Years back I was walking around the back streets of Covent Garden and I came across a small shop called ‘One Off’.
They seemed to be selling unusual, almost sculptural furniture.
To get to it you had to go downstairs.
On a staircase made out of old railway-sleepers, cemented at right angles into the wall.
There was a strange sort of electronic music playing.
It just sounded like random notes.
But when I stopped to listen, the music stopped.
So I carried on downstairs and the music started again.
When I stopped, it stopped.
When I started, it started.
Suddenly I got it: the staircase was a giant keyboard.
I stood at the bottom and watched other people ascending and descending.
It was fascinating, seeing people making music by their actions, without realising it.
Like a film with the perfect soundtrack.
Eventually I turned to the furniture.
I’d never seen anything like it before.
For a start, there was a stereo system made out of a broken block of concrete.
Full of gravel and steel reinforcing rods.
The most delicate of objects contrasted with the crudest material.
Then there was a remote-control table-lamp, made out of retractable car aerials.
Tiny fragile arms, but with large clunky motors moving tiny lights.
Everything was witty and whimsical and slightly unsettling.
Full of semiotic dissonance.
You may have seen this stuff copied since, but these were the originals.
This is where it all started.
It was such a reaction against all the bling and excess of most other designers at that time.
It was irreverent and iconoclastic.
But the thing I fell in love with was his armchairs.
He made them from bent scaffolding poles, and Rover 3 Litre car seats that he found in scrap yards.
It’s the only furniture I’ve ever bought.
I’d never seen anything like it, and neither had anyone else.
So fresh and original in fact, that Ron’s furniture quickly became sought-after all over the world.
The chairs are now worth many times what I paid for them.
Ron has had many, many books written about him.
He runs a huge international design company.
His products are on sale at practically every museum and art gallery in the world.
He’s had massive retrospective exhibitions at places like the V&A in London, The MoMA in New York, The Centre Pompidou in Paris.
For 20 years, he was Head of Product Design at The Royal College of Art.
The man is successful on a massive scale.
The iconoclast has become the icon.
Recently I met Ron for the first time since I bought his chairs all those years ago.
We were both standing looking at a large chrome sofa he’d recently made.
It was hugely expensive, stylish and imposing, and everyone was admiring it.
But, IMHO, it didn’t have the shock, the power, the outrageousness off his early work.
It was in fact, bling.
I said “I don’t mean to be rude Ron, and maybe it’s just me, but I thought your designs were much more exciting in the old days. What happened?”
Now, at that point, a lot of people would have got angry.
What right did I have to question an international design mega-star?
He’d won every award there was, several times over.
His designs had made him rich beyond what most of us can conceive.
To the world he was bigger and better than he’d ever been.
Who was I to question that?
But what really impressed me was that his response wasn’t about ego.
It was to get involved with the question objectively.
To his credit, he didn’t get angry.
He thought for a bit, and he said “In the old days I had no money, so I had to think much harder about what I could make things from.
I had to be much more creative.
Nowadays, whatever I think of, people give me a lot of money to make it.
I don’t have to think so hard.
I think that’s what you’re talking about.”
And I think that’s a brilliant answer.
Can you see any parallels with the general state of creativity at present?
Whatever we can think of we can do it.
So we just keep on thinking of bigger and bigger things.
It doesn’t have to be clever, just bigger.
Winston Churchill once said “We have no money, we shall have to think.”
Maybe that’s what’s happened.
We’ve got so much money we don’t have to think.