There is an underlying calmness to Brodie Neill’s Clerkenwell studio. Residing at the top of a seemingly endless stair, the stark whitewashed brickwork, matching furniture and dark wood floors are low key to the point of reticence. Neill’s small team work and chat quietly while Britpop fizzles rather than blares in the background. With Milan’s Salone del Mobile around the corner, by rights it should be a madhouse. At this year’s fair, the Australian, who has been based in London for nearly ten years, will unveil the second wave of furniture made for his Made in Ratio brand.
Everything seems to be in hand. The new products, clustered in a far corner, are present and correct, barring a small felt stool, which Neill assures is on the way. If the studio is feeling the pressure, it is performing a first-class job of hiding it. Perhaps Neill and his team are reaping the benefits of self-production rather than putting their faith in the big Italian brands’ opaque operations. “Some designers will send a scribble and the manufacturer almost has to interpret that. Six months later they’re in Milan being photographed next to it,” he says.
Aside from some small prototyping models, and an assortment of samples lining the windowsill like beach mementoes, the place is pretty tidy. The focus errs toward deskbound activities rather than a hands-on workshop. But Neill is far more than mere theoretician. Made in Ratio’s website is littered with photographs of Neill manipulating cardboard, inspecting glassblowing moulds, bending wood… His latest range makes great play of processes and materials. The designer points to a felt blob, a pebble-sized version of his curvesome Remix chaise longue from 2008, which prompted the demise of his washing machine. “It bust after, like, 500 washes. I had to call up the landlord and pretend it was something else that broke it,” he says.
Fresh-faced and enthusiastic, the designer talks through his collection, which he will launch, with typical ambition, at a restaurant and cocktail bar off Via della Moscova. “A lot of these pieces are designed to fill in those gaps from the first collection,” he says. In material terms there is something for all tastes: a Corian bench and bar stool, a glass and steel coffee table, timber modular shelving and a small stool made from recycled PET felt. Neill admits the intention is to widen the appeal of the brand and the marketing material supports this. Whereas the first Made in Ratio products, shot on white plinths in a Bermondsey foundry, had an edgy quality, they also felt a little aloof. In contrast, Made in Ratio mark II has wholeheartedly embraced the consumer world. The trapezoidal Tetra shelving, like all the new products, is shot in context and festooned with houseplants and science textbooks, referencing its geometrics. The offset Prism coffee table, meanwhile, plays with rotational symmetry while harnessing pure, architectural materials. “It’s almost like a Noguchi coffee table, but harder edged,” says Neill. The PET stool is an entry-level product and a higher volume, contract piece.
Of the new work, the Pleat bench (left), along with Stem, the biomorphic barstool, which leans forward enquiringly like a man on the balls of his feet, are closest to Neill’s early parametric adventures. Made in Ratio, Neill explains, aims to find the perfect apportion of digital design and rigorous hands-on craftsmanship to create striking and affordable products.
It was not always thus. Earlier in his career, Neill’s swooping designs captured with gleeful intent the boom times before the 2008 financial crash, when everything from architecture to seating was striving to be iconic. The designer, who founded his practice in 2005, plunged into the zeitgeist, exhibiting a monolithic chaise-longue at SuperDesign in 2008 alongside fellow member of the parametric mafia Ross Lovegrove. “It was the rise of the limited editions when things got just a bit mental,” he says. What seemed so vital then now looks a bit dated. With the austerity age ushering in a worthy craft aesthetic, it’s as if prune juice has replaced champagne cocktails.
If one were looking at Neill’s portfolio for a sign of those times, the bulbous Reverb chair (below), constructed from a lattice of different-sized bent wires, fits the bill. Visually seductive, the piece was unsuitable as a volume product (Neill approached a metalwork company in Peterborough, which said it could not be done). You can buy one, but it is handmade in Italy and costs £25,000. A folded steel version – a masterclass of engineering that made Time magazine’s Design 100 in 2008 – showed how wide the gulf between form and function had become.
The trip to the Midlands, however, was far from time wasted. As Neill steered his designs in a more rational direction for the Made in Ratio brand, he revisited Peterborough with an early incarnation of a coat stand he was working on, Matrix. Essentially a twisting diagrid, the form was initially met with a dollop of scepticism. “They were equally stumped by it, but by analysing it on computers and using model-making we managed to break it down into repetitive forms.” Matrix stands, like a scaled-down version of Moscow’s Shukhov Tower, in the corner of the studio, camouflaged by scarves and overcoats. “It is a materials, digital and hands-on process, made possible by technology,” says Neill. “Once the research and development into how it all goes together is done, you are only 50% there. The finishing is quite intense and that is where the handmade part comes in.”
It was a similar tale for Supernova, a glass table with recycled aluminium legs (window frames in a former life) that resemble a molecular structure. Supernova is Made in Ratio’s most successful product, and while the name suggests some kind of cosmic vision, in reality Neill was looking closer to earth for inspiration. “It was more physical than conceptual; we were trying to create a jack shape, so that any which way it lands it would make a structure. Then we did the development and mathematics and created this form.” Neill demonstrates, using a tiny model, how the legs are comprised of two moulded aluminium elements joined together, which can be set vertically or horizontally depending on how high you want the table. The join is expressed rather than hidden – a maker’s mark. With design realised, Neill worked with a marine parts manufacturer in Southampton to get it made. “With something like this you could easily go to China or eastern Europe, but that is void of the storytelling, really. Plus it would be very difficult to do something like that without that frequent communication with the maker.” Neill prefers to oversee and question every stage of a product’s development.
Neill’s initial work was a celebration of digital design and the impossible forms it yielded, which developed into an exploration of symbiosis between tried and tested techniques, bent wire, for instance, or glassblowing, and 21st-century technology. The designer likens it to a bridge linking the reliability of 1950s modernism to a new pioneering era. Materials have become more intrinsic to the design, but this has not wholly diluted the organic aesthetic. If anything, the more traditional materials have added significance, as is the case with the Cowrie chair, which captures the energy of previous products like the E-turn bench, an endless loop of fibreglass. Neill’s renewed vigour for craftsmanship recalls his student days at the University of Tasmania where the onus was a little “crafty-wafty” as he describes it. “It was a designer-maker approach, almost fine art. Whatever you designed you had to make. The only way I could learn digital design was to take an animation class rather than a CAD class. I still use that program today because it gives you more freedom than an engineering program. It forces you to work out for yourself whether things are possible.”
Though awakened to digital design, it was only when the young designer won a place at Rhode Island School of Design that he was fully able to develop his skills. After graduation, Neill moved to New York and took a job at L’Oreal, which hardened his resolve to set up his own company. In 2005, he had a stand at the Salone Satellite and caught the attention of Italian lighting brand Kundalini, with whom he developed the Morphie pendant lamp and then the E-turn. “That was a real ‘what if’ moment. It launched at the Salone and on the first day of the fair it was on the front page of the local paper.” Although Made in Ratio is Neill’s immediate focus, the designer has retained relationships with manufacturers. The reason being that products like the Clover light, also designed for Kundalini, would fail to fulfil their potential without the backing of a large manufacturer.
The designer’s spontaneity means he works best when a company allows him creative freedom. So far, brands have been happy to oblige lest they kill the magic with too many boundaries. Neill reveals that even as a teenager building furniture in his parents’ shed, he was never the type to simply copy an existing design. “It would never look like the picture,” he says. “I would always change things as I was going along.” This willingness to experiment, albeit with new forms, materials or technology, is what sets Neill apart from the current crop of young designers. It also sets him up for criticism, particularly when he enters the rarified world of limited edition collectors’ items. Glacier (left), a jaw-dropping 300kg chaise longue made from moulded glass courted controversy with many, particularly on the net, who saw it as the antithesis of what design should strive for. Certainly Glacier was far from democratic, but the sustainability argument falters somewhat when compared with a mass-produced, poorly made object that crumbles after a year. Although he says he will continue to design unique products like this, the designer’s work has become far more attainable without sacrificing its individuality. One gets the sense his work will continue to evolve, but for the moment he remains a welcome tonic for an industry that has lost its nerve. It just might be that designers like Neill can provide the impetus that help recapture its vitality.
The economic recession has ushered in a quiet wave of conservatism in the UK furniture industry. With the market engaged in a vicious dogfight over prices, things seem to be stuck in a creative rut. What isn’t helping is the polarisation between the symbiotic worlds of design and manufacturing. Some of those on the production side view design (and the monetary rewards it might bring independent designers) with scepticism, and yet you can’t simply manufacture your way out of an economic downturn with no regard to design value.
Industrial designer Mark Gabbertas has worked with the UK’s furniture heavyweights for the best part of a decade. He is frustrated by what he sees as an island mentality in the UK. “We are slightly scared of design. There is a lack of belief in some British companies about their ability to be world leaders. If you looked at the main Fiera in Milan two years ago there was one British company exhibiting, which is insane. Do we have an equivalent of Lapalma or Vitra? No.”
Of course, every manufacturer claims it is design-led, but the evidence to back up their earnest assertions isn’t always apparent. A cursory glance at the websites of some office furniture makers will reveal nothing about a company’s design credentials. “The key issue is that lots of companies pay lip-service to the value of design and then go off and do something completely different,” says Gabbertas. “We have been in recession for nearly six years and if manufacturers look at what the competition is doing and change it 10% they are not going to go many miles wrong.” This would go some way to explaining how the UK, a world leader in engineering and innovation, became so allergic to risk. By battening down the hatches and waiting for the economic storm to pass, opportunities for reinvention can often be missed.
Ki is one firm that has sensed the zeitgeist, setting up four factories in the UK producing workstations and third-space furniture. It’s fair to say that the US company is better known for its storage and educational products than as a doyen of the aesthete crowd, but it appears determined to shift the focus. At the upcoming London Design Festival, it will unveil an acoustic screening system designed by Craig Jones Design. Head of Ki in the UK and Europe, Jonathan Hindle, a former designer himself, is compelled to comment on the importance of a joined-up industry. “Manufacturers understood the tooling, and they thought by churning out widget number four with a new twiddly bit on the bottom it would solve all their ills. What they weren’t ready to do was sweep it all away and re-establish what the needs and trends of the market were.”
With a turnover of £100m, the Senator Group is one of the most financially powerful UK manufacturers. With its savvy buy-out of respected design-led company Allermuir in 2005, it immediately inherited a creative pedigree to accompany its laden coffers. Tim Lishman, who had worked as design director at Allermuir, left to join Senator as design manager in 2003, and was then appointed design director of Allermuir after it came under the Senator umbrella. “When I joined Senator they didn’t really work with outside design studios; the view was more about in-house. They [Senator] did not really like paying royalties, which is of course what independent designers want. The argument that I kept firing back was not to worry about what you are paying the designers, because you have built it into the cost of the product and you are selling it.”
Lishman believes that occasionally there is a communication breakdown between high-volume manufacturers and designers, with the former seeing their creative cousins as head-in-the-clouds dreamers. The other side of the argument are those designers who fail to understand a company’s tooling and add details that cannot hope to be replicated with the necessary accuracy. In these circumstances it’s not difficult to see why designers are viewed with mild suspicion by those who write the cheques. “I spent eight years at Senator and until the day I left I was having to remind the company of the value of design,” says Lishman. “They would question all the way down the line: ‘Is this size of tube important? Because this other one is in stock.’” That’s not to say that design decisions should never be questioned. A dud product by a flighty creative can kill a company’s reputation as quickly as some dodgy accounting; just look at Hille, which despite working with independent designers today has never regained the status it had when collaborating with Robin Day in the second half of the 20th century.
To its credit, Senator has raised the stakes with new launches like the Tonina chair, designed by Claudio Dondoli and Marco Pocci. The knock-on effect will undoubtedly force competitors with less design acumen to raise their game, and it remains one of the few UK manufacturers that can, with a first class design director, hold its own on the global stage.
As for Lishman, he left Senator to work with Chorus, one of a crop of smaller companies that make a big play of their ‘design integrity’. Somerset-based Modus is of similar ilk: it doesn’t operate on anywhere near the same scale as Senator in terms of volume, but has instead ploughed a more European-style furrow, placing its international and homegrown talent at the forefront of the business. Director Ed Richardson explains that Modus’ varied target markets (office, hospitality) precipitate an equally diverse product portfolio, and the best way to tackle this is to work with external studios. “They open up [more] technical knowledge and processes than if you were designing in-house and add breadth to your collection in terms of materials,” he says.
When a company is working with so many influences, the role of the design director becomes ever more pivotal. “Every company needs a cohesive identity or else it gets lost,” says Richardson, who has high expectations of designers in return. “A good designer will understand the requirements and constrictions of a manufacturer. I would expect them to take on a lot of the early developments of a product and work through the ergonomics in their own studio before it gets to an engineer for full production.” The other significant arrow in the quiver is the engagement of overseas talent, which can penetrate hitherto closed markets. It seems ludicrously but endearingly parochial in this globalised world, but people still like to support their countryfolk. “If we work with French companies they will buy products by French designers,” says Richardson. “We’ve found that in a few countries.”
Continuing in this vein, there are encouraging signs emanating from unexpected realms. Gresham Office Furniture, a solid if unspectacular company based in the north-west has to date been notable for its lack of outside design influences. After 37 years of in-house design, a brave new dawn awaits, as the company’s design director of 20 years’ standing Karl Anderson explains: “We are at a level now with the growth of the company where we can’t keep pace with the people that we have internally. We don’t want to be working within a goldfish bowl. We have a better opportunity as well to bring in fresh ideas on particular projects.” Gresham is working on new products with an independent design studio, although it is too early in the process for it to reveal who it is. Gresham’s underwhelming mot juste – “reasonable furniture at a reasonable price” – as Anderson puts it, would appear to be on the wane. While naptime might well be over among some of the country’s sleeping giants, nothing would push the economy forward more than a two-fisted flurry of creative innovation across the board. The talent is there, we just need the belief to match.
images from top: Haven seating by Mark Gabbertas for Allermuir; Theo chair by Simon Pengelly for Chorus; Park Lane sofa by Christophe Pillet for Modus; Gresham's G20 chair
NCS is an international colour system for the design, specification and manufacturing of products and finishes. The NCS Atlas includes the full range of 1,950 NCS colours with a page devoted to each of the 40 hues around the colour circle, taking seconds to find a precise hue and nuance. All colours are available from paint and powder coating companies in hard flooring, glass, laminates, ceramic tiles and furniture for easy coordination.
KI’s Cornerstone is a new acoustic stacking screen system designed by Craig Jones. Designed to integrate with the UniteSE workplace collection and other furniture systems, the design brief for Cornerstone was to create a physical link between workstation, storage and screening to provide a natural progressive link into third space. Expansion and contraction in existing and new areas of workflow were fundamental to the design element, as was the use of acoustic materials and the ability to offer it on internal and external surfaces, allowing flexibility in colour, texture, functionality and budget.
The interior design potential of TEX GLASS will be explored and shared by its creator’s international fabric designer Nya Nordiska and glass and glazing specialist GLASSOLUTIONS at the London Design Festival. Providing superb potential to create original interiors, TEX GLASS is a laminated glass product with a choice of beautiful fabrics encapsulated inside. The wide range of fabrics has been carefully chosen from the award winning Nya Nordiska collection, and dramatic features can be created for partition walls, screens, doors and furniture and other interior applications. Visit the GLASSOLUTIONS team at the Nya Nordiska showroom during the London Design Festival 2013.
Eborcraft manufactured the pictured American black walnut configuration of tables for a video conferencing area at an international electronics company based in Scotland. A key requirement of the contract was that the furniture had to match the veneer of the door, which Eborcraft achieved by obtaining a sample of wood from the door manufacturer and staining the veneer finish of the tables to match. In addition to the video conferencing tables, Eborcraft also supplied wall panelling and a boardroom table with glass inset panels, all in matching wood veneer.
One of the most exciting aspects of being in Milan is spotting the up-and-coming designers destined to grace many a furniture fair to come, and one of this year’s most promising finds is Tomas Kral. Strolling through Brera, onoffice stumbled upon his Ray lamps for Petite Friture adorning a corner of design boutique Spazio Pontaccio, and having heard his name on more than a few in-the-know lips recently, this discovery prompted us to find out more.
Made from a shade of metal mesh with a sheet metal hat, the Ray light embodies an innate understanding for material juxtaposition that gives Kral his edge. Another recent launch at Maison et Objet, the Homework desk for Super-ette, shows a similar fusion of textures, with a cast aluminium trough that surrounds the ash desk to act as a storage shelf. Across his relatively small body of work since graduation, Kral has worked with everything from glass to terracotta to silicone to silver, each time celebrating the material’s individual nature.
“When you start to work with a material, you try to transform it, understand it and make something intelligent with it,” he explains, speaking to onoffice after the fair. “I like playing with materials and trying to match different ones together, but I don’t have a particular preference. I just want to design an object that makes sense for that specific material.”
Originally from Slovakia, Kral moved to Lausanne in Switzerland ten years ago to study at renowned design school ECAL, initially for a BA in industrial design, then a postgraduate course in product design – under tutor Ronan Bouroullec – then another one-year masters course in luxury design. This saw him work on live projects for high-end jewellery and tableware brands like Christofle, gaining valuable experience dealing with the commercial side of the industry.
This extended education gave Kral the time to refine his craft and develop a sense of his own brand. “We had a lot of freedom, and many opportunities to participate in different workshops and projects, which helped to define my personality as a designer,” he says. While still at ECAL, he began to develop sophisticated products imbued with his own identity that, unlike many student works, could easily traverse into a real-life product. Array, a flat-pack aluminium stool, and Plug, a collection of lamps, tables and bowls made from glass and cork, were designed and produced during his postgraduate course.
“I knew I didn’t want to work for anyone else, so even while I was still studying I was trying to be ‘on the scene’, not as a student but as Tomas Kral.” Needless to say, on graduation he hit the ground running. Libby Sellers, a juror on the ECAL graduation awards, asked him to exhibit his Upgrade collection of etched and gilded glass jars and bottles at her gallery during 2008’s London Design Festival – a huge boost to his fledgling career. He stayed put in Lausanne to set up his studio, and has since been steadily gleaning more and more press attention and awards, exhibiting at other cool European galleries such as Galerie Kreo in Paris and Helmrinderknecht in Berlin, and collaborating with manufacturers. These are generally small up-and-comers like Kral himself, such as Hong Kong’s Praxis, Spain’s PCM, Foundry in Singapore, and Jonah Takagi’s new venture, Field, who he is just starting to work with. He deems these relationships more of a two-way street than working for bigger brands. “We grow at the same time. I learn about how they approach development, and they learn from me too. I would say it’s a closer collaboration.”
The Homework desk represents an unprecedented increase in scale for Kral, part of his aim for this year to apply his still-evolving style to larger pieces. “I want to find my way in the furniture field,” he says. “What I like is not just designing the shape, but re-finding the functionality and the story you can tell through a piece.” Being careful to grow at a constructive, controllable pace, this process will involve Kral getting some distance from restrictions such as production requirements and briefs, and taking time to research and experiment with materials.
He is clearly a three-dimensional thinker, recording many Eureka moments not with a sketch but a quick mock-up, and constantly referring back to this throughout the development process, so as not to lose the ‘poetry’ of the original idea. This poetry, according to Kral, is the reason anyone buys a product, beyond functionality. “I try to infuse an object with an extra value that the user can link to, whether it makes them smile or reminds them of something familiar, or the material is nice to touch. A bit of intelligence or personality.” So far, so good. We’ll definitely be keeping an eye on this chap’s work from now on.
Office Next Moscow, Russia’s only dedicated office design show, continues to grow with a new German pavilion launching at this year’s event. A group of 10 brands will exhibit under the Made in Germany umbrella, including Interstuhl, Walter Knoll, Büromöbel and Assmann. They will be alongside other leading brands in the main show, such as Bene, Bisley, Dauphin, Herman Miller, Interface, Kusch + Co, Steelcase, Walter Knoll and Wilkhahn, as well as Russia’s top manufacturers.
Elsewhere, a well-known Russian architect (yet to be revealed) will design the Trend Zone, a special concept area featuring companies like Johanson Design and Hunter Douglas. Talks, workshops and panel discussions will also take place across the three-day event, covering everything from real estate developments and tenant requirements, green offices and design trends. On the final day, the Office Next Moscow awards will honour the year’s best office projects, chosen by a jury featuring Nick Pell from Swanke Hayden Connell and Andrey Bokov, president of the Union of the Architects of Russia. Office Next Moscow takes place from 14-16 May at Design Centre Artplay.
Triumph has been reappointed as Government Suppliers, ensuring an uninterrupted supply of Triumph furniture into Government departments. A UK company and manufacturer of desking, seating, steel storage and accommodation furniture, Triumph has successfully completed over 100 projects for Government departments over the last four years. In addition to its manufacturing capability, Triumph has demonstrated its range of skills, including consultation and product selection, space planning and 3D walk-throughs, detailed project management, logistics and installation with after sales support.
Spaceoasis supplied a comprehensive package of specially designed furniture modules in conjunction with Furniture Solutions for flexible working. Low level, spacious pods in the canteen area double up for both relaxation and informal visitor or staff meetings. The main working spaces are populated with curved team desking which are reserved electronically each morning with individual lockers provided for personal effects. Pods with touchdowns are available for informal team meetings.