Most Yellow Cars Tend to be Signal Yellow Cars

Disegno #20 (2018)

Image by Jermaine Francis.

“I’ve got some cashew milk if you like.” Well, that just blew me away. Two minutes through the door of Michael Marriott’s studio in Dalston, east London, and my entire paradigm of studio visits had shifted for the better.

Usually when I visit a designer’s studio, I’ll have a coffee if asked. I’m actually more of a tea drinker, but I’m also vegan and tea isn’t up to much if you have it black – too bitter, too herbal and too nonconformist. While non-dairy milks may have spread through London’s cafés like spores,1 it feels a bit much to ask what non-dairy milks a designer has. So Marriott having cashew milk was a real game changer. Or it would have been, had there not been a problem. I can’t, Michael. I’m intolerant to cashew. Marriott looked a bit disappointed and said this was a shame, and what was nice was that he seemed to really mean it. “It’s the only non-dairy milk I’ve found that has the creaminess of real milk,” he said.

I don’t mean to bore you with that. Fact is, Marriott isn’t even vegan – he’s just trying not to have too much dairy – but it seemed like a good way to set out the fact that Michael Marriott is a tremendously nice man. Sitting in his studio and workshop, you start to get a feel for this. Firstly, there are the stickers dotted around everywhere, printed with slogans like “SO GOOD”, “PEACE it’s not just for CHRISTMAS” and “WORK HARD & BE NICE TO PEOPLE”.2 Then there’s the objects: a serving hatch leading between the kitchen and workshop that’s printed with a smiling Alpine cow wearing a garland of stars, which looks as if it might once have advertised soft cheese; an orange and white billiard ball that’s been repurposed to serve as a handle knob for a router or some such. That’s just a nice thing to do.

But then, the whole place is filled with touches like that. The studio is like the best garage you’ve ever been in – no windows and absolutely crammed to the gills. It’s not so much cluttered, as just very open: everything out on display, with nothing to hide. Even the mechanical pencil sharpener is transparent, meaning you can really peer at all the guilty shavings in its belly and wonder what on earth’s been going on to prompt that amount of sharpening. Then there are the prototype chairs and stools stacked high atop cabinets; the tins of vinyl matte paint set out in jumbled rows; a series of postcards Marriott printed for his Millimetre Mandate campaign, which shanghais a drawing of Tintin’s Captain Haddock into promotional service for its claim that millimetres “are the perfect measuring unit for man and machine”, while centimetres are “capricious, casual and can cause confusion”. I also note two tennis balls in a tube; a shelf devoted to coloured packing tapes; and every sort of woodworking tool you can imagine. “Not that I collect tools,” notes Marriott, who has the air of a kindly woodwork teacher. “I just have a lot of them.”

Well, I say it’s very open as a space, but one thing has been deliberately hidden away. Head down a staircase and you come out into the building’s underground carpark – the sort of place where a crime on Luther might take place. Here, lurking amongst the family sedans and tucked away beneath a green plastic sheet, is the monster to Marriott’s Dr Frankenstein. Strip lighting illuminates the space like a surgeon’s theatre, Marriott steps forward and the sheet is thrown back. Behold – a Volvo! In primrose yellow! “It would fit in a nursery environment quite well,” says Marriott and he’s dead right – it’s an absolute Easter bonnet of an automobile, albeit stripped to the chassis. The windows have been plucked out, its engine is missing and the interior has been gutted. “Just the idea of stripping a yellow Volvo to its bare yellow skin and shell,” says Marriott, running his hands delicately over the primrose cadaver. “I knew there was going to be beautiful stuff in there.” But are you allowed to have this down here, Michael? “I shouldn’t really,” he admits. “That’s why I’ve got the cover on it.”

Anyway, don’t let that bit of naughtiness put you off. Marriott really is a very nice man and it’s worth spending some time with that thought because it’s important to what follows. First, however, some background. Marriott studied furniture design at the London College of Furniture in the early 1980s, before graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1993 with a master’s in the subject. Since then, he’s spent a career creating objects that, while meticulously designed and constructed, are often deliciously jerry-rigged in aesthetic, ranging across editions, installations, commissions and, occasionally, industry. Four Drawers (1996), for instance, is a cabinet on wheels, constructed from birch plywood and pegboard, with four interior drawers made from repurposed cardboard fruit crates. The Ply stool (2009) is a set of interlocking, screen-printed plywood sheets, held together by plastic zip ties. And the Skittle table (1996) for longtime collaborator SCP is a glass tabletop seated upon four wooden bowling pin-style legs. They’re wilfully make-do-and-mend creations – the kind of furniture you imagine Stig of the Dump might produce were he to develop an interest in cabinetry once he hit adulthood – but absolutely consummate in their conception, execution and construction. They’re pieces that balk at the spit polish perfection hankered after by so much contemporary design. They almost seem to respond to any questions over their mode of construction with a kind of insouciant shrug – Well, why not?

Even Marriott’s more traditional pieces evince elements of bricolage – a clarity and upfrontedness about their mode of construction. Shoes shelf (2014), for instance, has a fluoro yellow birch ply frame, the acidity of which highlights the points at which its grey horizontal shelves connect to the overall structure. The Around the World tables (2015) have diamond plate steel bases, onto which Marriott has affixed sumptuously veined marble tops, creating the effect of a Roman villa descending upon an industrial slaughterhouse, while the Hoop bench (2014) attaches a plain timber top to two loops of folded metal that serve as legs. They’re designs that luxuriate in the collision and connections of their components; carefully balanced assemblages that amount to more than the sum of their parts, but which are nonetheless quite interested in making sure you’ve seen all their parts regardless. “The thing that really made me want to be a designer was to understand how things are made,” says Marriott. “I have this slightly naive belief that if you make objects that are accessible to people, it gives them an ability to pick the world apart and understand how they might connect to the world. I like a certain utility in the design and manufacturing of things, as opposed to having a total object.”

Hence the gutted estate car, which is the subject of “You Say Volvo, I Say Potato...”, a show and project that came out of Marriott’s 2017 design fellowship at the Stanley Picker Gallery in Kingston, southwest London. “I think most vehicle design is terrible,” says Marriott. “It’s all a bit homogenous, which is partly because cars need crash zones and airbags and other health and safety things. But it means that they’ve all become a bit overfed – they’ve eaten too much meat and dairy and they’ve become a bit bulbous. But when you take all that skin off, what you have underneath is something like pure design.” Hence Operation Peel the Primrose, which is due to culminate in an exhibition opening in September 2018 when Marriott will display a series of prints on plywood, each produced using elements of the Volvo reappropriated as potato-print stamps. “Even though I’m more interested in constructional logic than surface, I do love colour and pattern, and so I’ve always loved screen-printing,” he says. “I like a coating of ink to be very thin, because then it sinks into the wood and the grain really stands out, giving you this kind of analogue warmth. It doesn’t kill the material, whereas so many objects today feel like they’ve been generated and designed through a computer. But we’re not machines – we’re these imperfect, lop-sided, sort of asymmetrical things – and design needs to remember that.” Even the ink Marriott is using to print with has been produced by means of the Volvo, and is imbued with the kind of narrative and sense of humanity he craves. “I had the idea of making the ink out of soot from the exhaust, although it’s proven not as straightforward as I thought,” he explains. “It’s difficult to extract much soot because the exhaust pipes are packed with fibre-glass wool, but we’ve managed to get a small amount and we’re mixing that with carbon black and some of the sump oil. It makes a superblack printing ink that just feels right.”

This sense of rightness is important to the project, in part because the Volvo has a personal history that Marriott is keen to honour. “I was working with a friend on a project in a school in north London,” he explains, “and one day when we were leaving the school, she started telling me about her car which she’d had for 10 or 12 years. I knew the car very well because it stood out and I’d always really liked it because I knew a bit of the story behind it. Several years ago, her old car had broken down, and as she was parked on the side of the road waiting for the AA, her husband said that he was going to go into the Volvo garage over the road and ask how much secondhand cars cost. Their daughter had just been born, so they really needed a car for the family. Half an hour later he came back and got back into the car: ‘You see that pale yellow Volvo over there? I’ve just bought it.’ It was significantly cheaper than a silver or black one because nobody wanted a primrose-yellow car and I just thought that doing that was such a beautiful contribution to his new family. It’s quite a traditional way of providing for a family to say, ‘OK I’m going to spend my savings on a very safe, Swedish vehicle.’ So it was a very significant thing in their lives and the whole family grew to love this car, partly because it stood out so much. Anyway, as we left the school that day, she told me she was going to have to finally get rid of it because it needed a new gearbox and the front wheel bearings had gone, and the garage had said it wasn’t worth fixing it. So she was reluctantly coming to terms with letting go of it, while I had been having some early, vague thoughts around what I might be interested in printing for the Stanley Picker fellowship. Suddenly, this car felt like the missing link. It was a big shift in the project – and sort of a big, random shift in a way – but it just felt like it made sense. Anyway, do you want an orange or something?” he asks, offering the fruit bowl. I do, but I also don’t want sticky fingers when out on the job. After all, there’ll be time for an orange later. For now, it’s all about the primrose yellow.

“You Say Volvo, I Say Potato...”, then, is a kind of memorial to the Volvo – a means of extending its lifespan beyond its breakdown, and a way of encapsulating the memories encoded within the object in a new physical form. To date, Marriott has coated the Volvo’s tires in ink and run the car over ply boards, as well as setting the windscreen wipers to swash ink back and forth across a plywood windscreen. The results are inky memento mori, prompting reflection on the life of the car and its emotional resonances, while the next stage in the project will see the production of a series of potato prints created using elements of the Volvo’s engine and other inner workings. “I really wanted to find a way of printing that was controllable from the studio, so from the beginning of the project I’ve always referenced the immediacy of potato printing, which has now become far more literal given that we’ve discovered a lot of things we’re printing with are potato-sized,” says Marriott.

To facilitate his project, Marriott has taken on the mantle of a dissector. He walks over to a plastic tub full of cleaning fluid, in which various elements of filleted Volvo have been left to soak, their oil and grease leaching away. “Don’t touch,” says Marriott, pulling on a pair of gloves and wisely staving off my plan to thrust my hands into the bath in the name of experiential journalism. “You know, you don’t want that cleaning stuff on your skin.” From within the bath, he pulls out a silvering trophy – a section of the pump used to drive the Volvo’s air-conditioning unit. “That pump is a spectacularly beautiful, amazing little device,” he says. “It’s got three cylinders that go up and down via a sort of disc that’s mounted on a rotating spindle – as that revolves, it pushes the cylinders up into a little dance. It’s so beautifully simple and clever as a way of achieving a pumping action, but it’s also just a beautiful object. You could almost do this whole project with just that pump.” That kind of eulogising is telling because the description usually attached to Marriott’s work in the design press is “utilitarian”, something that the designer has himself encouraged through comments like those to It’s Nice That in 2015, in which he explained his enduring love for plywood as resulting from its “utilitarian soul”, in contrast to the “oak paneled rooms that the royalty flounce about in”. But while the utility of devices like the pump and materials such as plywood clearly appeal to Marriott – as well as generating an aesthetic force to which he responds – his connection to objects appears more complicated than the brute practicalities suggested by labelling his design as utilitarian. “I think people say my work is utilitarian because it’s something that was written once and then it’s been regurgitated ever since,” Marriott notes. All things considered, he’s probably right. Since when have fluoro-coloured bookshelves and coffee tables made from fruit crates been utilitarian? And while a Volvo estate is, admittedly, something of a symbol for utilitarian travel, it’s an image that is utterly undone by the overarching and undeniable primrose-ness of the car parked in Marriott’s basement.

“Probably less than 1 per cent of cars today are yellow whereas 90 per cent are silver and the other 9 per cent are black or red,” explains Marriott. “Then there’s the fact that this car is primrose yellow, whereas most yellow cars tend to be closer to a signal yellow. I’d always really liked the car, but without the colour you probably wouldn’t look twice at it. It’s the colour that really makes it.” Which seems to capture something important about Marriott’s design ethos. Rather than a strictly utilitarian designer, Marriott seems something more like a nice designer. His work is open-handed and friendly, pushing existing material characteristics to the fore, rather than trying to impose a strict style. “I’m interested in social values and ecological values,” says Marriott, “So with that piece with the fruit crates [Four Drawers], that’s made using 3mm-thick perforated hardboard on the sides. It’s incredibly reduced and light in terms of material usage – regardless of the fruit boxes being found objects – while there’s a sort of logic I like where the pegboard already has holes in it that allow you to put screws straight though into the ply. There’s no excess in that structure.”

Moreover, Marriott’s work is inclusive. It finds space for plywood, marble, metal and timber, mixing these materials with fluoro colours and graphic pops – how many utilitarians, for instance, would throw Captain Haddock into the mix? – before gleefully showing off the ways in which these elements have been brought together, given purpose, and balanced accordingly. As a designer, Marriott is something akin to a devoted primary school teacher, working tirelessly to make sure every material gets a good role in the school play and nobody has to play anything crap like a shrub. “There’s a kind of rightness and a beauty in how materials meet and are connected,” says Marriott. “It’s not hidden – it’s expressed and it feels like a part of the whole thing. That sense of ‘rightness’ is really important for me and the other word I use a lot in relation to objects is ‘handsome’. Handsomeness in an object isn’t to do with masculine features, but refers to a sort of no-nonsense simplicity – if something doesn’t need to be aerodynamic, then don’t apply curves.” This, he notes, is the design approach exhibited by the Volvo’s constituent parts and it’s the same ethos he hopes to embody within his own work. If you’re going to mix materials, why go to the effort of concealing the transitions? An object whose material properties and functionalities have been carefully considered has no need for disassembly or artifice – nice objects need not finish last. “This maybe sounds a bit hippy,” says Marriott, who – admittedly – is sat in front of one of his “PEACE it’s not just for CHRISTMAS” stickers, wearing shorts and drinking tea with cashew milk, “but I like design that almost feels closer to nature, rather than being the result of the ego of one person and their taste in lines, curves or colours. Those Volvo components, for instance, have been engineered for maximum efficiency. If you thin down a wall section in an engine, you’re in danger of the pressure blowing that wall out, or rust eating it away, so there are reasons for everything. An engine feels like pure design, because it’s led by engineering, material and manufacturing concerns. There’s no superficial styling to it, which is what I dislike about much of what the traditional design world produces.” Marriott has little time for such fripperies or flimflam – it’s straight to the good stuff. If you need him, he’ll be down with the primrose-yellow Volvo.

  1. You cannot yet make milk from spores.

  2. See – nice.