product, Paolozzi & Prima: David Keech on design & music

Multidisciplinary designer, musician and teacher David Keech was an Associate with architects Foster and Partners, the first non-Japanese designer at Yamaha Design in Japan, and now runs his own product and interior design practise, Keechdesign.

Kumu chair by David Keech with James Johnson. A Japanese word meaning to join together or assemble, Kumu has only five components, no screws or mechanical fixings and is cut from a single sheet of plywood.

What inspires you? Everything.  That’s a serious answer – not just design.  Only a small percentage of my inspiration comes from that world, a very congested one, everyone following each other – I think it’s good not to be too involved in that.  I probably get more of my inspiration from sculpture, fine art, music, popular culture, than design per se. I spend a lot of time and energy pursuing inspiration, it’s a big part of what I do.  In teaching I kick off with slides about inspiration to surprise students a bit, not work by Phillippe Starck or Arne Jacobsen (much as I love them both)… I was at the National Gallery yesterday looking mainly at pre-17th century religious paintings, and I just thought to myself ‘this is fuel’.  It’s profound, the human energy involved – let alone the skill.  If you could get to half that level, you’d be going some…

Can you describe your approach to problem-solving? Designers are obsessives in one way or another and end up doing things the way they want.  I tend to think quite scientifically: here’s a set of problems or challenges, this is what we need to achieve and here’s how we are going to do it… I am very strongly influenced by what I learned with Norman Foster, a very rigorous way of working based on looking at all the options, being very thorough.  I also try to think really broadly and in a sense that’s where the creativity starts.  It’s a lot more fun than I think we are led to believe…

Let’s take the example of a bar/ restaurant interior – before, nothing exists apart from this horrible mess. You sit down and go through it very logically: who is the client? what have we got to play with in terms of budget? who is manufacturing? who will be going there? – a whole set of questions that can be answered.  You answer those, then it goes to another level – that would be appropriate and that table, this would be appropriate for that surface, we have a bit of flexibility here to do something creative – and then that is a another set of branches of the tree, so what could that be?  You sit down and work through it that way, more scientist than designer…

I always think of Edison: I believe he was looking for the material of the filament that creates the lightbulb glow, and he went through thousands and thousands of materials: horsehair, wire, things that he found in nature, before ending up with the one that worked.  Day after day ticking them off, analysing progress…  That’s how scientists work and I think in design that is one of my key working methods.  I sometimes think there is more creativity in science than art. I think that’s true, yes.  I baulk a bit when I feel designers add arbitrary things for no reason.  It is about rigour, meaning.  Going back to those National Gallery paintings – it’s all meaningful, no bullshit at all… utter meaning.  A combination of technique and creativity – with one or the other you have very little but by managing both you get there…? I think you do and the more experienced and confident you get, the more it’s a movement forward.  When you read about science the more you realise our activity is not so different. I 100% agree with that, and its changing, luckily getting better for people like us.  The commercial markets have realised that this is fruitful territory, they are thinking ‘I don’t want to go to that company that just designs hi-fi systems, maybe these other people can bring something interesting to the table’.  The other end of that scale is IKEA getting celebrities to ‘design’ products for them…

How do you sell yourself? The phrase used to be ‘multidisciplinary designer’, but that is such a mouthful.  I do say I am that – we design interiors and we design products.  Going deeper, my background is that I spent many years with Foster (architecture), some years with Yamaha in Japan (consumer product), and the company now (Keechdesign) is the sum of those parts: my history, experience and interests.  At one time in my career there was a difficult time when I left Fosters and the multidisciplinary approach was proving difficult to communicate.  People would say ‘what type of designer are you then?’… People are confused by that. To do one thing only would be more effective, business-wise, but specialisation is too near production for me… It’s a difficult equation – the broader your skills, the harder the sell.  Clients want to know ‘how’s that going to increase my revenue?”   I like to try and turn that around: (laughing) ‘how’s that going to increase my revenue?  It’s just design.  I think you don’t really ‘sell’ it.  People get to know you, they understand your value, they become clients.

What started you thinking you wanted to be a designer? I was the pasty kid in the corner drawing at school.  When I got to secondary school you did art, metalwork or technical drawing.  I did A-level Art and there was an architecture module and I really got into that, then Foundation at Nene College and that opened it all up for me.  I’d done all this tight Rotring pen stuff (spaceships and Lord of the Rings characters – the stuff that boys do).  The course was pretty progressive there were some real characters teaching it– you know: ‘draw this [sound of loud hand clap]’ but I began to think: ‘this is me, I like this’.  Everyone applied for specialist courses but I thought ‘I love it all’, so I applied for one of the only two courses that did ‘multidisciplinary design’: photography, product, textiles, graphics – the whole spectrum.  So you’ve always been that multidisciplinary person? Yes.

I got a place the RCA – here there must have been luck involved, because I was taught and mentored by Eduardo Paolozzi: an incredible character: sculptor, printmaker, graphic designer, ceramicist, Royal Academician, a KBE.  He could be a very blunt, rude man on occasion and he only had a few students allocated, usually the ones that didn’t fit anywhere else – I was one of those.  We hit it off from the word go, he was a big Jazz fan.  He once said ‘the difference between art and craft is muscle’.  Paolozzi seems accessible, unpretentious in the most positive way… He was really hard on people he thought were bullshitting him – he wouldn’t even talk to them…

Then I applied to Fosters – super-modernist, hi-tech architecture, but I knew they took on graduates, and they had this [broad] approach where they don’t really care as long as it’s good – but nothing happened…   After some months, I rang and they said: “actually someone’s just left (the Bilbao Metro team) – can you draw? can you make models?…when can you start?”.  So if you’d not made the call nothing would have happened? Yes.

How did you get into music – art school? No, music started much earlier.  My grandfather had been a trombone player and played sax when in the Royal Tank Regiment – he was so passionate about music that he sort of ‘gave it off’…  I remember insisting that I’d seen him play, although he had actually stopped years before.  He brought it to life so vividly in words… Yes.  At secondary school, while everyone else was listening to the Jam and punk and so on, there was a guy called Bob Hunt (now a well-known jazz musician), then lead trombonist in the school band.  A larger than life character even at 13 or 14, already into booze and Jazz records.  I remember drinking Guinness with him and listening to Duke Ellington, thinking: ‘bloody hell what is that?’. The horns are making this incredible racket: eerie, strange sounds that literally send shivers down your spine.  I was like: ‘what is going on?’ From that moment on it was bang! …can’t get enough of this! Your introduction to a music affects what you feel about it… It’s also getting intoxicated by other people’s passion.  You sense if people ‘mean it’? …you do.  The same is true of music and design: ‘genuine’ tends to communicate.  Was it Ellington who said something like: ‘there’s only two kinds of music: good and bad’? – The same is true of design I think …

Later I spent a chunk of time as a full-time musician.  I toured with Ray Gelato’s band for about six years.  Ray didn’t want (written) music on stage so you had to commit this entire songbook to memory.  Swing music, but super-technical – the trombone in a four-piece piece horn section is usually playing inside harmonies, so you can’t just memorise the melody.  We toured Spain, South of France, Italy, Scandinavia – lovely open air festivals, so you couldn’t really complain about having a few charts to memorise…we even played Carnegie Hall in New York.  Feelgood music? Ray modelled it very much on the Louis Prima band.  Wild and abandoned, but you realise every note is arranged to the split second… incredibly tight.  Fun music, but people think: ‘these guys can really play’.  When I left the band it really took off, they played at Paul McCartney’s wedding, that sort of thing… annoying really!  Ray is now the king of that style of music – Kids! Stop listening to Paulo Nutini and get real!

[Embedded video fault, sorry, but Louis Armstrong plays ‘Stardust’ clip is here]

‘Louis Armstrong is an inspiration – few people see him as the Beethoven-level pioneer he was.  To achieve that as a poor kid from the rough part of New Orleans is incredible.  Before him people were playing either folk or classical music.  No-none had the whole ‘take your horn and play what’s inside’ thing but he did and that gave rise to everything that followed: punk, hip-hop… he opened the floodgates.  There’s his virtuosity, but also a razor-sharp attitude – no-one would play louder or higher.  I still listen, especially to the early stuff.  A great newspaper headline when he died simply said: MOVE OVER GABRIEL.’

What is the link between design and music? The more music I do, the better it is for the design work.  It’s all part of the same thing.  Its no surprise that half the bands in the world went to art school.  On a creative level there are strong differences:  if you think about a piece of hard commercial product design, say, a new product – this year’s X73Y or whatever it – the link between that and playing freely improvised jazz is fairly tenuous.  But I don’t think that is the way the link is working – it works on a personal level.  Doing one enables your mind to work in a certain way that will help you with another.  It’s not like ‘I made this piece of music so it influences that piece of design’ – It is something deeper within, it’s not that direct.  Art and music are far more empirical than people think.  You look at a Jazz musician who has spent hours studying musical theory in a very scientific way, yet the playing is incredibly human and spontaneous, but there is that effort that underpins it.  I think there are really strong parallels in design.  Doing music doesn’t repeat what you do in design – it takes your creativity for a walk in a different direction somehow, it comes back rebooted and refreshed? I think that’s very true.  You have managed to mix the two, working with a musical client (Yamaha) – is that a special relationship? I didn’t get hooked up to them because of music, they always stressed that you don’t have to be a musician to design for them.  In fact a lot of the designers there aren’t musicians, which I always thought was odd.  But they really want to absorb it.  If they go out for dinner they’ll go to Ronnie Scott’s.  We ran exhibitions and presentations internally that were often not connected to formal design.  I knew then I wasn’t the only person thinking that way… they look outwards for their inspiration.

What’s important in design right now? Responsibility, especially sustainability – solutions for the environment.  Integrity is important – now, you can go onto the internet and get any number of Charles Eames replica chairs for £50, copies of everything are available… The people in design that will emerge will be the ones who are good at doing things…  There is so much fakery – on the TV everyone’s hysterical because someone can sing.  Modesty and integrity is important.   Product design now is all about ‘the toothbrush that’s a lamp’ – a lot of design is a bit like that now.  And all that great software hasn’t increased the proportion of good design in the world. A good point!

Is there an artform you do not relate to? No.  If it’s art I’m into it.  That’s where I’ve learned all my beliefs… anyone who’s taken the time to make art gets my vote, from graffiti to opera, hip-hop to classical music.  I know a lot about it – but I realise I also know nothing about it, so I’m still in awe of it all.  What really gets my back up is the opposite – people who are critical of expression and say ‘that’s rubbish!’, ‘who do they think they are?’ and ‘anyone could do that!’.  That really bothers me, its bigotry really.  Is there more of that than there used to be?  People seem to need to be more prejudiced, just to navigate through the choices of the day? Yes, that is true.  There is a huge amount of stuff available and I try and move with that – Twitter is a good example, but there is a tendency that everything gets dumbed-down, without any input.  I’m a great admirer of skill, people that can actually do things, and I hate the idea of people thinking they can get rich or famous by doing nothing.

You’re a family man, musician, designer in several disciplines – unless you never sleep you must be very organised at some level – how do you manage your time? Recently, business has got really busy.  And I have resurrected the music again to a level where there is something creative happening.  So it is difficult, and sometimes I don’t sleep at night actually, but I have started to realise that you have to just stop – especially at the work end of things.  On any given day there’s a list of things to do this long, and you could stay up all night or prioritise it and just stop somewhere.  Have you got better at switching off? Definitely.  Is that to do with family? Possibly yes…  With a young family and when playing music, you have to be in the moment? It’s something I have only learned fairly recently.  I sometimes work all night, and if you know why you are doing it (‘this will mean ‘x’,‘y’ and ‘z’ on this project and the client will think this’) that’s OK.  I suppose in a way the clever bit – unintentionally – is that music and the business provide a foil for one another.  So you don’t have a formula time management system but a sense of when to switch off. Yes I think  so.  I’m always aware that I want to get out of the door at the end of a days work to see (and hear!) my children before they go to bed.  I feel that as a result the work satisfaction has gone up – you don’t achieve quality in design by simply throwing hours at it; you achieve it by living life.  You have to manage your energy? – to be reasonable to yourself, I think that’s the key to it.

How do you escape from ‘work’ – music? I don’t.  I do what I love for a living, and that includes music.  When I’m playing, there’s a level of professionalism – people don’t realise how much ‘work’ is involved.  But doing something you love is a good thing.  I think you either can run a business or not.  I remember that feeling when you work for someone else 9 to 5, Sunday night you’ve always got that thing of  ‘…Monday tomorrow…’ and I never get that any more.  I have found the more I subscribed to my own passions the better it gets for the business, so I don’t think of it as work in that sense – there is nothing to escape from.  Parts of the business side do feel like ‘work’ though? Nowadays I farm out much of this; quite a big leap for me because I am a control freak like most good designers.  I don’t like giving work to others, but the workload is such that I simply have to delegate.  I have always been  a designer, and now I’m a business owner too – interesting that both require a lot of creativity.  Maybe if your grandfather had been a businessman things would be different? Yes – it’s quite a hard one to learn on your own – the art of business – but hey – if you can make sense of modern jazz you can do anything!!

See more of Keechdesign’s work here.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply