Kevin McCloud MBE is a regular fixture on British television screens as writer and presenter of architectural reality show Grand Designs. The programme is a perennial favourite due to its combination of inventive building plans, daring participants and Kevin McCloud’s reflective analysis. His commentary reveals his considerable knowledge, gained through a career that started in theatre design and has since covered journalism, product design, and consultation on building sustainable housing.
Imogen Adams spoke to Kevin McCloud about his desert island piece of furniture, the architect he’d commission to build his own house and the resurgence in popularity of mid century design.
Kevin McCloud: On his first house
Kevin McCloud’s first purchases were defined by a spirit of resourcefulness. In his twenties, he bought his first house for £60,000, which he recalls, ‘seemed like a huge amount at the time’ and left with him little extra to furnish the place. He tells me that he tapped into the contemporary trend for using limed timber to decorate the place in both a cool and economical way. He bought a huge set of vintage wooden school lockers and repurposed them.
Kevin McCloud: On his interiors wish list
To my surprise, Kevin McCloud doesn’t have a wish list. He tells me, “There comes a point in life when you think ‘I’d rather hang on to that’ and thus the need for more objects diminishes”. He explains his own perfectionism as a counter to purchasing, “If I decide I want a blue jacket with short sleeves, four buttons, I’ll keep looking for it”. He admits that he is a ‘slave to his own design ideas’, finding it hard to source in real life the designs he’s created in his head.
Photograph courtesy of The Modern Warehouse
Kevin McCloud: On his piece of desert island design
I ask Kevin which piece of furniture would he choose for company on a desert island. Without hesitation, he settles upon his Eames Soft Pad chair, explaining, ‘There’s nowhere comfortable to sit down on a desert island and, my goodness, it’s a comfortable chair!’. His answer conjures a humorous image of Kevin, immersed in a landscape of barren brush and sand ensconced in comfort on the chair’s plump leather cushions.
The Eames Soft pad chair was after all his most recent landmark purchase. He’d wanted one for ‘a long, long time’. After purchasing a bespoke walnut desk from Grand Designs Live a couple of years ago, he wanted a chair to go with it and finally decided to treat himself. Kevin McCloud’s Soft Pad chair dates from the 1960s, it’s appearance embellished by the patina of its previous life; the wear and tear tells a story of being chucked into skips and fished back out. Kevin explains that he is ‘no design fetishist’; he chose the Soft Pad chair for practical reasons rather than solely for its iconic name.
Photograph of Cube House featured in Grand Designs, courtesy of Michael Trolove
Kevin McCloud: On the architect he would commission to design his dream house
When I posed this theoretical question to Kevin McCloud, he was awash with grand plans for future houses. For him, the hardest part was narrowing down his list of chosen architects! He decided he would ‘lure Inigo Jones out of retirement, and failing that, Andrea Palladio’, before settling on a joint commission for them both. ‘I’d like to get them in the same room at the same time, and invite them to design something for the 21st century’. He would also like to ‘go (house) hunting in Northern Europe in 1955’, consulting with the likes of Eero Saarinen and Jorn Utzon.
Kevin McCloud: On why mid century design continues to exert such influence today
“I think that at the beginning of any century, people look back. People at the last century looked back and thought ‘bloody hell we’re just about to leave the 20th century and the 20th century furniture I own is all 1980s and ’90s’”. Kevin McCloud tells me how Italian furniture manufacturer B&B Italia reported a thirteen-fold increase in sales in 2001, with hoards of people buying design pieces that defined the past century. Recently, he notes a shift whereby consumers have begun to look for a more affordable option, to anonymous though still desirable pieces, or as he succinctly puts it, ‘beyond the Barcelona chair’. Much of these cheaper, anonymous mid century items are the objects people grew up with, ‘Inevitably, we’re always going to look back and reassess and we tend to do that in a way that reflects our childhood’.
Kevin McCloud was born in the late 1950s and his family home featured quintessential mid century Danish teak furniture. He says that this familial Scandinavian furniture inspires a degree of nostalgia. However, he emphasises that the popularity of postwar design lies in more than simply nostalgic longings, ‘I look back and see it as a great blossoming of British furniture: Ernest Race, the Festival of Britain, G Plan, Ercol.’
Kevin tells me that he sees the persistent popularity of the mid century style as a heady mixture of great design, wistfulness and timing; he wonders what his children will be purchasing in future decades. Next on the horizon he’s waiting for a reevaluation of postmodernism, saying ‘Architectural historians have written it out as an embarrassment and that’s going to change’. Rather than thinking of nostalgia and trends as demeaning, in some way threatening the legitimacy of a style, he thinks of these trends and resurgences as intriguing, ‘It’s fascinating to see how these eddies and currents kind of whirl around each other; it’s almost as difficult as seeing the eddies and currents in a river.’
Grand Designs Live Birmingham takes place from 9 – 13 October 2014 at Birmingham’s NEC. Visit www.granddesignslive.com for further information and tickets.
Find out more about the TV series Grand Designs
For details of Kevin McCloud’s Happiness, Architecture, Beauty project, see HAB Housing
See our interview with Designer Wayne Hemingway for our series Desert Island Designs