“We are calling it ‘organic engineering’,” says Jonathan Prestwich, gesturing to a prototype on a shelf above us. “All the office chairs we have worked on before were based on old-fashioned engineering, very Bauhaus. If you look at this there is none of that.” He is right. The chair we are examining is free from the normal levers, buttons and knobs. Although some way removed from a futuristic blob, there is nevertheless an agrestal feel to the trio of seat supports sprouting plant-like from an elegant stem. Prestwich is an outdoorsy kind of man and has long been interested in the relationship between nature and technology, which he sees as the key to achieving a more fluid, intuitive design. “In nature, every surface has an influence, every material has an influence. The shell of the chair is like a second skin and as you move, it should adapt with your body. As you lean in to it, it creates its form, and either has less or more resistance. It’s intuitive and natural, and that makes it extremely hard to calculate.”
The designer is clearly itching to explain the internal workings, but for commercial reasons it will remain a secret until the chair’s launch at NeoCon next year. Not that Prestwich is in a rush. The project, for US manufacturer Davis, has been ticking along since the designer went into business for himself seven years ago. If patience is a virtue, then the laid-back Teessider is a saint.
Today, the studio is busy preparing for the London Design Festival where it will unveil four new products. The show may lie just around the corner, but the atmosphere here is studied rather than frantic. Two assistants work quietly at laptops, while tacked to the pristine white walls around us are renders and sketches of products. The office is divided into two halves, theoretical and practical, with test models and wooden mock-ups collected in an adjoining room.
Prestwich lives in Blackheath with his wife Anne and a wilful dachshund called Frankie. His studio is a short hike toward the Thames in Woolwich, a area yet to feel the sanitising hand of regeneration. The three-strong team (two interns and the man himself) inhabit a small office and workshop annexed to OPM Furniture’s HQ. The relationship is mutually beneficial – Prestwich designed the company’s successful meeting table, Engage, last spotted in property developer Lend Lease’s new offices (onoffice 66). With a client as his neighbour, Prestwich need never go far to find a guinea pig on which to test a new design, and anything that is not up to scratch receives short thrift from OPM’s factory floor. In return, the company has instant access to its key designer.
With the Lend Lease project, Prestwich found himself in an enviable position, sitting in on meetings between the client, architect and OPM. The fallout from these powwows led him to design the Exchange table, set to launch at LDF. “They [Lend Lease] loved Engage, but they needed something for the staff behind the scenes, which we didn’t have.” The table is a smaller version of Exchange and features a hobbit-sized door built into its pedestal so that IT can easily get to the wiring. Concealing the cable management trough on the desktop is a cleverly designed magnetic panel, Face-to-Face, that flips open from either side. Moreover, if it really becomes a pain the techies can whip it out altogether and fiddle to their hearts’ content. Prestwich is a something of a tinkerer himself, and delights in showing off the mechanism. Those who saw the designer’s fascinating Pecha Kucha on Victorian inventions at the inaugural Clerkenwell Design Week would instantly recognise the origins of this unassuming piece of problem solving.
“I love the idea of the eccentric Englishman in his shed knocking up something really creative,” he explains. “I always pottered in my dad’s workshop and the way to impress your friends was to make something better. Then, of course, you play it down.” This modesty has carried into his adult life but fortunately, Prestwich is nowhere near as reserved as his design language. Easygoing and relaxed, he believes the UK still has tremendous creative energy, albeit of a discerning kind. “We try to use different materials and similar forms, and get to you in a deeper way, rather than make wild statement pieces that you want to put in another room after two weeks.”
Undeniably commercially astute, the designer is unwilling to churn out “me too” products just to make a few quid, and the studio is not as prolific as others are. Of course, not every designer has the luxury of picking clients, but Prestwich has travelled a diverse path to arrive in this position. He graduated in product design from the University of Teesside in the bleak recession-era Britain of the mid 1990s. Jobs were hard to come by so Prestwich high-tailed it to Boston, Massachusetts, landing a job at a design consultancy. There he remained for two years, rubbing shoulders with intelligentsia from MIT and Harvard, well, on public transport at least. “It was my first taste of a metropolitan city. I remember people from MIT would get on the tube with computer screens on their glasses. People didn’t do that in Middlesbrough.” With his visa expiring and unsure what to do next, a friend introduced Prestwich to German designer Burkhard Vogtherr, who was based in France. The impressionable young man was completely blown away by the charismatic veteran and Prestwich moved to Alsace in 1997 to work for him.
“He came from an era when designers were gods and he was the coolest, craziest man I had ever met,” says Prestwich. “He used to play classical music very loud in the studio and use the notes to describe how he wanted a certain line on the chair. Basically, I wanted to be him.” Although Vogtherr was an eccentric boss, his skill was manifest. The German was an expert at developing simple concepts into desirable furniture, had worked with giants like Arflex and Cappellini since the 1970s: “He wasn’t just ‘here’s a sketch and I’m off,’ he had really learned the craft.” A master and apprentice relationship bloomed over the next six years, during which time Prestwich picked up the language (mainly to avoid being left out of the bar-room banter on a night out) and met his future wife. Meanwhile, in the studio, Vogtherr’s non-hierarchical attitude encouraged the young pretender to suggest product ideas. Following a few false starts, mercilessly shot down by the German, he scored a bull’s-eye with Webb Lounge, developed for Davis. It was a turning point for Prestwich, not to mention a shrewd move by Vogtherr, who retained his charge for another two years (“It was always the plan to come back to England, but I always felt like I was progressing”).
Eventually he did return to the motherland and, following a brief and enjoyable stint at BarberOsgerby, Prestwich decided to go it alone. That was not the end of the Vogtherr connection. The pair reunited to create Sketch for Arco in 2010 (“an absolute pleasure”) and continue to collaborate. One suspects a large chunk of Prestwich’s success is his ability to build and maintain relationships. He rarely has a bad word to say about anyone and lends his talents to a small but respected collection of companies. The latest to come on board is Allermuir, for which Prestwich designed a sensual, curvaceous chair, Mayze. Supremely comfortable, Mayze’s generous proportions impressed the corpulent US market at this year’s NeoCon and also marked the end of the designer’s intense affair with mesh-back chairs. For a while Prestwich appeared mildly obsessed with the material, even applying it to a stacking chair for Arco, Cafe (“I think that’s only time it’s been done”). He scooped an iF award for Cafe, but sheepishly admits his passion for all things net-like was becoming a little embarrassing. “I realised it was time to move on,” he smiles.
Behind the success of Cafe and Mayze lies a fervent dedication to the process. The studio spent hundreds of man-hours constructing rigs to test the fabric tension and adjust the sharpness of the curves. “When you are a student you do sketches and make the model and that is your design. In reality, that is just the beginning.” For Prestwich, the process is paramount to achieving an enticing, functional form. The designer explains that when the studio is on song this happens intuitively, but if not, the team breaks objects down into triangles: “We are always looking for those perfect logical geometries, but we are not specifically searching for that shape. It keeps cropping up. Maybe we allow it to happen, but we trust it.”
In Prestwich’s early work, such as the Envelop chair for DecodeLondon, triangles were everywhere. The Oe chair marked a shift toward less angular shapes, while Sketch steered the studio into more organic waters. If one looks closely, however, Pythagoras still wields a subtle influence, for example on the legs of Connect – a beautifully proportioned meeting table for long-time client Modus that converts easily into bench desking thanks to adjustable beams underneath. Connect is one of two pieces for Modus launching at LDF. The other is Hold, a ghostly white canteen chair supported by reed-thin legs and with a snug, gently curving plywood back that tapers to create elbow rests so you can type. “It is not just a formal exercise like a lot of plywood chairs, where you are trying to do a Fritz Hansen Series 7. We wanted to give it a lot of function,” says Prestwich. Certainly, there are not many formal exercises in Prestwich’s portfolio, but one wonders if his work might benefit from more variety or the odd whimsical moment. On cue, the designer hands me an elongated sock, which turns out to be a cable management system inspired by guerilla knitting. “It’s a very simple thing. You put the sock on a table leg and pull the plug up through it. It tidies up all the gubbins.” Developed for Arco, it’s proof that practical things can still be fun.
Prestwich is keenly aware of how design can influence behaviour and the responsibility that brings with it. “A lot of people say, ‘Why do we need another chair?’ But the way we behave, work and act can be very different to, say, ten years ago. So you have to look at how design supports that behaviour,” he says. “There are a million opportunities to create something new for the market because you could not have made the right chair for today, yesterday. This is what designers should be doing.”