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|These walls have gears|
Published in I.D. magazine, May 2004.
Resorting to neither Disney-cute tricks nor mind-blowing technology, Kitchen Rogers Design makes interiors come alive.
Too often, new technologies in interior design involve appliances manipulated by remote control to create an intelligent space, or the gimmickry of a virtual butler serving a hotel suite. In fact, low technology often provides more pleasure. At least, the founders of Kitchen Rogers Design believe so. A young interior design practice in London that specializes in offices, stores, and galleries, KRD plays with relatively primitive technologies, such as kinetics, in refreshing ways. To commercial sectors that have seen a million gimmicks come and go, the firm brings a quality of intelligent aliveness. Its work seems natural, rather than wacky or over-elaborate, and yet it is subtly breaking ground.
KRD is hard to categorize, so perhaps the best introduction lies in describing what the firm is not. It is not Rem Koolhaas's OMA studio. Its principals, Shona Kitchen and Ab Rogers, do not yearn to enhance the disarming process of buying clothes at Prada with mirrors that offer 360-degree views for checking fit or the lack of it. Nor do they use technology strategically to close deals, render the body virtual, or overwhelm consumers with information. Their aim simply is to engage. "We use technology as a layer within the existing infrastructure, amplifying the emotions of the space," says Kitchen. "We want to deal with reality but bring some fantasy back to it."
Kitchen, an interactive architect, and Rogers, a furniture designer (and a son of the architect Richard Rogers) joined forces six years ago when they opened the studio. Their week is segmented: they work together at Rogers' studio in Wimbledon, West London, from Monday to Thursday, while the rest of the time teaching, developing personal projects (Kitchen is based in Clerkenwell in the east) and getting ready to start the cycle again the following week and this pattern clearly keeps them fresh. Days apart present no handicap as their collaboration is frenetic as they go about designing the recent 'Brilliant' lighting exhibition for the Victoria & Albert Museum, completing a project for the Science Museum's Energy Gallery opening in July, and developing numerous other cultural and retail schemes in the UK and abroad. This diversity of commissions, on top of their aesthetic inclinations means "...simplicity and honest solutions. We are not minimal, nor are we high-tech", says Rogers, whose children frequently play in his open-plan studio while he is working. No incongruity here: child-like pleasure in space is vital for KRD, for designer and user alike.
One big distinction between KRD and an architect like Ron Arad, who designs interactive houses, is that KRD conceals the technology. "It's not overdesigned but integrated and well engineered so it doesn't become frivolous" explains Kitchen. Their playful ambient intelligence confronts the visitor with functional forms like automatic drawers or mobile ceiling and walls fitted with low-tech devices. A bank of filing cabinets with automated drawers for a trade stand for Bisley office furniture had 36 pneumatic pistons programmed in three contrasting speed groups. They magically glided in and out over an eight minute cycle conjuring up the feel of a self-propelled office. The elusive spirit kinetic elements bring to a space also comes without a vast investment. Responsive Space, an installation designed as part of the Design Machine exhibition at the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow in 1999, was a room 10 feet square and 13 feet high lined in brushed stainless steel. The ceiling responded to individual movements within the room by moving up and down by 6 feet and tilting from side to side. The trick: sensor pads beneath the floor triggering hidden motors and pulleys. Light integrated into this mobile ceiling amplified even the merest hint of movement by visitors never mind the more noisy ones. Most people found they couldn't help laughing at the pleasing disorientation of the design.
Such artfulness was one factor prompting Comme des Garçons' owner, cult designer Rei Kawakubo, to ask KRD to design a new flagship store on rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré in Paris. Completed in 2001, the shop was not only the turning point of KRD's career, but it also helped Comme des Garçons redefine fashion merchandising in ways that continue to influence couturiers around the world.
Walls of Ferrari-red fiberglass, sleek and slightly reflective, curve smoothly into the red painted aluminium ceilings of a linear space more than 50 yards long and 3 yards wide. Triggered by footfalls, automatic doors slide back, revealing a long interior paved in rough concrete subtly suggestive of cloisters. Facing the main entrance a second room like a small temple is fitted out in the same red materials but empty except for slowly oscillating red fiberglass benches. They mostly conceal just one type of motor within the projects, from a manufacturer of conveyer belts, very simple and durable, so they can focus on one type of movement. "Instead of the design simply animating the shop, the shop helps animate you. Shoppers want to move with the technology: it takes the edge off exclusive shopping", says Kitchen.
"With each project we try and take a new approach", Rogers points out. Once in a while, they create an entire kinetic scenography. A much more wacky kind of mechanized display featured in their scheme for the extroverted street-fashion store Top Shop at Oxford Circus, London's busiest shopping avenue. Fifty yards of storefront window were filled with animated fashion accessories. Handbags opened and shut, belts moved around like snakes, shoes walked, jackets breathed, as if about to break free. No more sophisticated than the technology one finds in a high-school science fair, 200 tiny motors worked 24 hours a day to entertain the public with this novel performance.
Deutsche Börse, the German stock exchange, also got in on the act. Their KRD-designed stand for the Futures and Derivates exhibition in London combined enigmatic surfaces and robotics to seduce the bored business visitor. A robot took the visitor's business card and positioned it in front of a camera, which then relayed the image to a monitor. KRD give its surreal, enveloping interactive environment looming structures in polycarbonate that hold animated texts and hardware for visitors to play with. "Being transparent and bullet proof it serves as a metaphor for the world of banking: invisible, intangible, yet indestructible," Kitchen explains.
The gee-whiz factor is frequently built into trade stands with a life of maybe only three days. KRD's creative harnessing of kinetics in store design clearly has the potential to enrich a brand's identity but also offer a refreshing sense of place. Like trade fairs, retail design has its own fast-track dynamic, but shop interiors are still designed to last for at least a handful of seasons, and KRD its careful to integrate its designs into the life and function of the store. "We make people evaluate something they would normally take for granted. We see a possibility and then we fabricate the technology to realize it", adds Rogers.
The designers remain wary of pushing the concept of entertainment in retail too far. The experience is what matters most, which raises the question of what exactly the design is manufacturing. "We aim to provide layers of intelligence," he underlines, an approach not far removed from some of Diller & Scofidio's installations. The difference is that KRD are successfully experimental in predominantly commercial contexts.
The firm's new store on London's King's Road designed for optician Michel Guillon on two floors features a blue wall 15 yards long, elements of which at the slightest touch push forward the spectacles on display, and retract with an almost animal-like movement. Downstairs the mundanity of eye testing is enlivened by blue consultancy cubicles. Only once you are sitting inside does the entire structure expand to complete the cube. Feeling protected, you see all the optical equipment sited on a rotating table in the middle, nothing on the edge of the room. KRD masterfully balance the edginess of what Kitchen calls 'a fairground experience' with the sense of being protected inside a flower. Abstract films screened on the walls "...play along between art film and clips showing microcopic physical imagery. It's ambient information; it's not banal", she adds. People love the space. "You can't separate the objects and the movement, they're integral," says Kitchen. It took a lot of persuading to bring Guillon, who originally thought beige might be a good color for his new store, around to these ideas. He was "moving from a standard shop to something with technology. They did want to make the jump". Convinced by the deftness of KRD's integration of form and technology which gives the space another layer you can't copy, he's now keen to patent the display systems.
KRD also designs furniture as products of social commentary. The RAT (Rogue Ambience Table) prototype sponsored by IDEM, a furniture company previously part of the Hille group, exploits the theme of how we use technology as a screen to manage our lifestyles and public image. Designed in 2001 in collaboration with Dominic Robson, a regular KRD collaborator, the system includes a telephone and a selection of sound cubes. By positioning a particular cube to emit the background sound of their choice (driving in a fast car, club music, birds chirruping), users can give callers the impression that they are somewhere more exotic than the office.
The cheeky acronym RAT signifies the power to deceive and be undercover in other places. With the coming of video mobile phones that will hamper this form of fiction, KRD's design, which has so far only received enquiries from galleries, offers a counterstatement. Indeed, the firm's other notable successes testify to the partners' conviction, as Rogers attests, that "...powerful design that pushes all the boundaries and makes something personal can be commercial."
© 2018 Lucy Bullivant
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