At 63 years old, Jasper Morrison remains one of the most sought-after industrial designers working today. The bespectacled and sharply dressed Brit has produced pastel catch-all trays and clever cork end tables for Vitra; flared glass tumblers and elegant metal corkscrews for Alessi; silver flat-screen televisions for Sony and ceramic, metallic watches for Rado. He’s renowned for his simplistic and quietly humorous style and has steadily worked since setting up his eponymous studio back in the 1980s. Morrison is also one of my favorite illustrators, with a style that lands somewhere in between a New Yorker cartoonist and a very talented fourth-grader.
Wit has been imbued with Morrison’s work since the start. His very first design was a whimsical glass-topped table made from bicycle handlebars. He made the Thinking Man’s chair two years later, a meandering silhouette of varnished metal that featured two drink rests at the end of the armrests. It was inspired when Morrison was out shopping and spotted an antique armchair missing its upholstered seat. This wry humor has lurked under the surface for decades of work—his one-legged table, a book of spoons he published, a table for birds that could be hung from a tree branch.
Morrison is a prolific doodler—most of his designs begin with a simple sketch on paper. His illustrations are rough around the edges and whimsical, like if Saul Steinberg drew manufacturing plans or if Paul Klee was an architect instead of a cubist. The majority of drawings from industrial designers are devoid of personality, forgoing imperfections in favor of robotic straight lines drawn from a protractor. Morrison’s sketches are almost child-like, full of wonder and charmingly irregular linework.
In his drawing of the Thinking Man’s chair, a bottle of wine sits on one drink rest while a glass can be seen on the other. A ladder is propped on a wall, and a typewriter sits on a pillar. None of these quirks have anything to do with the chair itself, but Morrison included them anyways. In another graphic, three oversimplified, colorless rugs are captioned, "Three woven carpets in green, blue, and orange." I'm not sure whether Morrison is striving for post-modernism or practicality here, but it's clever either way.
In 2015, Morrison teamed up with Swiss publisher Lars Müller Publishers on A Book of Things, an expansive retrospective of his career featuring 375 illustrations. The very next year, the interiors magazine Apartmento published "The Hard Life Notebook," a booklet of Morrison's pencil sketches. A part of the designer's affinity towards pen and paper seems to be out of practicality. "I'm still stuck on the 2D program. I pay other people to do the clever bit," he told a journalist a few years back, in reference to his hesitance to use 3D modeling software himself.
The secret to Morrison's decades-long success is a wholehearted embrace of being both simple yet complex and never losing his sense of humor. That has rendered extraordinary designs in every category, from chairs to spoons to watering cans. It has proven to be a winning ethos for producing beloved industrial design. And, as it turns out, that approach also makes for some pretty damn good doodles.