Fraser’s Edge

Fraser’s Edge


Published : October 8, 2006_The new York Times

When I visit the design journalist, author and curator Max Fraser at his London apartment, he shows me the almost completed manuscript of a book he has written about the Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek. It will be Fraser’s fourth book on design; he has contributed to two others. Fraser, who is half American and half English, has curated more than 15 contemporary design exhibitions around the world, including two at last month’s London Design Festival. He also works as a design consultant and juror, and he’s the project director of a bimonthly sold-out event called Pecha Kucha, held primarily at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, a sort of visual karaoke where guest speakers are invited onto the stage to speak about 20 images for precisely 6 minutes and 40 seconds. Fraser knows this is harder than it sounds, because on top of everything else, he is an accomplished public speaker. Now that you know how much he has done, guess how old Max Fraser is: he is 26.

It is tempting to think of Fraser as if he were one of the products that he spends his life showcasing. His apartment might belong to a designer — all natural light and white surfaces with a few well-chosen, gradually acquired pieces (chairs by Tom Dixon and Jasper Morrison, an Ikea coffee table, prints on the wall by John Pawson, Iitaala coffee cups, an old leather sofa that came with the apartment, shelving by Zimzum) — but it is he himself who is so well designed, so nice to look at (in his student days he worked as a model), so useful. His “Design UK” books (the original was published on his 21st birthday in 2001 and updated in 2003) are guides profiling the best design stores all over Britain and are like mini-Bibles, glowing in their second-edition puffy orange covers. Looking for a reconditioned original leather chair in London? Vitra furniture in Scotland? Rosenthal tableware in Northern Ireland? Not only does Fraser tell you where these things are sold, but he also writes about how they are sold, who sells them, who makes them and why they are important.

Fraser, the son of an architect and a publisher, had the idea for “Design UK” (now his brand name) when he was pounding the streets of New York. In between finishing a course at the Chelsea School of Art and starting a degree in furniture and product design at Nottingham Trent University, he stayed for three weeks with his sister, an architect who worked in New York. “I did all the touristy things in the first week, and after that I thought, Well, what am I going to do?” Fraser recalled. “I was interested in the design scene in New York — I’d been busy reading Wallpaper magazine, and it kept talking about these various design hubs, but after I went to SoHo and Chelsea, I got frustrated. Apparently there was a design scene in Brooklyn, but where? I tried to find a book to help me out. There wasn’t one, and that’s when I had this ping! That was the idea for the book.”

But unlike most 19-year-olds who have ping-y ideas while walking the streets of New York for the first time, Fraser made his ideas work. He kept a scrapbook and wrote reviews of his New York discoveries, returned to London and, while working as a Champagne waiter at a fancy party, approached someone (a well-known marketing executive), who led to someone, who led, after a few meetings, to the publisher Conran Octopus. “Design UK” became a best seller.

Meanwhile, Fraser came to a momentous decision: “All the young designers I spoke to moaned about the struggles of being a designer — the problems with manufacturing things, the shortage of money — and I thought, Bugger, I don’t have the patience for that. And then at university I discovered that I didn’t have the patience for the technical drawings, either. When I told my tutor that I was leaving, I explained that I didn’t need a degree because I wasn’t interested in being a designer. I was interested in promoting design. I wanted to do things in the industry that university couldn’t teach me.”

And that’s exactly what Fraser has done. He’s made himself into an arbiter and an organizer.

His eye and his voice and his energy are trusted and sought after. Sir Terence Conran (whose company publishes the “Design UK” books) chose Fraser as a collaborator for the 2004 book “Designers on Design,” which is, as Fraser puts it, about what makes designers tick. “Everyone who’d worked with Max on the ‘Design UK’ books was inspired by his energy and knowledge,” Conran says, explaining why he chose Fraser as a co-author. “You can always find someone to write about things, but Max thinks laterally; he’s got an eye and a nose to spot talent, and he’s decisive without being arrogant. I’m sure he’ll end up running a museum or gallery. Or creating one.”

Indeed, Fraser is headed in that direction. Small showcases and exhibitions in London’s East End led to bigger exhibitions in Milan and New York (the 2005 British Influence show included designers like Ilse Crawford, Richard Shed, Alex Taylor and Mosley Meets Wilcox), and across Britain. His Design UK exhibitions — “merging the work of more established names with newer designers” — during the London Design Festival each September have become legendary. “Curating is, after all, a form of editing, and so I thought, Why not add that to the list of things I could do?” Fraser says. “Besides, you can’t just write about three-dimensional design. You have to show it to people.” Four thousand people went to the opening of last year’s show at the Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane, and Fraser organized everything: “We served 4,000 gin and tonics and 2,000 beers in four hours.”

Fraser is not exactly sure what defines contemporary British design. “Is it a cop-out to say that I think British design is characterized by not having a particular style?” he asks rhetorically. “What we have got is a real talent base. That’s our exportable commodity. There is a desire from the rest of the world to come to London and identify and use our talent.”

Luckily for the rest of the world, Max Fraser is busy doing exactly that.