On first impressions, Coventry doesn’t appear to be a place with much to offer designers. The automotive industry once at its industrial heart has disappeared, and what’s left is a grim brutalist landscape which keeps the city’s architectural gems well hidden. No surprise then that few of the university’s design students hang around once the post-graduation hangover clears, preferring to hotfoot it to more cosmopolitan climes of London. Hundreds Tens Units, a collective formed by three graduates from Coventry University’s School of Art and Design – Tom Nelson, David Horan and Matt Bassett – is one outfit that has stayed put. It’s a gamble that has so far paid off.
Based next to the train station in a disused concrete office block, the team has spent the past year quietly honing designs and prototypes for Tent London at this year’s London Design Week. The three met on an internship at the university’s Design Hub and soon realised they had complementary skills and a similar aesthetic. “We are very much against the idea of decoration for decoration’s sake. If it is not necessary for the functionality of the piece then it doesn’t need to be there,” explains Bassett, the group’s 3D and sketching expert. “We all want to create things that have a timeless quality, things that people will view as a treasured possession in years to come.”
These high ideals are reflected in the company name, which was chosen to reflect their desire to manufacture in low numbers and retain quality control. A cursory glance at Hundreds Tens Units’ collection shows how seriously they take this ethos. The designs have a pared-down unfussy elegance to them that is refreshingly simple. It’s clear from the way the group play off each other that they have a great deal of respect for each other’s ability. But with such a clear focus, arguments over the finer details are not uncommon. “It’s funny, we can agree over the bigger stuff but when it comes to which shade of grey the website should be it could be weeks,” says Horan.
Significantly, the piece they are most proud of, A-series Storage, is the one that they all had hand in designing. Inspired by ISO paper sizing, the modular units are constructed from different grades of material, each more processed than the last, ranging from oak to acrylic. “The idea was the result of collaborative discussions over several weeks about what was possible,” says Bassett. “It can be too easy for one or two people to get carried away with a concept. Sometimes it needs a third person to rein them in.”
What is most striking about Hundreds Tens Units is their refusal to compromise, either in design or quality of materials. This is perfectly illustrated by Horan, the team’s youngest member. A former car design student, he became so frustrated with the constraints of the industry that he dumped his final year project in a skip. With passion like this, it is hard to see how they can fail. The cars may be gone from Coventry, but the industry’s demise has left behind a huge amount of specialist manufacturing talent that can be tapped into. A perfect example is the sleek aluminium table, manufactured for the team by Coventry Prototype Panels (CPP). The company’s uninspiring name belies the glamour of its projects, which include Zaha Hadid’s Dune table and the unattainable Aston Martin 177.
“We were scratching around trying to find a metalworker when they approached us,” explains Bassett. “They were two miles down the road and the stuff they do is simply beautiful. It was a win-win situation.” The close proximity of their chosen manufacturers has resulted in the team becoming better informed about the more practical side of the design process, according to Bassett: “The hardest thing we have had to do is find good-quality suppliers and manufacturers. Now that we have gone to them we are much better informed about using certain materials, and we know more about tolerances and the limits of that material. Rather than sitting down drawing arbitrary shapes, you can start from a different place, with more definite parameters to work within.”
However, the team’s determination to use local talent has not been without its problems. Nelson ruefully recalls an encounter with a local woodworker who turned out to be working in his Mum’s bedroom: “He spent the whole time lecturing us about how designers knew nothing and why they always got things wrong. We listened for a while … and then we left.” Hundreds Tens Units showcased its products for the first time at Tent London as part of September’s London Design Festival.
The collection, some of which was still being assembled in the run-up to the show, is the culmination of a year’s hard graft. Understandably, the mood in the camp was a combination of pre-match nerves and excitement. “I think if we are happy with the products and the quality prototypes there is not really any fear there. There is an air of anticipation about what could happen, who we will meet, what it could lead on to,” says Bassett. Launching in the teeth of the recession seems to hold no fear for the team and as they rightly point out, they have nothing to lose.
“It’s the ideal time to start,” says Horan. “We don’t have to worry about falling sales, plus there is plenty of funding available for small businesses.” This bulletproof logic neatly sums up what Hundreds Tens Units is all about, and should serve them well over what will be a crucial couple of months. “There has been a lot of coverage on blogs, but the pressure now is to deliver, whether that is doing licenced designs for other manufacturers or larger-scale production,” says Nelson. “But we think there will always be a market for nicely designed, beautiful objects of a high quality.”