Michael Wolff, 81
Michael co-founded Wolff Olins, one of the most successful design agencies in the world. More recently he runs Michael Wolff & Co and is involved in a new brand, Spring Chicken, focused on improving design for older people.
“When I was 26, I used to look about 14, which was terrible. I suffered enormously from looking too young. Now, it’s revenge time! My age just is. People see you through some sort of filter at whatever age – there’s a huge amount of invention that goes on in the world. With me, people invent this design figure. Young students treat me with a certain amount of awe, which is irritating – I want to connect and be useful to them so I have to try to break through it.
I have no regrets. I wake up happy. If I’d have done anything differently, even missed one train, I wouldn’t be where I am.
My parents are Russian but I only spoke the language until I was about six. I didn’t see a lot of them. When they came to visit, I’d think ‘who are these strange foreign people?’ I was sent off during the war to a nursery in Devon and from there I grew up in a series of dreadful schools. I remember I trod in a wasp nest in one of them and got about 25 stings. I was told not to cry or show emotion. The schools equipped me with an understanding of what happens to human beings in institutions of all sorts. I’m very conscious of how much abuse of hierarchy there is in corporations.
I just about survived school, and was probably considered remarkably unsuccessful by everyone who taught me. I still don’t like training – I think it’s for dogs and horses. Inspiring people and motivating people is fine, but they have to learn for themselves. I got my jobs out of sheer charisma. I largely bluffed my way – but I also found that I had a way of approaching design that was unusual. I like to see the truth of what is there and reveal it. I was always a ‘draw it out’ rather than a ‘stick it on’ designer – the world is full of the latter.
My career was built on an amazing series of accidents really. At some point along the way I met Wally Olins and we hit it off. He was like a duck – he always wanted to get somewhere, whereas I was the seagull, floating on the thermals. He had a vast number of qualities that I lacked and we made a good team. My alternative life would probably have resembled Jack Kerouac in On The Road. I would have enjoyed being a literary tramp!
Perfect happiness for me is walking through Regent’s Park – there are people from every country in the world, speaking different languages, strolling around at peace. I see it as a model of how the world could be. Every time I go I discover new trees and I love the two black swans – they eat right out of your hands. I love walking. It’s the only exercise I bother with.
At the moment I’m involved in a retail brand for older people called Spring Chicken. There seems to be a myth that older people love terrible design, which is all bollocks. There still isn’t even a decent wheelchair. A lot of the product that people sell to my generation is absolute crap. Spring Chicken aims to bring beauty and design into everybody’s lives so there isn’t an excommunicated older generation. I’m very excited about its potential.
I have no regrets. I wake up happy. If I’d have done anything differently, even missed one train, I wouldn’t be where I am. I am much better at getting people to open up now that I’m older. I’m no longer as scared of people and I see humour in practically everything. I need to laugh several times a day – it’s the most important thing in my life.
The best lesson I’ve learnt is to watch out for the immorality that goes with greed. People will trample on other people if their greed gets out of control. I’ve also learnt to be compassionate – to always imagine myself in other peoples’ shoes.
I won’t retire, even if I’m sick in a hospital bed, I shall still be asking, ‘who designed this disgusting blanket?’”