February 2022 9 Min Read

Interview: Ross Lovegrove

By Josh Sims

Ross Lovegrove is one of the world’s most acclaimed industrial and product designers. Best known for utilising the latest technology to create futuristic, organic forms, he has applied his signature style to everything – from fragrance bottles to bicycles, chairs to lighting, bathroom sets to speakers, staircases to concept cars.

Along the way, the Welshman has also helped shape products for Sony, Apple, LvMH, and Peugeot, among many others. His designs can be found within the permanent collections of MoMA and the Vitra Design Museum, and have previously been exhibited at the Design Museum in London, as well as the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

During the pandemic, he moved to a very un-Lovegrovian 16th-century farmhouse in Cheltenham, near the Cotswolds in England. We visited him at his rural homestead to get a better understanding of his design philosophies and methods, as well as his take on the state of design today and technology.

Ross Lovegrove, designer, sitting on a brown coloured structure in the outdoors interview with A Collected Man London

Lovegrove sitting on a structure at his farmhouse in Cheltenham – a piece of art that draws upon his fluid and organic aesthetics.

ACM: Do you think people’s appreciation for design is improving?

RL: Not really. I’m not a great believer in popular culture because it’s trash, sorry to say. We think about what we put inside us in terms of food, but not what we do in terms of mindset, memory, beliefs. I predicted 15 years ago that you could see a design was going to be influenced by fashion and that’s what’s happened. There’s a sense of “just splash some paint somewhere and call it design”.

I’ve always looked for uniqueness and rarity, though as a designer, rarity isn’t something you can mention to a client because of course that way they won’t sell anything. But there’s a richness and depth that’s missing [in much of culture] now. It’s a hit and run approach to stuff in which everything is about time and money. It’s TV, celebrity culture, superficial Instagram culture – so much vanity. We’re in the midst of a ‘vaindemic’ – though everyone I know who’s educated is trying not to play that game. Rightly, they’re protecting their soul. But because everything is so freely available online, I don’t think people really question [what they’re offered].

Ross Lovegrove, designer, standing outdoors. Lovegrove has a snow-white beard and is bald, he is interviewed by A Collected Man London

Lovegrove surrounded by nature.

Your work has been informed by a laser-like focus on the design possibilities afforded by the latest technology. Why have you taken that approach?

Ironic it may seem, but it’s my interest in depth and permanence – the archaeology and anatomy of life – that pushes me towards hyper-modern, hyper-futuristic things, because I’ve also learnt that’s it’s death to follow the rest, to do what’s already been done. My feeling has always been why live now, in this window in time, if you don’t access and use the tools and possibilities of the time you live in? What is the point of making a vase in the way you could have made it in the past? That just leads to yet another consumer object. Ceramic, to use that example, was one of the very first materials, and it’s incredible, but then you have to think, what am I going to put on the end of that story so far? So you have to push the limits of the material. That may take two or three years, but ultimately the things that are released have a rare complexity to them.

I always saw what I do as some way of becoming a more educated man. It was not to make a living – it was to find out how a violin is made, or what makes an EV work, or whatever. It’s about the accrual of knowledge.

So it’s about exploring the outer reaches of the potential of old materials as well as new ones?

I’ve always wanted to know the origin of materials. Some 15 years ago, I was in the Philippines working with kevlar, carbon, bamboo and hemp together, trying to make by hand a mixed composite material for furniture. I think we failed in some way, but I wanted to know what happens when you collide materials that typically don’t go together. I think that comes from when I did cooking at school and I’d put salt into things you wouldn’t normally put salt into, for example, partly because I have an experimental spirit, but [also] because out of that kind of experimentation you end up with, say, the world’s lightest suitcase, which I did a decade ago. I’m [not] looking for a suitcase – I’m looking for lightness. It’s about trying to take an overarching view of design that converges the past and present, but also the weirdness of the future, which is something only humans seem to have a go at.

Experimentation, especially with materials, is one approach that Lovegrove takes to design.

Do you apply the same exacting demands on everything in your life?

No, I couldn’t apply that thinking to everything. I didn’t choose the carpet in this house, for example, but it kind of works. I don’t care about, say, the cutlery I use every day. It’s something I bought from John Lewis or wherever. It’s not ‘designer’, but the pieces are thin and light and nicely balanced and I don’t need to know more. I just can’t be one of those people who want to change up everything in their life because I can’t be interested in everything that way. My partner started saying to me the other day, “Do you remember when…?”’ and I told her that invariably I don’t. I just have the kind of brain that, if the information is not important to me, I tend to erase it. I can’t have this myopic information on my hard drive, so something has got to give.

'It’s my interest in depth and permanence – the archaeology and anatomy of life – that pushes me towards hyper-modern, hyper-futuristic things […] My feeling has always been why live now, in this window in time, if you don’t access and use the tools and possibilities of the time you live in?'

Ross Lovegrove

Your emphasis on technology has given many of your designs organic forms. And that’s become a kind of signature. Was that intentional?

The thing is that to get known as a designer, you have to form a position and drive that home. ’Organic’ design sounds very simplistic to me and I wish there was another way of talking about it, but then it gets too intellectual. But I’m really just trying to move with the times. I was once asked what I think about the work of Dieter Rams; I know Dieter and in a [superficial] way we’re polar opposites. I’m like the Antichrist to him. We were propping up the bar and got talking about our differences. I asked to try on his glasses and joked that I could suddenly see the world rationally, with very straight lines. But all joking aside, actually the core principles by which he designs are no different to mine. The difference is that years ago making forms was expensive and slow – you had all the people sculpting, making moulds… but now it’s not. You have the technologies that accelerate that and give the gift of allowing us to explore the territory of form, to sculpt technology much more easily. There are things I could have drawn years ago knowing I could never make them. That’s not the case now.

Does being the ‘organic design guy’ feel restrictive to you sometimes?

Well, I’ll never forget VitrA – that’s the bathroom company in Istanbul, not the other Vitra, and it took about 45 minutes after they called to work that out – and [spending] an hour talking [to them] about sculpture. We spoke about Henry Moore, paganism – all that – and it was that connection that made me take on the project. But still, at the end of the day, they said they wanted a ‘Ross Lovegrove’ bathroom. I said, “Pray tell me, what’s a fucking Ross Lovegrove bathroom?!” And they said it’s white and organic – which, as it turned out, was actually right for the product. But I did take things to them that they said would be impossible to make, and won. Still, slowly over the years I’ve been trying to twist that white and curly and futuristic label to get a bit more free from what people expect you to deliver.

You were a pioneer in the use of 3-D printing in your design work. Has that proven revolutionary?

I’d say tech [such as] 3-D printing has had an effect that’s both good and bad. I’ve always tried to adapt – Darwin never spoke about the ‘survival of the fittest’ but the ‘survival by adaptation’ and I remembered that, so any time some new tech comes along that will change the polarity of how we create, I jump on it. I did the world’s first magnesium-injected chair years ago and I made a model of [it] in my workshop, spraying foam, covered in dust, breathing it all in… And that was the last time I ever did anything in a workshop. After that, I hired the right people, bought these new computers, bought the software and, rain or shine, decided that approach was what I was going to do.

Adapting through technology: Lovegrove's work has closely followed the trajectory of modern computers.

I remember doing renderings for a project for Louis Vuitton on a computer so early you’d play Pac-Man on it. Selfishly, using the latest software allows me to get a full understanding of a design inside and out. When you rotate, morph, and manipulate something on a screen you feel so creative. And when you know you can press a button and have it 3-D printed – I mean, wow. If you can 3-D print an artificial heart, at the cellular level – I mean, wow. A perfume bottle I’ve designed for Formula One recently has commercially viable 3-D-printed packaging, and that’s a world first – and it’s something you can’t copy in China. That’s the beauty of complexity – once you have the data, you can change it so microscopically. The weakness in the whole thing is that you become incredibly dependent on people to create the data in the first place.

And yet, paradoxically perhaps, despite your use of the latest tech, you’re also a big fan of drawing. How does that help?

I remember when I was at school – when drawing wasn’t thought of as having any future and not considered a proper skill – [and] by 14 I could draw photorealistically. And what’s followed me through life is the solitude, the ability to be at peace with myself, that comes through drawing. I don’t need power. I don’t need a chair. Just paper and a pen.

'Selfishly, using the latest software allows me to get a full understanding of a design inside and out. When you rotate, morph, and manipulate something on a screen you feel so creative. And when you know you can press a button and have it 3-D printed – I mean, wow.'

Ross Lovegrove

I love the economy of being able to take ideas from my mind, transmit them down my arm and then put them on paper. I still draw constantly. For her first birthday I gave my daughter 97 drawings of mine, dating since 2008, and you can trace my moods over that time. It’s almost like a biography. Of course, she’s not allowed to touch them until she’s 17. I also wanted to introduce her to me in some way – because who knows how long I’ll be around, right? – so at the back I drew my hand too. Drawings are as close as you’ll get to the true soul of an artist, I think, because they’re not set up – they’re just releases. Even if the product I’m working on is incredibly modern I still draw first.

Despite his focus on technology, Lovegrove still has an obsession with the tactile.

You have a bit of a thing about hands, right?

Hands are really interesting. I don’t go after people’s hands, exactly; I just encounter them. Woody Allen was outside my studio one day, looking at locations. I don’t know what he made of me, but I was hovering around him and he didn’t flinch when this older gentleman with a book asked him if he could please draw around his hands. Allen puts one hand softly down – super-white hands – and I draw around it. And then I told him I needed the other hand, so he offered that.

I did this trip to the Galapagos islands with Richard Dawkins giving a lecture every night. Creativity is my subject and when someone asks whether things are made by some god or just evolved, that interests me – though I don’t think a guy in a white sheet sat down and made it all happen. The first lecture, he cancelled, and the second was really primitive, so it wasn’t going well. Anyway, there was this jacuzzi and I won’t go in a jacuzzi with anyone, but I forced myself to ease myself in there with him and his girlfriend – and it’s really close – and I introduced myself and asked him about his idea that if you hit a typewriter for billions of years you’ll never come up with anything that makes sense. It’s all about the centrality of randomness. “How do you think that relates to chances of design emerging?” I asked him. And he leaned forward, in a really heavy way, and said, “That’s your subject, not mine.” Which was terrifying. I asked him another question and he said the same thing.

Lovegrove indoors, surrounded by esoteric and intriguing objects

Later, I managed to catch him in a good moment and got to draw around his hands, but then he just walked away. So I had to catch him again later to write alongside his hands too. And he wrote one of the most incredible things I’ve heard: “Life on a planet comes of age only when it works out the reasons for its own existence.” I mean, fucking hell, that’s it, isn’t it?

Are you a deliberate designer, or do you have to wait for inspiration? I’ve heard you tell the tale of Frank Lloyd Wright getting a commission to design a house and then doing absolutely nothing on the project for six months, until the client called and said he was in the area and asked to see what’s been done so far. And in an hour, Wright has sketched out Fallingwater…

I would like to have met Frank Lloyd Wright because his tenacity was incredible. But I can’t be like that – I’m the type who’s never late for an appointment. But remember, back then there were barely even telephones, so you could get away with that sort of thing. Now there are no excuses.

I tend to work on reflex and feel something deep down. I can’t explain it but bang, there it is, something comes out. That’s why my notebooks are important, because they allow me to flick back and ruminate on ideas. Everything I’ve noted that I think is good I’d like to have made. But it’s not as though I’ve wasted any thoughts, it’s that they may come into play in a more succinct way much later. And when you work on highly industrialised, highly complex programmes, it’s going to take three or four years anyway, so if you’re not advanced enough you’re behind when you arrive.

Lovegrove's interest in the creative process is reflected in his own methods of working.

Not everyone gets the ideas though, do they?

I was kind of disappointed because I’ve designed these quite spacey-looking headphones for the speaker company KEF and they want to do a shoot and asked me how I wanted to be photographed. I said, “Can you find me a Mercury spacesuit replica to wear?” They said, “What the hell has that got to do with anything?!” I was just playing with an idea, in a disruptive way, that’s all. I said that I was a young boy with dreams who’s kind of gone into space and come back, and now I want to share some things with you. And they were like, “Oh no. No, no, no…” So I have a fight on my hands there. I bought a silver puffa jacket and I’m going to turn up in that. I like the paradox of it all, to fuck with things, you know? It’s not prescriptive or predictable. It’s part of that depth I mentioned. But we’ll see. The next time I see you I may have a broken nose. But you need to keep the ideas flowing. Keep your mind fertile.

Our thanks to Ross Lovegrove for taking the time to speak with us.