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Michael Marriott, Designer

April 28, 2012
by the gentle author

When Leila McAlister commissioned Michael Marriott to design and make a shelf to sell copies of Spitalfields Life at her cafe in Calvert Avenue, it gave me the ideal excuse to walk along the canal to the former Briggs Tarpaulin Factory where Michael has his workshop and pay him a call. Briggs Bros have let their complex of dignified shabby nineteenth century buildings to an assortment of small trades and craftsmen, thereby retaining the chaotic working life of the place, and at the heart of this warren of diverse enterprises is Michael’s den. Anyone would break a into a large smile, as I did, to step into this extraordinarily crowded yet meticulously organised space with myriad bicycle parts hanging from the ceiling and every corner crammed with scraps of salvaged timber, metal and plastic, leaving just enough space for the pair of small workbenches where Michael realises his designs.

With the restless animated energy of a teen and the eccentricity of a favourite uncle, Michael is a designer who excels in what I call “wonky modernism.”  In other words, he creates designs of pared-down functionalism in which their form is dictated by their utility and the use of materials is unapologetic, yet as objects they possess something else as well – an undefinable idiosyncrasy which gives his pieces their unmistakeable personality. Michael is no mere bricoleur though, he teaches furniture design at the Royal College of Art and is internationally recognised for his innovative work. So, as you can imagine, I could not wait to discover what the Spitalfields Life shelf was going to look like.

“I always made things when I was a child, but once my mum took me to the Ford factory at Dagenham and I saw this metal pressing machine that was the size of a house and I was totally entranced by it,” Michael told me, recalling his childhood in Essex, when I asked him how it all began. “I’m quite an unusual designer,” he admitted, “in that I make my own designs and I enjoy it.” Trained as a cabinetmaker at the London College of Furniture, Michael  recognises that the making can inform the design and that if, for example, you are designing something with a handle then you need to know how it feels to touch. No Luddite, Michael commonly  works on a computer and then takes the idea into the workshop to refine it further through realising it in three dimensions.

“I work in lots of different ways, I have designed furniture for SCP on-and-off for fifteen years, I do quite a bit of exhibition design, and lot of other things that are less easy to describe.” Michael explained to me enigmatically. Anyone that has been to Leila’s Shop will recognise the cafe tables that he designed and the counter made of an old chest of drawers. He is especially adept at using found materials and creating poetic juxtapositions in which materials of acknowledged quality such as oak or douglas fir are set in unexpectedly sympathetic contrast with plywood or pegboard, revealing a democratic, craftsman’s appreciation of their relative merit and utility.

For the Spitalfields Life shelf, Michael salvaged some oak drawer fronts that were once part of a thirties chest of drawers, which he artfully mis-matched with some douglas fir scavenged from a packing case and combined with a piece of mdf perforated by two mysterious holes that were the result of its previous use. As we spoke, Michael set to work trimming the pieces to size and placing them side by side to appreciate their contrasts while contemplating the angles of the supports, the proportions of the differently-sized shelves and making all the subtle judgements which would result in a piece with its own consistent rationale. “I often reuse things that have been discarded, I think it’s more interesting to reuse than to recycle.” he said, absorbed in his occupation.

Later, I met with Michael at Leila’s Cafe when he was installing the shelves. At once, it became apparent both that the design fitted the contours of the room and that the individual shelf for copies stacked on their side, counter-balanced the other shelves displaying the book face out. The spectrum of mid-brown wood tones complemented the deep blue of David Pearson’s book jacket nicely and, once in place, the shelf looked as if it had always been there – a continuum with the cafe tables and all the other woodwork in the room.

Then Michael climbed on his Mini-Moulton bicycle with a shopping basket strapped onto the back and, looking for all the world like a latter-day Professor Branestawm in a baseball cap and aviators, he gave an extravagant wave as a flourish and peddled away up Calvert Avenue.

“With the restless animated energy of a teen and the eccentricity of a favourite uncle”

Installation for Tokyo Design Week, 1999. Fifty lampshades hanging from a one metre square grid, and accompanied by a soundtrack of Morecambe and Wise performing ‘Bring Me Sunshine’.

Reworking of the Windsor Chair, manufactured in solid ash in Hereford, and available in natural ash or white finish, with red dipped feet, 2009.

Coffee table with float glass top and four turned beech legs attached directly through the glass top, 1995.

Shoe storage unit. Aluminium and re-claimed wood panels, with painted top and oak feet, 2009.

Drawer unit constructed from birch plywood, pegboard and Spanish fruit crates, 1996.

Side table made in Spain with paella dish, 2011.

Chopping board for Polish foods producer, Topolski, for chopping and serving Polish sausages in particular, 2006.

Stacking tables for Leila’s Cafe. Bent steel frames, ash legs, and various reclaimed hardwood timber tops. 2009

Michael fits the Spitalfields Life bookshelf at Leila’s Cafe.

Michael’s design for the Spitalfields Life bookshelf.

The Spitalfields Life bookshelf at Leila’s Cafe – note the third hole added for compositional effect.

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Gemma Byrne permalink
    April 28, 2012


    We stumbled upon Leila’s Shop two Saturdays ago when we went searching for a place to have lunch. I saw your book on display and I bought myself a copy and I’m hooked. Great read! And it was a pleasant surprise to see during my flight home to Brooklyn that you signed it.


  2. jeannette permalink
    April 28, 2012

    it sounds as if he leads the perfect life.
    and, the book looks so beautiful.

  3. Stefan Carey permalink
    April 28, 2012

    I have never seen a bookshelf designed especially for one book (perhaps I need to get out a bit more).

    If we are ever over your way (we live downunder) I will try to remember to visit Leila’s cafe and recall over coffee perhaps, how your narrative inspired thoughts of appreciation for the makers’ art.

  4. Ree permalink
    April 28, 2012

    Marvelous article…Love the book shelf…Hope to see London in October this year and buy my own copy of “the book” in person…SL is the best blog going…8>)

  5. Gary permalink
    April 28, 2012

    Spitalfields Life is getting on shelves far and wide.
    A friend of mine has just received a copy for her birthday purchased by her mother on the Isle of Wight

  6. Ruth permalink
    April 28, 2012

    The Briggs building & courtyard always looks so fascinating. I’ve always wanted to sneak in and wander round but never dared in 6 years of living close by. I hope there are more interesting characters working in there that you can feature so I can wander round by proxy!

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