Ab Rogers Design is a multi-disciplinary practice which strives to work beyond conventional solutions. His design is notable for its powerful use of colour, interactivity with the user, and a strong sensuality. Ab has worked on a multitude of projects whether it be Topshop, Joseph or even Little Chef. He's also worked in education, with teaching positions at Leeds Metropolitan University and the RCA, while also being a newly appointed course director in Interior Design to the RCA. Just what doesn't this guy do?
What does architecture and design mean to Ab Rogers Design?
It means an awful lot. For me design should be serious. My issue sometimes is that design often lacks sensuality and self-expression. When people looks at something I’ve designed, I want them to feel emotion whether they smile, laugh or cry. People should discover and learn from objects and design, while in turn design should always challenge, surprise and evolve. Remember to have fun with design too!
Define the concept behind Ab Rogers Design
Our philosophy is that with each project we take on, we try and take a new approach where we like to bring everyday experiences to life. Our designs are miles away from anything ‘grid-based’ or rigid, it's more emotional.
How was Ab Rogers Design established?
Inevitably my background entailed a very architectural-led upbringing from an early age, with my father architect Richard Rogers. I left school at sixteen and became a cabinetmaker, probably in rebellion against my design-saturated childhood. I then completed an MA in Industrial Design at the Royal College of Art in London, in 1996. In 1997 I set up KRD (Kitchen Rogers Design) with Shona Kitchen, who brought up in Scotland was from a very different, non-design environment, self-taught entirely. We met at the Royal College of Art; Shona was in architecture and I was in industrial design. We created the company upon graduation. Together we completed interiors for Comme des Garçons in Paris, the Al-Ostoura luxury fashion store in Kuwait and Michel Guillon, an optical store in London. Each project at KRD was focused on movement and sensation, bringing surprising new approaches to the retail landscape. After splitting amicably with Shona, it was in 2004 that I established Ab Rogers Design.
Perhaps an obvious answer but talk to us about your career inspirations
It’s without doubt that my father has been my main inspiration. Dad used to take us kids around his sites quite regularly, particularly the Pompidou Centre, when he lived there and so of course I’ve been immersed in his design. I can remember being at the site as a child and being told the amazing tubes were going to be slides when three years later to my horror, they were escalators. I was told the clients had changed their minds. You can imagine my disappoint as a kid. Today we have a mutual respect for each other and what the other one does. I think he’s proud of me and I know that he thinks I’m pretty crazy sometimes, but he understands the process of what my practice does a lot more now. Working together on a retrospective at the Pompidou Centre (detailing 45 years of work by Richard and his various collaborators) did a huge amount for our relationship.
I also have to pay homage also to my mother, stepfather (architect Ru Miller) and a huge amount of their friends who were also architects. At one point, I actually didn’t think there was another profession in the world apart from architecture.
Your methodology as a designer is unique to any other. Tell us more
The power of kinetics is a big thing for us; when we use kinetics in objects it makes people evaluate what they normally take for granted. We would never make something move for the sake of making it move but we make it move because it strengthens a thesis established. If you give someone an object they can play with, they will understand it much more. We also believe objects should have personalities. Though a filing cabinet is a filing cabinet, if you can bring it to life people start to place a higher value on it. An example is the Topshop spaced I designed at KRD, where we needed something strong to break the format of the standard shop-window, and so we gave the accessories a robotic element. Colour is used the same way, not to decorate, but to direct the experience. Using the London Beach Store (also for KRD) as an example, we wanted to amplify the tunnel and suspend it within the space. The midnight blue background disappeared, whereas the yellow brought the tunnel to life. For another project with KRD, Comme des Garçons, we drew everything red from the beginning, because we wanted to use a really strong colour that wouldn’t interfere with the fashion.
Talk us through your career portfolio
A huge range of projects, including spaces for Tate Modern, Science Museum, Comme des Garçons, Conde Nast, Miller Harris, Michel Guillon, Pizza Express, Topshop, Joseph, Little Chef, The Fat Duck and PriceWaterhouseCooper. I’ve worked on domestic projects in Moscow, Bali and London – notably The Rainbow House. I’ve also been involved in hotels in St Tropez and a boutique space in Tuscany called La Bandita. I’ve of course been involved in product design, collaborating a lot of the time with my best friend and cousin Ernesto Bartolini.
What’s been the most interesting project you have worked on?
Working with Heston Blumenthal on Little Chef has definitely been one of the more different projects I’ve worked on. Heston saw one of my early designs for a small opticians specialising in bespoke glasses, when he was in the shop choosing some frames. He asked for my details and got me on board to work on Popham’s Little Chef for Channel 4, which saw the transformation of both the menu and interior of the roadside diner. Little Chef is a British institution and so a redesign job such as this needed careful navigation so to not put off loyal customers. I’ve since worked with Heston on a number of other projects including the roll-out of nine additional Little Chefs up and down the country, and the extension of his Fat Duck restaurant in Bray. This in particular was a difficult brief as it was a listed building with very minimal space, while the food is so incredible that you don’t want to take anything away from it. The extension was purely to make the kitchen bigger.
Tell us about the Ab Rogers Design team
The firm’s luckily survived a recession and now has over 15 members of staff, including trained architects. I think the key to the company’s success has been how the whole team remains close to the entire construction process. We’re close to the builders, the engineers – for whom I have the utmost respect, they’re the ones who make the projects come alive. If there’s an edge to our work, it’s because of our interest in the production process. It can be anything from dancing mannequins to spinning chairs.
Ab, your property in Wimbledon is world-renowned. Designed by your father, talk us through the concept
How to describe it... It's a modular glass space with an out-of-the-box design; it’s innovative in a way that no building was before. By opening up the whole idea of the inside-out house and blurring the boundaries between public and private, it’s probably ended up being one of dad’s most celebrated projects. Even today, we get architecture students coming in to visit and study the house, with several open days that are still hugely oversubscribed. It was the house that my father designed for my grandmother (his mother, then 75 years old) but is where I’ve lived with my wife Sophie and our two daughters, and eight studio assistants. It’s the epitome of work/life living, where you’ll have Sophie testing out recipes for one of her cookbooks, while probably two feet away will be one of the studio assistants welding something together or pouring over designs on the kitchen table, acting also as Sophie’s chopping board. Come late afternoon, it then becomes a desk for the children when they come home from school and do their homework, or a place for clients when they come for meetings. It was always funny when the kids would get asked by their teachers to draw a picture of their home and they'd get into trouble. The teachers would say, “don’t draw a spaceship, you can’t live there — you’ve got to draw where you live."
In terms of the actual design, I know dad was inspired by growing up Italy where he was surrounded constantly by beautiful, historic and modern architecture. I know he was also influenced by a steel-framed house built in Los Angeles by Charles and Ray Eames, and by one his own past projects - Zip-Up House, which has a similar modular system with prefabricated yellow panels bolted together with a neoprene zip.
The property is now for sale, what’s the reason for your move and where are you planning to plant your magic design touch to next?
I think we just simply need a change. Change is good. We also need some more work space. I’ve since bought a warehouse on a canal in East London, which I’m really busy planning out. It’s time for someone else to enjoy the spaceship!
Which building/interior do you wish you had perhaps designed, or which do you simply love to spend time based on its design?
I love the Tokyo International Forum by Rafael Viñoly, it’s absolute genius. In terms of my father’s work, I think the Pompidou and Barajas [Airport, Madrid] are two ends of the spectrum. They’re incredible and I think the concept of the Zip-Up House is something my work aspires to.
What future projects do you have in store?
I’d definitely like to move towards working with some of the larger developers including Land Securities, British Land and Stanhope, where I’d love to create small-scale total solutions.
What inspires you daily?
Art and nature has a huge impact on my work, where I want people to have a similar appreciation of my work so that they respond to a piece physically and socially, called to revalue and rethink. Film and literature is also very important to me – David Lynch has always hugely inspired. Within the design realm, I’ve been long influenced by the Archi-zoom movement – a radical Florence based design team that pushed the boundaries during the 1970s – that embraced fashion, graphics, architecture and furniture.
How do you relax?
Sometimes it’s quite hard when you’ve got the office based at home too. Despite the busyness of it all and the colour, the property is actually really peaceful. It’s probably due to the glass and the light, or just the way that it flows into the garden and vice versa. I love it best on a sunny summer afternoon as it truly becomes an extension of the inside out.
Photography of Pizza Express and Conde Nast and first stair image of The Rainbow House by John Short.