Good things come to those who wait
Following European design principles from across the globe
Words: Leanne Cloudsdale
Photography: Jessica Lindsay and James Grose
For James Grose, the proverb ‘good things come to those who wait’ has become something of a lifestyle choice. The architect-turned-art-student lives with his wife Nicola in Sydney, Australia in a house they designed themselves on the south side of the city, surrounded by beaches and a national park. A self-confessed modernism enthusiast, his educational journey took many twists and turns before landing (finally) at art school after retirement. With a laugh, he confessed, “At the age of 17 I told my dad I wanted to be an artist. He told me I had to get a ‘real job’ first. So, after 50 years of employment I am studying again! I’m thoroughly enjoying lessons about the history of art and learning to draw in a more abstract manner, without the constraints of functionality that my job as an architect demanded.”
Rather than fast-track his way to a career in architecture, James took the scenic route, opting for a more varied approach than his peers. “After my first degree (in architecture), I found myself becoming more interested in product design and subsequently won a scholarship in 1977 at Konstindustriskolan – the School of Design and Crafts at the University of Gothenburg. I had always wanted to go back to Sweden after I’d travelled there during a backpacking trip a few years earlier. I was captivated by the sense of design that pervaded everything – it was the height of Swedish democratic socialism and society felt balanced and very equitable; it was such a great experience. Once the course was finished, I went back to Australia and quickly realised there were very few opportunities in industrial design. It seemed the easiest way to enter that realm was through graphic design, which I did for a few years to earn a living, specialising in signage systems and brand design. Engaging with architects was a big part of my role, developing graphics in buildings or the design of architectural publications. It fired up my passion for the built environment again and I returned to complete the final part of my architecture degree at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1985.”
A chance encounter with a Braun calculator in 1980, purchased from the MOMA shop in New York, kick-started an entirely new way of thinking for James. He made the purchase, brought it back to Australia and began to immerse himself in learning more about the world of functional design. Developing a strong taste for what he termed the ‘European aesthetic’ wasn’t easy. The geographical distance only amplified a sense of what he felt was missing by living in a country so far away from the modernist reference points that inspired him.
Reflecting on the challenges, he said, “For a long time it was very frustrating to have a sensibility that relied on a cultural context from another part of the world. These days, ‘design’ is such an international commodity; there’s a singular language which is available pretty much anywhere, thanks to technology. As the design professions have flourished and expanded there is now a stronger range of Australian designed (and manufactured) products, with easier access to great products from overseas. The best stuff tends to be a little more difficult to obtain – but it’s always worth the effort! Vitsœ is one such example. Its furniture occupies a revered place in the design space, with an exclusivity enhanced by its extraordinary heritage and dedication to its continuing evolution.”
A Vitsœ customer for many years, his system is now installed in his standalone home studio building clad with translucent panels to help diffuse daylight. With high ceilings, Australian timber floors and doors that fully open both sides, “During the summer months it feels like the studio and garden are one and the same” he explains, “Nicola and I worked in collaboration with a young architect (Matthew Woodward) to design a home that utilises the functional, modernist principles I’ve talked about.”
Pointing towards the door, he said, “Even the handles are European! Practically everything in the house has European lineage. We just planned the delivery timescales carefully because we know it’s generally a three-to-six-month lead time. The wait is all part of the process, especially if your products are coming via sea. You build up a relationship with your contact at the shipping company, who keeps you updated with the progress of the container as it makes its way across the ocean towards you. Things get exciting as it gets closer, when you’re guided through the import phase. The anticipation, the wait – it’s all part of it.”
Calculating the correct amount of storage for a lifetime of occupational ephemera was something James took pleasure in. Smiling, he acknowledged how, “I’ve had to be a bit ruthless, but I’ve kept the things that have been really important to my life. I have all of my sketchbooks, all of which are numbered – all the way to 98. I’m relieved to finally have one place where everything sits. I’ve summoned up the discipline to make sure I never had too much ‘stuff’ for the number of shelves.” Gesturing towards the 606 Universal Shelving System behind him, James announced proudly that his latest addition – a new 606 drawer cabinet – means he’s finally got the perfect place to store his collection of 600 mechanical pencils.
Reaching up, he grabbed a hefty textbook, titled ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’ by Robert Venturi. “I was supposed to read this as an architecture student, but never did. Back in the 1970s I used to pretend to tutors and fellow students that I’d read it, when really, I hadn’t. But then, in 1985, I took it with me on a gap year travelling around Europe. I finally read it during my time on a Greek island called Mykonos – it changed my entire life and altered the way I thought about design and architecture. To think I’d spent the previous six years studying without ever having taken the time to read it; that was a valuable lesson the universe was trying to tell me.”