Q&A: Stephen Philips

Q&A: Stephen Philips

Arup’s Associate Product Designer unveils design details for their unique installation at London Design Festival 2018.

Interview with Stephen Philips, Associate Product Designer, Arup
By Clare Farrow, Curator of “Memory & Light” by Arvo Pärt and Arup, Norfolk House Music Room, V&A Museum, London Design Festival (15-23 September 2018)

Presented by Harman Kardon
Supported by PERSPEX® Brand, Estonia 100, Hiscox

What attracted you to this project in the first place?

It was the opportunity to work on and support a project about Arvo Pärt’s music, and to create a physical design as a response to it.


There is something theatrical about the V&A’s Norfolk House Music Room, do you agree?

Definitely, and it’s very different to our previous project. For a start, it’s an interior space and the V&A is a contemplative, quiet, though very exciting museum. The fact that the Music Room was re-installed in the V&A [after being rescued from Norfolk House in St James’s Square when the building was being demolished in 1938] is remarkable in itself. It’s certainly a beautiful, decorative room of its age [1756], and it really reminds me of a shoebox performance space: the proportions are great for listening to music, and it’s beautifully decorated. The materials and richness of that space [designed by Giovanni Battista Borra, an architect from Turin] are of their time, very, very luxurious.


It has a distinctive light as well.

Yes, the environment is dark compared to a contemporary space! The original room would probably have been lighter, with transparent windows; but the room as it is installed in the V&A is quite dark, which brings an element of theatricality as well. This has allowed us to play around with subtle light colours. What we wanted to do was to respond to the room, to the environment, with an installation that complements it; and to respond to Arvo Pärt’s words, as you asked us to:


“I could compare my music to white light, which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.”

(Arvo Pärt)


It is a lovely statement, and what I interpret from it is that he’s providing the music, the pieces, but it’s very much down to the listener, the individual person, to interpret it, however, they would like to. This installation is my interpretation of Arvo Pärt’s music, and this would be very different to that of other designers. It’s also a response to the materials that we were asked to use, through the sponsors; the requirements that you gave to use PERSPEX® acrylic for the screen and Poltrona Frau leather for the bench. It’s actually great to have these parameters in place, because if you start off with just a complete blank sheet of paper, it can literally be anything and it can be quite difficult to respond.


So you were given the quote, the V&A’s Norfolk House Music Room as a setting, and PERSPEX® acrylic. Was your first thought to create a prism in response to Arvo Pärt’s words?

Yes, that’s right. We were thinking about the prism of light description, and we were wondering whether to create a physical prism of light – actually splitting white light into rainbow colours – or whether to give a more physical representation, as we have now done with the PERSPEX® acrylic screen, which is above head level. So yes, in the end we went for a more physical interpretation. It is a high screen that surrounds the listening bench, and we have mixed up the colours of the screen, using PERSPEX® acrylic from the Vario collection, illuminating it from within. It allows visitors to experience the room, listen to Arvo Pärt’s music and use their imagination to picture scenes and images in response to the installation.

What attracted you to the Vario colours that you chose from among the samples that were sent to you by the PERSPEX® Brand, one of the project’s supporters? 

The material is transparent, and it’s only the coloured edge that illuminates these very contemporary colours that I have chosen. I felt that this represented Arvo Pärt’s music very well because his pieces are very subtle and emotional. So the transparent material we have used for the screen is perfect; it’s a minimal material in a way, and it doesn’t block the visitor’s views of the Music Room.


So visitors can see through the screen, to the decorative walls of the Music Room?

Yes, and they can pick up these very subtle colours on the edges of the transparent fins. So it’s a very pared-down design from that point of view. In terms of the bench too: when we first visited the room, we were thinking about whether we could arrange the bench so that visitors could sit on it and contemplate or listen to the music from either end. So there is one end, closest to the door, which is where an audience would sit if they were listening to a quartet for instance. The musicians would have been positioned quite close to the fireplace in the Music Room. Then the other end of the bench, closest to the screen, is the position that the listener would take if they were one of the actual musicians, playing one of the instruments. So that was our original idea: you could position yourself away from the sound source, away from the musicians, or within the sound source, as one of the musicians.


So if you sit very close to the screen, you feel as if you are truly enveloped in the music?

Yes, you feel that you are a part of the music. The music will come from within the bench and from the new “Citation” speakers by Harman Kardon, the Lead Project Supporter, just next to the screen too, so if you sit right adjacent to the screen, with the screen around you, you should be enveloped in the music. Whereas at the other end of the bench you are a little bit further away, so you will listen to the music in the position of an audience. We will see it this works as we have imagined it!


So with the music coming through the bench and through the screen, the visitor will experience Arvo Pärt’s music in a very physical way?

Yes, exactly, and it’s no coincidence that the screen’s form and thin, flexible slats bear some resemblance to the strings of an instrument, and the form and colour of the bench has a certain similarity to a violin or cello.


How did you go about choosing the leather with Poltrona Frau, for your bench design?

One of the great opportunities with this project was to work with Poltrona Frau, the Italian furniture maker. Their reputation for leatherwork is renowned – they are true artisans in what they do – so it was really nice to collaborate with them on this.


Is this truth to materials important to you in all your product design for Arup?

Yes, I believe you should use all materials as if they are a precious resource, and use them in the best way. It’s about being true to the material’s properties.


I like the fact that visitors will also feel the music coming physically through the soft-grain leather of the bench; they will experience the texture of the leather and its scent, at the same time as feeling and listening to the music, so you are touching many senses in one moment.

Yes, definitely. In addition, the material that is surrounding the bench, just under the seat, is this interesting Baltex Spacer Fabric, which is a very high-tech composite material that allows sound to pass through it. It has a sort of perforated texture and is very lightweight, but at the same time, you can’t see through it.


Does it give an impression of lightness?

Yes, especially in the white colour, which complements the Norfolk House Music Room.


So it’s a combination of this innovative material with the traditional leather and stitching of Poltrona Frau.

Yes. This combination of new and old material technologies should work well!


How is the lighting going to work, because the lighting products, supported by ENTTEC, are actually incorporated into the screen?

Yes, we’re basically incorporating strips of LED lighting underneath each PERSPEX® acrylic spoke of the screen, and what this will do is to subtly up-light each fin or spoke. The LED strips are housed in the base, so you won’t be able to see them but they will present a little bit of accent lighting up each fin. This should bring out the colour of each fin, and really reflect the statement by Arvo Pärt about his music.


Is the lighting continuous, or does it modulate?

I believe it’s going to colour-change, so that should be really interesting. It’s a lovely dark environment so it should just bring a little more to the experience, and you may just pick up these colours on the walls of the Music Room too, in a very gentle way. We’ll have to see! The screen is definitely a focal point, but it won’t be a big statement; it will be subtle.


And visitors can lie back on the bench too, to look up at the decorative ceiling with its musical motifs?

Yes, we’ve incorporated a domed leather cushion or headrest at one end of the bench so that visitors can lie back and contemplate the sounds and see the ceiling of the Music Room too.


Will the material of the screen create reflections?

Yes, it’s a highly reflective material so it should complement the mirrors very well, bringing out the sparkle of the room, and you should get lovely reflections of the Norfolk House Music Room. It’s quite interesting, because the room contains these little artificial candles, which are obviously not producing actual candlelight but they will enhance the reflections.


Yes, I remember when Charles Woolff of Talbot Designs, the fabricator of the screen, held a coloured PERSPEX® acrylic sample over one of these lights and the coloured edge really came to life in a very beautiful way; you could even imagine the original candlelight in the Music Room coming through the material.

Yes, and the screen, as we say, should be very reflective too.


Has the experience and expertise of Talbot Designs contributed to the design of the screen?

With all these things, when you’re developing something with someone who’s actually going to make it, it can change a little bit; but I think it will still be as we originally intended. We’re both working really hard to make sure it is. So even though the screen will be delivered and installed in three sections, we’re trying to design it so that it will be as seamless as possible. The LED light strips should be well concealed too.

I think it’s lovely that the first piece of music we will play in the installation is Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” (Mirror in the Mirror), so the screen will be linked to the mirrors in the Music Room, but also to the music itself. So it’s a complete meeting of music and design.

Yes, exactly, and I hope the listeners will be able to interpret the installation and the music however they want to. I have my views on how it could be interpreted, but I really hope the listeners will be able to use their own imaginations to visualise what the music means to them, and the installation as well.


This is what Arvo Pärt has said too, that he would like his words and music to speak for themselves and for people to have their own experiences. It’s a lovely idea I think, to give visitors the quote, the music and the design, and then they can sit on the bench inside the Music Room, beside the screen, and use their own senses and imaginings.

Yes, exactly.


Do you feel, as a designer, that you have an affinity with a composer, in the sense that you are both working with structure, colours and space? Do you see a connection with artists in other disciplines, in this sense?

Yes. You asked me when I first discovered Arvo Pärt’s music. I think it was when I was sixteen and my brother played Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977), which is probably one of Pärt’s best-known pieces in this country. I found it very moving, and completely unlike any other contemporary music of the time, of this time. I must say that I think it is lovely that in this day and age someone can compose pieces that are so moving and different to other music genres. There is also a feeling of beauty and tragedy in his work, and I wonder if the screen is suggestive of a high fence. But it’s up to individuals to interpret the installation in their own way.


Yes, Pärt’s music does seem to contain both beauty and sadness, and also something that you cannot put into words. I think great design can sometimes do this too, to go beyond words. I also think that innovation is something that links the work of Arup to that of Arvo Pärt.

Yes, there are nice links there. I’ll tell you another reason why we are supporting this project. It’s an opportunity to explore the zeitgeist, the current feeling of the moment in design. This is why festivals such as the London Design Festival and the Venice Biennale are so important because they give designers the opportunity to explore what people are thinking about at this particular moment in time, and to do an installation about it. I also think that this installation has a lot to do with the Norfolk House Music Room itself – a reflection of the finishes and the proportions, and the story behind this space.


Yes, and in that sense, it is a collaboration with the Norfolk House Music Room too, and perhaps even the memories it contains.

Yes exactly, and maybe that is something of this moment too. What we do at Arup is we try to look after existing buildings and designs that should be cherished, that we should care about. So I guess that feeling can be reflected in this design. It’s a contemporary response to something that is very precious, an interior, and to precious pieces of music as well.

And perhaps a reflection too on the fact that innovation should not rule out history.

Exactly. It should respond to it.

© Stephen Philips and Clare Farrow 2018