27 September 2010

Live! From London's Decorex! It's Johnny Grey!

Johnny Grey is a design world rock star who rose to prominence in 1980 when his unfitted kitchens stood out in stark contrast to everything else available when the London's Sunday Times wrote an article asking "Why this awful fixation with fitted kitchens?" In 1987, Johnny Grey licensed the Unfitted Kitchen (now with capital letters)  to Smallbone and they brought Johnny's work to the attention of design lovers in the US.

Johnny Grey Studios has offices in the UK and in the US now and they work on projects one at a time. All of Johnny's designs are site- and client-specific. No two of his projects look alike but there are themes that run through all of his work. A Johnny Grey project spares nothing as it serves a design. Despite his exacting standards, there's a knowing playfulness that settles over everything and the effect is engaging. There's no other word.

Decorex is one of the world's premiere design showcases and it started yesterday in the Chelsea section of London. What makes Decorex so unique is that its exhibitors are hand-picked from around the world. Decorex is committed to showing only the best and most inspired designs it can find and this year, Johnny Grey Studios is exhibiting free-standing kitchen furniture for the first time. In another first, the five pieces on display this week are available for individual sale. Chuck Wheelock is Johnny Grey Studios' US Design Director and a friend of mine. Chuck sent me the following photos of those five pieces and anybody not at Decorex is seeing them here for the first time.

The Tree  Corner Cupboard
All furniture starts out as a tree trunk and this natural shape and beauty is lost when sliced into rectangular sections. JGS’s tree corner cupboard is a basic construction, suspended from a tree and fixed to the wall. The design aims to bring nature back into furniture and celebrate its imperfections, variegations, incompleteness and subtle movement in shape. Fine stainless mesh allows air to circulate throughout while hidden internal lighting provides a ghost-like depth as the mesh takes on a patterned sheen.

Personal anecdote
Ever since the age of seven, when I made a workshop bench between three small trees, I have wanted to design a piece of furniture around a tree.   I cut down this 6” diameter holly tree to make way for a workshop at Fyning Copse.  It sat around for 15 years before I stripped the bark off and passed it over to furniture maker Chris Height. He suggested the butterfly handles and simple butt hinges. --Johnny Grey

Leila Ferraby and Johnny Grey worked on this piece.

The Cooking Island
The most essential item of furniture in a modern kitchen is a central island, where you can prep and cook efficiently, without moving more than a few paces.

When we found this piece of burr oak, it was clear that this should be the key feature for our evolved take on a cooking island, with its profile lit behind glass. The glass panels behind the burr panels are hand-cast, which blurs the impact of the concealed LED lights and gives a texture like captured water, matching the burr oak.  The un-coloured concrete is the same composition as used in garden sculpture and incorporates the colour variations and natural imperfections found in the mix.

Personal anecdote
The furniture makers Chris Thorpe and Adrian King made a huge impact using dramatic burr oak.  Our vision for the piece began as a series of wonky-edge planks with gaps as cladding. Imagine looking across a field at night and seeing an old barn with gaps between the boards and light peeping through. The mystery of what lies behind and the darkness all around provides both a comforting feeling and desire to know more. We tried to capture that quality in this design.  --Johnny Grey

Leila Ferraby and Johnny Grey worked on this piece.

The Sink Cabinet
This piece was inspired by the simplicity of rustic farmhouse scullery sinks.  The open construction is simply expressed with cast concrete flanges as supports and timber horizontal shelves with bolts to hold the centre section together. Coconut draining boards flank the Belfast sink and concrete backed countertop. The backsplash by artist Alex Zdankowicz adds a touch of artisan glamour to an otherwise austere piece.  Handmade willow baskets by Jenny Crisp were designed to allow cutlery to be moved easily between table, dishwasher and sink. Other shelves are left open so that you can see the beauty of functional kitchen utensils and cooking equipment.

Leila Ferraby and Johnny Grey worked on this piece with design guidance provided by Matt Withington.

The Plate Rack
Inspired by the plate racks Elizabeth David commissioned from French provincial makers for sale in her shop, this piece is simple and utilitarian with minimal use of material. We introduced stainless steel instead of dowels, which makes more room for plates as well as visually lightening the design. 

Chris Height made this for JGS.

Personal anecdote
I have designed 14 plate racks over the years. All of our kitchen clients are asked whether they would like one in their kitchen and the response always is strongly expressed; people either love or hate them. Elizabeth David said plate racks were a necessary companion to efficient washing up and asked me to design her one for her winter kitchen. That was my first plate rack design which is not unlike the one we have designed for this collection. --Johnny Grey

Leila Ferraby worked under Johnny Grey’s supervision on this piece.

The Light Dresser 
So many of the objects we bring into our kitchens have a real beauty about them –whether functional kitchen vessels or artisan items. We felt that a modern version of the traditional Welsh dresser could use light to magnify the pleasure and experience of seeing this object.  

We created a dresser that celebrates light, by creating a light box behind the back and the underside of the countertop.  The light dresser glows within the kitchen with the colour and brightness chosen by a remote control. 

Nigel Brown, an independent and distinguished cabinet maker made this piece.

Personal anecdote
When we first started designing the modern cottage collection we wanted to have each piece of furniture incorporate its own lighting, becoming a light experience itself. The dresser was the most serious attempt to do this. We were inspired by the film 2001; A Space Odyssey where the walls of the space station glowed, the lighting being concealed in the surface and the effect was close to enhanced daylight.

Miles Hartwell and Johnny Grey designed this piece with some help from Leila Ferraby.

You can get more information about  Johnny and Johnny Grey Studios on their website, where you'll find images of projects they've completed all around the world. If you find yourself at Decorex this week, please go see Johnny, Chuck and the rest of the Johnny Grey Studios team at booth E153 and tell them hello for me.


  1. Johnny Grey and his staff of accomplished artisans and designers are showing us just how confining "boxes" can be; we as humans are not box-shaped - we are much more comfortable with surroundings that fit us. Perhaps this turns the "Unfitted" metaphor on its head, or rather, back to its rightful place!
    As a concrete artisan, I am thrilled to see JGS's continued appreciation of the organic appeal of cast concrete in their designs: a wondrous blend of hand-crafted natural and man-made textures that coalesce into a sum truly greater than its well-orchestrated parts. Concrete validation! Awesome.

  2. Rich and Melody: I couldn't agree more. The man's a master.

  3. Nothing less than I would have expected but so much more than I could ever have imagined. And I have quite an imagination! Bravo Johnny, Chuck and the rest of the fabulous brilliant staff at Johnny Grey!


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