Nigel Coates’ atelier is also his home, a corner perch above a fast-moving but endearingly unchanged part of South Kensington in London. Sandwiched between the great British institutions along the Cromwell Road, the little Gallic cluster centred around the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle and the sandwich shops, dry cleaners and supercar showrooms of South Kensington itself, Coates has lived and worked here since his days at the Architectural Association in the 1970s. “I was here as a student when the flat was rented and full of falling-apart furniture and cat-scratched curtains. We filled it with people, as you did in those days.” The refined and light-filled live/work space you see today is a far cry from the bedsits that housed up to 10 students at a time, yet this apartment has remained a vital anchor for his work. “I have never found anywhere that suited me better — this apartment has been an empty stage on which I can try out my ideas, whether they’re about objects, décor or even whole cities. It’s a crucible.”
Born in 1949, Nigel Coates has a perpetual youthfulness that’s constantly refreshed by his involvement with higher education. These days he is a visiting professor at Ravensbourne, a creative-focused university based on London’s Greenwich peninsula. “It’s an art school, but mostly filled with undergraduates. They pride themselves on taking kids from a broad spectrum of society,” he explains. Many students go on to post-graduate courses at the Royal College of Art, where Coates headed up the Department of Architecture for 16 years. He’s also closely involved with the new London School of Architecture (LSA), set up in 2013 to shake up architectural education. “The LSA doesn’t sit within an institution,” he says, explaining how it is a collaboration between 45 partner practices and the students themselves, who fund their courses through taking on work placements within the studios. “Education has to be more connected to practice,” he says. “It helps students question things.” The knowledge gained is supplemented by the questioning approach of the students. “It goes both ways. It’s a two-way apprenticeship.”
Coates knows a thing or two about sharing knowledge. His own aesthetic sensibility emerged seemingly fully formed at a rather dull period in British architecture, when the only innovation came in the form of slick but insipid modernism. Beginning with NATO magazine, a conflation of Narrative Architecture Today, in 1984, then two decades working with Doug Branson as Branson Coates, and now with his small team based between South Kensington and Ravensbourne, Coates has a portfolio with personality, a design sensibility that navigates a path through functionalism, desire, scale and change.
Coates still works across many disciplines, an approach that hasn’t always been easy. “It’s difficult in England to have a foot in more than one camp. Everyone wants to pigeonhole you,” he says. “I wanted to see how fashion and behaviour affected architecture, how it could furnish our lives.” The media age has brought challenges, but also vindicated his approach. “Design has become like fashion, but slower,” he says, explaining that, today, objects are often decoded through personalities. There might be too much stuff in the world, and yet “we consume ideas faster than ever before”.
The South Kensington apartment was a springboard in many ways. Back in the 1980s, a Peter York-penned profile in Harpers & Queen was syndicated in the Far East and a sympathetic client decided to commission Coates on the spot. Before he knew it, he had been shipped out to create an eclectic selection of stores and restaurants in Tokyo. “Japan demanded this collision of space and culture,” he recalls. “The very first project I was given I had to commission art and create furniture.” Work by designer Tom Dixon and sculptor Edward Allington sat alongside Coates’s own pieces, creating a total work of art. “It was an experiment in avoiding a unified, homogenised design style,” he says. “I stirred it all together and didn’t really care whether it was architecture, design or art.” Projects such as Caffè Bongo in Tokyo delivered a vivid eclecticism, a rich collage of industrial and classical motifs.
The Japanese success meant that not only could Coates buy his apartment outright, but he suddenly found himself at the forefront of the global design conversation. Back in London, he designed stores for fashion chain Jigsaw, and exhibition and museum spaces around the country. “Fashion shops are rich environments that celebrate the handmade and the unique,” he says. “The Jigsaw shops were luxurious, with bespoke fabrics and fittings.” This spirit of place finds its way into all Coates’ projects, whether it’s an object or a building. The stores were followed by major museum works, from the timeless extension at London’s Geffrye Museum to the high-profile commission to create the giant Body Zone sculpture at the Millennium Dome.
His monograph, Guide to Ecstacity, was published in 2003. A “manifesto in nine letters”, it is a book that embraces the pleasures of chaos, the sensuality of art and the intangible mysteries of the city. A Coates project not only serves a functional requirement, but it adds something more, an emotional dimension that gets its power through form and beauty.
Coates still has a fervent belief in the power of design and a healthy distaste for the superficial. “Design has become more important for me recently,” he says. “I get as much pleasure out of designing a chair as I do a building.” The studio also keeps its hand in with experimental visionary projects, many of which have cropped up throughout Coates’s career to give shape and meaning to the built works. He’s especially keen on how things evolve. “Car design might use advanced parametric software, but there’s always an evolution,” he says. “I recognise that in my own way of thinking over the decades.” Works such as the Lehnstuhl chair and sofa, designed for Gebrüder Thonet Vienna in 2014, show a masterful synthesis of the historic company’s pioneering steam-processed bentwood and Viennese cane. Sinuous and elegant, the chairs update the Thonet aesthetic for the modern age.
The conversation is different today. The “pop-classical” collaged environments of his early work still feel contemporary in our visually rich media, but the all-important context is lost. “We’re living inside the media culture we created, the ‘like’ culture,” Coates says. “People are satisfied with a cute picture, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story. It’s sad that architecture students’ default is to explore ideas on their computer screens.” Physical drawings and models are still very important to Coates’s design process and a sketchbook is never far from hand. “A sketch is much quicker and more vital,” he enthuses. “It has the power to abstract and let the line do the thinking.” The abilities of manufacturers and craftsmen are also essential. “In Italy, the furniture makers are the most advanced and courageous, with a high level of craftsmanship,” he explains. Even so, he believes the computer has a vital role to play and manipulated, collage-like digital imagery has been a mainstay of his creative output for many years. “As I started to understand computers, it affected the way I drew with a pencil. Everything goes in cycles. We’re not going back to the Arts and Crafts era, but many young designers are interested in rudimentary forms.” Although taken with the chaotic creativity of early modern art movements, Coates admits “you need calm and beauty as well”.
Above all, Coates is adamant that authorship and identity need to be more prominent in what he describes as a “scatter cushion culture”. “I try to bring something familiar, but also something not seen before,” he says. He praises his own personal icons — legendary Italian designers such as Carlo Mollino and Gio Ponte — for their ability to “put elements together in a seductive, human way. An Aston Martin succeeds in being a notion of refined English taste,” he says, “and for that you need invention as well as authenticity. Car design has a tempo, a DNA, that fashion and furniture companies find hard to balance with innovation.”
Nigel Coates has stayed current, without sacrificing a physical or aesthetic link to the past. His fascination with objects, appreciation of beauty and understanding of process are all wrapped up in a continued respect for the life of the modern city.