There are architects who build and those that theorise about building. Studio Weave, purveyors of charming but often ephemeral public architecture falls emphatically into the former. The studio, founded and headed up by Maria Smith and Je Ahn, is simply itching to stamp its mark in bricks and mortar: what that building turns out to be almost does not matter, as the directors clearly relish the challenges in everything from an office block to luxury flats.
Given its track record of projects like the Lullaby Factory (left) – a musical installation that seemed to channel the spirit of the BFG for Great Ormond Street Hospital – it is unlikely that the Candy brothers are going to come a-knocking. Sure enough, they reveal the current focus is designs for a classroom extension in a forest clearing and a residential care home.
The Dalston-based studio recently came agonisingly close to landing the big one, an office development in Belgium. The job involved an extensive revamp and extension to home-automation company Niko’s research headquarters. A chance meeting in Shanghai between Ahn and some of the company’s higher-ups resulted in a formal invitation to pitch for the job. Studio Weave’s proposal involved a rhythmic, arched extension housing new flexible office space melded into the existing building, which in turn would be reconfigured to hold the research areas. The studio made it to the final hurdle only to be dashed by a local outfit, which proposed a total demolition followed by a brand-new building. Nevertheless, Studio Weave’s effort, a marriage between modern workplace thinking and an aesthetic drawing on Belgium’s industrial heritage, displayed the young practice’s maturity not to mention Ahn’s almost unnerving self-belief (though even he admits they were the long shots in this particular race.) “Offices are the most difficult things to design. You have to design in so much redundancy in terms of technology and future flexibility. Functionally, it is very important,” he says.
Studio Weave happened almost by accident. The directors, who met while studying in Bath and later Delft in the Netherlands, initially found each other mildly antagonistic. It wasn’t long, however, before this querulous dynamic developed into a partnership through a mutual appreciation of each other’s abilities. The intention, they explain, was never to form their own studio. “It’s funny, but we just wanted steady jobs at good practices,” says Smith. It was the runaway success of the duo’s 140 Boomerangs (a helical timber structure made from boomerang-shaped elements) at the 2006 London Architecture Biennale that convinced Smith and Ahn there might be a future in their own practice. Since then, though the readies may not arrive with the chronographic reliability of a monthly paycheck, work has nevertheless been steady, as has the media attention. The City of London, Dartford County Council and Olympic Delivery Authority among many others now figure in the portfolio along with some flattering broadsheet press clippings.
The boomerangs set the studio on a course into the public realm that neither Smith nor Ahn had planned, and similar briefs followed. Twisting along Littlehampton seafront, punctuated with splashes of uplifting colour, the Longest Bench (left) is the most notable of these. Taking four years to complete thanks to the shrivelling public funds, the project revealed Studio’s Weave’s resourcefulness: hunting out reclaimed sea defences from a depot in Essex and inviting locals to sponsor a section of bench by paying to have a personal message engraved in it.
The architects are storytellers in the most literal sense, inventing playful narratives to imbue projects like the Here Heres (four huge horn-shaped structures in the Derbyshire landscape, where you can listen for signs of a mythical giant) with an added layer of meaning, albeit completely contrived. This kind of work has softened the pens of even the most hard-bitten architectural hacks, but to the studio’s frustration, cutesiness has camouflaged the engineering challenges behind each construction. For Freya and Robin (two timber cabins for Northumberland beauty spot Kielder Water), the studio designed each building so that it could expand and contract up to 100mm, using slip-joints and springs, in response to the harsh climate. “We seem to spend a lot of time trying to make things look random when actually they are super-rational,” says Smith. “Something can look whimsical, but it still needs to be structurally very efficient.” That said, the scale is worlds removed from an office in the square mile or a hotel in Victoria.
There is little doubt Studio Weave has the imagination to continue down its unusual path. Its creative ideas seem to flow freely, but it needs to guard against being typecast as the wacky chaps on the fringes. A project revamping the parking on a gritty slab of Romford High Road involving 60 local shopkeepers and businesspeople should help convince developers that there is a hard-nosed practicality behind the stories and characters. “Any building, we will be able to tackle, says Ahn. “If you look at our portfolio it requires a certain leap of faith, but what a lot of developers don’t see, unless they are in it, is how rigorous the design process is we go through.”
Above: Paleys upon Pilers, Aldgate's "timber palace" celebrating Chaucer
Dressed in trademark black, Jean Nouvel sweeps into the dining room at Milan’s Hotel Principe di Savoia. I greet him with a wonky “bonjour”; he pauses briefly to shake hands, and then sits down at a table with another journalist some 20 feet away. At dinner the night before (part of a press junket), word had gone round that I was “the one” who had scooped an interview with the great man. Needless to say, it comes as something of a disappointment to find that I am not.
I spend the next 15 minutes watching him like a hawk just in case he melts away like one of his diaphanous buildings. I am learning, as many in the design world have before me, that Nouvel is harder to catch than a bullet between the teeth, such are the demands of the French architect’s schedule. I’m already nervous. Our interview has been cut to 45 minutes including photo shoot, but Mario, our photographer, isn’t worried. “I’ve shot him before,” he says confidently. “Give me ten minutes, that’s all I need.” Still, it gives us a chance to study our surroundings. Dripping in neo-Romanesque baubles, the Principe is one of Milan’s most opulent lodgings; it seems an incongruous spot to meet one of architecture’s most prominent iconoclasts.
Nouvel is in the city to promote his upcoming work at the Salone Ufficio, the biennial show when the Salone shifts its attention from conceptual prototypes to the prosaic world of office furniture. He seems in a good mood when we eventually sit down to talk, which comes as something of a relief – a nocturnal creature, Nouvel is said to be taciturn at breakfast time. My first question, about the architect’s own working habits, draws a hearty chuckle. “We play at this game with our designers and we will show how they work. That is one of the first things I’d like to show at the exhibition – that we do not have to clone the space of work,” he says.
In the absence of a real client, Nouvel has asked his friends (Philippe Starck, Ron Arad, Michele De Lucchi and Marc Newson) to film themselves throughout the day to illustrate their different approaches to work; these will then be screened at the show. Later, I watch snippets on an iPad, which reveals that while most of us still slug it out in rigid, hierarchical workplaces, the likes of Starck – who appears elemental in a THX 1138-style white space by a beach – most definitely don’t.
Nouvel volunteers his own modus operandi: “The first tool of my work is my bed. Every morning I awake first [laughs] and I come back to bed and I put my earplugs in and my mask on the eyes then I lie on the bed like this and I lie in silence for an hour and half or two hours.” At this point, Nouvel crosses his arms across his chest and leans back in repose. For a moment he looks a little like an FW Murnau character. He comes back to life and continues: “So it is not clearly a meditation, because that is to create a void – but it is a kind of de-baggage of life, to imagine a different thing.” As we speak, Nouvel reveals a tendency to invent words in a sort of reverse Franglais. Though the meaning is always clear it lends an entertaining dimension to his philosophical musings. Pick of the day is “autobanal”, a brilliantly apposite way of describing his view that offices are too homogenous.
Such is Nouvel’s physical charisma it is easy to picture him receiving subordinates ensconced behind a Byzantine obsidian desk, so it is surprising to find that he has no fixed abode in his own office, preferring to move around depending on the task in hand. Nouvel’s event at the Salone (entitled Project: Offices for Living) takes cues from his own fluid work style, and aims to offer a series of alternatives – Milanese apartments, an industrial warehouse and a loft, all converted into workspaces – to the homogeny of modern offices. Thus far, there isn’t much to see aside from some renders that undoubtedly don’t do the project justice.
Nouvel believes that apartments make better places to work than offices, and that existing buildings on the outskirts of a city should be adapted and reused. “The worst thing is the standardisation of all the office space in companies. They do the same thing a thousand times. So I think what we can imagine is liberation from that. This evolution has to be done with another spirit. And this spirit is not in contradiction with efficiency.” Nouvel scorns what he sees as the over-regulation of office building dimensions: “Everything is the same height and things have to be such and such metres or else you lose money. It is totally ridiculous.”
Those at the forefront of workplace design have been banging this particular drum for a good while now, and might find the architect’s comments a little patronising. But perhaps it is fairer to see Offices for Living as an exploration of possibilities rather some star architect’s edict saying, “this is how you should do it.” It is also refreshing that an architect of Nouvel’s stature is applying himself to improving a building’s interior when so many others seem content with the external spectacle.
Nouvel has long waged war on the banal. His work has moments of genius (The Institut du Monde Arabe, or the Cartier Foundation (top image), both in Paris) interspersed with more eccentric projects such as the bird-box-like nuttiness of the Tour Horizons, a Parisian office block. Nouvel’s unpredictability is part of his allure. Unlike some of his contemporaries (David Chipperfield springs to mind), he has no signature style, dabbling in high-tech buildings, glass icons and postmodernism alike. The unifying factors are a fascination with the manipulation of light, which sears his work together like a laser beam, and context drawn from culture and surroundings. London’s One New Change (2010), for example, is a beguiling mix of forelock-tugging deference to St Paul’s and daring asymmetrical angles in provocative brown fritted glazing. The bullet-shaped the Torre Agbar (2005) in Barcelona is inspired by rock formations in nearby Montserrat. For Nouvel, icons are alright, as long as there is a meaning beyond form-making. “Buildings of a huge scale have to be more symbolic with more identities. That is the vocation of a high-rise building,” he explains.
Around the same time as Torre Agbar was completed, Nouvel published the Louisiana Manifesto (coinciding with a solo show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art) in which the he warned of a globalised architectural style that absorbs and destroys local identities. Nouvel drew the battle lines much earlier in his career with the building that made his name, the Institut du Monde Arabe (1987). One of François Mitterrand’s heralded Grands Projets, the building was a highly decorative reinterpretation of Arabic architecture, which diffused light through automated geometrical apertures on the facade to create a kind of modern-day Mashrabiya. The opposite end of the building reflected Notre Dame and Paris at large in its all-glass curtain wall – the idea being to establish a “dialogue between cultures”.
Identity is important to Nouvel. The architect spent his formative years in the medieval town of Sarlat in the Dordogne, surrounded by monuments of the past. “When you go into cities today, you always seem to have the same building in the same place. All architecture is a chance to extend the world to create smaller worlds with links to the history and geography. For this reason my architecture is a kind of adventure,” Nouvel said in a lecture to the National Building Centre.
Certainly, Nouvel brought his adventurous spirit to the CLMBBDO building (1992, pictured below) in Parisian suburb Issy-les-Moulineaux, where he designed a kind of adult’s playground for his advertising agency client. The building rests on the River Seine like a scuppered, rusting oil tanker. Hiding behind its high-tech facade is a tremendously theatrical interior. Three office floors are arranged around a wooden-floored atrium that doubles as a volleyball court in the evenings with a Gary Glaser-designed bar at one end. Either side of the space are multicoloured strip lights that feel like a community- hall disco. The crown jewel is a mechanical roof, which peels back like a cabriolet. The architect brims with enthusiasm when he remembers the project. “When it is sunny the roof opens and the space becomes a kind of courtyard. We also designed railings like benches so people could dangle their legs in the void, and walls like accordions so you could change the space. Outside there was water and high grass and ducks,” he smiles. “And they were really efficient!” Now 20 years old, the building remains an emphatic riposte to the bland office space Nouvel calls “bureau en blanc”.
Sadly, the speculative nature of the commercial world means that new office buildings have to appeal to the broadest spectrum of occupiers, which inevitably leads to generic spaces. Ever the optimist, Nouvel believes we are in a state of flux and will eventually take as much care over our offices as we might our homes. “Probably in the next decade and centuries they will look at our working habits with stupefaction because it is a little bit reminiscent of Tati’s Playtime.” Jacques Tati’s 1960s film charts the misadventures of Monsieur Hulot who, lost in a modern office block, becomes hopelessly befuddled by the technological gizmos designed to simplify life. So are we to take it that technology is not a solution to office design?
“It is not necessary to go for more and more technology. I want to show that it is possible to make a melting pot of ancient furniture and furniture of today. People have the right to personal expression, to express their idiosyncrasies. We want to show to the furniture companies they can propose these things. We can show that if you don’t like one neighbour and like the other you can build a wall with modules to create an office for two people.” It resonates with Professor Bronowski’s assertion that man is the only creature who feels compelled to adapt the environment to suit him, and in this guise, the office would be truly representative of the people within it. But as intoxicating as this freedom sounds, one can’t help but picture the scene in TV’s The Office when Tim, tiring of his dysfunctional working relationship with Gareth, blocks the latter out using printer-paper boxes. Anyway, Nouvel continues: “We cannot have a fit-all solution for example, the standard office lighting in the ceiling. We can use different lights and the position of vegetation to bring some excitement to the space.”
This is exactly what he did with the ghostly Cartier Foundation (1994) – a mash-up of cultural centre and offices constructed around a cedar tree planted by 19th-century polymath Chateaubriand. Nouvel played with the history of its setting by sandwiching the tree between a glass outer wall and an all-glass facade making it appear to sprout inside the building. It’s clear that Nouvel digs “vegetations”. His Musée du Quai Branly (2006, middle image) is covered in the stuff, while renders of the now-cancelled Tour Signal show an interior that resembled the Eden Project. It’s evidence of the Frenchman’s humanistic leanings, which, owing to the spectacle of his work, are often overlooked. The hope now is that Nouvel’s show at the Ufficio can embody something of these values. He sums up: “I think no space has a vocation that it needs to be designed by a star architect. Everything needs sentimental conditions. It has to be done with knowledge… and with love.”
Images: Ambroise Tézenas (Cartier Foundation) and Philippe Ruault (Musée du Quai Branly and CLMBBDO)
Amid the loud and bustling opening day of the Stockholm Furniture Fair, meeting TAF’s Gabriella Gustafson and Mattias Ståhlbom is like stepping into a bubble. Quiet, calm and humble, there isn’t a shred of arty pomp to them, nor their designs. Appropriately, their best-known piece is the Wood lamp for Muuto (below), a deliberately low-tech take on the standard desk lamp, which typifies their simple, pragmatic aesthetic, and their ability to rethink the norm.
They’re at the show to launch a new piece for Muuto, just one of many contributions to this year’s design week in their hometown. The duo has also set-designed an exhibition of glass and robotic arms, called Glass Elephant, at Stockholm’s Skeppsholmen caverns; created a piece for Örnsbergsauktionen, a yearly auction of one-off contemporary design; and fully developed its Trotters furniture collection for young Swedish design brand Pieces. Gustafson was also on the selection panel for the fair’s Greenhouse show of upcoming designers. It’s clear they are well respected and acclaimed in Scandinavia and over the last few years have established their name internationally, but even if you don’t know TAF by name, a flick through the studio’s product portfolio is sure to stir a few recognitions. The designs always pop up in magazines, on blogs and trend reports, coveted for their clever twist on the everyday.
“We work a lot with references,” says Ståhlbom. “We look at the most common things and change the materials or scale. When you put an object in a different context, something new happens.” He refers to the Rubber lamp for Zero lighting, the design for which was based on the shape of a stretched elastic band. Then Gustafson points to the Adaptable table, another piece for Muuto. “We looked at plasters as a way to make a corner very strong. It’s an extra layer to take care of the leg, because where it meets the top is the table’s weakest part.”
Their skills in observation help them find solutions in the finest details of mundane items, applying their shapes and functions to new mediums. Sometimes the references are subtle, evoking just a sense of familiarity. “The reference could be there just for us, something to prompt and process ideas,” says Gustafson, and Ståhlbom continues, “you don’t think about it, but it’s there somehow.” Others are more literal and humorous, like the Fisherman lamp for Zero and the oversized lolly sticks that make up the legs of the Lost Ice Cream table, their piece for Örnsbergsauktionen.
The new Up light for Muuto (below) is inspired by a chimney pot with an asymmetrical funnel that spins to direct smoke, but in this case the shape is used to change the direction of the light – the sort of resourceful reappropriation of form that TAF excels in, with the warmth and clean lines for which the studio has become known.
TAF and fellow Scandinavians Muuto are often in cahoots, something Ståhlbom puts down to the team there being a similar age to he and Gustafson, so references are shared and communication is fluid, having developed a shorthand over time. This is obviously important to the pair’s process, who themselves like to work through an idea by bouncing it around. “I think the project develops quicker that way,” says Gustafson. “We push a project forward with lots of discussion and helping each other to see things they don’t see. It provides balance.”
Ståhlbom believes that being a mixed-gender studio also helps to give them a different perspective. “It’s kind of a cliché to work as, say, two guys. I think that gives us something unique. We have another approach.” Almost on autopilot, Gustafson hastens to explain they are not a couple, just friends and business partners. Do they get asked that a lot? “Oh, yes!” she laughs. “I can understand why, it’s unusual. It’s very common for guys to work together, and they don’t get questioned about their relationship! But that’s how it is.”
They met at Konstfack University College, studying interior and furniture design, working on several projects together and finding their approaches complemented each another. “We share values, and we think very much the same way,” says Gustafson. Having set up TAF not long after graduating, their most notable early work was with Svensk Form, the Swedish design council, designing international exhibitions. Slowly and steadily the studio’s profile grew, clients flowed in, and now, 10 years on, it has carved a reputation for itself that is attracting international clientele. Currently in the pipeline – and launching in Milan – there are more items for Muuto (a table and probably a chair), something for an Italian brand (still a secret), and a exhibition of their collection for Japan’s Karimoku New Standard at the Rossana Orlandi gallery, sure to be a must-see show.
Sebastian Wrong has also enlisted the studio for his new post-Established and Sons venture at Hay, so look out for a TAF-designed table launching as part of the Wrong by Hay collection during the London Design Festival. Meanwhile, they’re also working on the interior for a shop in Dubai, plus a few private interiors as well. TAF is a five-strong team now, meaning that Gustafson and Ståhlbom no longer need to do everything themselves, as they did in the beginning, but instead get to focus on the parts they enjoy. “We are very interested in how things are put together,” says Gustafson, “so we like to be involved in the process and as close to production as possible. That makes its way into the aesthetics, because we discover details along the way and highlight them in the design.”
The pair continue to look for inspiration in the ordinary and importantly, with products as minimal as theirs, they pay acute attention to quality in materials and finish, down to the most intricate features. As their eye for detail gets sharper, the products they turn out should become ever more refined.
Creative partnerships are often sparked by conflict. In the music world, tension-fuelled relationships are everywhere, occasionally used as a tool by hard-bitten promoters to sell their latest pop hopefuls to a jaded public. Inevitably, they burn with a comet’s intensity before fizzling out under the innocuous euphemism of “creative differences”. For German designers Markus Jehs and Jürgen Laub, the two halves of Jehs + Laub, “creative differences” are often the beginning rather than the end of a project. “We want to fight because it means there is something happening,” says Jehs. “First it is a feeling or intuition, and then you have to explain it. Maybe the man in the street cannot explain why he thinks something is stupid or not stupid, but our job is to explain why. This is where ideas are born.”
Although, to paraphrase Charles Eames, they take their fights seriously, there is nothing histrionic about the products spawned; far from it. In fact, the duo’s work is characterised by an accomplished mid-century modern sensibility as opposed to exotic concepts. It is in the detail and the finish where Jehs + Laub excel. onoffice tracked them down at Orgatec – an environment that goes hand in glove with their serious-minded nature – where they unveiled new work for Brunner and longtime collaborators Renz (Talk table system shown below), Cor and Wilkhahn. Of all the new launches, it was the A-chair for Brunner (left) that caught the eye. One well-respected British designer described it to me as a hidden gem, while another confessed they wished they had designed it. I relay the compliment, which confirms the pair’s belief that there was a gap in the market.
“There are many, many companies with many stacking chairs, but we felt there was nothing good,” says Laub. “With all of them you have the shell and the legs which you screw together with lots of parts. Put 300 of them in a room and it is very unquiet.” A-chair comprises two parts – a base and a shell, which can be combined in a variety of finishes: a wooden shell with plastic legs, or aluminium legs with a plastic shell. “This one chair can fit any room,” Laub concludes. When arranged in rows, as they are in the press photos, the chairs resemble a well-drilled battalion of men marching in unison. With its simple form, the A-chair would be easy to overlook. The industry’s big guns seemed to regard chairs and tables as passé this year, instead turning their focus toward reinventing the office cubicle. And while to many this appears a logical and indeed necessary step to claw back some of the privacy lost in open-plan offices, it fails to impress either designer. “This is a very attractive area for all the companies, because it is very hard to make money in the traditional arena. So they go in this direction. But in 500 years there are still going to be humans who need a chair and a table,” says Jehs. His compadre agrees, but goes further: “It is a fad. In two or four years you will not see any of this.”
With sentiments like these it is no revelation to find the pair sticking to the office’s set pieces – meeting tables, conference chairs and suchlike. I conduct our interview sat in one of their new products for Wikhahn, a sofa and chair combo called Asienta. Not only is it comfortable, but also looks inviting, thanks to a bulbous interior that bulges like the belly of an infant – contrasting agreeably with the outwardly cubic form. The thin die-cast aluminium legs and frame seem almost too weedy to hold the weight of Orgatec’s carb- and protein-fuelled demographic, but this is illusory. Asienta is aimed at the contract market and is correspondingly robust. “Maybe we live in an era of dematerialisation where everything is made from less material,” says Jehs. “It is not necessary to have all these seating machines to sit in at work. It just makes things confusing. The chair should fit you automatically.” It’s an ethos explored with Graph – an ultra-masculine boardroom chair that boasted none of the normal gadgetry save for flexible stem derived from car suspension – and Shrimp for Cor. With Shrimp, Jehs + Laub removed sections of the wooden one-piece back, creating a crustacean-like shell that gives a little when you sit in it.
Of the two, Jehs is the chattier. Laub seems happy to take a back seat, opening up only when a question is aimed directly at him. He is, according to Jehs, the grounding force behind the duo, the one who brings occasional flights of fancy back to down to earth. “I am a bit here, there and everywhere. I don’t like to take care of everyday business. He [Laub] is very straight.” Conversely, it is Jehs the dreamer that drives the duo to greater heights. “If he has an idea, sometimes I might say, ‘Yes, but that is not enough, it must be fantastic.’” For a dreamer, Jehs shows an impressive lack of sentimentality when it comes to his work, a ruthless streak that Jehs admires: “He designs something for months and one day he just says, ‘this is bullshit,’ and throws it out. It could be two days before a presentation.” Though they seem happy in their defined roles, the two know each other so well that they can slip into each other’s character to play devil’s advocate. “I am always sketching while I am talking and he is only talking while I am sketching,” says Laub. “At the beginning of a project this is how we work.” They are family men, meaning that, between work and home life, there is little time for anything else: “Having children keeps you from being a professional idiot.”
Physically they cut very different figures: Laub bespectacled and rangy, Jehs less so. Both speak in measured tones, their English coloured by the occasional idiosyncrasy. They explain how they met at the Schwäbisch Gmünd design school in 1988 where, sat alongside each other during the entrance exam, they marked each other out as the “danger man” on the course. So began a rivalry that eventually, at the suggestion of one of their professors, morphed (reluctantly at first) into a partnership and friendship that has endured for over 20 years. They interned in New York (catching a taxi was easier than in Palo Alto, they explain with faultless logic) and later pitched their first commercial venture, some luxury bathroom taps for Dornbracht. Unfortunately, the project coincided with the collapse of the communist GDR. With millions of their fellow countrymen on the breadline, Dornbracht sensitively shelved the project. Still, the advance provided the funds to help start the business.
From this stunted beginning Jehs + Laub gathered momentum, steadily racking up an enviable list of international clients. It is the Italian companies, such as Cassina and MDF Italia, with their predilection for risk-taking, that has the pair bubbling with enthusiasm. “Their first response to a new idea is always emotional. They say, ‘Let’s do it,’ and if it seems impossible then it is a challenge,” says Jehs. “Everyone involved – the craftsmen for example – is a designer. You do a sketch and you don’t see the product again until it’s finished.” To many designers, this approximates the sort of nightmare in which you wake up a screaming mess. For Jehs + Laub, it is a welcome collaborative effort. “A lot of the time they do something exactly how you would do it. It’s like they are reading your mind.”
They prefer to work with companies that have retained their factories and express dismay at manufacturing’s migratory flight from Europe to China (“If you buy something in the UK it should have something to do with that country”). Similarly, the duo believes that well-produced furniture is better for the environment than recyclable products. “An argument made is that you can buy a chair and after three years you can disassemble the whole thing and recycle it. But why take it apart?” says Jehs, who explains how longevity is more important, and that the way to achieve that is through good materials and quiet design. These two strands unite the vast majority of their clients.
Its safe to say there aren’t many misfires in the Jehs+Laub portfolio. Virtually all their work is purposeful and somewhat traditional, in the sense that their sofas look like sofas and tables look like tables. All that matters is the product. “At the end of the day, the company, the designer – they are not important. What is important is that you are a partner with the CEO of the company and the product comes good. Ego has nothing to do with the design process,” argues Laub. There are, however, moments of ingenuity, like the Stelton wall clock, whose minute hand is attached to a moving outer rim.
For the most part, though, wild experimentation is not on the agenda. “We are not crazy. Sometimes you like to be crazy, but whenever we tried it we realised it was not possible for us to do that,” Laub says almost apologetically. “And at the end of the day, there is always Jürgen,” says Jehs. “It can become experimental, but we have to go back down to the ground and think, ‘What can we use this for?’”
Unlike many designers for whom style reigns supreme, Simon Pengelly’s pragmatic approach leads with function, ergonomics and market need, with a simple aesthetic seeming to emerge as a by-product. That’s not to say he is lacking finesse – that’s the easy bit, having grown up immersed in craftsmanship. With a career founded in the workshop, he champions manufacturing and so-called “quiet design”.
“Learning at the bench gives you a practical approach to problem solving,” says Pengelly. “Every product is visually derived from the materials and the processes that go into it, as well as functional aspects like relevance to market, price point, etc. It all has a bearing on the final design, and none of it is from fashion – that’s not important to me. Design should not shout; it has to be respectful of the other things it has to go with.”
Around the age of eight, Pengelly began to potter in his dad’s workshop, but with a dad who was the chief designer at Ercol, this was no ordinary garden shed. One day, when he wanted to build a box for his butterfly collection, Pengelly Senior taught him how to make dovetail joints, and the rest is history. “He left me to it for an hour,” Pengelly remembers, “and when he came back I’d done it. He said he couldn’t quite believe it.”His father set about training him in cabinet making in the evenings and weekends until he could attend Rycotewood College followed by Kingston Polytechnic, leaving in the mid-1980s. A young graduate with a bank of skills to put to the test, he landed a job at the Conran Design Group, earning his salt on projects for the group’s client Storehouse, the retail umbrella for Heal’s, Habitat, The Conran Shop and others. When that suffered huge redundancies he jumped ship onto the design team of the newly independent Habitat, a self-confessed dream come true: “As a child, Habitat was an inspiration to me, so working for them was something I never thought would happen.” Even when he founded his studio as an independent designer in 1993, he was still managing the design for Habitat’s whole furniture range, until the arrival of Tom Dixon in 1998. “I’d done hundreds of products anonymously,” says Pengelly, “so Tom said that had to change.”
The Radius collection, Pengelly’s first range for Habitat under his own name, launched in 1999, and – besides being the most successful range the brand has ever produced – it also said much about what was to come from the designer. Well-crafted furniture stripped back to the simplest essentials, the extensive range was designed to be economical to produce, adaptable to any home and people-centric, vital attributes of a marketable product. “Generally the best designs are not shoving things down people’s throats,” he says. “They should be easy to use, familiar, obvious; you shouldn’t have to explain it to anyone. I believe it’s much easier to design loud things that make a statement. It takes far more rigour to design something understated.”
Pengelly’s inbuilt understanding of what makes a successful product has since led him and his studio to collaborate with a long list of big names, from Allermuir and Boss to Virgin Atlantic and Foscarini, and the commissions keep on coming. He mentions that there is more work in progress with the airline, plus some very small products to design and even interiors, as well as more lighting and furniture. The studio is a small team of four, including Pengelly, and while he describes himself as a “sketchbook and pencil kinda guy,” he says the rest of the team are fantastic with CAD, which is ever more crucial. The team has had to be temporarily extended of late in preparation for Designjunction in September, where you couldn’t turn a corner without bumping into one of Pengelly’s new pieces, with a staggering 15 products launching at the show.
Talking about his latest wares, it’s clear his recurrent collaboration with brands such as Modus and Hitch Mylius can be pinned on a skill for economy in making and the sheer saleability of his products; he knows how to build collections based on market need without over-the-top and risky investment. Take Hitch Mylius for example, which launched the new hm87 chair (above) by Pengelly: an extension to the hm86, a big seller for the brand, with a cocoon added for privacy in public spaces. Design-wise, it looks like a natural extension to the chair, and business-wise, it makes perfect sense. “You can put it with the 86 within the same environment,” explains Pengelly. “It’s an attractive thing for customers to come and buy variations of the same thing, because it’s far more cohesive.” A two-seater version was also launched, with plans for a two-seater cocoon, so two together can create a meeting space.
It’s a similar story at Chorus, a brand that launched with the Pengelly-designed Theo stacking chair and table last year and has this year extended the range to a bench, high stool and table, stacking armchair and stacking pew in response to huge demand. The exact form of the legs is repeated through much of the range (except on the bench) allowing for cross use of components and therefore lower investment.
There are brand new products as well – a fluid door handle for Izé and a rocking chair for Montis – but the majority lies in British hands, with other new work for Modus and Chorus. “I’ve probably got more British clients than many [other designers],” he admits. “With my connection, through Dad, to the British furniture industry, I’ve always felt like I had to do my bit.” Though an advocate for the many fantastic British manufacturers, he believes that it is no longer seen as a worthwhile career route to take, and unless we boost the industry’s younger generation, much knowledge and experience won’t be passed down.
“Unless we preserve what we have then we won’t have people there to pick up the baton,” he says. “The government needs to pump money into manufacturing and make it easier for small businesses to grow.” And what advice would he give to those emerging designers, given his invaluable wealth of experience? “I always say to people, compromise isn’t a negative word. The right amount of compromise is vital to get your product out there. Without it, you won’t succeed.”
Sebastian Conran has design blood running through his veins. Son of Britain’s design entrepreneur Terence Conran, he is director of the product and graphic design studio at Conran & Partners. He founded Sebastian Conran Associates, a product and brand development consultancy, in 1986, after working as head of product design for Mothercare. In 1992, he started a separate partnership with Tom Dixon, only to merge the SCA studio with the Conran Group to form Conran & Partners in 1999. Conran has written many books, judged numerous competitions, won even more awards and is an active member of several design-related bodies. He is currently working on 33 design projects ranging from tableware and bathrooms to hotels and luxury yacht interiors.Linda Morey Smith
Linda Morey Smith is managing director of award-winning interior design practice MoreySmith, which she founded in 1993, specialising in workplace consultancy (see cover story, onoffice 03). Her clients include Sony BMG, EMI, Nokia and Arup. Morey Smith is celebrated in the industry for her use of colour and material that soften the workplace. Ever since her practice’s fit-out of the EMI HQ off High Street Kensington, Morey Smith has been leading the contemporary office fit-out movement from the front.Ben Kelly
Ben Kelly studied at London’s Royal College of Art and founded Ben Kelly Design in 1977. From the start his projects challenged common perceptions of space, such as the Howie store in Covent Garden and the famous Hacienda nightclub in Manchester. Other projects range from museums and exhibitions to offices and residential design. Kelly’s work has been consistently creative and described as being “a mix of the poetic and pragmatic”. His current projects include Gymbox in Cornhill, Stubbs Mill in Manchester and the Public, West Bromwich.!-
Ten principles of discerning design 1 Discerning design is innovative, imaginative and original2 Discerning design makes a product useful and usable3 Discerning design is aesthetic to see and touch4 Discerning design helps us to understand and use a product5 Discerning design is special and has personality6 Discerning design has integrity7 Discerning design is durable and lasting8 Discerning design is consequent to the last detail9 Discerning design is concerned with ethics and the environment10 Discerning design is as little design as possible. Back to purity, back to simplicity-->