Fabien Cappello's Streetscape

Kingston upon Thames

27 April 2015

“I don’t think that lady would have been interested in public furniture normally,” I tell designer Fabien Cappello enthusiastically.

“I agree,” he replies, every bit as enthusiastically.

Cappello and I are walking around the centre of Kingston upon Thames in Greater London, where we've been speaking to a woman about a bench (of which more later). We're here because Kingston is the site of Streetscape, a series of public furniture developed by London-based designer Cappello for the Stanley Picker Gallery, a design and art facility that forms a part of Kingston University. Capello and I have just canvassed our first piece of public feedback on the Streetscape furniture.

The Stanley Picker Gallery has a strong track record of incubating research-driven design projects. Offering year-long fellowship schemes, the gallery has worked with the likes of designers Marloes ten Bhömer, Boudicca, El Ultimo Grito and Ab Rodgers. Yet Cappello’s project is a little different; rather than creating an gallery-based exhibition, as most fellows choose do (although Cappello has still created one), he and the gallery have also worked with the borough council to seed a number of his designs throughout the town. For the next eight weeks Kingston is to be a testbed for new bollards, benches, bike stands bins and planters. “We’ve got some bollards sited right outside the main shopping centre of Kingston and those are going to be used properly by the town,” says Capello. “We would never have that kind of audience in a gallery.”

The Streetscape planter, installed in Kingston upon Thames

Streetscape evolved, Cappello says, out of a general lack of attention towards the public sphere and the objects that form a part of it. “Maybe there a little bit of a strange thing to want to design, but if you think about it there are probably more bollards in London than there are buildings,” he says. “There are definitely more bollards in London than chairs, but it’s so little looked at compared to the domestic environment, when in fact all these things are equal elements. There are so many books about chairs, but there's so little research material on this topic. My biggest research source was actually a blog called Bollards of London, which is run by a taxi driver who just takes pictures of bollards. He has such a knowledge of it.”

The various furniture pieces developed by Cappello are united by a series of common elements: simple, elemental forms; a bold use of primary colours; and an interest in flexible systems, rather than immutable, solitary designs. The bollards, Cappello's starting point for the project, are a good example. They are plain grey cylinders that top out in one of several different coloured caps: one is flattened to allow for comfortable seating; another has a closed loop to function as a bike lock; another, a vertical surface to provide space for signage. Displayed in the gallery are a series of 1:1 paper maquettes of Capello's ideas for London's bollards: the variety is staggering.

Similar flexibility is visible in the planters, which are formed from rings of alternately grey and primary-coloured corrugated steel that can be built up to the desired height. The resultant aesthetic – and this is true across the designs – is a kind of “discrete vibrancy”. The designs are unobtrusive, yet enlivened by their use colour and strong graphical elements. The bike stands, for instance, are sheet metal constructions in a series of poppy colours, from which six large perforations have been punched out. They’re unassuming forms, yet somehow inexplicably dramatic; as if the backrest of one of Barber Osgerby’s De La Warr Pavillion chairs has been sunk in the ground.

Bike stands displayed in Kingston. Visible in the background is David Mach's Out of Order, an installation artwork comprising 12 falling telephone booths

“I think one of the biggest issues with public space as it’s dealt with now is that it never adapts,” says Cappello. "It’s just one single element placed everywhere to create nowhere at the end. I wanted this project to be non-specific and melt into the existing streetscape, and each element has been designed to work with what already exists. It’s not a totalitarian project; it’s not creating from scratch a new public space, but accepting what exists and drawing the good things from it.”

Colour, he adds, is an easy way of achieving this: “It's really a system to visually adapt to the different areas the pieces are based in. But I was also thinking that although you see bike stands everywhere, you often wouldn’t even look at them. But if somewhere in a city there were three bright yellow bike stands in a row, then maybe that might become a landmark: ‘Shall we meet near the yellow bike stands?’ So I guess I’ve used colour in quite a functional way.”

What is most intriguing about Cappello’s projects is that his ideas will have a chance to play out in reality. The furniture and its installation have been funded by Transport for London’s mini-Holland programme: a scheme to reimagine the public infrastructure of a series of London boroughs (of which Kingston is one) to make it them hospitable to cyclists. The success of Cappello’s proposals are, as such, being monitored.

“They see it as a pilot,” says David Falkner, director of the Stanley Picker Gallery. “And it has been quite impressive to see how borough services actually operate. The immediate context around the university and gallery is important, especially if you’re producing something for the public realm that could be rolled out to other boroughs and other countries.”

Ditto, Capello has used the project to pursue themes that have long been visible in his practice: local manufacture chief amongst them. From his graduation from the Royal College of Arts in 2009 with a project based around designing furniture from Christmas trees abandoned on London’s streets, to his Made in Odivelas ceramics (each inscribed with drawings that map the location of local manufacturers in the suburb of Lisbon in which they were made), Cappello has long drawn upon the vernacular as a feature in his work.

“The pieces in Streetscape have all been manufactured in London by companies that are mostly reachable by tube,” he says. "Maybe that means that the bollards are a few pounds more expensive than normal bollards, but if you think that they’ve been produced locally, that’s extremely beneficial. It’s a little bit more money, but what it brings back to the city is huge, huge, huge.”

The blue head of the bollard is designed to provide enough space for signage to be incorporated

It is a politicised (and much-needed) statement at a time when blanketing austerity policies continue to bite in the UK. Investment in the public realm remains low and it is difficult to envisage the UK’s current government being persuaded to spend money on more expensive versions of street furniture that, to quote Cappello, are “not particularly valued.” That chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne continues to describe higher public spending as "a panacea... a false hope that it’s just a question of spending more money" suggests that this lack of valuation is unlikely to change.

Yet this of course is the point. Cappello wants to provocate and challenge, encouraging a wider engagement with the public sphere and what we want from it. “We've heard some people walking by and saying, ‘Look at this beautiful bollard!'" says Cappello. “A lot of people don’t notice this kind of thing, but maybe some people can perceive the difference.” With the UK General Election exactly a week away, it seems timely for an exhibition to invite scrutiny of the country's management of the public realm and services.

Similarly, it seems a timely exhibition for the design industry as a whole. Earlier this month the Salone del Mobile trade fair brought its usual panoply of brands to Milan to show assorted new furniture designs for the domestic environment. Some of these brands – step forward Kartell – exhibited their products on roped-off plinths, with security admonishing anyone who tried to touch (let alone sit on) the chairs. It seems a world away from Capello’s public furniture for Kingston, where the bins are already smeared in sticky residues; the planters covered in soil crumbs; and the bollards (in at least one example located outside of Kingston’s Bentall shopping centre) covered up by wooly hats.

One of Cappello's bins stationed just outside of the gallery

“It’s so little looked at compared to the domestic environment and maybe one of the reasons is that it’s really hard to create for, because it seems a little bit frightening to tackle this big issue of the public realm,” says Cappello. "It means objects will be misused and abused, but that’s something I was quite keen to work with. I’m not really interested in a lot of gallery spaces for design; it’s more interesting when design is being experienced and tested out. We create objects and artefacts that are meant to be lived with and I find it so frustrating to only be able to see them in a gallery space.”

With this in mind, Cappello and I close our interview with a trip through the town to see the furniture in use. It’s on this trip that we come across the woman sat on a bench designed by Cappello. He asks her if she likes it and, after establishing that he's the designer of the piece, she replies that she likes it very much. She says that its beautiful and is grateful for a place to sit down (she’s just set off the alarm in a nearby shop (accidentally (she says)) and so is lying low from security). She also seems interested in the accompanying exhibition back at the gallery.

What is interesting about the exchange (asides from the woman's escape from the law) is not that she gives the bench a positive review, but rather that she gives it a review at all. Prior to Cappello’s intervention, how many people in Kingston would have spared even a moment’s thought for the benches, bins and bike stands that surround them? A review of public furniture, even if little more than polite chitchat, is still a step forward. If Streetscape can continue to provoke reflection, no matter how minor, then it will have proven itself to be a success. Let us hope it lasts – in whatever form – well beyond its eight-week lifespan.