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A Conversation with Nigel Coates

1949, Malvern, United Kingdom

Nigel Coates is one of the UK’s most creative thinkers, architects and educators. He is the designer of everything from ground-breaking restaurant and retail interiors (in countries as diverse as Japan and Turkey), to museum extensions in London, and high-end products for grand European marques, all informed by a sensual and organic quality and a fluidity of line. He has written with imagination about what cities could be, and fiercely defends the idea that function and aesthetics can happily co-exist. From 1995 to 2011 Nigel Coates also led the Architecture Department at the Royal College of Art in London, and is now establishing a new model to show that architectural education in Italy, and craftsmanship in Istanbul is vibrant and alive. Nigel feels it exciting that many traditional European practices – in ceramics, textiles and glass – are surviving and progressing so significantly, thanks to Turkish entrepreneurs and artisans.

Believing function and aesthetics are inherently bound together, a sensual, organic fluidity of line is the main way Nigel Coates tries to redefine creativity. His thought process starts with raw ideas, goes on to shape objects and buildings, while inspiring and educating new generations of creative minds.

Although based at the London School of Architecture in East London, Nigel divides his time between the UK and Tuscany, where he has restored a 15th century hilltop house in his own unique style. It is this close relationship with Tuscany, and its grand wines, which has directly informed his first collection for Nude.

Nude: You are first and foremost an architect, but you seem at ease working across multiple scopes of media.
Nigel Coates: I suppose it’s because I’ve always thought of spaces as being fundamentally linked to the things that are in them. It’s that combination that creates our spatial experience. From the very beginning of my career, I wanted to incorporate design with interiors and architecture, which is quite an unusual stance for a British architect.

N: Even before you joined forces with Nude, you had fallen in love with Istanbul as a city. You designed a groundbreaking nightclub there in a derelict textile factory back in 1990 and have returned with subsequent projects since. What’s special about it?

NC: Istanbul is a fascinating city. Like Rome, and London, it has so many forces at work, so many layers. It’s a living metropolis. Unlike London, it’s completely normal to work in many different areas of design. Many of my heroes did the same – the great twentieth century Italians like Gio Ponti, Carlo Mollino and Ettore Sottsass all had an over-arching architectural vision, but were just as happy designing furniture, vases and lamps.

N: You’ve created many beautiful small-scale product over the years, from chandeliers to chairs to vessels. What’s so satisfying about designing a drinking glass, for example?

NC: I’ve always been fascinated by vessel forms, and glasses are miniature vessels. The rotational symmetry of a glass is very pure. The design of a glass depends on the movement captured in a single line that turns three-dimensionally. I know that my designs ’96 97’ have to be original and capture a precise spirit, but they have to summon up archetypes too.

N: Your signature collection for Nude is called ‘Heads Up’. Why?

NC: t began with wine glasses that are sensual and undulating, simple but with personality, like characters in a family. The red wine glass is deliberately on the big side, which comes from my familiarity with the Tuscan wine experience. Brunello and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano wines are always served in large glasses so you can inhale the perfume. The double curve swills the wine perfectly, helping to aerate it. The overall fluidity and heavy stem add sparkle and balance.

N: You’ve since added whisky glasses and bowls to the ‘Heads Up’ range. What’s the key to developing a series of products?

NC: Once you’ve defined the language of a collection, it should be able to expand to a wider spectrum of uses. Each different shape needs to have its own qualities as well. The double curve appears in every piece, because it’s that feature which plays with the light. In the case of the bowls, it means the light becomes concentrated in the centre, and the thick base gives a lift to each of them. They seem to float.

N: Creativity and the expression of a strong, single idea seem paramount to you as a designer. How can you maintain that level of integrity when working on a highly commercial project? Or is the real pleasure in producing something that can be widely appreciated by many consumers?

NC: For me the ideal is to combine both. Heads Up has some precious attributes, but it’s an accessible range too. It makes me very happy to know that people other than me find the pieces useful, or even desirable! All designers hope their work enriches lives, and in that respect I’m no different. It used to be thought that design worked best when it fitted in naturally with purely functional needs. But I think design needs to carry a thread of culture too; in the course of being useful it should also trigger ideas and associations. I believe that design with a hint of story-telling tends to outperform mere functionalism.

N: What was your reaction when you first visited the factory at Denizli a couple of years ago?

NC: I’ve been to many glass factories and studios over the years, but Denizli is the only one I know that has an army of craftsmen. The blowing room is extraordinary in its scale and choreography. At first it seems chaotic, but then as you watch and start to work out the actions of each person, you realise that every individual is part of a team and they work together to a precise formation. It’s almost balletic. N: Can you explain how these particular pieces are made?

NC: With ‘Heads Up’, the bulb is blown into a mould, although steam makes sure the glass never actually touches it. Then the stem is drawn out by hand and the foot shaped with a customised tool. When I was at the factory there were nine skilled workers in the team – it’s an incredible collective effort, right down to the last guy who takes the finished glass to the annealing conveyor.

N: What is so special about glass?

NC: Moulton glass is a sensuous viscous liquid; its essential fluidity is something I try not to lose in the design. Even if we’re producing in large numbers, glass manufacture works best as a hand-making process.

N: Are you interested in the history of the material?

NC: Of course! I have a passion for objects of Roman origin, including glass. I cut my teeth as a designer in glass by commissioning details for various shop interiors. I developed these skills making lamps and vases in Murano.

N: Where do you keep your set of ‘Heads Up’ glasses?

NC: I have one set at home in London and another for entertaining in the studio. I guess I should take some to Tuscany too. They’d certainly get lots of use.

N: Now you’ve spent some time with Nude, how would you describe it as a brand? NC: It’s a premium brand with a strong design sensibility, so I’m proud to be part of it. And it’s interesting to work in a context where there’s no looking back. Nude is very much about the here and now.

Heads Up

BY NIGEL COATES

Heads Up

BY NIGEL COATES

Heads Up

BY NIGEL COATES

Heads Up

BY NIGEL COATES