observations

‘And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.’

Roald Dahl

Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover, 15 May 1941 © Conde Nast, Horst Estate

Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover, 15 May 1941 © Conde Nast, Horst Estate

27.07.2021

Travel

Earlier this month we took a vacation. We filled out the numerous government apps and forms and took our covid tests and flew out to another land. It had been eighteen months since I last left the UK. Before the global health crisis, typically I flew at least once a month. Mainly for work. But like so many, the pandemic has paralysed all movement. Usually one to pack the night before, I retrieved my compact suitcase from the loft a week before departure. I was beyond excited. And a little nervous. Travel and I had become strangers.

What a thrill to taxi across to Heathrow. My heart raced as we entered the terminal, passed security and boarded the plane. Up in the air, despite wearing masks, we almost forgot covid and the chaos and misery it has brought to the world. Flying through fluffy clouds and over mountains and water signified freedom from the worries of these past eighteen months.

On arrival in Spain, we were taken aback a little when the neglected passports experienced European travel post-Brexit. I shed a tear as we were ushered, like naughty kids, to a UK only line to have the passes stamped. The pinch vanished though as soon as we stepped outside the airport. To be on another land and hear the whispers of another language. The smells and sounds of another place. Pure joy.

Diving into the clear blue Mediterranean on arrival, I thought of all those months of experiencing art and design and people online. On a soulless screen. And I thought of how funny we are as humans. All this talk of a changed world and the fear of not being able to reconnect in the physical sphere. If anything, people seemed more social, more polite and full of gratitude. Every moment on the little island was a cherished moment. Every meal, the most unforgettable. Every swim…

Don’t get me wrong. I strongly believe the pandemic has presented a prime opportunity to redefine and rethink who we are. Instigate a little reset for humanity. This world can be a better place for all. Our societies can be hugely fairer. We can build more equitable cities. Provide decent health for everyone. Rethink education, offering the same standard so all children can have an equal start in life. It makes logical sense. And we need to be much much much kinder to our fragile planet. Reconsider our human-centric ways and see our interconnectivity to other species, living and non-living.

What this doesn’t mean though is a soulless world governed by AI and machine learning, Zoom classes and Skype meetings, online galleries and, the scariest of it all, virtual travel. One thing that has become clear from the experience of these eighteen months is that to be human, to be alive, is to have human connections, to explore and meet new people and have experiences in the physical world. And to travel.

A snapshot taken by polaroid as the sun sets in Formentera

30.06.2021

Spiritual luxury

Last week I joined a group discussion on the future of luxury. This is a theme that keeps coming up in meetings and with the clients I work with outside my role as a journalist. And I can see why. We are pretty much at the crossroads of change, with the pandemic acting a little like a punctuation point in history, allowing some of us time to reflect and rethink what had become normal and accepted simply because in the rush of life, few questioned its authenticity. Why, for instance, has luxury been caged and confined within a tightrope of clichés? Surely, it can be brave and bold enough to break free of the narrow confines of price, value and status.

I’m not so much interested in the physical luxury of stuff, but more so in unwrapping the spiritual concept of luxury, the poetic element, all those other parts that may not directly be linked with the concept but will come to define it ever more as we navigate the future. I’m talking about time, knowledge, intellect, ideas, art, craft, skills, history, love, passion, stories, poetry and a whole world of more elusive elements that make luxury special – not exclusive or expensive, but extraordinary.

Then, of course, luxury is rooted in context. During the deepest darkest pandemic hours, amid lockdown with no vaccination in sight, luxury became the sound of birds singing, trees blossoming, neighbours clapping in unison in support of health workers. Luxury was discovering that unnoticed path in the local park, a coffee lovingly prepared by the local barista, happening upon a new piece of music or a podcast to open up a world. With lockdown lifted, the height of luxury has become sharing a meal with family and close friends, hugging them, seeing live art, planning trips to other lands.

This got me thinking about the Rolls-Royce Boat Tail. The hand-built, one-of-a-kind motor car is a new private commission estimated to have cost over £20 million. On the one hand, it epitomises old-school luxury, the kind money can buy, the luxury of status that is exclusive and rare. But what makes the Boat Tail special isn’t the price tag – that’s just a number. Rather, it is the unique knowledge and artistry and imagination that went into creating it. And the Boat Tail’s perceived value is tied intimately with Rolls-Royce’s evocative narrative and its rich history. This is where luxury becomes storytelling. And this is where it gets exciting.

Layers of experience passed on from generations of winemakers, the uniqueness of the terroir, what happened in the year of harvest – this represents the height of luxury. Or it could be more ephemeral – that visceral feeling, that sense of wonder when you experience a new wine, or taste a unique dish, have an unforgettable chance encounter. Luxury is about the unexpected pleasures. Thomas Girst, head of global cultural engagement at BMW Group, told me he sees it as ‘the time for meaningful experiences, exchanges and actions that have the power to shape and define who we are’. And I couldn’t agree more.

What this means in terms of branding and design is to involve as many specialities and characters as possible in creative processes. It means mixing up sciences and arts and engineering and academia, proactively seeking different voices – be it gender, class, race, nationality, age. This is already happening to some degree across many businesses and educational establishments. And it can only prove to be a positive thing. It will help paint a more colourful, a more textured and richer world of luxury.

Viewing luxury as something far beyond the physical object opens a vast ocean of possibilities. We have the tools to make new forms of luxury a reality by harnessing the positive power of technology. And I’d like to hope the pandemic has opened our eyes to values that are fair that can be found in luxury. To my mind, the future of luxury will be more and more about shared beliefs – artistic, environmental, societal. It will involve intuitive and tailored experiences gathered around principles of imagination, expression and freedom. And it need not be reserved for a select few. What Covid and the climate crisis have plainly shown is the ephemerality of our human existence. Spiritual luxury, by definition, is democratic. It is inclusive and inviting and free and poetic and full of wonder.

24.03.2021

Change

A while ago a friend wrote to say she felt the world is binary. Her response was to a comment I’d made as to the potential for radical change at the time of existential crisis. She alluded to the idea that although she admires my enthusiasm, direct engagement is ultimately pointless since governments and systems and people are naturally polarised. I did not respond.

But I have been mulling over this comment since. To imagine a world where change is impossible, a static life narrative of birth, school, work, kids, savings, retirement, death – all in defined and confined swim-lanes – seems absolutely absurd. And equally depressing. This mindset suggests a rigid linearity to life where any independent thought and movement is impossible. Worse, discouraged. Growing up in the Middle East, I would often hear elders warn of the futility of getting involved in politics since what is here ‘is meant to be’ – as though our destiny is written in the stars. Yet nothing in nature is binary, including human behaviour. Even space and time are relative.

If change is indeed fantasy, then we would not have evolved as humans. We simply would not have invented anything. Civil society would not be. Science and technology would not have advanced. Arts and ideas and culture would never have existed in this binary world. History is made by little and large struggles. All change – the vote, healthcare, pensions, trade unions – have been a consequence of struggle. People’s struggle. Even failed revolutions lead to progress and change. Threats of revolutions led to the birth of the welfare state.

The explosion of art and architecture and ideas in the Renaissance were born of social change. Creativity in arts and science and technology require lateral thinking, they rely on conceptual ideas and benefit from cross fertilisation of disciplines and belief systems. Stagnant societies do not create. They are dead societies.

My friend’s message has got me thinking about each and every one of our responsibilities within the story of life. This great narrative of humans (and all other species, the ones we see and the ones we can’t) on this planet. It is easy to blame human nature for the evils and ills of history, or pray to some other force for solace. But this is passive consumption.

Being active need not mean dictating outcomes, but rather be open and excited and be engaged. And this is where the fun starts. Everything, from using design to question our relationship with the physical world around (ref: Neri Oxman), figuring out how to measure change and what tools we can use to define which change is positive or negative (ref: Bjarke Ingels), or viewing mindfulness as an active rather than passive practice (ref: Jack Kornfield).

A static world is a dead world. It is made of only dead souls, skeletons of life, to be drowned by nature or another dynamic society (ref: my father). Change is constant. History is change. Change is what makes us alive. It is what makes us human. And change is always directed. Therein lies the beauty in life. Of being human in this great ever-evolving and beautiful and engaging and magical world.

Some thoughts from a rational optimist…

20.03.2021

Future car design: radical or evolutionary?

I’ve been speaking with a number of senior creatives in the car world lately. My interest is in understanding how various brands are navigating their way to the new electric and autonomous age of the automobile. Like many, I am hugely excited to see a genuine shift in attitude, even among the more conservative makers. And I’m eager to see how designers are responding to change – if they are willing to radically rethink car design.

In the last few months alone, most of the major makers have set out their net zero plans, and we are now beginning to see and drive products designed and engineered purely for electric drive. What has become clear though is that this first wave of clean(er) powered transport are not revolutionary in design. The radical approach I was hoping for may happen along the journey once makers and users ease into electric drive.

That said, my fear is that collectively car companies will become too comfortable in this interim phase – that they will see enough profit not to push for real change. Yet, electric drive offers a golden opportunity for the design community to lead the way in expressing a whole new form of transport – possibly find a new form language that can explore the car’s larger societal responsibilities. Surely there is so much excitement in this.

Happy Spring and happy Nowruz – to a new day and all its possibilities.

Read what some of the main car designers are saying: Maserati head of design Klaus Busse, Polestar’s Thomas Ingenlath, Volvo’s head of design Robin Page, maverick car designer Chris Bangle, BMW Group vice president of design Adrian van Hooydonk, Daimler’s creative boss Gordon Wagener and VW Group’s design director Klaus Bischoff.

14.01.2021

What design can do

‘I’m interested in the humanity of architecture,’ says David Adjaye. Speaking with the artist Yinka Shonibare on the BBC Radio 4 podcast Only Artists, the acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect talks passionately about the pivotal role of his profession in nation building. His is a belief in using visionary ideas and artistic sensitivity towards conceiving progressive, community-building projects.

Adjaye is one of our most exciting contemporary architects. His skilful use of space, of working with inexpensive and inventive materials, are best symbolised in buildings such as the Stephen Lawrence Centre here in London and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC – a work rooted in the past and present while contextualising history.

When I met Adjaye a couple of years ago, he spoke passionately of the importance of design thinking, especially in today’s more complex creative landscape. I asked him if on a similar vein he sees his role as an architect evolving to be more than creating buildings.

He replied: ‘Design can play a key role in helping people navigate an increasingly complicated world. It shouldn’t just be about making things but understanding the responsibility of the product. Products have implications and it is up to design thinking to tackle that. Democratisation through technology means that we need new tools to understand how to function in this new society. The codes of the twentieth century are no longer relevant, and designers need to be part of this dialogue.’

Take a look at the review of a new book, David Adjaye – Works 1995-2007, which explores the work of the architect here.

01.01.2021

A pandemic year in design

Covid may have accelerated life into the future, but much of what we are witnessing was already in progress. The pandemic has just fast-tracked the speed of change, intensifying debates around these overwhelming existential issues, much of which has found a visceral voice in Black Lives Matter. And in the way of other monumental episodes in history, it has offered a chance to deconstruct our world as we know it – or knew it – and to reimagine new possibilities.

So, what has been my top takes from reporting in the time of the coronavirus? A large chunk of my writing since March has been devoted to navigating design in the future. What will our transport landscape look and feel like? How will we live more efficiently in our sprawling cities? What does progressive luxury look like? How can we use design and innovation to cut waste?

I’ve been speaking with car designer, industrial designers, architects and town planners, with technology experts and gaming innovators, with fashion designers, filmmakers, artists and even chefs. It has been exhaustive, and I’ve had to learn about new industries, new technologies for a hugely exciting and challenging journey of discovery.

Looking back, what I learnt most in the last nine months is that we have a collective responsibility to engage with the world and to make change happen. Change is possible, it can lead to a far more productive and fairer and safer and cleaner world, but it requires active involvement.

To 2021.

In the meantime, take a look at the highlights of the year here

13.11.2020

Learning from imperfections

Wabi-sabi is an interesting philosophy which feels deeply connected to our times. Essentially, it follows the belief in the beauty within imperfection – the pleasure in the process of making, and the sensuous joy in small things. Originating from old Japan, wabi-sabi asks us to see the allure in the incomplete object, in the worn and weathered – in products with a storied past. It is about connecting the maker to the material and the process.

Now, a growing movement is championing wabi-sabi, and it is being largely led by generations, including mine, fatigued with the fetishization of busyness, and the cult of perfection. Many of us are increasingly alienated from this wasteful, throwaway culture and from a world that puts such high value on money, ego or fame – or worse, a combination of all three. The pandemic, though not the cause for this tidal change, has certainly progressed the mood.

Adrian van Hooydonk is one of the most powerful designers in the car world who essentially looks after the creative directions of the entire BMW Group portfolio which includes Rolls-Royce and Mini. Interestingly, he is also seeing a shift in attitude. He told me earlier this week how the pandemic will naturally impact on the way we consume – a surprisingly candid admission from someone involved with such a global car company.

‘People will make more deliberate choices – choose products that are authentic and meaningful to them in a personal way,’ he explained. ‘In the 1980s, people bought products on the basis of how it made them look, what did it say to their neighbours. Now, we are more likely to buy items on the basis of what it can do for me and my loved ones – how can it change our lives for the better. The trend was already here, but the pandemic has definitely sped it up.’ How this will impact on cars, how they are designed and marketed will be interesting to observe.

But going back to the wabi-sabians of today, these new mavericks and maker are echoing the Arts and Crafts movement that came before them. Moved by the literature and music of the Romantics, John Ruskin and William Morris and their comrades fought tirelessly to salvage the art of making as a reaction to mass industrialisation and high mechanisation almost two centuries ago. They understood the relation between art, society and labour, and knew that placing value on the joy of craft, connecting the craftsperson directly to their product, and rejoicing in the natural beauty in materials – were all instrumental in forming happier, healthier lives.

As we head deep into the machine age, begin to see the horrid effects of globalisation and the displacement and disappearance of communities, and try to salvage a climate in crisis, echoes of the Arts and Crafts continue to shine some light on life.

This week I also spoke to another designer, James Otter, who carves out surfboards from sustainable timber. Not surprisingly he is a deep advocate of making and, like most in the new movement, is concerned about the planet. ‘As someone who designs and makes things for a living, for me it is so apparent that every decision I make along a product’s journey has an environmental impact,’ he says, ‘and if we want to continue to make things – and survive on this wonderful planet – we need to put the environment first, always.’ He then offered some great tips on the art of craft and how to get started.

Take a closer look here and get making!

24.10.2020

Art and money

There is no secret in that art and money have long shared a seductive rapport. Yet supporting the creative industries today – largely left out of government assistant schemes and paralysed by the pandemic – is hugely critical. The Covid crisis, and the global economic downfall which is more than likely to follow, is already having a devastating impact on the arts and we should all do our part to help.

For my very minor part, I’ve kept my membership to galleries and cultural hubs running despite the lack of live art, and support the Art Fund. I also continue to subscribe to certain magazines and journals – as real journalism will not survive unless people are willing to pay for words. My own community of writers and publishers have no future unless the public – which sadly includes many of my own acquaintances – actually pay for what they read. After all, we don’t order a three-course meal at a restaurant but settle the bill for just the starter. That would seem utterly absurd. Yet this is essentially what many do when using the free teaser articles offered by publications online.

Last Sunday I visited Frieze Art London’s sculpture gallery in the open-air setting of Regent’s Park. With pandemic social restrictions firmly in place, it happens to be one of the sole live art events available without pre-booking or a safety mask. Wandering through Gavin Turk’s ‘L’Âge d’Or’ (2019) door sculpture and entering a surrealist world not too dissimilar to those painted by René Magritte (and ever so perfectly fitting for our time), then physically experiencing the remaining artwork, I walked away elevated – filled with the wonders of life.

If life’s luxuries involve these precious experiences, these moments and associations, then surely keeping the arts alive should be on top of all businesses’ list – every individual’s list. ‘To commission artists during a pandemic is an act of determination and faith in the power of culture to inform and transform our lives,’ says the Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös.

His company is heavily invested in the arts via the ‘Muse’ project which includes the biannual Dream Commission, aimed at emerging and mid-career artists who demonstrate innovation in the field of moving image art.

As the name suggests, participants are asked to investigate their dreams as a way of finding an alternative sensory universe – perhaps take us on journeys into the world of the subconscious. Their work needs to be impactful, immersive – possibly even participatory.

The shortlist for the inaugural 2021 competition are making hugely relevant artwork that touches on concepts of race and colour and identity, and our relation to technology – brave topics to be taken on by a company like Rolls-Royce.

The artists were independently selected by an international jury to include Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine Galleries artistic director, as well as Theodora Vischer senior curator at Fondation Beyeler in Basel and filmmaker Isaac Julien.

Obrist told me: ‘More than ever, we should be listening to artists. It is often they who have the most important and prescient ideas about how one can act in times of crisis.’

He says of the Dream Commission: ‘It acts as a laboratory for artists, and what has become evident is that this next generation is thinking about mixed reality, and quite radically liberating moving image away from defining characteristics such as its loop – so works become instead infinite, sprawling and organic.’

The reality is that many of these works would not see the light of day without the patronage of business. Cultural philanthropy and associating with the arts also does wonders for a brand like Rolls-Royce which resides in the upper ladders of luxury – in a place and space where wealth isn’t so much about accumulating luxury goods but having a passion or at least being surrounded by those who do.

The arts help us make sense of the world. Or to quote the actor and writer Stephen Fry: ‘The secret of life can be found in books and art’.

Take a look at the work of the four shortlisted artists in the Rolls-Royce 2021 Dream Commission here, and see my interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist here

13.10.2020

In Isabel Allende’s words

‘Since our daughter Paula died 27 years ago, I have lost my fear of death forever. First, because I saw her die in my arms, and I realised that death is like birth, it’s a transition, a threshold, and I lost my personal fear. At this moment if I catch the virus, I belong to the group of the most vulnerable. I’m 77 years old, and I know that if I catch the virus, I could die; this possibility at this point in my life is very clear, but I look at it with curiosity and without fear.

It has never been so clear to me that I need very little to live. I don’t need to buy, I don’t need more clothes, I don’t need to go anywhere, or travel, now I see I have too much. I don’t need more than two dishes! Then I started to realise who the true friends are and the people I want to be with.

What has the pandemic taught us? It is teaching us priorities and it is showing us a reality. The reality of inequality. How some people spend the pandemic on a yacht in the Caribbean, and other people are starving.

We’re all connected, and that’s really evidence of the tribal idea that we’re separated by groups and that we can defend our small group from other groups is an illusion. There are no walls, or walls that can separate people. The virus has brought a new mindset and today a large number of people, among them: creators, artists, scientists, young men and women, are moving towards a new normal. They don’t want to go back to old normality.

The virus invited us to design a new future. What do we dream for ourselves as global humanity? I realised we came into the world to lose everything. First, you lose your parents or very sweet people, your pets, some places and then slowly your own mental and physical faculties. You cannot live in fear, because it makes you imagine what has not happened yet and you suffer twice as much. You have to relax a bit, try to enjoy what you have and live in the present.’

Chilean author Isabel Allende, 2020

25.09.2020

Learning to listen

I little while I ago I posted an observational piece on the lack of diversity in the automotive sphere. I’ve since updated the piece to reflect the responses I received following the original article. Much of what I claim here is from personal experience and first-hand knowledge. It is not imagined and the evidence pretty much speaks for itself.

Within minutes of posting the original post on social media, messages appeared in public and in private. One I blocked for it was blatantly fascistic, and some I ignored – including one guy who couldn’t understand the fuss since design studios are meant to be ‘fun places to work’, while another white male unimaginatively wrote ‘all lives matter’. Yet largely they were positive and adult discussions from the design community echoing my observations, and with some added tragicomedies which will have to make it into a fictional piece one day.

I am happy to hear some of my colleagues in car design take such issues seriously. Some, I now know, have created departments dedicated to working towards fairer and more equal environments. I hope they too will continue to listen to other voices and experiences – including mine. Prejudice may not exist in their studios, in their direct view, yet this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

I did eventually take the post down following some blatant online bullying by one senior member of the supposedly more progressive car design community – done through cutesy wink-smile emojis, of course. I don’t engage so much on social media and his act was too manipulative for me to bother battling against. Ironically it reminded me of some of the dealings I had with the men in my first job. I do, however, use his name on occasion as an ‘ism’ to explain away this type of seemingly blind-to-their-privileges characteristic (insert a wink-smile emoji here for my passive win).

But on the whole, the post created a genuinely engaging conversation, and much of what I’ve learned will naturally feed into my future writing. One reader noted that the car industry, on the whole, has long refrained from talking politics, that they see themselves as separate to these bigger discussions. I thought this is an interesting point.

If this were true of a sector which, up until now, has largely been involved in building personal motor cars, surely the next stage of transport, an altogether much more complex web, requires a deeper connection to politics and society? These are some thoughts that I hope will lead to more exciting discussions and positive change.

Take a closer look here

26.05.2020

Corporate citizenship

As head of BMW’s cultural engagement, Thomas Girst is deeply passionate about arts and ideas. He involves the company in some really interesting projects which not only help these artists and institutions – many of whom rely entirely on corporate sponsorship – but the partnerships also subtly boost BMW’s brand image externally and internally.

Of course, there’s always been a mutually seductive rapport between art and money – and BMW isn’t alone even among car companies to tap into the art world. Yet, not all sponsorships and patronages feel genuine. Some are so off the rail you do wonder who signed the cheque.

Girst’s work, though, is different. His choices are relevant to the brand and are topical. They can also be daring – be it exploring the virtual real, the seducing powers of technology, or the plight of the refugee. The latest partnership looks at the climate crisis with Leelee Chan, the winner of the BMW Art Journey with Art Basel, examining how ancient materials and their future substitutes from the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology inform our debate around ecological and cultural sustainability.

I spoke with Girst following the Art Journey announcement to see where he feels the art world is heading. And he spoke passionately about the vital need for corporations to sponsor and support the arts in the post-pandemic world. He also offered some valuable tips as to how businesses can best get involved with the creative world.

Take a closer look here

17.05.2020

Designer perspectives

I’ve been using the extra time gained for lack of travel to get in contact with designers and innovators from cars to yachts and aircrafts – from computational designers to industrial designers, young creatives and visionaries rethinking our cities.

The discussions have largely been very interesting – together painting a picture of what the world may look and feel like – or at least the possibilities of societal change post-pandemic.

On the luxury front, Alex Innes head of Rolls-Royce Coachbuild Design spoke of an era of post-opulence – an age where timeless objects will gain more value, and customers will form deeper relations with luxury brands.

While Dickie Bannenberg of yacht design studio Bannenberg & Rowell spoke of a period he predicts to be highlighted by post-hedonism, when yachts return to their original concept of taking us as close as possible (without owning an island) to the sea.

Read more here