At first glance, you’d struggle to spot many similarities between Sir Kenneth Grange and Bethan Laura Wood. He’s the classically styled godfather of British modernism, renowned for designing some of the most iconic industrial products of the past 50 years; she’s a vivacious princess of 21st-century pop design, typically seen in multicoloured make-up and clothes that complement her experimental furniture, products and set designs. But one thing the pair do have in common is a fondness for unusual footwear. ‘Kenneth always has really good shoes,’ says Wood, resplendent in a pair of iridescent brogues. Not to be outdone, Grange has dug out a pair of red and yellow boots with padded wings that he bought at the Mr Freedom store on the King’s Road in the 1960s. ‘These are from my flashy dresser years,’ he recalls. ‘For me, dressing up is part of a now-hidden persona.’ Another commonality, which has brought them together at Grange’s Hampstead home for this photoshoot, is the news that they are both among the recipients of this year’s prestigious London Design Medal. Grange is receiving the Johnson Tiles Lifetime Achievement award in recognition of a career spanning more than six decades, while Wood will pick up the Swarovski Emerging Talent Medal.
This morning (20 September) it was revelaed that alongside Wood and Grange, architect David Adjaye has won the Panerai London Design Medal, and Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde the Airbnb Design Innovation Medal, too. Adjaye, Wood and Roosegaarde celebrated their wins at a moderated talk with Wallpaper* Editor-in-Chief Tony Chambers in the same space – Exchange Square, Broadgate – which will showcase the work of the medal winners during the London Design Festival.
Now in its tenth year, the prize celebrates ‘the achievements of designers who are making or who have made a significant difference to our lives through innovation, originality and imagination’, with past winners including Zaha Hadid, Marc Newson and Dieter Rams.
Taking over the highest honour from Edward Barber & Jay Osgerby from last year, architect David Adjaye is being honoured with the Panerai London Design Medal for his distinguished career and consistent design excellence. The Wallpaper* Design Awards 2016 judge and world renowned architect was revered by the judges as 'an inpiration for the younger generation,' citing his soon-to-be-unveiled project in Washington, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as a prime example of the qualities which have earnt him said title. Previous winners of this accolade include Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, Peter Saville and Thomas Heatherwick.
Celebrating entrepreneurship, the Airbnb Design Innovation Medal champions individuals whose buisiness development and success lies in outstanding design. Studio Roosegaarde, the social design lab of Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde, explores the interaction between people, technology and space, most notably with his Smog Free Project, which saw him create the world's largest smog vacuum cleaner and thus this notable prize.
Grange, who was knighted in 2013, says the recognition he received serves as encouragement to others, while Wood claims the medal will help boost her own confidence, and the confidence of potential industrial partners. ‘Of course, there’s an ego-stroking part to it,’ she admits, ‘but I think it helps brands have confidence in the work of young designers when we’re given this approval from within the industry.’
The shoot featured in the October issue of Wallpaper* gave the pair a chance to reminisce about their early encounters at London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), where Grange is a visiting professor and Wood was a student from 2007 to 2009. ‘He has an amazing amount of knowledge and skill to pass on,’ says Wood, who studied on the RCA’s MA Product Design platform under the tutelage of Martino Gamper and Jurgen Bey. ‘When you’re around someone who has had such a long and productive career, you learn a lot from every conversation.’
After graduating, Wood set out on a path that has seen her undertake residencies with London’s Design Museum and W Hotel Mexico City, as well as collaborating with artisanal producers on predominantly limited series or batch-manufactured objects that utilise materials as diverse as wood laminate, hand-blown glass and appliqué upholstery. It’s a contrasting approach to the function-led philosophy espoused by Grange, but one that the young designer confidently claims reflects her personal interests.
‘I feel that I’m very much of my time,’ Wood asserts. ‘The way I’ve been able to approach design comes from a period which is very different to when Kenneth started out. Like lots of creative industries, design changes over time and in response to cultural movements, so even though my focus is not on industrial production, I like to think that I’m contributing something in my own way.’
Grange, meanwhile, continues to work on the sort of products that helped him become one of the most respected and decorated designers of his generation. Most of us have at come into contact with his designs, which include cameras for Kodak, kitchen mixers for Kenwood, razors for Wilkinson Sword and pens for Parker, as well as the UK’s first parking meters, the InterCity 125 high-speed train for British Rail, and the 1997 TX1 taxi.
Looking back on this stellar career and all it has encompassed, Grange feels particularly satisfied with the role he’s performed as an educator. As well as teaching at the RCA, he also mentored youngsters during his time as an employer and manager at his own studio and at Pentagram, the consultancy he co-founded in London in 1972. He tries to keep his key message simple, telling students to identify the area where they feel they can make the biggest contribution to society.
‘There is a huge spectrum of design, spanning from the absolutely useless to the purely functional,’ adds Grange. ‘But I think the approach should be to focus on improving whatever it is you’re entrusted with.’
Another subject of consensus between the two designers is their appreciation of the role the media plays in helping promote awareness of the discipline and its value within modern society. Grange, whose work has featured regularly in Wallpaper* during the past 20 years, quips that it is ‘probably the most respected magazine that includes people like us in it’, but remains disappointed that ‘we haven’t succeeded in getting design to be taken seriously in the popular media’.
Wood’s participation in the Wallpaper* Handmade exhibition, staged at Milan’s Design Week in 2013, enabled her to develop a prototype of the laminate and plywood ‘Play Time’ tables, and she feels the magazine has played a key role in her evolution. ‘I bought Wallpaper* even before I was a student,’ she recalls, ‘so it’s been with me for as long as I’ve been interested in design and has really supported me throughout my career.’
The divergence in the pair’s priorities comes to the fore when they talk about the future. ‘I’m just trying to stay on the twig,’ jokes Grange, who in fact is busy in his role as creative director for lighting brand Anglepoise and is working on a furniture collection, in addition to teaching at the RCA.
Wood, meanwhile, is preparing to install window sets featuring oversized fruits that she designed and built for two of Hermès’ European flagship stores, while working on several projects that will be exhibited during the London Design Festival. Asked about her longer-term ambitions, she pauses before saying, ‘I just hope I can live as long and be as successful at following my own path as Kenneth has been. That’s the dream.’
Also featured in the October 2016 issue of Wallpaper* (W*211)