in some way that would affect their value. I’d be looking as well, but to see how they were constructed. I was somehow innately very practical and interested in all that. I understood how to make tables and chairs and could even make them as quite a young kid. I felt I knew what I was doing with a hammer and nails or a saw. But I didn’t know how to weld, and I didn’t know how an engine casing was made, and so that was the drive to go to design school, I think—to try and understand how all these other things came to be in the world.

Where did you study?

First at the London College of Furniture, which was really great. It’s now part of London Met University. I learnt a lot. Just through going to the interview, I was introduced to Vico Magistretti. I got there early, so they let me go to the library for 20 minutes, and it was full of these green plastic chairs. I’d grown up on the edge of the South End, in the suburbs, surrounded by a load of old brown wooden furniture—Windsor chairs with 30 parts and almost as many joints, you know? So when I got to the end of the interview and they asked, ‘Have you got any questions?’ I said, ‘Those green chairs in the library, were they done by a student here?’ They laughed, but that was how naïve I was.

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott
Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

You were stepping into colour for the first time!

Oh my god. I mean, I love bits of that old world. There are some fantastic things. But it’s like looking at an Andy Warhol as opposed to a John Constable. It all seemed so exciting.

What else were you looking at?

This was 1981, so it was just as Memphis was kicking off. I went there having discovered the Bauhaus, Eileen Gray, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and thinking they were amazing, scratching my head like, ‘Why isn’t everyone sitting on tubular steel cantilever chairs?’ And then I got smacked in the face by my first Magistretti. It was a bit like discovering punk rock after listening to the Beatles.

So, I spent a lot of time in the library. I just wanted to read every book and magazine in there. I was discovering Le Corbusier, and trying to make sense of modernism, then Eames, Hans Wegner and all the Scandinavian stuff, and later Jean Prouvé.

Did the school push a particular design philosophy?

There was a very broad range of stuff going on there, so the driving force was more technical. Like, you could do a course making 15th-century lutes or 16th-century harpsichords. They would go and measure these really fine ancient instruments in museums around the world and then remake them. Incredible stuff.

But ours was sort of an outlier next to all the other London art schools. There were lots of kids from Essex who, like me, weren’t academically achieving at school but were practically good. Then I think I was driven by an interest in art, where most of the lads just couldn’t give a shit. We had this really great tutor called Roger Ackling, a sculptor, and I would go to galleries, so I had this skimpy knowledge of early 20th century art—like, I loved Fernand Léger. It was a good aside to the straight technical stuff, like learning how to use spindle moulders and planers without losing fingers or learning about veneering and wood science.

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

That sounds brilliant. Much better to give students the skills to design rather than tell them exactly how to do it. How do you start a project?

It depends, I suppose. A bit of thinking and a bit of doodling. Occasionally I have to sit down and draw on the computer, but I kind of love it when I don’t have to do that. I can figure it out with an, ‘OK, I see, it’s got to be that’, and then I’ll just go in the workshop and smash it together.

How did the cookbook stand come about?

I’m always just thinking, ‘How does this object respond to any real person’s real life?’ And in my own life, I was finding that most stands were big, clumsy things that took up half the kitchen. Like, where do I put the toaster now? I wanted to have something that you could fold flat and hang up with your utensils instead. Then it was just a load of mucking about with bits of wire and some prototyping. I’d seen that spring shape work perfectly as a hinge, and the whole form of it helps support the spine and holds the pages out flat. It’s a useful thing. Hopefully charming, too. 

Very much so. Do you make a lot of prototypes?

Yeah, I love that immediacy. I can very quickly put something together that will function as a seat, for instance. You can actually pick it up and get a sense of its weight and balance, and you can sit on it and assess its comfort. So you’ve got that analogue relationship with it, which you lose onscreen. You’ve got much more feedback. Also, it helps that you’re not falling in love with the shape. The shape comes from figuring it out in three dimensions. And then you might go, ‘OK, that looks a bit clumsy. Let’s shave a bit off’, or whatever.

Form follows function. For the most part.

Yes. You know, I had to write a statement when I left the RCA, and in that I recognised that my work had ended up being idiosyncratic—which felt like quite a big word. But it seemed exactly right. It’s a bit hit-and-miss. But I’m actually really happy with that. 

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott
Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

When did you go to the RCA?

I think I was 28. So, I was six or seven years out of education, which meant by the time I went back, I was really ready for it. That’s when you can use it a lot more. Before that I had done a load of other jobs, but always relating to furniture or design or making stuff. I worked with a carpenter, did a bit of architectural drafting, some office space planning, and lots of odd bits of furniture. And I enjoyed all that, but I think I was finding my way.

Which master’s did you do?

It was back when there was still a furniture course. It was run by Floris van den Broecke, who’s a really great Dutch designer. He had been my professor and I really looked up to him. A few years after I finished, he asked me to come back and run a project, which I did. It was about designing a piece of furniture that surprised you in some way.

And did you enjoy teaching? 

Yeah, it was a really great year of students. And I was delighted to be asked by such a high-level institution, you know? I’d done bits of teaching before, working as a technician at Middlesex Polytechnic. The thing I liked about being a technician was the conversations with the students, trying to help them figure out how to manifest their ideas. I felt like so often their ideas would evolve without a thought for the technology involved.

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott
Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

Whereas I’d say your designs are almost defined by the technology, or by the properties of the material. Even your shop is called WoodMetalPlastic.

I mean, I named it without much thought, but what I’ve realised is that it does reveal my interest in materials. They’re the three major materials in my world, my profession. Ceramics are obviously a key material as well, but that tends to be a slightly separate or specialised profession. That doesn’t mean that product designers can’t work with ceramics—I’ve done a little bit, and I’d love to do some more. And what, would I just put that under ‘plastic’? Because it’s a plastic kind of process. Anyway, I can be playful with it.

This all makes me think of a lecture I once had at architecture school. The head of the program went around the room and asked everyone what the most important principle of design was. Words like ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’ kept coming up, and no one could really explain how these moralistic terms applied to architecture, other than this sense that the material was doing what it was meant to do.

Language fails us, I think. Doesn’t it often with these things? On the whole, I don’t like fake things, but sometimes you see fake things as genius. Like, in the ‘70s you’d see moulded-plastic things where they’d sort of dropped a film of wood-grain print. And it’s so obviously not made of wood. It’s so obviously made of plastic. I think those things have a sort of ironic charm, maybe because they’re so unconvincing.

But we’re all drawn to wood. People stroke wood in the way they never stroke melamine, or a powder-coated steel, or injection-moulded plastic. There’s some sort of magical thing that happens; we get a sort of tingle between our fingertips and our brain. It’s definitely there, we just don’t have words for it. Maybe they do in another language, but we don’t. In Japanese there’s a word for ‘forest bathing’, when you go for a walk in the forest, and you absorb the positive ions that trees give off. It’s a recognised medical procedure, something the doctor might recommend.

Google says shinrin-yoku.

Right. I heard it the other day because a friend put me on to this series of radio shorts called An Almanac for Anxiety. They’ve got an episode each for what they called the four ‘classical elements’: earth, wind, fire, and water, and then they’ve added wood as a fifth one. And they’re wiring people up to see what happens to the brain when we come into contact with these things, like cold water or whatever it might be. That friend also does the heavy breathing and sitting in your underpants thing.

That’ll be the Wim Hof method.

You know, I’ve got another friend who’s been off doing actual workshops with Wim Hof. I bumped into him at the ponds one day, and he was telling us how they’d ended up doing this trek in the middle of winter, out on the Moors or something. Imagine, there are like 12 grown men in their underpants, hiking boots on. And he said occasionally they’d pass proper trekkers, wearing clothes, and lots of them. It was that thing where you had to get really into it to do it—lots of focus and consciousness—but then suddenly you awaken to the real world. 

In your knickers. I wouldn’t have put you down as a cold-water swimmer.

I don’t really do it, but my son loves going to the ponds. I find it a bit cold. But I love it once I’m in and moving, after that first shock. And they’ve got a diving board at Hampstead. My son has just worked out how to do a backflip.

How old is he?

He’s 12. He’s always been a bit daring.

Is he interested in what you do?

I think so. He likes making things. I take him to a woodworking class every Thursday under the Whittington Estate. They run workshops for kids and adults, which is really cool. And occasionally he comes here and does stuff with us. When he was younger, we used to do his birthday parties; one year I made hockey sticks for him and his friends, and they all went off and played. 

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott
Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

I’m jealous. I’d barely stepped foot in a workshop until university—only maybe my grandpas’ sheds.

What did they do?

One was a woodwork teacher, and the other a draftsman and later an artist. Well, art forger. He’d grown up during the ‘50s and was obsessed with America and all its big brands and its pop art. Judd, Warhol, Hirst. Obviously, he couldn’t afford anything like that, so he’d study the work, and because he was technically very good, he’d just make it for himself.

Clever stuff. I feel like there’s a whole world of mostly men that tinkered in sheds. I don’t know if this is a very British thing, the idea of the kind of shit inventor in the shed. Shed culture. These people that either made things or fixed things, in very idiosyncratic ways, that were inventive, ingenious, genius. I’ve always thought it’d be great to see an exhibition of all that.

The hobbyists. Have you heard of Men and Collections by Brian Jenner? It’s a book about guys who have sheds full of things like travel sickness paper bags or garden gnomes or traffic cones. I understand the affinity. And your workshop is obviously packed with objects, but are there any dedicated collections?

I think I’m more of a gatherer. But the thing I’ve got the most of is probably G clamps. I’d just buy odd ones wherever, mostly from Brick Lane market, having lived there so long. I’ve always been interested in tools. And I’ve often talked about them being the epitome of good design, because they’re purely function-led things rather than design things. Nowadays you get different colours and forms and moulded soft-grip handles on things that don’t really need all that. But in their purest form, tools are the best bits of design in the world. Like, undoubtedly.

I actually made a book about tools once. I’d discovered this great photo essay by Walker Evans called ‘Beauties of the Common Tool’ where he photographed eight or so tools, like a small pair of pliers and a screwdriver, and then wrote very poetically about them as a set of forms, not as a designer. The book was a sort of homage to that photo essay, using 84 tools from my workshop.

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott

It’s a very nice book.

There are some other odd books I’ve done that you might like as well. The one with SCP was for an exhibition they did called Bürstenhaus Redecker Müseum, selling brushes from this German brush maker that were really nice, very beautifully crafted. SCP wanted to do a sort of showcase, but rather than just put a load of them out on a table, I proposed that we should set them out as if it was a museum. Then we wrote stories about these brushes—all related to German culture in different ways, and all true.

There was this one brush that had been designed specifically for cleaning around elephants’ ears. It was developed with the keepers at a zoo in Wuppertal and was tested out on a baby elephant there called Tuffi. While researching the brush I’d found this brilliantly bonkers, almost Disney-like story about Tuffi that had been in the newspapers and everything.

Please tell.

Alright. So, the Wuppertal city zoo is at one end of a hanging railway, which runs along the edge of the river, and when one day Tuffi fell ill and needed to get to the vet at the other end of town, they put her on the railway. As the train was going along, this elephant decided to have a little lie down and was so heavy that the whole thing tipped. The doors popped open, and Tuffi rolled out the train and down the riverbank. 

Oh my god.

Anyway, this all happened a few years after the brush was invented. It’s what you’d call a kind of pelmet brush, with a telescopic handle so you could reach up high around the ears.

And Tuffi?

Oh, yeah. She was fine. 

Apartamento Magazine - Michael Marriott
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