MS: It seems to me that one of the greatest challenges a designer faces is in trying to keep their eyes fresh, trying to maintain that objectivity. You have a wealth of knowledge that you’ve built over the years, and yet you need enough perspective to see all the possibilities. How do you do that?
MA: You just need to create distance. That’s always the trick. Rushing into something is the biggest mistake you can make, because then there’s the biggest danger that the project is not going to work.
MS: And that distance comes in the form of time?
MA: Yes, space and time. You need to physically step back, leave it, and then look at it again and again. You need to insert those intervals. The problem is that you’re always working on a deadline, and sometimes it’s not possible to do that. In the case of the exhibition, it was absolutely not possible to do that. You are so familiar with the work that you can’t actually create distance from it. You’ve done it, it’s finished. Also, you can’t change it anymore.
MS: You can’t do a Jeff Koons and pop in with your paintbrush, touching up the pieces as they hang on the walls?
MA: It’s very tricky.
MS: How has this time of reflection recontextualised your work, for you?
MA: It was a discovery that this idea I’d had, about how everything new is going to be better, or different—it’s not true. There was no difference in the language of the old and the new work. Not that there is no evolution, because I believe as creatives we do evolve. But it wasn’t about being harmonious. I hate that word, ‘harmony’.
MA: The idea of harmony, I don’t see that as a positive in creativity. You need to surprise people. If things sit comfortably, that’s the wrong achievement.
MS: What’s the right achievement?
MA: Whenever you look back at your work, it needs to give you something; you need to feel something. You can achieve that through layering. I’m not talking about visual complexity, I’m talking conceptual layering, into the object. Every time you see the object, you discover something. Suddenly, when you see it all together after all these years, it surprises you. Even if you’ve seen it hundreds of times, it still needs to give you something. That’s really important, I think, in my design process. I want to have that—and for people who experience these objects to have that, too. And to have their own interpretation, and things I haven’t thought of.
MS: Does it give you pleasure to see the way people receive your work?
MA: From the moment you release a product, you are open to criticism.
MS: And product design is such a democratic medium to choose, because you’re creating objects which will exist in other people’s lives.
MA: And hopefully for a long period of time.
MS: There’s a theme which emerges in the book, and in your practice more broadly, of the ways that objects have human qualities.
MA: That was the beginning, really, of my research into design: what I wanted from design, how I saw design, what I wanted design to be at that time. It was really important to add that layer of complexity in the way you relate psychologically to an object—beyond, say, its physical attributes, or how you want it to function. Adding this layer, sort of an emotional functionality, is essential. In some cases it was involving electronics. Suddenly, there is an unexpected quality to an object, which gives it almost a behavioural function.
There’s the Message Cup, which I designed, and the Anti-Social Light, and the Alarm Clock Table. Suddenly you need to respect that peculiarity about the object, to get it to work with you. It exists, already, in our everyday lives. I made it obvious by highlighting that complexity, but it does exist. Sometimes things don’t work the way you expect them to, and you find ways to trick them. You come up with all these tricks for your washing machine, for example, if it’s suddenly not behaving the way it was before: say, you’ve discovered that if I do this, I’ll trick it, and then I can get it to work. That’s a very blunt way of looking at it, but that psychology exists. You trick a person, you trick a pet, but usually you don’t trick objects.
MS: It’s like applying those interpersonal relationships to your inanimate world.
MA: It’s interesting when you add that layer of complexity to a relationship you have with your products.
MS: That’s fun! Do you find yourself looking for these experiences in your own everyday life, with things you use?
MS: What kinds of things?
MA: Well, everything. You know that idea of animating an object, giving it a character. Even if you give it a name, suddenly you see it in a different way. It’s kind of a fiction—you imagine things to be different to what they normally are.
MS: Tell me more about your process.
MA: It’s different for every product. It’s very difficult to describe. It’s almost instinctive. There is a moment when you see the object differently, and then it clicks. You say, ‘That’s what it needs to do’. You realise it couldn’t have been anything else.
MS: That process of elimination again?
MA: Yes, it’s partly that. It’s tricky, and it’s instinctive. Early on in my career I used to draw bubble diagrams to explore relationships and try to link them up. If this was like this, and this was related to that, then what would happen? Through this imaginary process, which was almost mathematical, I was arriving at a lot of surprising relationships and results and complexities. Now it comes more instinctively. I don’t draw bubble diagrams anymore. I just feel that, yes, this makes sense. I see it happening, and when you look at my work now, which for a lot of people might seem different to the interactive work that I was describing before, it’s much more challenging to see that layering, that psychological complexity. Because it’s not so obvious, you know? In that early work you’re adding a layer of interactivity, you’re asking your cup to speak, you’re asking your light to interact with sound. It’s very obvious, it’s there, it’s very easy to discover it. Yes, it’s poetic, it’s beautiful. In other things, these layers are much subtler.
MS: They’re almost deeper, it seems. Like layers of rock forming over time. They’ve become compacted.
MA: Yes. I see them as embedded in the language of the product. They’re there, and some people might discover them, and some people might not.
MS: You work a lot with prototypes and models.
MA: Yes. I sketch a lot, so I have all these sketchbooks, and they’re easy. It’s just a practical thing, I can carry it everywhere, I can sketch in the places where I find myself, on a plane or in an airport lounge. I wish I could actually make things while I travel, but it’s almost impossible to do.
MS: Where did this urge to make things come from?
MA: I remember as a child growing up, I always liked to pick things up and make them into something—from a chocolate wrapper, or a root from the beach, to dried grass, or whatever. It’s interesting, that need to make something. That physicality, for me, was the key. Suddenly, drawing had to replace that activity—which is fine, because it’s also a skill that you need to cultivate, and it works. What I try to do is eliminate the steps between the sketch and the final product. That’s why I like to make a lot—rather than drawing first, then putting it in 3D, and rotating, spinning it. That is the part which is the most dangerous.
MS: In what respect?
MA: In the sense of not really getting it right. The spontaneity that exists in making something—the rest is just too calculated for me. You eliminate all the spontaneous moments. I’m not saying that you cannot have spontaneity in 3D, because you can have accidents there, too, and they’re interesting. The problem is that it’s less likely for accidents to happen in that way. Three-dimensionality adds more opportunity for accidents.
MS: Do you keep all of your prototypes?
MA: We try. Sometimes there’s a space problem.