Designers do it themselves: Pt 2

In PART ONE of this series I talked to Alexander Lervik: inventor, designer and entrepreneur. I also compared Claesson Koivisto Rune‘s new venture Smaller Objects with Airbnb, Uber and TIDAL. In part two I’ve been mithering designer pals for opinions on royalties, manufacturing their own designs, plus some tips for young aspiring designers. I spoke to three leading furniture designers in the UK: David Fox, Simon Pengelly and Jonathan Prestwich. These fine chaps have a wealth of design industry experience and a deep understanding of what makes the market tick. Between them they’ve designed for a long list of renowned names; Allermuir, Arper, Boss, Chorus, Connection, Davis, Foscarini, Hitch Mylius, Modus, Montis… and many more.

What follows is a summary of our discussion:

In your view do manufacturers take advantage of designers (particularly young designers) when agreeing royalties? Have you had any experience of this?

David: “You are always going to get manufacturers working on the naive aspects of a young designer… some designers make it big and then are reluctant to return to that manufacturer, so who loses in the end? It’s about what you’re willing to accept at that chosen time in your career”

Simon: “Unfortunately, yes. It is an anathema to me that we are still expected by some to accept a cap on royalty income…when the manufacturer continues to charge the same for the product, essentially pocketing royalties… (that) are paid for by the end customer.”

Jonathan: “The simple key from the designers point of view is to figure out what they need from that client… and not accept a deal they aren’t happy with. This is the business side of the job…”

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Smaller Objects pays designers 75% of retail prices

Have you been tempted to manufacture your own designs in order to increase profitability and retain complete control of the product?

David: “Tempted yes, but the reality is most designers manage the creative process very well. Managing a sales force and producing your own furniture is a departure from that… Different skills.”

Simon: “Yes indeed, although the financial implications of marketing and distribution need to be borne in mind at the outset.”

Jonathan: “I have been tempted but after seeing recalls of products, quality issues, installations that run over etc… I feel the job of a designer is more pleasurable.”

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Simon Pengelly’s UNIA chair

Do you think designers today need entrepreneurial spirit in order to succeed?

David: “You have to have a business mind, the creation is only a small part. How do you get yourself seen? It’s very much like a sales and marketing role”

Simon: “Absolutely, but the majority of design training is still in the dark ages in this regard, so it generally has to be learnt on the job.”

Jonathan: “Always! Everyone needs this. There is however a difference between the employed designer and the independent designer”

 

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David Fox’s Zuki Lounge chair

Would you say it’s easier or harder for designers to get recognition and success in today’s marketplace compared with 15 years ago?

David: “I think the power of the internet makes it easier for designers to become recognised, you can publish images very easily. Again, keep making connections, keep showing, talking about your stuff…”

Simon: “I’d answer yes and no to that question! It is easier because of access to better technology, web and social media exposure. Harder because it is easier and therefore there are more designers all trying to work for the same manufacturers!”

Jonathan: “Much harder. 15 years ago we were still in the Capellini phase of design where the designer was crucial to a product having kudos. There is less of that today which I think is fine. The manufacturer’s brand is the most important but I don’t think this takes away from the importance of good product design.”

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Jonathan Prestwich’s LINK chair for Davis

Any advice or tips for young designers based on your personal experience?

David: “Work very hard – it takes at least 4 years before you become anything like comfortable. There is always someone that is going to tell you it is not very good, keep going…Look for the brands that most suit your style… Never be afraid to work with smaller unknown manufacturers. If it is cluttered… ‘unclutter it’ – purity always stands the test of time…”

Simon: “If you love what you do then go do it, if you’re doing it for fame and fortune then go and sing on X factor!”

Jonathan: “Get out there and meet people in the real world. A face to face conversation is worth a thousand emails.”

Some great insight there – thanks David, Simon and Jonathan!

For young furniture designers looking to bag their first deal, the advantage clearly lies with the established manufacturer. You, the young designer are an unknown, and they (manufacturer) might suggest you have more to gain. However they are also taking a financial risk by investing in your design, so this must be taken into account.

As per David’s comments, if they’re too tough during negotiations, yes – they could come out of it with a great chair design at a snip, but what about when you’re Milan’s most wanted and you won’t return their calls from your Karl Lagerfeld photoshoot. It’s about finding balance (Daniel-son). There clearly needs to be more education available to young designers about the commercial realities of getting a furniture deal.

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Simon Pengelly’s Theo chair

What about the future…?

In relation to designers producing their own furniture, there’s clearly still considerable concern and risk. But my view is that the market will be revolutionised by a wealthy major disruptor or two (think Tesla’s Elon Musk), as 3D printing become widely accessible.

In the not too distant future, 3D printing will see the creation of a network of small to medium sized community production facilities to cater for a wide range of consumer homeware production. Designers will upload furniture (and other homeware) designs to online Apple / IKEA / Amazon stores. Consumers in turn can buy and download ‘design recipes’ in encrypted CAD format. These can be 3D printed, upholstered and finished at your local production facility; which is permanently stocked with various upholstery and finish options. This will cut lead times, reduce carbon footprint and create a network of jobs. Competition amongst furniture designers will further increase, as young designers vying for attention muddy the waters by uploading designs for free download.

But meanwhile, for the furniture designers of today, it’s clear that you simply have to get out there, to network and meet people. Milan Furniture Fair is the ideal place to make great connections and is on from 12-17 April. I’ll be there. The question is… will you?

I hope you enjoyed my two part blog – if you did, please share it. Thanks!

Ciao

 

Designers Do It Themselves: Part 1

In the fast-paced interiors industry there are a growing number of designers morphing into manufacturers: designing, producing and selling their own creations directly to retailers and consumers. Over the course of two articles I’ll look at key drivers behind this movement and canvas some leading furniture designers for their thoughts on royalties and ‘Furniture Design DIY’, as well as getting valuable advice and tips for young designers.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Inventor, Entrepreneur and Designer Alexander Lervik at the Swedish Furniture and Light Exhibition in Zürich. Alexander has trodden his own unique path in the design world, showing fantastic innovation, creativity and business acumen throughout his 20 year career and he gave an inspiring lecture at the event.

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Just over twenty years ago Lervik exploded onto the design scene with his Graduation Project: 10 Stools 10 decades; prompting Vitra owner Rolf Fehlbaum to send him a letter of congratulations. Not a bad start eh? This turned out to be his entry point to applied and industrial design and he has since worked with some leading brands including Moroso and Johanson Design – where he was creative Director for over a decade.

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Lervik took the bold decision to set up Tingest in 2013 to produce his own designs. The Tingest collection is inspired by Swedish design heritage. Aside from furniture, lighting and homeware items there is also a cool watch and jewellery collection.

“the knowledge I have gained producing on my own makes it the best thing I have ever done”

“The reason I started by myself was that I believe we need to keep production in Europe and make it more valuable with real handcraft” explains Lervik. “Tingest produce in Sweden using local craftsmen. For me, the knowledge I have gained producing on my own makes it the best thing I have ever done.”

Interesting points – the production process is a priceless education for designers and an opportunity to increase effectiveness as product creators, through trial and error. Lervik’s comments about European production introduce another commonly debated point: local handcraft versus cheaper overseas outsourcing, i.e. Quality versus Cost.

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Whilst discussing the traditional designer-manufacturer model, I asked if he felt the industry ‘standard’ 5% royalty payment was adequate. Lervik feels this is about right, “Of course it would be nice to receive a higher royalty” he added, “but I don’t see that the margin in the business would allow an increase unless you were to change the complete way in which items are sold.”

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Enter stage left innovative Swedish Architectural and Design Partnership Claesson Koivisto Rune (clad head to toe in black). They unveiled an alternative business concept for entrepreneurial designers at Stockholm Furniture Fair last month. An online store with a growing network of retailers, Smaller Objects‘ business model offers its designers a whopping 75% of the retail price of units sold. Whilst many designers already have links to capable sub-contractors capable of producing their designs, most don’t have the audience or capability to achieve high enough sales if they were to go to market directly. That’s precisely where Smaller Objects comes in.

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Smaller Objects

But designers using this platform do more than just design. They must prototype and refine their creations – and cover material and production costs in full. So there is an element of risk and self belief involved, but Smaller Objects acts as a halfway house for designers searching for autonomy. It provides a route of measured risk with an established brand backdrop, complete with sales, marketing and distribution. You need a big dollop of entrepreneurial skills, vision and cash to take a product to market on your own, so this model makes the ‘business end’ of the deal more palatable for many. Whilst Smaller Objects only sells decorative homewares (and not furniture) due to the more manageable cost of design and development involved, the rise of 3D printing, kickstarter and crowdfunding websites means it’s a matter of time before the trend spreads its tentacles.

“In recent years, we’ve seen disruptors appear across multiple industries under many guises…”

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TIDAL

Broadly speaking, the concept isn’t new. In recent years, we’ve seen disruptors appear across multiple industries under many guises. Uber revolutionised taxis, Airbnb changed the face of tourism and in perhaps the most comparable case; TIDAL saw a group of music artists including Madonna, Jay Z and Daft Punk join forces to challenge music streaming providers (yep that’s right I just snubbed Kanye). Artist dissatisfaction over earnings drives this change. Today, large audiences (or consumers) are more accessible than ever, so entrepreneurs bypass traditional methods. And creators strike back.

I contacted some other well known international designers on the subject of royalties and ‘furniture design DIY’ and had a very interesting response. Watch this space for my next article, featuring interviews with David Fox, Simon Pengelly and Jonathan Prestwich. Kanye West however, has so far been unavailable for comment. But then again who cares?

 

 

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Jack of all trades, master of none: An old saying that’s still bang on the money. It’s impossible to excel at everything. We all have strengths and weaknesses. For most it takes time to grasp what they are, but we learn to focus on what we’re good at.

In Benjamin Hubert’s recent interview with Dezeen, the designer claims the furniture and lighting market is ‘saturated’ with designers creating the same things. Can I get an Amen? I’m right with you Benjamin. I lay the blame firmly at the footstool of ambitious short-term CEO’s targeting aggressive growth at any cost.

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“This is FOMO: Fear of missing out..”

When a forward-thinking design company present something groundbreaking, competitors are quick to replicate, often with little consideration of the relevance to their own brand and collection. This is FOMO: Fear of missing out. In this case missing out on making a quick buck on a passing trend. Visit any leading exhibition and you’ll see companies once known for niche solutions now experiencing an identity crisis that would put Lady Gaga to shame. Following ad-hoc add-on after add-on, many product portfolios have morphed into each other. A bit like John Travolta and Nicholas Cage in Face Off. Remove the branding from certain exhibition stands and I challenge you to a quiz on who is who.

I’ve always appreciated going to specialist manufacturers for specialised solutions. People who do what they’re great at. With this in mind I’d like to focus your attention on a few niche brands who continually provide innovative solutions in their field. They focus on their own design philosophy and aren’t swayed by the crowd.

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PROOFF Ear chair

PROOFF is an abbreviation of progressive office, which sums up this edgy Dutch company. With a unique collection of acoustic seating, barrier-challenging meeting furniture and unique workplace solutions; each addition to their collection is carefully considered and was created to solve a problem. The Ear chair is simply the most acoustically ‘sound’ piece of furniture I have ever witnessed, ar kid.

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PROOFF: Sit table

Their collaborative Sit Table and Work Sofa products were pretty unique when launched a few years back – and remain as ahead of their time as Marty Mcfly was in Good ol’ 1955.

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PROOFF Work sofa

In 2015 PROOFF launched 4 new designs, taking their collection to 10 pieces in total. These designs come from tireless R&D into the changing workplace and – crucially – complement their groundbreaking range and brand ID.

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PROOFF Off Size

Flamboyant Belgian manufacturer Extremis specialise in modern outdoor furniture settings. With a focus on fun, social spaces to enjoy and relax in, their simple clever designs are as well-suited for posh private parties as they are for private bank terraces. Mine’s a G&T please Hugo.

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Extremis: Hopper Table

 

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Extremis: Bundle Swing

In keeping with their brand style, they launched Anker Anchor (is there an echo in here?) and Pontsun for 2016. Different ideas, but same great feel. Measured progress. Brand intact.

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Fredericia are the epitome of Scandinavian furniture craftmanship. With heritage stretching back to 1911, they specialise in quality hand-made design furniture. As modern interior trends recently turned their attention back to wood, Fredericia must have felt like Barcelona heading into a home fixture with a 5 goal lead.

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Fredericia Soborg chair (1950)
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Fredericia Swoon chair (2016)

Swoon chair, designed by Space Copenhagen is difficult to pin down. 1950’s? Nope, it was released in 2016. Underneath the beautiful upholstery is an injection moulded shell, whilst it’s wooden feet display the family DNA.

Fredericia’s well documented collaboration with Jasper Morrison demonstrates a measured, long term approach to growth. Morrison’s Kile sofa speaks an understated design language, sympathetic to Fredericia stalwarts, whilst demonstrating his understanding and appreciation of the company’s hand-crafted heritage.

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Fredericia Kile Sofa

I’ve been watching with admiration since Vitra acquired Finnish craft masters Artek. With respect and love, Fehlbaum’s team have nurtured and gently repositioned parts of the collection, whilst appointing the immensely talented Bouroullec brothers to continue the product journey in a sympathetic manner.

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Artek Domus chair 1946
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Artek Kaari table 2015

And for those manufacturers with an appetite for growth, maybe this is how it should be done. Acquiring a specialist craft company, whilst retaining their individual design ethos, philosophy and identity. Rather than an endless absorption of trends into a confused catalogue already bursting at the seams; to the detriment of a time served brand.

Be original. Be different…

Which camp would you rather be in? Expert producer of respected niche design solutions, renowned for your knowledge, passion and dedication to the cause – or a mainstream ‘me too’ provider? I say commit yourself to doing something different. Ditch the herd, nerd. Be an innovator. Be a trailblazer.

Be you.

See you next week!

 

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Bring your dog to work (to)day!

Bring your dog to work (to)day!

Over the last decade, our Chocolate Labrador (Finn) has spent countless hours snoozing under desks in the corner of the office. Dreaming of bones, tennis balls, furry pals and open fields. There she lies unnoticed, until the reverberations of her snores and the noise of her tail ‘sleep-thumping’ against the floor becomes mildly distracting. At which point visitors politely ask what ‘that noise’ is.

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The land of Nod

Seven or eight years ago when my better half suggested we brought Finn to the showroom, my first reaction was ‘it just won’t work’. I’ll be honest. I had concerns about other people’s perceptions. Is it professional? Would we be patted on the head (no pun intended) and somehow taken less seriously as a business if our dog was there?

Reality was the polar opposite. The most reserved of business acquaintances dropped formalities and began to speak in a previously unheard ‘doggy woggy’ voice as she greeted them, tail wagging (she insists on greeting every visitor). Some clients even rolled around on the floor with her. No I’m not kidding. Conversations, body language and relationships instantly became informal. More human and less barriers. ‘We’ve got a yellow lab’ or ‘my parents have one’ people would say, as Finn lay on her back in an unladylike manner demanding a tickle. And who could refuse?

Funny how it takes an animal to bring out our human side. People naturally raise their barriers to some degree in the workplace. This is natural. But who isn’t reduced to fits of giggles after seeing someone goosed without warning by a cheeky Chocolate Labrador?

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In Manchester, Finn became an enthusiastic member of the team. Always pleased to see people – and always happy. I’d enjoy to hear the reactions as she trotted around the office each morning, meticulously saying hello to each team member one at a time. An instant shot of positivity to the workplace. Much better than the mumbled ‘Morning’ that most of us manage as we turn on our computer and shuffle into the kitchen in search of caffeine.

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Health & Safety Officer

Some other cool things also happened. We met other dog owners on our rounds that turned out to be local business neighbours. Colleagues offered to walk her at lunchtime so they could get some exercise together. Clients and suppliers sent photos of their dogs – and some called in with treats as they passed. One client set up a twitter account for his dog so the two could have an online flirt! And instead of being a distraction, our regular strolls provided crucial time to reflect on a project, gain perspective on a problem, or just get the blood flowing and take in some fresh air in Manchester’s Castlefield. I’d come back to the office reinvigorated and focused.

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Prior to our move to Switzerland last year, my wife had landed a great job in Zürich and we were pleased to learn that her new office was dog friendly. The business owner brings his dog in too. Now there are two dogs that snore in the corner. Two enthusiastic greetings to contend with in the morning (dogs aren’t fussed about goodbyes). Two pleading pairs of eyes to avoid at lunchtime. But for the time being, whilst I’ve been settling in, Finn has mostly been enjoying a sabbatical as a reward for all the hard work in her previous role as Director of Team Happiness.

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Employee health and wellbeing is a hot topic in workplace circles. Having worked in an office with and without canine colleagues I can honestly say the workplace is a far healthier environment with them present. People laugh more, smile more, exercise more, interact more and generally feel less stressed after a five minute tickle (just to clarify, I’m talking about the dog).

I encourage you to consider bringing your dog into work. I appreciate it might not be possible in every environment, or with every dog, but you might just be surprised. And generally, most potential problems you imagine, actually aren’t problems at all.

And it’s not just my opinion – a number of recent studies conclude that offices with dogs create a less stressful and more positive environment for employees –

BBC ‘taking dogs to work reduces stress’

USA Today ‘more companies allow pets at work’

Harvard Health ‘therapy dog offers stress relief at work’

As a final thought – do many co-working spaces allow dogs? They should, as this would encourage further integration and chance meetings. What better ice breaker is there than the shock and surprise of a cold, wet canine nose appearing in your crotch as you type away on your macbook..?!

See you next week!

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