In Five Designs

Nigel Coates


7 December 2012

For years, the designer and architect Nigel Coates has been labelled an enfant terrible: an outsider to the mainstream and a figure whose teaching career has been marked by controversy. Now part of a new exhibition on erotic design at Milan's Triennale museum, Coates met with Disegno to summarise his career in five of his own designs.

Coates, 63, studied at the Architectural Association, from where he graduated in 1974. "There weren't really anyone worth working for at the time," he says. "The only interesting architects were James Stirling and Léon Krier. Everyone else was so boring and commercial." Coates took a job designing office blocks at Fitzroy Robinson, before starting his own studio in 1984.

Known for his experimental furniture and buildings, Coates carried over the eccentricity of his design into a teaching career that has taken in the AA and, between 1995 and 2011, leadership of the RCA's school of architecture & design.

But in 1983, Coates generated controversy with NATO, a magazine produced with students at the AA where Coates was teaching at the time. Rather than producing plans and section drawings, Coates encouraged his students to paint, produce images of structures from unusual angles and explore narratives through their architectural drawings.

"The whole enfant terrible thing was just because of NATO," says Coates. "When I was teaching at the AA I had this bunch of students and we really clicked. The whole thing went completely crazy one year. People were scared of me, but it wasn’t about outraging people or making them feel uncomfortable, it was about imagination and following something that you could see could have a relevance to architecture."

Coates work is now being exhibited in Kama: sex and design, an exhibition of erotic design at Milan's Triennale museum. Coates' contribution to the show is Picaresque, a furniture installation that, when viewed through an iPad, reveals naked actors sprawled across the chairs.

"It’s important designers be able to explore, and then apply that to more 'acceptable' design," says Coates. "What goes out on the catwalk isn’t what most people wear. Similarly, architecture that doesn’t try to invent something as well as supplying something seems to me to not be of interest. What is classic isn’t going to inspire me."

Coates' five designs follow below:

1988, IMAGE Nigel Coates

Genie Stool
"The Genie stool was always intended to be a signature piece. I made it for an exhibition of chairs at the RCA, and I wanted to do something that had a very, very big personality, was slightly outrageous and would never be put into production. The idea was to combine wood and steel, but so that the steel looked like it was in motion. It’s a provocation. It refers to the male human body because its got a sexual anima and you want to know what it feels like to sit on. It's been published a lot and it has certain qualities which are more concentrated in this piece than my others. The steel is crafted by hand and is not pretending to be industrial; it’s not trying to look like a Mies van der Rohe. It’s the most manifesto like piece of furniture I’ve ever done."

Tokyo, 1900 IMAGE Nigel Coates

The Wall
"My idea for The Wall was that it was something the Romans had left behind in Tokyo; a piece of Roman wall that has been added to and adapted over centuries. For the sake of authenticity I took two local builders from Tuscany to build the façade. In Rome, there are fragments of temples with houses sprouting out of the top and I love that demonstrative adaptation of found culture. It's not an aspect of architecture that architects normally learn about. But the magazines at the time didn’t know how to look at The Wall and critique it because it didn’t fit into their -isms. It was full of suggestion and association; theatrical and movie-like. I didn’t want it to look like one person’s vision. I wanted it to look like the result of civilisation."

London, 1998 IMAGE Nigel Coates

"Powerhouse was made from four inflatable drums and was commissioned by the Government in 1997 when Tony Blair had just come to power. It was shaped like a cross - like the English flag - and each drum had a different exhibit inside of it. They were greenhouses with different exhibits reflecting the way the creative industries were heading. Also, it was built on a Royal route at Horse Guards Parade which I loved. Normally only a handful of people are able to walk there, so we couldn’t attach anything to the ground: it all had to just sit on the surface. I was like a Cuckoo finding the most significant place to build my nest. This was a courageous project. It was the period of Cool Britannia and this was the movement's arch project."

Glyndebourne Opera House, 2009 IMAGE Nigel Coates

"Glyndebourne was exciting to do because it’s a theatre and theatre was always a great interest of mine as a child. We did the interiors and furniture for their restaurant. Before I arrived, there was this hideous old restaurant there that they had called Wallop - God knows why it was called Wallop - and we got rid of all its gingham table cloths, horrible furniture and wobbly floor. I wanted to make something that fitted with the operatic vocabulary of the place, so I raided the props cupboard. We made the waiter stations into towers with glasses, cutlery and crockery lower down, and props from the plays at the top. Some people are sniffy about interiors, but I’m not at all. I love them."

2012 IMAGE Nigel Coates

Picaro Chair
"The Picaro chair was in Milan and it's in Kama too. It has a discourse between the inert, geometric steel notion of a chair and an object on it that is overtly body-like. When you sit on it you blend in with this body paradigm. It’s got the minimalist connotations in the perfection of the steel, but then you have this much more fluid, folded reclining figure suggested by the cushion. I just like playing around with ideas. There were loads of version of this before I reached this rigid form. Some of my furniture pieces have connotations of the classical, but then then some have animal-like connotations too. This is like the human as animal. The Picaro was never intended to be a production piece. If it was, it wouldn’t be as stark in its dialect."