Tech Interiors of Future Past

Tech Interiors of Future Past

I enjoy reading about the future. Future cities, future cars, future office. Who doesn’t? The implications of technological advances are debated online with readers in awe and fear at what may lie ahead. I published Office 2030 and Smart @rse articles earlier this year on this very subject.

Mark Eltringham wrote a great article last month for Workplace Insight suggesting our limited human grey matter cannot fathom where this is going. He’s right (well my limited bonce can’t). IT, AI and VR amongst other technological advances are accelerating at such pace we’re lagging farther and farther behind, our puny imagination unable to digest the far reaching consequences as speed of progress is infinitely redoubled. And redoubled.

Computer says yes. Brain says ‘erm wait… gimme a second…”

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Great Scott…….

Eltringham quotes Stewart Brand’s ‘How Buildings Learn’, “describing each building as consisting of six layers, each of which functions on a different timescale. These range from the site itself which has a life cycle measured in centuries, through to the building (decades), interior fit out (years), technology (months), to stuff (days). The effectiveness of a workplace design will depend on how well it resolves the tensions that exist between these layers of the building.” Very well put. And with our future workplace needs so uncertain it is clear that flexibility is vital.

Yet as advances continue apace, the very style of our commercial interiors is stripped back to basics. Check out my last post on Factory Office to see what I mean. Swathes of furniture and interior design has become utilitarian in appearance. Exposed beams, ceilings and plywood are rife. Coincidence? Perhaps not.

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Google King’s Cross Office

AHMM Architects recently unveiled Google’s King’s Cross Office, complete with ‘Jack’; a meeting room which is reconfigurable and portable within the building. Plug and play. Effectively the rooms which come with built in video conference equipment can be hacked to suit requirements – something that no doubt appeals to the IT crowd.

Dr Kerstin Sailer, a lecturer at University College London commented “The inflexibility of space has become particularly problematic in the 21st century business environment. It could be argued that Google is now making a move towards a more profound workplace innovation.”

Again the scheme’s overall interior style is very ‘coworking’ flavour, stripped back, typically tech. The IT industry that has led the coworking interiors style revolution are perhaps more aware than most of why commercial interiors should be simple, flexible and updatable. Perhaps these IT folk that live in dark cupboards snacking on pot noodles and energy drinks think of the building floorplate as a mother board onto which updates should be regularly downloaded in order to maintain its effectiveness.

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Google Jack meeting room

Away from tech-focused desks and meeting furniture, we’ve seen the rise of young edgy breakout furniture firms with playful, retro and ironic styles ripe for Palo Alto. The likes of Facebook and Twitter have had cuddly soft breakout spaces with rocking chairs and old school sofas for years. The antisocial nature of technology itself perhaps promotes the need for good old fashioned chat in a space that feels safe and warm. But stripped back ceilings and plywood doesn’t necessarily feel warm you say. Ah yes, but it feels basic.

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Deadgood at the Office Group, London

 

There’s the ‘everyone wants to be a start up’ factor. A leaning towards personal, approachable ‘low tech’ human service. “Hi I’m a friendly human. Let’s sit on a sofa, drink coffee and chat business.” steering clear of the high tech server stack that is beeping, whirring and being cooled by air-con in the back room.

And we’re now seeing not just the return of bent metal utilitarian furniture, but a number of other materials formerly linked with granny’s front room are popping up. We’ve had mid century design and Scandi lounge settings re-appearing. Marbles and velvet too. But who would have thought that handwoven wicker, the antithesis of technology, would be making a comeback anytime soon? But here we are. And here it is.

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Perhaps it’s part of human nature to dig our heels in. As IT races on at light speed, keeping our interiors ‘real’ gives us echoes of days gone by. A visit to old Aunty Beth’s for a cuppa and some custard creams. If people feel good, they are happy and productive, remember? Whatever the key driver to this trend is, it’s ironic that as IT progresses to new found heights, our interior style is going backwards. And nowhere more so than in the tech industry hubs themselves.

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Factory Office

Factory Office

As this year’s Orgatec comes to a close and local airports shepherd battle-hardened armies of salespeople and creatives back to their respective hubs, I reflect on some themes from this year’s show.

20406721The Office: a place of industry.

Vitra have been presenting an industrial feel for a couple of years with Jean Prouve and the Bouroullecs leading the way. This show very much continued where they left off. Unfinished metal frames, warehouse style plastic doorflaps to divide spaces, metal mesh side panels and screens hanging from pulleys that would usually be found on a factory floor. The ‘start-up feel’ is still flavour of the month as everyone wants to work at a coworking desk wearing jeans and trainers with no socks, whilst sipping lattés and eating carrot cake…

The industrial feel echoed through the fair this year with many brands acknowledging a factory floor setting, either with a new modular mesh shelving product or simply with the backdrop of their set design. If the Hacienda was still around I’d tell Tony to stick some big ply desks on one side and a coffee barista next to the DJ booth and Fac51 would become a coworking mecca.

img_2054Modularity… 

An important feature in architecture and interiors; the ability to create a grid format of interchangeable blocks allowing users the flexibility to increase or decrease in line with changing requirements. The latest modular trends at Orgatec include space dividing screens suspended by a ceiling mounted rail system, allowing screens to be slid around continuously to carve up spaces (see my Office 2030 blog). Black metal styled storage systems such as Wiesner Hager’s Cage product (below) and boxy storage modules with integrated desking, acoustic panels, soft seating and other features industrialised an office planning theme made familiar by Herman Miller’s Living Office, where soft seating peels off desks, which in turn peel off a modular storage system.

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The use of modular systems on exhibition stands (whether product or prop) firmly illustrates a desire to split up a large open plan commercial space with towering high storage as both a feature and a facility.

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In general, workplace furniture fashion is beginning to look like commercial exposed ceilings: stripped back to bare boned essentials, bolts and fixings proudly on display rather than hidden from view. Solid, rigid, mesh and modular. Carefully considered, then intentionally styled to look a bit rough round the edges. A bit like Jason Statham.

And Tom Dixon’s getting in on the act, with his first foray into the workplace. Aside from a promising chunky wooden trestle-legged team desk, his Boom task light makes no secret of its industrial DNA.

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With all this harsh, technology driven metal framed office furniture, we need some softness to compensate. And following in the footsteps of Verpan, Walter Knoll – and more recently Gubi, there was a lot of dark opulent velvet upholstery and mid century vibes. Buzzispace seemingly had a personality transplant and you’d be forgiven for thinking their stand was actually of Danish heritage, with wooden framed easy chairs and muted velvet fabrics, long curtains and screens. Large numbers of plants and foliage are also needed to offset all that tough metal, so expect even more biophilic integration in the new wave industrial workplace.

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In spite of a return to metal frames, there’s still a strong appetite for wooden furniture. Soft linoleum (or linoleum effect) meeting table tops with wooden underframes are as popular as ever, with huge numbers of wooden frame breakout chairs, tables and bar stools launched. Hussl quietly slipped in a nice family of wooden framed chairs and barstools with a rather unique linoleum backrest. Nicely done.

The Scandinavians are still doing what they do best: beautiful wood and hand stitched leather combinations, with Fredericia looking the part. Meanwhile Poltrona Frau impressed with exquisite quality leather meeting and waiting furniture for high quality interiors.

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Swoon chair in velvet

Walter Knoll displayed a range of succulent leather and velvet furniture, with a great new linking meeting table system. In addition they tapped in to another theme which was large executive V shaped electric sit stand meeting tables, perfect for group discussions and ideal for video conference.

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Aside from these themes there’s still plenty of marble, black chrome, copper and brass – plus a wave of 3D style fabrics, tiles and textiles sweeping through. As ever, halls were awash with hundreds of clever stacking, folding, flipping and collapsing solutions- and the race is well underway to embed ever smarter data gathering hardware within furniture. ‘Millennials’ and ‘Digital Nomads’ are mainstream topics now and brands like Samsung, Google and Swisscom are developing IT products to optimise the way current and future generations use buildings and furniture.

But that wraps up my general thoughts on Orgatec this year. Ultimately wellbeing, communication and technology remain centre stage in the modern office and the stripping back of office design only emphasises that. With the fourth industrial revolution looming, it’s ironic that office design chooses a factory style design backdrop to personify itself. The creation of the Factory Office, the rise of smart tech, metric data harvesting and coworking means the future of the workplace is cool, edgy and exciting. And definitely not dead.

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Stripes, Industrial Chic and Zebras

Stripes, Industrial Chic and Zebras

As I work on projects searching for the right products, trends can gently (or sometimes not so) present themselves. In the run up to joining over 50,000 trade visitors at Orgatec in Cologne next week, I’ve recently felt my ‘furniture nerd antennae’ twitch to a couple of design styles which I’ll share with you.

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Zeitraum

There’s a movement within certain design circles of simple, chunky legged, childlike design. Mathias Hahn has developed a number of pieces for Zeitraum in this style and I like the playfulness of it. He makes it look easy and effortless, but the proportions are very carefully considered and well executed.

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Okapi chair by Perez Ochando for Missana

Meanwhile Missana recently launched the Okapi chair, designed by Perez Ochando. The design studio based in Valencia describe ‘the front side of the chair reminding us of a giraffe and the back of a zebra’. Ok. That’ll be last orders at the bar guys…

Bla Station have been on this theme for years, with tele tubby forms, oversized upholstery buttons and simplified shapes. Sometimes our subconscious is drawn to a design style as it reminds us of something. If we have an inner child, then Bla Station have been waving Kinder Eggs and Alcopops at it for a while now.

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Bla Station

But there’s another theme that has caught my eye. A more grown up theme, based upon simple clean lines, 3D shapes, industrial materials and graphite shades. And I have a feeling Orgatec – and 2017 – will be awash with it…

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Zeus: Slim Irony

Zeus have been creating cool iron furniture for decades. Their ‘Slim Irony’ range is a culmination of their time-served expertise. They call it ‘Industrial Chic’. With a blend of minimalism and urban Milanese cool, the range includes rusted top finishes and a glass option that reminds me of school windows… Rusted metal finishes have been a regular feature in external architectural design for some time – perhaps they are finally creeping indoors.

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Zeus: Slim Irony

But that’s not all Zeus are known for. During Milan Design Week the lovely food served in their showroom (a converted car garage tucked away in an unassuming Milan side street) has also gained notoriety. So much so that old folks from the local neighbourhood suspiciously shuffle through the showroom doors en masse around lunchtime, hoping for a free bowl of risotto. The lovely folks at Zeus usually oblige.

Back to what Zeus do best – furniture. The pure, simple form of Slim Irony is nothing new as far as shapes go. But this cubic semi transparent ‘3D’ linear theme is something we’re going to see a lot more of.

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Zeus: Slim Irony

“Handcrafted furniture from the Industrial North…”

From downtown Milan to down the Toon (that’s Newcastle, UK if you didn’t know). Nestled amongst and inspired by faded crumbling industrial heritage, a furniture brand called Novocastrian is emerging with a style of their own. Acknowledging modern trends, with hints of art deco and inspiration from the industrial revolution, a group of metalworkers, designers and architects with a self-confessed obsession with metal are steadily growing their furniture collection. And fanbase.

I love how Novocastrian present themselves: Handcrafted Furniture from the Industrial North. In an era of Brexit, declining industry, fear and propoganda, this is a brand bursting with northern grit to turn it all on its head. Go on lads and lasses.

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Novocastrian’s Straiths Unit – inspired by industrial architecture

Aside from a growing product collection, Novocastrian turn their hands to one off commissions and bespoke products. Whilst retaining their flavour and classic style, they deliver unique elegant forms echoing Charles Rennie Mackintosh, in fabulous materials such as blackodised or bronze patinated steel.

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Novocastrian tables (above and below)

Light years ahead…

But this theme of dark lines and stripes isn’t exclusive to furniture. In recent years we’ve seen lighting designs hit the trade fairs, perhaps illuminating (sorry) this dark linear trend. Michael Anastassiades’ String lights (below) were inspired by electricity wires as seen through a train window…

A recent favourite of mine is Arik Levy’s playful Wireflow collection for Vibia which adds a decorative Gothic touch to a project. Great for a large reception space or gallery. This would look really cool over a bespoke Novocastrian Blackodised steel boardroom table.

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Wireflow by Arik Levy

In both of these lighting collections, the clever twist is that the actual light itself isn’t the main event. The power cord cuts a stripe in thin air, allowing a 2D or 3D shape to be created and make its presence known.

Another related example is Lee Broom‘s Opticality exhibition from LDW last month. With 80’s undertones, Broom plays with the senses to present his latest lighting product ‘Optical’. This is where the playful linear trend crosses over to 3D graphic design, visual perceptions and perhaps even fashion.

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Once you tune in to these themes it’s hard to stop noticing them and I could literally go on and on throwing related products at you. But I won’t. If like me you’re jetting off to Cologne next week for Orgatec, look out for cubic linear shapes, black stripes, 3D frames and industrial black metal. Oh and keep your eyes peeled for the occasional zebra or giraffe lurking in the background…

Clerkenwell V BREXIT

Clerkenwell V BREXIT

Another Brexit post. Yawn.

This isn’t a political broadcast, this is a short insight into problems and opportunities faced by the British furniture industry, brought on by volatility in the pound. Of course many of these problems are replicated in other industries such as consumer electronics or cars, but as I’m an expert in neither of those, I’ll leave that to PC World and Top Gear.

The headlines across financial markets have been “Sterling Drops to 31 Year low” which conjures up images of irritated Brits spluttering ‘how much?’ at the beach bar on holiday whilst UK exporters rub their hands together as their market takes off. There is very much a flip side of positives and negatives here, littered with dangerous potholes.

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As we know Britain has a trade deficit: net import is higher than net export. In terms of furniture, there is a complex network of furniture importers, dealers and distributors across the UK that act as trusted local agents for their clients. These businesses collectively bring in huge quantities of furniture and interior goods to the UK. The big danger to these companies is short to medium term volatility. Here’s the scene:

  1. Week 1: Regional dealer wins sought after project at competitive margin.
  2. Week 2: Quotation agreed with local client in Pound Sterling.
  3. Week 3: Orders placed with European supply chain, buy prices in Euros. (rate 1.2)
  4. Weeks 3-9: Market volatility follows, pound drops sharply.
  5. Week 9: Furniture arrives along with supplier invoice (30 days).
  6. Weeks 9-12: Pound Sterling continues to drop and hits 1.1.
  7. Week 13: Unlucky for some. Supplier invoice due…

That’s a big hit to anyone’s margin and can easily render a project loss-making. For a five or six figure furniture contract, that’s potentially a huge loss to the bottom line.

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“Many agents and overseas manufacturers are now feeling the pain of subsidising the weak Pound…”

Aside from regional dealers there are national agents who try to steady the ship by setting a rate for the year ahead. There will be many agents and overseas manufacturers now feeling the pain of subsidising the weak Pound after betting against the possibility of Brexit last year. January is the time many new 2017 price lists drop and the UK market can expect significant cost increases from American, European (and other currency) suppliers. 

Meanwhile UK exporters are hugely optimistic (unless they are heavily reliant on foreign components purchased in other currencies that is) and have to take advantage of overseas opportunities. But whilst there are always short term advantages in these volatile markets, any long term successful strategy needs to be just that – long term. It’s easy to bag some quick overseas wins when your currency is bargain basement, but if and when it returns you might need to do the subsidising if you want to keep developing that new business.

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Many British manufacturers of office desks and chairs import components from abroad so are not immune to rate volatility

Managing Risk and Exposure

So what can and what does the British industry do to repel the volatility of the Pound? Of course many importers agree a long term exchange rate in advance. The local dealer / agent would be wise to buy foreign currency in advance through a reputable currency trader (rather than a dodgy bloke in a mac at the local bus interchange…..?). Open a Euro account with your bank and spread the pain whilst exchanging chunks at better rates, in advance of that big project coming in. As risk and financial advisors will always say – it’s about managing your company’s risk and exposure.

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But is the UK Government doing enough to support the importers? New PM Theresa May is certainly taking decisive action and Brexiteers are keen to point at the export market as a response to the weak pound, but for importers who have built successful businesses on importing quality goods, volatility means sleepless nights. Is there something else that can be done to support this important sector of the industry? Could there be a relief tax for importers who can demonstrate losses generated by Sterling volatility? London is a truly global city and Clerkenwell is packed to the rafters with international furniture and interior companies. The effects of this market will be evident in the next 12 months – and not just in Clerkenwell…

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Furnishing the future

Furnishing the future

A little over 11 years ago I was involved in bringing Vitra Design Museum’s world renowned 100 Years 100 Chairs exhibition to Manchester – with a fantastic team and supported by an enthusiastic Architecture Community. It was the acclaimed exhibition’s first visit to an English speaking country. Another first for Manchester, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Joy Division, the Post Punk music movement, the Hacienda, the worlds first Computer and the city where Rolls met Royce. This exhibition at CUBE Gallery was its most successful ever, with between 12-14000 visitors during it’s 10 week stay and national press coverage. One architect simply referred to it as ‘Chair Porn’. Suppose it’s a bit snappier, but google search results would vary.

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The exhibition further ignited my passion for furniture design. Cleverly curated, with a chair to represent each year of the last century, a walk through the stands took you on a journey through an evolving, humorous, odd, weird and wonderful world. From Hoffman’s Sitzmachine to Breuer’s Wassily Chair. From Le Corbusier’s LC4 to Eames Plastic chairs. As you progressed through decades of design, you were immersed into the roaring 30’s, post World War austerity and the beginnings of globalisation, progressing to the freedom of the 60’s, funky 70’s fashion, 80’s pop culture and 90’s acid house.

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Aside from visibly evolving trends, fashions and design styles, one of the leading influences in the evolution of furniture design is advances in production methods and discovery of new materials. The exhibition underlined the Eames’ thirst to understand and conquer new materials -from plywood, to metal, to fibre glass. Later, designers like Martyn Van Severen and Philippe Starck would further this progression with with aluminium, plastics and polyurethane.

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Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge chair (1986)
I was reminded of the exhibition recently when I saw Jorge Pensi’s Toledo chair – previously made (and featured) in cast aluminium – now produced as a single piece of injected polypropylene following manufacturing advances. A fantastic chair, that was often priced out of projects – the redesign in polypropylene gives a new lease of life to a cult classic.

“like trying to write a book in one continuous movement with your pen never leaving the page”

One of the biggest global influences of modern and future furniture production is 3D printing. There are a growing number of design studios developing furniture and interior products to be produced solely by 3D printers. Due to the continuous nature of the 3D printing process -like trying to write a book in a continuous movement with your pen never leaving the page –  the designs are still very much evolving. But it’s here, it’s happening and it’s progress.

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Barber Osgerby’s London 2012 Olympic Torches were 3D printed
Back in my home city of Manchester there is a wave of new Government backed University buildings full of scientists pondering over Graphene, the new wonder material that is more solid than steel and a better conductor than copper. Terence Woodgate and John Barnard already explored the inherent rigidity of carbon fibre to design a table up to three metres in length with an ultra thin top and just four legs, using state of the art autosport and aerospace technology.

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Surface table by Terence Woodgate and John Barnard

“Maybe we just haven’t had the lightbulb moment yet…”

‘So what’s next?’ I ask. Factory capability, new innovative materials and production advances means furniture factories are more advanced than ever. But maybe the material is already here, in front of our noses, in disguise and being utilised for another purpose. Maybe we just haven’t had the lightbulb moment yet.

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Think about this. Arne Jacobsen’s original proposal for the Ant chair was laughed at and expected to fail with its ‘little spindly legs’. Marcel Breuer borrowed the idea of bent metal for his Wassily chair from hospital furniture and bicycles. Charles and Ray Eames initially steamed wood to create leg splints for injured soldiers returning from war, before transferring this know-how to create the iconic plywood chair. As we produce and consume more, creating more waste, many designers are turning to rubbish as our next abundantly available material.

Keep your eyes peeled. Sometimes >>>>new ideas<<<<  are right in front of your eyes.

 

 

Perfection V Ambition (finale)

Perfection V Ambition (finale)

At the close of part two we’d established that design practices often stop hiring once they have reached a certain ratio (ar kid) to maintain their design language and quality control. Furniture companies seem to have their sights set on different goals, however. And who better to pick this up than Matt Welsh of British furniture Co Naughtone who, after a decade of solid growth are now going global…

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I ask Matt to talk us through their journey to date.

“As a small to medium sized, fast moving furniture manufacturer, the ability to change direction and respond to market and client requirements has been the foundation on which we built naughtone. However, the market is changing.”

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Truphone, London.
“This is what an office looks like now!”

“We’ve seen a real shift in the type of business that is interested in a warmer, more eclectic, domestic style in their environment. ” Yes indeed I think to myself – thinking back to a previous article on Furniture Strategist No Place Like Workplace. Ahem, sorry Matt, carry on…

“More traditional businesses like Law Firms and Financial Institutions are following the lead of the forward thinking, flexible businesses and are creating softer, less system furniture orientated spaces.” Matt continues, “So, this trend isn’t just for the Tech Start-ups and Marketing Agencies anymore, this is what an office looks like now!”

Very true. Everyone wants to look like a start up. Big businesses want to appear more approachable to their consumer base. People like local, craft and casual in an increasingly corporate and globalised world.

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naughtone at Lancaster University Library (Sheppard Robson)
So having heard about naughtone’s success on the other side of the pond I ask Matt to walk us through it.

“We launched into the US 2 ½ years ago and saw instantaneous success.” explains Matt, “This gave us the confidence to push forwards. The US is highly service orientated, so it became apparent that to really become a significant business over there we would need to start to product our furniture in North America.”

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Naughtone’s Chicago showroom
‘So how did you develop this opportunity?’ I ask.

“A plan was hatched. We decided to explore the opportunities a partnership with a major manufacturer might offer us. We’ve always admired Herman Miller and felt that, like us, design was at the very heart of their business.”

But how did it come about? Did you just walk on to the Herman Miller stand and say ‘Hi guys, check out our cool British brand?’

“The initial contact came from a cheeky message from myself to Brian Walker (CEO) of Herman Miller via LinkedIn! Things escalated quickly as it became apparent they were also exploring opportunities in our sector. Once we met the synergies became very obvious.” Now there’s a lesson in northern sales tactics for you. Lesson one: Thee don’t ask, thee don’t get.

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Etsy HQ, NYC.
Matt continues, “In June 2016 we entered into a “Strategic Partnership” with Herman Miller, this probably sounds a bit woolly?” Whoa there. They’ve already got you speaking ‘that commercial speak’ Matt. Strategic partnership..?

“Basically Herman Miller have invested into naughtone and are providing us with assistance in growing our business globally. We start production in North America in October, with Asia following shortly after. This means we can provide much better support for our clients, particularly on an International level.”

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So Herman Miller provide the network, experience and infrastructure to take naughtone to the next level and beyond. ‘Is there any danger of brand dilution?’ I ponder, having watched the brand steadily grow over the last decade.

“We’re still running the business and defining the creative direction, but we have a support network to enable us to do it on a Global scale.” says Matt, ” In essence, this deal enables us to continue to grow, but also to retain the character and personality that many of our clients have grown to love.”

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Well, there’s no two ways about it. This is a furniture start up’s ambition crystallised. Full access to the support, network, business acumen and kudos of a Global leader in furniture, yet still retaining creative direction. Could this be furniture brand utopia? It’s great to see a British start up we’ve watched grow up (to the ripe old age of 10) now hit the global stage. Congratulations to Matt, Kieron and Mark and may your new partnership bear lots of fruit. Strategically of course…

 

Thanks for reading and thanks to all participants in this mini-series:

Roger Stephenson OBE of Stephenson Studio

Paul de Zwart of Another Country

Simon Millington, Interior Designer

Matt Welsh of Naughtone.

 

Perfection V Ambition (part two)

Perfection V Ambition (part two)

Following my discussion with Roger Stephenson OBE (Architect) and Paul de Zwart (craft furniture owner) in part one, I continue to ponder if big business success means selling your design soul. Or is it possible to have both?

I recently caught up with a pal of mine – multi award winning Interior Designer Simon Millington..

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“In my world, workplace design continues to change and evolve at a rate that is difficult to keep track of.” Simon explains, “The edgy spark isn’t so much about the aesthetic, that’s actually relatively easy to keep fresh no matter the scale of your studio. Being edgy is actually more about the increasingly brilliant ways you can innovate and make an environment more engaging and productive to its users.”

I shuffle forward slightly. Go on.

“It’s a massive mistake to think that this is simply about whacking in a few swings and slides in an office space in the lame belief that your workplace is now the best place to work in the world. That is actually about as edgy as an amoeba wallowing in the primeval soup.”

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Let’s stop this now.

I’m with you on the slides Simon, I’d be afraid of ripping my pants, but all this talk of soup is getting me hungry.

“To push boundaries you have to engage with your client’s company at all levels – you need to truly understand how they work as individuals and as a collective. You need to understand their brand, their culture and the frustrations and challenges they face on a daily basis in the work environment. You have to become imbedded and have the right thought processes to make valuable and unique responses that suit them without patronising or alienating their team. To get this right, it takes time, commitment and comes at a cost to the designer and indeed the client” Simon enthuses.

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“more often than not, the full potential is not delivered through fear.”

As someone that has worked in, founded and owned large and small design studios, what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

“In a small studio it becomes all-consuming and you effectively have to shut the door to outside projects and distractions – not good for business. The small studio needs to be careful not to cut corners to remain a viable business. For larger studios, it is actually easier to be fully committed to a project and become truly imbedded with the team. You have the back-up resource to keep the wheels turning as you immerse yourself into the project and really research the potential solutions thoroughly, but it’s also true to say that pace and value drop off a cliff in this situation. The approach to taking educated risks or challenging the norm becomes more conservative and more often than not, the full potential is not delivered through fear.”

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I had a feeling the ‘F’ word might be coming. Large scale commercial design studios aren’t generally known for risk taking… So where’s the line? How do you get the best of both?

“The unexpected and uncool answer to all this is a bit like the tale of Goldilocks” says Simon, “It needs to be just right. To push boundaries and innovate you need to keep the pace, passion and concentrated talent of small team. You need the studio owners to be on the tools to be a stakeholder of risk, but you also need to have the security and back up of a wider team working on a full spectrum of projects and programmes to keep the wolf away from the door, and this is what the larger companies enjoy.”

‘Nailed it’ I mutter to myself. During my career I have met a number of design studio founders who chose to intentionally halt growth once their team grew to a specific magic number. At first this puzzled me, but the name of Mancunian band ‘A Certain Ratio’ sums this up beautifully: it’s recognition of the fine balance between a well oiled machine… and dysfunction. Maintaining work quality and design philosophy is intrinsically linked to a senior designer’s ceiling limit of how many projects they can manage at any one time. There is a limit. A number. Going beyond this magic number can have disastrous consequences.

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Simon concludes, “From experience, the really remarkable work comes from a studio that isn’t an international brand, nor is it a pop up that has only existed for a few years. The spark of genius comes from a medium sized studio where a high level of skill and expertise exists without dilution of the masses.”

This is a key difference between aspirations of Designers versus furniture producers. The holy grail for many designers is to have a small to medium sized high quality studio, with an extensive client waiting list allowing free creative expression. The ultimate goal for furniture manufacturers however is expansion, high number production and (for some) world domination. In the final part of my mini series, I talk to Matt Welsh of Naughtone, who has just agreed a deal with Herman Miller to take his UK based business Global….

Thanks Simon!