Ab Rogers, son of Richard, flopped at school, became a hippy, and is, by his own father’s judgment, ’pretty crazy’. None of that stops him being a sought after UK designer trusted with designs for the likes of Pizza Express and the Fat Duck. Meet a true individual
Tucked away along a road just outside Wimbledon village there is a tiny caravan-style door nestled in the undergrowth. Walking through it is like stepping into West London’s very own version of Alice in Wonderland. Behind that door is a world where chaos rules, where nothing quite makes sense and where everything is completely unexpected, from the team of people dressed in boiler suits madly spray-painting an unidentifiable part of an installation, to the inexplicable presence of an abandoned pink dinghy in the middle of the back garden. Stood at the heart of all this oddity, in cropped trousers, a pair of pink socks and a bright green jumper with huge holes, is Ab Rogers, the 42-year-old son of architectural legend Richard.
“It’s all very relaxed here,” he says as he wanders from his studio across a courtyard overrun with weeds towards the house where Ab now lives with his wife and two children Lula and Ella. The house was designed 40 years ago by Richard for his parents. But any expectation that the living space is a calm, serene sanctuary from the hectic bustle of the design area is quickly dispelled. Clothes are strewn around the living room, DVDs lie scattered over the countertops and the air of untamed creativity pervades the space as staff, family and Rex Rogers (the dog) all move freely back and forth.
Though something of a shock at first, the disorder is by no means unpleasant. In fact it is the absence of strict boundaries and corporate stuffiness that makes spending time with Ab so fascinating - that and his refreshingly laid back approach to being interviewed. With his head resting casually on one hand, his elbow on the (slightly sticky) kitchen table, he happily talks about anything and everything from his exciting upcoming projects and high-profile clients, including Heston Blumenthal and Condé Nast, to why he wasn’t always destined for great things and how his work has helped him build a relationship with his father.
I was an academic disaster. I actually managed to fail pottery and photography
From hedonist to Heston
Ab, who is the third of Richard’s five sons - Ben, Zad and Ab by his first wife Sue, and Roo and Bo by his current wife Ruth Rogers of River Cafe fame - is the first to admit that his future didn’t always look particularly bright: “I was an academic disaster,” he laughs. “I got two O levels in history and politics, though that took me two years as I failed them the first time around. I actually managed to fail pottery and photography.” He says he loved the social element of boarding school though - playing rugby and getting up at 4am to do “whatever - just generally being naughty”.
After leaving school, Ab moved to Liverpool to work as a cabinet maker but ended up spending most of his twenties as a hedonistic hippy, travelling the world: “I slowly became impassioned by design,” he says, “so when I was 27 I applied to the Royal College of Art to do my industrial design MA. I was actually installing a desk in reception when I found out I had got in.”
Since setting up Ab Rogers Design in 2004, the firm has grown, even through the recession, and now has 12 staff including three trained architects, and is turning over around £1m. One of his early designs, for a small opticians specialising in bespoke glasses, caught the eye of superchef Heston Blumenthal who was in the shop choosing some frames. He asked for Ab’s details and got him working on the Little Chef in Popham, the subject of a Channel 4 television programme on transforming both the menu and interior of the roadside diner - a British institution and therefore a redesign job that needed careful navigation so as not to put off loyal customers. Ab is now working closely with Blumenthal on a number of other projects including the roll-out of nine new Little Chefs up and down the country and the extension of the Fat Duck in Bray: “It’s a very difficult brief,” says Ab. “Because it’s a listed building with very minimal space and the food is so incredible you don’t want to take away from it. The extension is purely to make the kitchen bigger.”
Then there is the roll-out of a whole range of Pizza Express restaurants, all designed by Ab’s practice, with the first two in Richmond and Fulham already open to the public: “The new interiors are much brighter and lighter. The idea has been about taking it back to the sixties,to create a vibrant open space. We have really improved the acoustics by removing the marble, and the ceramic floors. And we have introduced booths with acoustic separation where you can play your own iPod, and choose your own lighting too. We will play Italian films in the restaurants at night. It’s all about creating objects and environments that are engaging, vibrant and that bring spaces alive.”
Other major projects include designing the new magazine shop for the Condé Nast headquarters, working directly with UK managing director Nicholas Coleridge, creating training centres in three international offices for Pricewaterhouse Coopers and designing exhibitions and interior installations at London’s Tate Modern and Science Museum.
As for where he wants to go next, Ab has his sights set on the larger developers including Land Securities, British Land and Stanhope: “We definitely want to work with developers more,” he says, “to create small scale total solutions.”
When I was about six he took me to see the pompidou centre. There were all these tubes - he told me they were slides
Like father like son?
It’s clear that Ab has built up his business and its impressive list of clients by doing things his way. But what of his father’s influence? Ab points out from the off that it’s not like he grew up with “Richard” as he calls him. Not Dad? “OK, Dad, then. Whatever,” he says. “I call him both in different situations.” His parents separated when Ab was one and he says he grew up with his mother, seeing Richard for skiing holidays and trips to Paris. “I remember when I was about six he took me to see the Pompidou Centre and there were all these tubes on the outside. I asked what they were and he told me they were slides. When it opened and I discovered they were escalators, he said, ’Oh, the client wouldn’t allow us to have slides.’ Such a liar! I was so disappointed about that.”
Ab says that these days the pair have developed a mutual respect for what the other does: “I think he is proud of me,” says Ab. “He thinks I am pretty crazy sometimes, but he understands the process of what we do much more now.”
He adds that this understanding came from the two of them working on a project together - a retrospective at the Pompidou Centre detailing 45 years of work by Richard Rogers and his various collaborators. “It did a huge amount for our relationship,” says Ab. “It was a long 18-month slog and working with someone who is as prolific as him and being the son, there is that obvious hierarchy. During the time we worked on that exhibition we became much more like equals.”
So these days Ab says, Richard often calls his son for advice - usually on new fangled materials and technology.
A family affair
There is suddenly a great clatter as Ab’s two daughters come careering through the door, home from school. Noise levels go through the roof: “Daddy, Daddy, look at what I did today,” says one, forcing her picture into his line of sight. “Very good,” he says. “What is it of?” “It’s of the Snow Queen and she is flying on swans,” she says, as if it were blindingly obvious. As the pandemonium of school bags, shoes, jumpers, files and books momentarily subsides, the Rex Rogers skids in, lead in mouth, ready for a walk. He barks and the girls jump around him giggling and making him bark even louder. Ab eventually gives up trying to talk over the shrieks about his latest projects. He looks up from his computer slideshow and smiles at the sight of his children leaping about the place before shrugging and simply saying: “It all just adds to the emotion of chaos.”
Ab in a minute
Favourite drink Caipirinha
Favourite dish Grilled lobster on a BBQ in Cornwall having arrived at a beach by boat
Which would you pick, film or lobster? I think it would have to be film
Favourite city I love Sydney and New York
What is the one thing you would take to a desert island? A Leatherman