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.”