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Jasper Morrison

Jasper Morrison is known for simple design, which he likes to describe as “super normal.” There was a time, however, when he designed differently, explains Tobias Hoffmann, Director of the Bröhan Museum in Berlin.

Jasper Morrison’s work marks a fundamental turning point in design. Until well into the 1980s, design was closely linked to industrial production. German design in particular was characterized by a functionalism that had become almost sterile. Morrison, one of the most important representatives of a generation that redefined the role of the designer, twice served as an important source of inspiration for German design.

Drawn to West Berlin by its reputation as a crazy subcultural mecca, Morrison came to the city in 1984 as a visiting student at the University of Arts (then the Hochschule der Künste, or HdK). In his hometown of London he’d recently designed the Handlebar Table; a readymade consisting of a wood block, two bicycle handlebars, and a glass panel. Morrison could easily assemble this small side table by himself—and thereby pursue a vision of furniture creation beyond industrial production.

Prototypes and products designed by Jasper Morrison
© Kevin Davies

At the HdK, he met the German architect and designer Andreas Brandolini. Together, they conceived the student project Kaufhaus des Ostens (Department Store of the East), which was exhibited in Berlin, Hamburg, and Munich, and for which Morrison designed two lamps. Morrison’s idea for the Handlebar Table—to design a new product from other semi-finished products, then to build and even market it himself—stimulated a young generation of German designers. Inspired, they cast off the constraints of the functionalism established by the Bauhaus and Ulm School of Design and set out to reboot design. Also influenced by Italian design groups Memphis and Alchimia, this New German Design ran riot during the 1980s, producing imaginative, colorful, and sometimes jarring pieces.

Morrison’s work marks a fundamental turning point in design.

In 1988, Morrison came to Berlin a second time, spending half a year in the city on a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Again, he brought with him ideas that would irrevocably influence the development of German design. The exhibition he conceived for the DAAD gallery, Some New Items for the Home, rocked the German design world in particular. The spatial installation was free of everything flashy, loud, narrative- metaphoric, or even colorful. Shapes, colors, and even titles were subdued— the designs on display were just “some items.”

Sketches for Some New Items for the Home from Morrison's archive
© Kevin Davies

Morrison saw the installation as a response to the Memphis movement, which he reproached for having forgotten all functional aspects of daily life—a reproach, of course, which held all the more true for New German Design. His designs were now meant to be “100 percent practical, atmospheric as a result of function and full of real life.” In Germany, he found two kindred spirits in Axel Kufus and Andreas Brandolini; together, they ran the project office Utilism International from 1989 to 1993, developing a new functionalism that made not the formal language, but certainly the concepts of 1980s design relevant for the new design.

Morrison categorically rejects form for form’s sake.

The Plywood Chair from Some New Items for the Home became an icon of the New Simplicity of the 1990s precisely because of its minimalist form. And yet it is often claimed that form plays a subordinate role in Morrison’s designs. Indeed, Morrison categorically rejects form for form’s sake as a gimmicky dalliance—which some of the Memphis and new German designs in fact were. Form for him is the logical consequence of function. Morrison derives his forms differently than did worshippers of the “form follows function” dictate before the 1980s. This new functionalism proceeds from a reimagined definition of function that takes into account the historical references of an object and prioritizes manufacturing and material justice in the design. Each object is based on an individual development story, which itself is based on an analysis of an object’s long formal history. The form is the logical consequence of the analysis process.

The form of the food and mouth thus determines the form of the cutlery.

This can be very nicely seen in the cutlery that Morrison designed for Muji, particularly when one compares it to Peter Raacke’s mono-a, a functionalist tableware icon. Raacke’s cutlery was driven by the unconditional will to be as minimalist as possible. It derives its beauty and elegance from geometric linearity little concerned with actual everyday use. And yet in its equalization of functionalism and minimalism, mono-a comes off somewhat mannered. Form for form’s sake precludes an analysis of the function.

Studio by Jasper Morrison
© Nicola Tree

Morrison, for his part, closely considered the act of eating. His cutlery’s form is fluid, as though all of a piece. He designed gentle transitions from handles to blades and prongs. These contours’ softness corresponds well to the softness of the lips and oral cavity. Even the fork’s prongs, though relatively long, are not aggressive or spiked. And the knife, which in its basic function can also always operate as a weapon, loses its danger. Its blade lacks a tip, and its cutting surface is a curved arc. This knife is meant only for cutting, not stabbing.

Eating, as Morrison seems to interpret it, is the last step in processing soft, organically shaped matter, which cutlery brings to the soft, organically shaped mouth. The form of the food and mouth thus determines the form of the cutlery. Morrison does not strive for minimalism. But because his analysis of function leads to the simplest functional form, his designs become minimalist on their own—they seek to be nothing more than optimally functioning objects. As his cutlery makes clear, Morrison meticulously and assiduously redesigns the everyday, giving it a logically substantiated and therefore functional form that he himself refers to as “super normal.”

In Jasper Morrison's Studio: a shelf by Dieter Rams
© Kevin Davies

For Morrison, then, a collaboration with the Japanese department store chain Muji was only logical. For years, he’s maintained an office in Japan in addition to one in London, and certainly the traditionally reduced aesthetic of Japanese design has been and remains a source of inspiration. Morrison’s understanding of design and Muji’s corporate philosophy are truly kindred philosophies. Mujirushi Ryōhin—or Muji for short—can be translated basically as “no brand, good products.” Under the direction of Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa, Muji objects are carefully selected. They must be cheap to produce, take an environmentally friendly approach, appear self-evident in their design, fulfil a need, and avoid the superfluous. In creating such products, Muji pursues a no-brand strategy. Although it has collaborated with internationally renowned designers since 2003, its products are stamped with neither a designer’s trademark nor the company logo. Muji customers don’t buy designer items, they buy objects by Muji, which fundamentally stand for good design. Morrison’s concept of the “super normal” is part and parcel of the company philosophy.

Jasper Morrison was born in 1959 in the UK. He studied in London at the Kingston Polytechnic Design School and Royal College of Art and in Berlin at the Hochschule der Künste (University of the Arts). He opened his first studio in London in 1986; today he also has offices in Paris and Tokyo and a design shop for selected everyday products based at his London branch. Morrison has worked for clients including Alessi, Cappellini, Muji, Rosenthal, Rowenta, and Vitra. He is considered a representative of the New Simplicity in design.
Tobias Hoffmann is director of the Bröhan Museum, the Berlin State Museum for Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and functionalism. Before taking up this post, he ran the Museum für Konkrete Kunst (Museum of Concrete Art) in Ingolstadt. Born in 1970, Hoffmann is an art historian operating at the intersections of art and design; past and present. As a curator, he showed objects by British designer Jasper Morrison as part of his 2014/2015 exhibition, Schrill Bizarr Brachial. Das Neue Deutsche Design der 80er Jahre (Fancy Bizarre Brute. New German Design of the 1980s).