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.
Polish designer Magdalena Tekieli has created a desk that hides secret compartments in bellows beneath the desktop, which are revealed by turning a wooden crank. Secret Desk uses a mechanism similar to a Jack-in-a-Box whereby turning a handle on the side of the desk slowly lowers the collection of small drawers into the bellows to be stored away, the top becoming flush with the tabletop. When in use, the drawers can be raised up to sit on the desktop, and there’s even more secret storage underneath the desk surface. The piece is beautifully made in oak with brass legs and a leather top and bellows, but it’s the video and not the pictures that do it justice. Watch the video below to see this mesmerising piece in action…