Opinion: when the creative industries across Europe go offline for the holiday season, the archetypal English country cottage becomes an incubator for problem-solving design brilliance says Kieran Long.
I am not a designer, but many of my best friends are. And my wife is. And that means I go on holiday with designers and architects a lot.
Getting to see designers in their professional habitats is of course a great privilege of my career as a journalist and a curator in this field. You know the archetypes. The east London factory building with birch-faced plywood furniture, the big warehouse in the outskirts of Rotterdam, the Berlin shopfront.
But this is holiday season. Scandinavia is off-grid all of July, Italy uncontactable all of August, so there's respite for the design professions. Your German clients have stopped asking for your dietary requirements for that impending press conference next May, and your Italian ones have paused their bleating about that urgent drawing they need for a project that they will in any case cancel the week before the Milan furniture fair.
Holidays bring out the best in designers. Perhaps I should qualify that – what really brings out the best in them is renting a cottage with friends somewhere in the English countryside. These places are usually a land that metropolitan taste forgot, but it's not styling that matters here. The English cottage holiday inspires the kind of creativity that is somewhere between Dada problem solving and folk art.
If you are not British, you may not be aware of the vernacular of the tourist rental cottage. It's all beige worktops; keys hidden under plant pots; stone-effect ceramic tiles on the floor; sort-of-charming but ever-so-slightly-mental Post-It notes in cursive handwriting about how to turn on the heating or open the Velux windows; improbably small bath towels; incredibly heavy solid wood furniture; "farmhouse-style" kitchens; polite arguments about which couple will tolerate the twin bed room and "We'll leave you to it!" in the cottage owner's sing-song voice expressing latent doubt that the house will still be standing by the end of the week. Oh yes, and AGA cookers, of which more later.
You would never want to live in a place like this, but this is what's available in the countryside if you're not able to afford one of Alain de Botton's expensive and tasteful Living Architecture houses. The designers I know are not.
I remember one holiday in a charming Victorian cottage in north Devon. It was pretty remote and the weather was drizzly, which meant making our own entertainment. But the cooking was becoming a problem. The hob had an extractor above it in slick stainless steel. The edge of the hood was in greenish glass, and the whole thing was mounted at just about eye height for the average male (ie me), meaning that every time I leant over to take a look in my stew, I banged my forehead on the edge of the glass. It was beginning to smart.
The second morning of the holiday I woke up late, and wandered downstairs to see who was making breakfast. One of my friends had taped a row of teabags to the leading edge of the cooker hood. Problem solved. Designers, in my experience, are magicians with sticky tape. So neat was the row of tea bags that they seemed as luxurious as leather upholstery. Everything about this overwrought, hyper-designed, Made-in-China cooker hood was improved by the tea bags: it was more beautiful, funnier, more contextual. It was safer. It's even surprisingly nice to rest your head on teabags: they have a quite exotic aroma. The only risk is that you burst one and sprinkle tea leaves in your bolognese, but I'm not sure that wouldn't be quite delicious too.
The English cottage focuses brilliant design minds on temporary, precisely measured adjustments to the environment like these. All are aimed at increasing relaxation and maximising pleasure.
On a holiday I went on a couple of years ago designers outnumbered non-designers four to two. One evening we used a load of tiny cowrie shells as chips in a slightly bad-tempered poker game. That was more of a ready-made situation: not really design in the true sense of the word, but profound. As we played I thought back to the very beginnings of currency, the first merchants on beaches in the Greek archipelago, perhaps trading shells like these for commodities.
That same minibreak also saw creative electrical engineering (one friend jimmied some ancient speaker cable to fit into the headphone jack of an iPhone) and lighting design (some red plastic packaging was used to tone down the aggressive and decidedly un-gemütlich colour temperature of low-energy lightbulbs).
"On Holiday With Designers" was a catch phrase born that year, a genre of design that includes the kind of thing you do when you can just about be bothered to change something, but only with what you have to hand, and only for a week. It's one part MacGyver, one part Portlandia and a sprinkle of Gropius. Like all the best product design, basically.
This year we splashed out a bit on a very tasteful cottage in Cornwall. So beautiful was it that nothing much needed adjusting. And that was great. But a bit of me was rather sad about it too. I was happy when one of my friends fashioned a shoe dryer out of the box of a disposable barbecue. I think I photographed it more than I did the sunset over the Atlantic.
The British holiday home does, though, help you understand in the end why you need to get back to sanity. The ubiquitous AGA oven is the case in point. (For non Brits, the AGA is a giant practical joke of a cooker, invented by a Nobel-prize winning Swedish physicist but produced in England for Brits with too much money and no double glazing. They are either too hot or too cold, unbelievably wasteful of energy and space, and downright dangerous to operate. They make great toast, though.)
I got burned on the elbow trying to take a bread roll out of the oven, and the fading pinkish scar is a salutary reminder of how wrong conservative, middle-class taste can be and so on. But these cottages over the years have also confirmed something else important – design is best when its funny, provisional, contextual and solving a problem.