Rock’s unique creations are designed, first and foremost, to be ‘really’ enjoyed; from beauty and practicality to their timeless appeal.
Over his 30-year career, Rock Galpin has worked with the major brands in furniture, from Italy to Japan, creating often award winning ranges of interior products or lighting for everyone from Designers Guild and Christopher Wray to B&B Italia. He still teaches at Central Saint Martins (CSM), which is where he studied – though these days that teaching is more likely to be on Zoom, as he relocated from London to Dubai two years ago.
When did your designer instincts kick in? I read in an interview you thought it started at the age of six or seven, when you’d be in your bedroom taking things apart.
Yes that’s true. I had very accommodating parents. My bedroom was my cave where I could do what I wanted. I made all kinds of mess and chaos, just took everything to bits. I was very inquisitive about how things were made and worked, the materials and mechanisms of all kinds – clocks, radios, hi-fi systems, even an iron.
Were these things functioning at the time that you took them apart?
I think most of them weren’t working. Some of them were. Often I would find them at the local tip. I would go with my parents and they’d take 15-20 minutes unloading the car while I’d spend that time rifling through other peoples rubbish. It was amazing the things you’d find. But they soon introduced a rule that I would have to deliver back to the dump the same quantity of things I was taking. I was a very young inventor.
And did you learn how to put things back together?
Yeah. I became the family fixer. Back then it was a lot of clocks – mechanical clocks, and radios. I was only seven or eight years old, so nothing too complex. I did try and make my own electric curtains for the bedroom but failed abysmally.
What was the last thing you took apart?
Well, I suppose I’m always taking small things apart, if I think I can fix them. But these days things are much more complex. I wouldn’t dream of taking my phone to bits.
I read about your recent prison furniture project (working with the Ministry of Justice in the UK to make a new range of prison cell furniture that could be indestructible, low cost, safe, but also attractive and offer options for personalisation). That’s very much about taking a system apart to see how you can redesign it better.
That’s a fascinating project. It’s probably the most ambitious, most challenging project I’ve ever done. We involved some of my BA product design students from (CSM) and also some of the prisoners to come up with ideas. We went to quite a few prisons so we had a good sense of what it’s actually like to be in there and it really changed my perspective. I started out with a hard-minded approach – ‘they screwed up and they should be in a hard place’ – and that completely changed as I went through. I ended up feeling real compassion for them and wanting to help, to give them a sense of normality and hope. Yes, it’s just a piece of furniture but the actual design of the pieces was deliberately trying to be less industrial looking, a bit more Scandinavian, softer in aesthetic, softer in feel, using softer materials. And the idea was they would be manufactured in prisons, helping them by giving them skills and roles. And we hope that some of the final designs will get put into production.
You’ve recently moved to Dubai, though you’re still very active in London. What inspired that decision?
The UK scene I felt was very difficult for a designer right now, partly because of Brexit, and that closed a lot of (manufacturers’) purses. For me Dubai is the opposite. It’s only 50 years old, a new place, very progressive. They’re really pushing art and design, there’s huge investment going into it. We just had Expo here. It’s a fairly undeveloped scene compared to London, London arguably being one of the top cities in the world for design. Here is small in comparison. But we’ve got some pretty big players here and more coming in.
How do you manage your work across both locations?
I’m everywhere. I’ve just come back from London. I will be there for quite a few weeks over the year. I’m doing a big collection with Morgan Furniture. That’s doing quite well, it’s been shortlisted in the Mixology, and Design Guild, as finalists in their awards.
Ah, I read about these (Lugano) – the chairs that give you a hug?
Yes, it’s a very nice project. Morgan does hospitality furniture, and they said: we want something even more focused around comfort. I’ve got quite a lateral mind, one half lateral, the other half linear, and my mind jumped straight to my mother hugging me as a small boy, my instant sense of ultimate comfort – the hug, warmth, sense of security, familiarity, feeling protected, loved, all those things. So really I’ve tried to base it on those values. The shape of it – it’s not the first time we’ve seen something like this – but the angle of it, the way it twists around, and when you sit down it sinks quite deep. We’re also trying to celebrate the wooden, crafted nature of the frame. It’s very much to do with authentic values, integrity, love, nurture and connecting with materials and elements. The back rest, arm rest, seat pad and frame are separate elements, designed to give interior designers more scope for their own interpretation. Bespoke is the mood now. People want their own products.
Laura’s glasses are a good example of this. The desire for conforming to a group or trend doesn’t really exist in the same way I remember it. We feel more confident about our own style, our own decisions.
Have you ever conformed to a group or trend in your personal style?
When I went to CSM as a student, and that was my first time in London. I don’t know why but I started wearing a particular kind of black jeans, black t-shirt, black steel toe-capped shoes and a black motorcycle jacket. It was a very considered look. And I wore it almost all the time. Then eventually I realised everyone in the department did much the same thing.
I’ve tried to work out why a lot of people in art and design do dress a lot in black. The closest I’ve got, for me, is that I wanted to be seen for my personality… and the outside was a blank canvas, not important. I still do choose black a lot of the time. I like minimal, except when I’m on holiday where I go the other way.
What’s your favourite place to clothes shop?
There’s a place called Closet Case in Dubai, which stocks Comme des Garcons and brands from all over the world. The look is very bespoke. The clothes don’t look smart and slick. They’re almost the opposite. All very neutral colours, black, grey, subtle earthy stone colours, but then very creative in terms of the textures and pattern. They’re very quirky but in a subdued kind of way. You go in there and a t-shirt will be 500 or 1000 pounds. A pair of shoes will be thousands.
I am sure they absolutely justify the cost in terms of materials and craftsmanship – that’s an important part of design intelligence. How does one cultivate that quality in consumers?
That’s very interesting. That’s what people need here (in Dubai) where it’s all about: ‘I’ve seen a Charles and Ray Eames lounge chair, and I want something like that but for half the price!’ There’s no connection with the value of the original. I think a sense of the narrative is essential. A great piece of design comes from the connection with real values and the interpretation has to be absolutely spot-on.
That’s something the Italians are fantastic at doing. The way they present brands to the consumer, it’s not only the designer’s strife and challenge in creating it, but everything down to that stitching detail.
How would you describe your personal style?
I’d say I’m very modern progressive, but I’m very wary that in the past I’ve produced some incredibly progressive designs – usually those pieces the press love – but consumers didn’t know how to connect with. I love anything that’s about the future and pushing ahead in the future. Being given the choice, it’s lovely to have those challenges. A lot of my work is connecting to peoples’ experiences of things – of space, psychologically, how people are feeling. I love the art side of design. I strive to create things of ultimate beauty. It doesn’t matter what it is I think everything can be beautiful.