You wouldn’t know it from his box-fresh outfit and accommodating manner, but Ross Lovegrove has just pulled an all-nighter. His Notting Hill studio in London, normally an immaculate mix of futuristic models and prototypes, fossils, furniture and tribal art, is semi boxed-up. Pieces disappear into crates as we speak; some destined for the annual Salone del Mobile in Milan, where Lovegrove is always a star player, the rest to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, for a retrospective look at his career that runs until 3 July. It’s the latter rather than the former that has been causing the sleepless nights. Lovegrove, now 58, has spent 40 years designing cars, phones, cameras and all manner of household gadgets for major manufacturers all over the world. He uses digital tools, up-to-the-minute technology and creates pieces that look firmly to the future. The retrospective has given him pause for reflection, time to visit the past and he is “in a funny mood”. It is highly prestigious — he follows in the footsteps of fellow industrial designers Marc Newson and Philippe Starck — and he’s feeling the pressure.


Ross Lovegrove’s DNA Staircase connects two floors of his London design studio in a former steel factory

More than 200 works feature in the exhibition, entitled Convergence because it brings together Lovegrove’s three loves — nature, form and technology — in what he calls “organic essentialism”. Stretching to 1,000sq m of gallery space, the show demonstrates how he has worked his way from analogue processes, using a compass, illustration and model making, into the digital realm, taking in organic forms along the way.

Highlights include a gold cocoon housing his Instinctive Override — projections of a concept car inspired by 1970s-era Pininfarina design and water droplets, his 3D-printed shoes for United Nude, a carbon bicycle for Biomega, an elephant skull from 1888, and his car on a stick (a solar-powered, bubble-shaped car concept that he has been modifying for 20 years). Limited-edition furniture is dotted all around the exhibition, including his copper Cetacea chaise longue. “Only two exist,” explains Lovegrove. “And I would rather eat baked beans than sell them off cheaply.”

An artist has a singular voice, good or bad, but a designer has to always be aware of function

Unlike many designers, Lovegrove’s preference for digital techniques does not come from a lack of talent at the drawing board. Far from it. Twenty-four of his best sketchbooks, filled with elegant sketches and detailed line drawings of products in various stages of evolution, made it to the show. “I have no fear of people thinking I’m a fuddy-duddy because I draw in leather books,” he says. “They are my life. When I took them to the Pompidou a few months ago, there were workmen everywhere and a girl told me to leave them in the corner. I went ballistic. I insisted they were put somewhere safe, so we went to the bowels of the building, a space as large underground as it is above, and I was told to leave them next to some cases. I asked if they were going to be fine. A guy replied, ‘Well, there’s a Gauguin here and a Picasso there,’ so I shut the **** up.” He chuckles.


One of his Cosmic Leaf lights for Artemide stands behind some tribal art

Lovegrove doesn’t make anything by hand — he’s a pure industrial designer — but increasingly he is spending more time at his art space in Acton in West London. It is part archive, part retreat, a place where he engages in more esoteric pursuits than the day job allows. “If I had the courage, I would take a year off,” he announces. “I have been in this field since I was 16. I know I can design, but I’m tired of making functional things. When I’m with a Richard Serra or a Henry Moore, I feel a level of emotion I don’t get in design. An artist has a singular voice, good or bad, but a designer has to always be aware of function, to be part of a system of disposability. And I don’t like impermanence.”

Working for so many decades in industry has increased his fascination with the handmade and the ancient: “Give me a Rembrandt or Max Ernst or Frank Auerbach over a Warhol print any day. There is a depth in both technique and age. When you work with things that are brand new, you don’t want to artificially age them. So with a car, for instance, I wouldn’t become nostalgic, but I would look at Pininfarina for inspiration. And I would love to do some Carlo Mollino-inspired furniture with beautifully crafted leather seats.”

This, combined with his passion for what he calls “anonymous first objects” — simple things made in essential materials such as stone, silver or iron — has led him to amass a huge collection of tribal art, in particular African shields. A one-metre-wide Dinka shield made of buffalo hide is propped up against the glass wall of the garage within his studio (the space is usually reserved for his aluminium Audi A2). “These objects bring me back to earth. If I design a bicycle, I look online first for a bone shaker, for what was around in the beginning.”

This approach explains why, so often, his forms follow the natural world. Take his resin Pyrosome lamp for electronics giant LG. Launched in Milan, it features brand new OLED display and flat-strip technology and took three days to 3D print in his studio. On a nearby shelf under a bell jar is the 18th-century pyrosome marine invertebrate on which it was based.

An artist has a singular voice, good or bad, but a designer has to always be aware of function

In May, Sotheby’s Paris auctioned one of Lovegrove’s Gingko tables and this autumn a selection of his limited-edition furniture, along with some of his African shields, goes up for auction at Sotheby’s London. Laetitia Contat-Desfontaines, Sotheby’s Head of 20th-Century Design Sales in London, says: “Lovegrove is a visionary who combines science and nature to create extraordinary organic forms using advanced technologies. Although he was a contemporary of other important London-based designers such as Ron Arad, Marc Newson and the late Zaha Hadid, his work is still undervalued on the secondary market and collectors are eager to discover more.”


Ross Lovegrove, at his London design studio, also spends time in an art space in West London

Will these forays into the auction house signal a change in direction? “You get locked in to earning a living and when you come from pretty much nothing like I did, everything is fascinating,” he says, recalling a childhood spent in Wales, painting his father’s garden gnomes for something to do. “But the Pompidou show is a line in the sand. I might go into a different zone, but the show has also made me want to revisit products I created years ago, like the first film-free camera for Olympus in 1990. I’m now thinking I would like to work with modern technologies, 27 years later, and upgrade it. And there are a couple of ranges of cutlery from the past that I think I could improve upon.”


His studio is littered with designs and objects that reflect his love of nature and organic forms

Yet the urge to retreat into his art space is stronger than ever. “Optimisation is a design buzzword that I used to like and use myself, but I now realise that it’s not a good thing because once you’ve optimised something, where do you go? Glitches and mutations and oddities force you down a river of investigation. Society can’t go hypertech. This needs to be arrested and settled.”

When you come from pretty much nothing, like I did, everything is fascinating

Like his aforementioned design peers, Lovegrove has always believed that the future is now. Now that he’s finally got there, it might be time to pause for thought.

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