When I arrive at Michael Marriott’s Dalston studio he’s carrying stacks of stools out to a van parked by the kerb. The pale unvarnished stools are for the very popular east London chicken shop BIRD’s new space opening in Holloway, and are fairly indicative of Michael’s bare-bones furniture design, which tends to prize functionalism and honest materials. Piled high, his studio and workshop feels like an Aladdin’s cave of bric-a-brac and tools, with a few specimens of Michael’s signature XL1 Kit Chair sitting alongside “I heart peanut butter” stickers, a Jean Prouvé poster, salvage and street finds.
Doubling as a designer and curator, he has put together exhibitions at the Geffrye Museum, London’s Design Museum and the Camden Arts Centre, and his open approach to material culture has seen him incorporate everything from peg boards to plastic buckets into furniture that marries lightness and an industrial sensibility. With a similar focus on hardworking materials, Michael’s dress sense is inextricably tied to his work. We sat down with the man himself to talk twill and feeling like the scruffy Englishman at Salone del Mobile.
What are you wearing today?
Today I’m wearing a navy cotton twill shirt, which is a traditional Spanish fisherman’s shirt. You can even buy them in supermarkets in parts of Spain and they’re kind of like the general worker’s shirt, but they tend to be referred to as fisherman’s shirts. People wear them for festivals and things as part of a sort of folk uniform almost. My missus is Spanish so we go there regularly but I make a point of not wearing them when I’m there because it’s sort of a specific thing in Spain. It’s a bit like going out and wearing an England shirt here or something – it kind of marks you out as a certain part of society.
I’ve always worn a lot of that workwear sort of stuff, partly because it feels right because I make things and I spend some of my time in the workshop – more now days than I used to. So it sort of works functionally and it wears nicely and it can cope with a bit of abuse and patina as it would be called in the furniture trade. A paint splash or a small tear doesn’t destroy it in the same way they would with some shirts. I’ve got a lot of chambray shirts too. I tend to wear blue mostly or blue and white stripes.
“I’ve always worn a lot of workwear sort of stuff, partly because it feels right because I make things and I spend some of my time in the workshop.”
That shade of blue is so tied to labour and making things isn’t it?
Yeah I suppose that’s where the phrase blue collar comes from. I sometimes wear blue overalls in the workshop and they’re more like a royal blue. They’re traditional Spanish overalls and they’re all cotton and they’ve got elasticated cuffs and an elasticated waist and a slightly diagonal double-breasted zip, which gives them a little racy pip, a bit like a formula one mechanic from the 60s. Just functional details like the cuffs mean that if you’re doing certain types of woodwork or whatever, nothing goes up your sleeves. They work really well, they’re comfortable and again, they wear nicely.
Have you got many more of these Spanish shirts?
Yeah, all my shirts, I realised, are either like this or from Oliver Spencer. Those are nearly all blue and white striped but really beautifully cut, really nice little details, not too fancy, not quite workwear, but sort of informed by that utilitarian quality. More of a white collar uniform but maybe more like the clerk’s than the director’s.
What other brands do you tend to wear?
I end up wearing Albam jeans a lot because I knew someone who worked there and I ended up doing a project with them and I got some jeans through that as a part payment. They’re just nice, simple jeans; it’s Japanese denim, made in England and I like that. I guess that’s partly what I like about Oliver Spencer, it’s sort of that smallscale thing and their shirts tend to be made in Portugal. It’s a bit more local and there’s an aspiration to make quality things in small batches, taking care over the details; it’s the details that make them because mostly it’s just very simple stuff.
Does what you wear on a day-to-day basis differ much from what you wear to work in?
No I tend to wear the same stuff all the time during the week and over the weekends – there’s very little difference.
Is there anything in your wardrobe you couldn’t do without?
There are things that I wear in the workshop, like I’ve got overalls and I’ve got a welding jacket, but that’s just protective stuff. It’s not anything you’d ever wear out.
“It’s hard to buy new [glasses] frames, you end up being a walking billboard with some massive Dolce & Gabbana logo down the arms, which feels really weird to have on your face. I wouldn’t wear that on a T-shirt either.”
Tell me about your glasses.
Glasses are a sort of essential. These I’ve had for like, 20 years now, maybe a bit more even. Most of my glasses – like these – I’ve bought second-hand, most of them from Brick Lane market for about a pound. I think these were £1.50. What I really liked about them is they were just a very simple, almost classic shape but they have that funny angle just there that stops them from being traditional aviators. When they were new they had a little strip of grey paint or finish over the bridge which made them feel like they were from the early 80s. That just wore off with time and they’ve had arms replaced and they’ve been fixed a few times.
I’m now at a stage where I really need bifocals, so I’ve got a pair of bifocals that wouldn’t fit in these frames, which is lucky because I don’t really get on with them so I tend to just wear those when I’m on the computer. I’m constantly swapping glasses which is really annoying. It’s hard to buy new frames though, you end up being a walking billboard with some massive Dolce & Gabbana logo down the arms or whatever which feels really weird to have on your face. I wouldn’t wear that on a T-shirt either.
What’s the oldest thing in your wardrobe?
Probably old German work jackets. You see them everywhere now. I used to buy them in a place on Cheshire Street off Brick Lane but the oldest one I bought in Berlin about 30 years ago.
And it’s still holding up?
Yeah, I wore it all the time for years but then stopped for a bit when it was getting to that point where it was going to fall apart. I’ve got a few of those jackets so I wore the other ones, but it comes out sometimes – it’s a favourite. What I liked about them is even though they’re a bit scruffy they can also be smart. I think that’s the thing I mostly struggle with: partly being a cyclist – that’s perhaps the main thing – and wanting things that are functional for cycling but aren’t cycling gear, and things I can wear in the workshop and build up wear, I suppose.
Often I feel scruffy. If I go to Milan which I tend to go to for the furniture fair every year, I immediately feel like I stick out like a sore thumb as one of the scruffy English guys because the Italians, and the Milanese particularly, are so, so well-dressed. They have that impeccably tailored look, so when I go it’s always in my mind and I tend to think about what I’m wearing and what I’m taking with me in a way that I don’t the rest of the year.
So what sort of things might you take to Milan?
Well I might just take one of my old jackets actually but wear it all buttoned up so it looks a bit smarter but still feels comfortable, and I don’t feel like I’m out of my comfort zone.
“If I go to Milan for the furniture fair, I immediately feel like I stick out as one of the scruffy English guys because the Italians are so, so well-dressed.”
I get the impression you’re quite a creature of habit when it comes to dressing.
More so now, I think. That’s sort of what I meant earlier, I look at my shirts and they’re all blue or blue and white striped.
Has your style changed much over the years?
There have been constants but I used to wear more colour whereas now I tend to just wear a little bit of colour here and there. I’ve also grown to wear hats and caps, for practical reasons mostly. When I’m cycling in bright light or rain, or even worse the combination of the two, as soon as there’s rain or glare when I’m wearing glasses it creates a bit of a disco effect. So I wear caps and it’s become a bit of a habit. I never used to wear hats unless it was to keep my head warm but now I’ve got half a dozen. I’ve got a Patagonia hat here – do you know Patagonia?
Yeah it’s an outdoor brand.
It’s an outdoor brand but super well designed. It’s like they’ve got industrial designers looking at it. It’s for people that go mountaineering, or canoeing or rock climbing or all those things, so it feels like it’s informed by real needs and activities.
What kind of shoes do you like to wear to work in?
I’ve ended up wearing Vans a lot. I bought a pair for a friend who also wore them, and he didn’t like them and I was trying to convince him how great they were. They had this really beautiful woven fabric and it has that slightly raised white line and I was trying to explain to him why I liked them so much, the fabric looked like it could be a traditional African fabric but it also looked like something Ettore Sottsass might have put on a piece of furniture in 1982. They were slip-ons with a turquoise sole and must have been some special edition, I just bought them for myself in the end. I’d convinced myself whilst talking to him that they were these fantastic things. Not having grown up with skateboarding, I always assumed Vans were for skaterboarders and sort of dismissed them but now I’m a complete convert.
“The utilitarianism of jeans and work shirts is very similar to what I like in terms of birch plywood say, or douglas fir plywood. The kind of woods I use all have a utilitarian soul.”
Are your drawers or wardrobe at home your designs?
Well, what I would consider my wardrobe is actually just two scaffold rails across an alcove. Most things at home are sort of cobbled together, a bit like in here: things I’ve either found in the street and thought were beautiful and have fixed, or prototypes of things.
Is there any crossover between the things you design and the clothes you wear?
Yeah, definitely there is. The utilitarianism of jeans and work shirts is very similar to what I like in terms of birch plywood say, or douglas fir plywood. The kind of woods I use are all British or European timbers and they all have a kind of utilitarian soul. You get oak paneled rooms that the royalty flounce about in but it depends how you treat the wood, and I tend not to treat it much. As materials I think they’re a bit like blue twill or denim. It’s in that world and what I do with them is similar.