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  1. Luxury
January 25, 2010

Best of British

By Spear's

The desire is in the detail, finds Zain Alatas, as a fleet of Bentleys ferry him around London

A STUDY COMPLETED a few years ago concluded that to be British in the 21st Century is to drink Belgian beer, eat Indian food and drive a German car. It was therefore almost inevitable that Bentley, the best in British motorcars, should have been taken over by VW in 1998.

Since then, the marque has undergone a thorough transformation and the ‘flying B’ brand has been dragged from the languid domain of stately saloons for people with drivers into a world of aggressive aerodynamic styling and serious power that still retains the hand-built quality that has always made the marque so desirable.

The totality of this transformation, under the leadership of Franz-Josef Paefgen, is to be realised this summer as Bentley’s new Mulsanne goes on sale. The large saloon, which takes its name from the famous straight in Le Mans, and from the last great model shape from Bentley’s truly British days, is set to be the crowning glory for this semi-German generation of Bentleys.

Ahead of this, Bentley and exclusive art collectors’ club Culture House collaborated to take a lucky few of us on a chauffeur-driven tour to see some of Britain’s most exciting designers.   

As we settle in to our convoy outside Morton’s club in Berkeley Square I am reminded of childhood journeys in my godfather’s Turbo R, zooming along country lanes and listening to opera while being gently dandled by the syrupy suspension and sheepskin shagpile.

In the back of the Continental Flying Spur, the soft leather and deep rugs are still there, but the seat that used to swallow me up is firmer, and the ride feels tight, almost nimble, as the driver makes light work of morning traffic in the City.

The last place I expect to be heading in such style is the East End, and as we glide up to a warehouse in a Hackney side street I can’t help but be reminded of a scene from 80s British gangster film the Long Good Friday. But we have come to the studio of another Great British non-Brit, Royal College of Art fellow and design artist Martino Gamper.   

Furniture designer Ron Arad spotted Gamper’s “passion for making things out of things that are already things” when Gamper opted for one of Arad’s design assignments while he studying at the Fine Arts Academy in Vienna. As we step into his studio, which was created entirely by the man himself, the depth of that passion becomes all the more obvious.

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The floor is covered with a patchwork of salvaged strips of parquet, and around the table sit chairs from his ‘100 chairs in 100 days’ exhibition. The show, which first opened in 2007, showcased 100 designs for chairs that Gamper made by sawing apart mass-produced chairs and assembling one-off hybrid pieces from their component parts. The result is a witty and refreshing collection that explores the detail and beauty of mass-produced chair design.   

Gamper’s most spectacular (and most shocking) creative outpouring was in front of a live audience at Nilufar Gallery in Milan, where the artist took a saw to classic furniture designed by Gio Ponti and hacked it into an array of tables, chairs, desks and chests of drawers.

THE EVENT WAS staged at the Nilufar furniture gallery, where some of the works are now on sale. It is this appreciation of the spectacular, and sharing his creative process with an audience, as well as Gamper’s passion for food, that have made his ‘Trattoria’ dinner parties such a success.

In May last year, Gamper held one of these dinners in a gallery in South Kensington. He transformed the space, tearing the shutters from the windows to use as table tops and building a makeshift kitchen in the corner of the room. The food, the chairs, the placemats and even the napkins, were created by Gamper, wth help from friends Maki Suzuki and Kajsa Stahl.   

All of Gamper’s undertakings fill their subjects with new life. His 100 chairs invigorate industrial design that might otherwise go unnoticed, and his evenings pare down and intensify the most important aspects of a dinner party. By ‘deconstructing’ objects and concepts, he manages to resurrect them. This was perhaps what Paefgen felt was needed when he took control of Bentley. The transition was never likely to be smooth, and I feel there may have been an element of ‘you have to destroy it to make it better.’

Next we head to the workshop of another RCA alumnus, Simon Hasan. Despite graduating as recently as 2008, Hasan has already received wide acclaim for his well conceived objets d’art and beautifully simple furniture. So far his work has focussed on using traditional British craft techniques to create contemporary pieces that reflect our craft heritage.

He is an understated guy, not even aware of how successful he has been; as we arrive, one of our party informs him that another three of his pieces have sold at Design Miami. “Oh, really?” he responds, “I suppose I had better give them a call.”

Hasan has gone to great lengths to research these ancient methods for his work. For his degree show, he studied a fifteenth-century technique of boiling and stretching leather, known as cuir bouilli, which was originally used to make medieval armour breastplates. The boiled leather, while hot, is still malleable, but hardens to a strong and self supporting material as it cools. The ‘twist’ stools made in this way are at once delicate, organic and authentic.

On another project, sponsored by the Vauxhall Collective, Hasan travelled the UK for a year, studying lost British craft techniques for the theme of ‘The Great British Road Trip’. The pieces inspired by this trip include stoneware vases inspired by old-fashioned beer flagons, with horse brasses tied at their necks, and a hearth stool with split beam legs and a tweed cushion, fastened with a leather cover.

The simplicity of his designs allows each of the materials used to show off its individual quality and beauty, and their combination helps create an object that is deeply satisfying to look at.

AS WE LEAVE, I switch cars into the Arnage Final Series, the model that the Mulsanne will replace, and feel filled with a newfound respect for the leather and wood that surrounds me. Just as well, since I am now sitting next to top Bentley interior designer, Brett Boydell.

As he explains the work that goes into the design of a single model’s interior, where Bentley’s tireless testing means that it can literally take years to change a single button, I am suddenly aware of the amount of work and time that goes into every single hand-built Bentley at their factory in Crewe.

Since VW’s ownership of the company, the cars’ sheen and the brand’s quasi-ubiquity – the new models look almost too slick to be built by hand and the sheer number of Continental GTs on the streets (and in the drives of mock Georgian mansions up and down the country) – have undoubtedly dented the marque’s exclusivity.

For this reason, the launch of the new Mulsanne will be the ultimate test for Bentley purists: if the German owners can recreate the authentic luxury of the old British model and combine it with their tried and tested engineering prowess, the revival of the original brand will be complete. And who knows? It could well be that it takes a non-Brit to remind a Brit what ‘Best of British’ really is.

Photographs taken by David Shepherd.

From top: Chauffeur outside Morton’s; house of Martino Gamper; chair at Martino Gamper’s; Simon Hasan; chair at Simon Hasan’s.

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