Not for the first time, onoffice is in the wrong place. Although the slighty tatty sign nailed adjacent to the front door clearly said Note Design Studio, there is no sign of the Stockholm-based collective we have jetted in to meet. What’s more, a steady stream of young pram-pushing mothers continually come and go from the warehouse, imbuing the whole scene with a feeling of comic mystery. “Must be a baby audition,” says onoffice’s art director Edgar, immediately making sense of things. Amazingly, he turns out to be right.
Still, unlike other occasions when we have wound up knocking on the wrong door, this time it isn’t our fault. The warehouse, south of the city centre in Södra Hammarbyhamnen, was Note’s home up until two weeks ago. In the chaos of the move, Cristiano Pigazzini, the firm’s strategic director, forgot to tell us. To our immense relief, the studio has only shifted about 300 yards. Pigazzini arrives five minutes later, apologetic, and with two more colleagues in tow, Susanna Wåhlin and Johannes Carlström. All have an easy charm, greeting us with hugs and smiles rather than the formal handshake sometimes preferred by their country folk. Before we press on to the serious business of interviews and photoshoots, which later turns out to be not so serious at all, we head for lunch at an artisan cafe down by the waterside. Södra Hammarbyhamnen is a working-class dominion of docks, warehouses and factories, but like many post-industrial economies it has felt the purging hand of gentrification. Here, young creative types tap away at laptops in the glorious sunshine, but elsewhere in the city all is not well. The northern suburbs are ablaze with the kind of civil unrest recently witnessed in Paris or London, and Wåhlin is surprised at the troubles: “We are not used to that kind of thing here.”
Another brief stroll takes us toward the studio’s new headquarters – an unprepossessing pitched-roof building constructed from yellow bricks. Wåhlin reveals it was previously home to the kingpin of a lightbulb company. The factory, a splendid essay in Swedish modernism, rests silently opposite. The inside presents a radically different countenance – all white walls and nooks, it has more in common with a modern art gallery than an industry captain’s digs.
There are five members of Note: Pigazzini, Wåhlin and Carlström, plus Kristoffer Fagerström and Alexis Holmqvist, but only four of the collective are present. Graphic designer Holmqvist, I am beginning to realise, is more elusive than the Scarlet Pimpernel. He was absent when I first encountered Note in Milan, and this time he is in Barcelona for a month. After some gentle cajoling we eventually settle into a corner of the studio surrounded by Note’s recent works.
For most people (outside the Stockholm design bubble at least), the company first penetrated their consciousness with its Marginal Notes collection (above) in 2011. The story, however, actually begins in 2008. “It was me, Cristiano and two other guys that started it back in 2008,” says Carlström. “We started as a basic interior design office, making branded interiors; that was our thing. We were ten people, and we were doing quite well.”
“But we were not doing anything for ourselves, we were just, you know sending an invoice,” interjects Pigazzini, who is Italian and the one member who is neither a designer nor Swedish. Frustrated with boring briefs and the pedestrian nature of the work, they aimed for loftier ideals. “We said we wanted to be the best design company in the world. What we really meant is that we want to be free,” says Pigazzini. Unfortunately, this renewed sense of purpose rattled original founding member Jon Eliason whose ambitions ended at Stockholm’s city limits. In 2010, the company split. Eliason left and others quickly followed. The exodus coincided with the arrival of interior designer Wåhlin, who immediately seized on the new direction. “I remember the first week everyone was talking about this vision to try and do something for ourselves, something we enjoy. To find out who we are, and that journey,” she says. “Before that there was no personal expression, just the clients.”
Note unveiled its exuberant new aesthetic at the Stockholm Furniture Fair in February 2011 with its Marginal Notes series. Freed from the restrictions of a brief, the studio turned to the doodles and sketches it had built up over the years and set them loose in an explosion of colour and materials.
The collection, which had more than a faint echo of the Memphis movement about it, was incredibly well received. But for the studio it was as much a cathartic exercise as anything else. “We said OK, let’s forget everything and have some fun. We don’t have to sell these products,” says Pigazzini. Such was the profile of the studio; many of those visiting from outside of Stockholm simply assumed this was the launch of a completely new company. In a way, it was, and with that came nervousness. After three years of grinding away behind the scenes, would anyone even notice?
“We really had no idea how it would work out. We were looking at the blogs and wondering are they going to show it, or would there be complete silence?” says Wåhlin. They needn’t have worried. The genius of the collection is its noise: Tembo, for example, a table and stool, is a cocktail of materials – steel, MDF and cork – that looks fantastical and is perfect fodder for the blogosphere. French manufacturer La Chance now produces a slightly more refined version of it. Marginal Notes 2 soon followed, but by now the ambitious studio experiments were matched by work for small, cool Swedish manufacturers such as Zero, Mitab and Klong.
Note is not afraid of colour or acknowledging its importance to a product’s overall feel. “The colour is an equally important part of the product as the shape,” says Fagerström. “It can sell something just as well as the shape or the function.” Colour is also the main source of argument in the studio. Not that Note’s protagonists are a particularly querulous bunch: on the contrary, the studio has a carnival atmosphere, as if everyone knows they are surfing a wave and are determined to enjoy it. Carlström in particular enjoys larking about. His colleagues reveal he is an accomplished martial artist, though he singularly fails to demonstrate any cat-like agility expected when he jumps/slides down the wall during the photoshoot. His foil is Wåhlin, a soulful character who seems happy to observe the goings on. Fagerström is drier and more reserved, as is Pigazzini. They are a tight unit who are happy to chat and joke. “We don’t socialise with each other, but we work a lot,” explains Fagerström. The products themselves are equally friendly, but manage to steer clear of anything too twee or cutesie.
So far, Note’s portfolio has focused on classic materials – wood, glass and metal. “We are quite far from studios like Front in that sense. We are not looking for the latest polymer or something. That is not us at all,” says Carlström. That said, Note has proved pretty adept at helping companies use time-honoured skills to open up new markets. With Italian bathroom company Ex-t, Note explored the manufacturer’s expertise with ceramics to produce a pendant light series called Fuse. The mutual benefits of these arrangements are a definite boon, but by the same token can lead to reluctance to experiment with new materials. Fagerström expresses a little frustration with what he believes is the conservative nature of Swedish manufacturing: “I think maybe they are a little bit stubborn. They only want to do what they do best.” One notable difference between the industry in Sweden and the UK is that, despite some fogeyish leanings, there is still a willingness to engage with designers. The old factory owner who makes umbrellas has realised the impossibility of competing on price with the far east and so is looking to designers to save the day. What is interesting about Note – and it is no doubt why companies from across Europe are queuing up to work with them – is the studio’s acute awareness of marketing strategy as well as its design chops.
For struggling acoustic panel company ZilenZio, Note shrewdly made a virtue out of a perceived failing. “They make thick sound absorbers, but their competitors make them as thin as possible, because the architects want that. But they miss the point: those sound absorbers don’t absorb sound,” Pigazzini explains. “They panicked and lost their market because they did not want to make those kind of products.” Note encouraged ZilenZio to emphasise the products’ thickness, producing the beautifully calm Dezibel collection. “We said, don’t be ashamed of what you have, be proud. Our goal was to make their rival companies think, ‘oh God, they are telling the truth.’”
It was a similar story (although not anywhere as straightforward) at bookmakers ATG, Sweden’s equivalent of the Tote. Note was charged with redesigning the company’s office (the studio began life in interiors and continues to work in that sphere), transforming the IT department’s cellular office space into a dynamic open-plan ideas incubator. The 50 staff were not happy. “They even wrote a letter and signed it saying how much they hated the place,” laughs Carlström. “Every time we went there they booed us.” After the initial shitstorm, things began to calm down and the company, hitherto tagged as stable but boring, is now attracting young graduates.
Whereas Note eventually won over ATG, its next project is sure to test the studio’s ability to the utmost. Through a contact of Pigazzi, the young practice was drafted in to design a centre for psychoanalysis in Zurich with a view to rolling out the format across Europe. On the day we meet, the studio had just submitted its final concept. “The centres follow a Jungian-based therapy, which sees illness as part of your personal development. They wanted the space to reflect that,” says Carlström. The institution is specifically targeting educated immigrants in a bid to heal not just the patients but create a more cohesive city. Given our earlier conversations it is an apt and noble cause, and with Zurich’s varied demographic, the Swiss city is an obvious jumping-off point. The client is top secret at the moment, but Note explains that the motivation behind the design was to move decisively away from the institutionalised nature of psychoanalysis. For this reason, design classics were certainly not an option and neither were closed-off spaces. “One of the main features is a custom-made shelf, which you interact with. It is a way of activating the session. For us, the shelf is what the couch was for Freud.” On first impressions, Note’s non-confrontational sensibility makes for a logical fit for the project, but it will certainly need some serious self-criticism if the studio is to prove successful. As Note ventures to wider pastures, the serious work starts now.
images from top: Marginal Notes, Kopiad office accessories, MCE lamp, IT department at ATG headquarters
The concept for this circular trolley, nicknamed ‘Dolly’, was born out of a brief to design a storage unit to house files, sketchbooks and drawing materials. Dolly is made with two skins of 4mm birch plywood, formed to create the one-piece tubular body of the structure. The shelves, dividers, drawer, boxes and lift-off lid/tray fit the diameter of the outer casing. The surface of each element is veneered in American black walnut with concealed castors that allow the unit to be easily moved around the studio.
When traditional industries fall into decline this sometimes heralds the end of prosperity. Mid Wales can count itself lucky that alternative sectors are being supported.As Nick Capaldi, chief executive of the Arts Council of Wales, says, “The creative industries are big business in Wales. I’m convinced that it is creativity that will pull us out of the recession.”In fact, according to Creative and Cultural Skills in Wales, total employment in the creative industries is over 24,000, an increase of nine per cent between 2006 and 2008.Some of this activity is being supported by Aberystwyth University, in particular by its Arts Centre, which is the biggest in Wales.The Arts Centre is thriving and buzzing with activity, but much of the art is transient - temporary installations and performances. The centre’s director, Alan Hewson, is keen to capitalise on the buzz and promote continuity: “We wanted to link with the community and to grow a cultural cluster in Aberystwyth.” Hey presto, a new row of work units to appeal to these creative types, sitting in grassland just above the arts centre.Designed by Heatherwick Studio they are intended to make the most of the setting and the £1.1m budget. “Alan (Hewson) wanted low-cost and special,” says Thomas Heatherwick. His solution was to structure the buildings to make them relatively cheap, and to hunt down a fancy cladding to make them special.So rather than building a single tall block, the 16 units are housed in eight 80sq m bungalows, meaning there was no need for costly disabled access to the upper floors. And rather than a conventional skin, this one is metallic and crinkly. “Stainless steel is brilliant because it lasts forever, but we couldn’t afford it,” says Heatherwick. “Then we found a rolling mill in Finland which rolled it just 0.1mm thick, the thickness of a coke can.” That meant that they could secure all the metal cladding for just over £20,000.Back in Heatherwick’s London studio, designer Tom Chapman-Andrews worked on building a machine that would create a natural ‘crinkled’ quality in the stainless steel. That machine was then installed on site, and could ‘crinkle’ the 100m-long rolls of 1m-wide strips, which were used whole on the buildings.The idea is that the series of little waves down the roofs and sides of the buildings reflect everything around them, from the sky to the leaves on the trees. “When you get the reflection with the leaves, the units sort of vanish,” says Heatherwick, “and they grab all the light and the colours of the sky and throw them back.” And the leaves will be more present once the 100 saplings which have just been planted grow.To insulate them, the steel cladding was sprayed inside with the same CFC-free liquid foam used to insulate pigsties.Inside, these units are a simple, white-washed affair. As Heatherwick points out, “Our role was to make a simple, flexible space. When we were designing, we didn’t have a brief for who the tenants would be.”But what each occupant does have is plenty of light from the windows and skylights, a long narrow workspace, sink and shared WC.For some tenants, this is luxury indeed compared with their previous set-ups. Perhaps the most high-profile is the painter Mary Lloyd Jones, who before this, was working out of a basement. “In the summer, sometimes the natural light was OK. But it was a bit dusty,” she says.The benefits of being here is the light, she adds, “and the distance from the back to the front wall, because to consider a composition you have to be able to step back”.Her studio is full of her large canvasses, just as textile designer Becky Knight has pinned her wall hangings on the walls of her space. She too was in a basement, which she shared with mice. “Here, I can be more organised and professional about my work and enjoy coming to the studio rather than fighting against the space,” she says. Along one wall on shelving, boxes of colour co-ordinated fabrics are stacked; they are no longer being eaten by rodents.Both Lloyd Jones’s and Knight’s studios are bedecked with the tools of their trades - pots of paintbrushes standing on a desk sourced from a theological college in one, and a sewing machine in the other.Some of the other businesses based here are more conventionally office-like, such as Honno, the women’s publishing cooperative, the Arts Agency (which has taken a double space), and Pixel Foundry.The latter is a TV and video production company, which was formerly run from a forestry commission shed that had been an Italian prisoner of war camp. “It was very cold,” says Pixel Foundry founder Pete Telfer. Their new space is decked out with contemporary blond shelving, grey carpet and red fabric armchairs. And unlike the artists, they have put blinds up at the windows, for the sake of their computer screens.For social enterprise Phoenix Cymru, this is the first time they’ve had a space to call their own. “It’s been a real revelation to have somewhere to call home,” says Mark Giddens. The enterprise records promos for local bands, hence the home-made sound absorbers on the wall, and the rolled-up duvet in the sink. “When the rooms are empty they have a lot of echo,” says Giddens. The plan now is to build a booth to isolate drummers.The units were completed before Christmas and all are now occupied. While tenants appreciate the benefits of their new location, it’s early days for any cross-fertilisation, but as Lloyd Jones says: “There are people with different skills here and that makes it interesting.”And perhaps if phase two - a communal meeting house - gets the go-ahead, such exchanges of creative ideas will be even more likely. However, given that these units took three and a half years from design to completion, and six years from when the arts centre started planning, these tenants shouldn’t hold their breath.
They say that in times like these people increasingly turn to philosophy, so where is the philosophical element in today’s workplace design?
Theories like Charles Handy’s portfolio worker and Shamrock organisation have been floating around in office-thinking minds for years but have never materialised into tangible product solutions.
Any attempt to create experimental office furniture to match the thinkers’ hypotheses was soon watered down by the commercial reality of the marketplace.
Yet this year at the Milan furniture fair we found an exception: Prooff, a Dutch-based design collective that set out two years ago to develop products for progressive office projects, not the market. The results are inventive designs that benefit being trialled in a customised approach for one specific project. These products can then be ‘discovered’ by the market with their benefits and flaws but never compromised to satisfy a broader client base. The enterprise is brainchild of Dutch designer, lecturer and I’d say philosopher, Jurgen Bey and his team at Makkink and Bey Studio.“The long term goal of Prooff is to get other designers involved like we’ve done now with Ben van Berkel [UN Studio – creators of the world’s longest meeting table] but first we wanted to get the identity right, develop one clear voice we can build on.” That voice is best communicated in the elaborate drawings that the studio develops for Prooff. The illustrations show a cityscape in motion, a space for Prooff’s ideas and visions to live, a dynamic living society which predicts the end of the static office. Bey is especially fascinated with the working environment as a topic of design because “it’s still so undiscovered and there’s so much to do.” Mobile working, knowledge sharing and other realities are embedded into a wider principle of sharing space: facilities, responsibilities, a communal solution to the current property crisis. “The property market has found its limit at the moment so unless we develop public space into more than filling gaps the whole property industry won’t progress,” Bey explains.Prooff’s approach to solving these problems is to apply ‘scenario thinking’. For instance, take a building site: it’s a transitional place, noisy, yet active, why does it have to be dead space to anything but the building process? Its containers or even cranes could function as public meeting rooms for example; allowing people to meet centrally in a hub that once finished will be the new city nucleus and with that help integrate the next generation of build into the given cityscape. It’s a form of reusing space, which evidently is very timely given the current climate, yet on a much broader scale than simply recycling building parts. The idea of sharing space and knowledge is integral to all Prooff’s concepts and Bey admits that there’s a utopian element in his school of thought. But his vision is certainly not a one-off. Frank Duffy, a visionary veteran, also advocates reclaiming dead space for working purposes. The architect and DEGW founder has been criticising buildings that can only accommodate one function for years. In his recent book ‘Work and the City’ he presents a student research project that looked at Canary Wharf before the crash (2007). The students were asked to compare Soho, with its dense, mixed, physical fabric to Canary Wharf which is new, mono-functional and cut off from the surrounding area. The question was which one of “the two very different models of urban fabric would stand a better chance of remaining in beneficial use in 2030.” Clearly Canary Wharf was associated with exclusion – its stringent security measures dramatically reducing permeability. Only two years later, the site once celebrated as London’s glorious Wall Street resembles a ghost town.Like Bey, Duffy believes in the mobile worker, yet points out that this flexible way of working, albeit vastly enhanced by technology nowadays, is not as new as most think. Duffy highlights how Samuel Pepys diaries contain examples of mobile working in the 17th century. He quotes Trease Geoffrey’s ‘Samuel Pepys and his World’: “Pepys was always on the move – leaving his house near the Tower to go to his office next door [nearly a home worker], visiting his uncle in the country; down the river by wherry to supervise victualling at the Naval Yards at Deptford; by carriage down the Strand to wait on his superiors and to be accessible to the Duke of York in Westminster,” and, as Duffy adds, he worked in coffee houses in-between.
As a result Duffy focuses on the need for places between places, interstitial spaces not owned by one person or company in particular, neutral shared spaces, much like Prooff’s building site idea. The problem he sees is that someone needs to find a way of making these interstitial places economically viable. Duffy also contrasts the divide and rule inherited from Taylorism which still dominates office designs to today’s communication system. “The design of cities needs to catch up with information technology, the economic delivery system and the supply chain.” His convincing construction of ‘The Networked Office’ concept is based on reversing the current system by creating a demand-led supply chain, starting with the user’s needs rather than investment. The “Networked Offices will transcend conventional architectural boundaries,” and the main challenge for Duffy is to wean architects from their obsession with new build towards “the most imaginative and creative use of what already exists.” And that’s exactly what Prooff is doing with their cityscape model and by inventing products that solve architectural problems. The Ear Chair, for instance, was developed for the reception of Dutch insurance company Interpolis. “We had the idea of furniture becoming architecture,” Bey explains, “Architects go in and every time want to change the floors and the walls so we wanted to design a chair that functions as a room. We first developed the ear idea, in time the ears became bigger and now accommodate different size groups.”It soon transpired that people didn’t want to leave the Ear Chair to move to the meeting rooms as initially planned, instead the in-situ testing showed how the chairs created a productive enclave of intimacy in a public open-plan space. Bey’s Reset designs for Vitra, exhibited at Orgatec last year (see onoffice issue 26) already indicated his interest in experimenting with the concept of private concentration bays in public spaces (the padded cell and the high spot).This observation grew into the second product, the Work Sofa or Working Lounge based on Veldhoen & Company’s research into lounge-work activities. The main idea here is to encourage people to sit in different ways, creating a variety of opportunities to address people. The newest addition to the Prooff product range first shown in Milan this year is the Slow Car. Much like the name suggests, it started with the thought that perhaps slow can be good. Asked whether he really believes our current society could ever slow down given our ‘instant access’ mentality, Bey says: “The Slow Car has just the right pace for the task at hand, so that it’s far more time efficient than sitting in a petrol car that can do 250km/h but gets stuck in traffic moving 30km/h, with your foot always on the break. That’s where the frustration with cars comes from. But the Slow Car is not competing with the car; it’s competing with the office chair.”Like a task chair Slow Car has wheels but is steered electronically. In the capsule you sit at a mini-desk, like a transportable work surface, to allow you to work while on your way to a meeting etc. Obviously it’s not about using it as an alternative form of transport on the city streets, but on an office campus. “Workplaces may consist of more than one office building so the space in-between the buildings becomes work space.” Prooff calls these areas office gardens, where the outside is part of the work area and with that has an economic value. And why should an office entrance landscape just be for show when it has inspirational potential for working?Bey has long been advocating for offices to be more like campuses “where you go to work like a living society.” His own studio lives up to this mantra; he is squatting (with the owner’s permission) a warehouse outside Rotterdam which he has turned into a knowledge-sharing laboratory. “I do believe that to design inspirational products you need to work in an inspirational office.” His campus vision for offices is an entire living model, whereby your way of life completely encompasses working.” Workplaces should also be a place where you relax in the evening, play tennis or sing in a choir. Maybe you’d even stay over one night a week if you’re working on something intensively, then you’d work from home another day.” As much as this model sounds like working in a commune it has many benefits, easing traffic congestion just being one. The simple maths that instead of ten journeys to and from work each week you only have six would greatly reduce congestion on both public transport and the roads. Looking at modern ways of working and the realities (or stagnation) of our cities’ property market the conventional static office does indeed seem outdated. Clearly the unearthing of interstitial spaces for the peripatetic worker is a way forward. Once again it’s a parallel with Duffy that seems a likely solution: Bey mentions how hotels are an obvious transient workplace. “Whenever I stay here in London it amazes me how hotels still try to make you feel at home when you’d just go home if that’s what you were after. Instead city hotels should be more business driven by facilitating interaction with your light society.”The light society model is derived from the idea of family forming a membership that bridges boundaries. Likewise your immediate surroundings constitute a membership group, as do your office colleagues. Bey believes that communication is key to bringing a vision such as Prooff’s cityscape to life. “It’s about developing a new language which is much easier in existing groups like the workplace.” Duffy also suggests adopting methods from the hospitality industry like end-users paying for space by the hour, rather than long-term commitment, and facility managers being rewarded for the degree to which they satisfy their customers (ie staff). Undoubtedly the foundations for change in working realities are being laid as we speak. The ideas formulated by ‘office philosophers’ are finally gaining weight due to the crash of the global economy. Quite how the officescape of the future will look no one can tell but Prooff are certainly providing tangible, concrete inspiration for those people involved with developing it. Bey concludes: “There isn’t one way, there are many possible ways, but one thing is for sure: If you look at kids today, doing ten things at a time, following ten diverse discussions on different networking sites, they are multi-tasking – and these multi-taskers are our future workforce so being stuck in one place at a desk all day seems completely antiquated, highly unlikely and to be honest quite stupid.”
Waiting for designer Bertjan Pot to pick me up at the train station in Schiedam, the small city outside of Rotterdam where he has his studio, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
I knew he had joined the ranks of celebrated Dutch designers with pieces like Random Light for Moooi and Slim Table for Arco. I also knew a prerequisite for this interview was that any pictures of him obscure his face. Might be a bit of a pain, I thought.But then Pot turned up in a beat up old van, every bit the gentle giant, and washed away my hasty misgivings. “The press is getting to be too much about design stars,” he explains slowly and quietly. “It’s too much about favourite colours and favourite songs and what I like to eat for breakfast. What has that got to do with design?” Fair point, but as I’m led into his Wonka-esque workspace a few minutes later - a wonderland of bobbly bits, shiny surfaces and colourful scraps - I silently decide that I’m curious about those things myself. It’s true that the design world’s cult of personality has reached a feverish pitch - but some people might still be curious to know what was for lunch the day Pot conceived of an electric blue, baroque-inspired folding table (Balls, 2006) or which song was playing when he made the word ‘ass’ out of pink foam. Same goes for a patchwork couch (Shared Space project, 2007) accompanied by a used carpet with strips of coloured tape, which sit front and centre in his studio.
But alas I am here to discuss Slim Office, the latest incarnation of his Slim Table for Arco, so we veer away from the superfluities and straight into his vast workshop. Boxes of vibrant textiles are stacked high against the walls. Running the length of the room is a series of tables with half-finished projects ranging from a skull-shaped hot air balloon to a model for the interiors of the Social Security offices in Amsterdam. The effect is sort of carnival meets laboratory.
It’s a ‘non-concentrated’ approach to work that proves most fruitful, says Pot. “We can leave projects overnight, we can leave them for two weeks - that way things can be ongoing. You can walk past it every day and whenever you have a small idea about something, you concentrate on it,” he says. And some of the projects are just for fun. “I have this whole studio full of stuff that has appeared when I play. And when I get a serious question from a factory I can just see if I have a project that they can take up,” he says.
It’s a remarkable statement coming from a designer who, at 34, has had substantial commercial success - manufacturers such as Montis, Pallucio and of course Arco and Moooi have put his designs into production. But on the face of it, he seems to be more wrapped up in materials and his own curiosities and preoccupations than in getting things produced, in the conventional sense. “Maybe for someone else it works to be more pragmatic, but not really for me.”
Some obvious themes emerge in his work, though, such as the idea of a structural skin or layers. Slim Table, produced in 2005 for the 100-year jubilee of Arco, uses a steel frame covered with a wooden veneer. “Metal for construction and wood for upholstery,” says Pot. Random Light (2002) and later Non Random Light were created with fibre glass drained with resin, coiled around a balloon that was then deflated. In 2003, Random Chair came as a follow up to Random Light, using the same material coiled over a single-sided mould, and in 2004, Pot made limited edition lampshades from the hollowed skins of gourds.
Aside from Slim, the materials are not slick and smooth, which is refreshing in an industry where texture is generally erased out of things. “When I started studying (in the early 90s at the Design Academy in Eindhoven), design meant to straighten out a product - to make it smooth, slick, inorganic. I think I was reacting against that.”
In that same spirit of rebellion, he often takes on projects because the brief, or ‘question’, rubs him the wrong way. Slim Office, which is basically the Slim Table with magnetic accessory add-ons (rubbish bin, drawer, cable management device, vanity board and matching message board), was an example of a manufacturer asking Pot to do something he’d rather not: cut holes into his table.
“Sometimes when a question or assignment is annoying, I would like to prove that the actual question posed is silly ... or that the result can be so much different than what they are expecting. The first thing I do when I get a question is wonder why I got it so I can give the best answer.”
The idea for Slim Office didn’t come out of a genuine exploration or concern for what an office needs, as it turns out. It is the one tactical, commercially driven design that we chat about during the interview: “This project is really more about what Arco could do as they are having a tough time just like all the other furniture companies. The main thing was to think of something that they could sell and that they would be good at.”
Pot likens the evolution of the design to loose pub talk, where the idea of using magnets was put out there, layered upon, and even joked about. “We said, ‘imagine what problems we could solve for cable management!” But then, of course, the proposal was taken seriously and Slim Office was born.
“I think the Slim Table is good for an office because there is so little about it that so little can be wrong, and therefore its very multifunctional,” Pot says. “There are two ways to achieve multifunctionality. One is to be like the Swiss army knife and the other is to be like the paper clip. I generally prefer the paper clip because with the Swiss army knife, the only thing you experience is that you’re missing out on something. It’s weighed down with all the functions. The more functions it has, the less functional it becomes. But the paper clip, because it’s nothing, it can be anything.”
There is no denying that designers are vying for the thinnest, most impossible looking table - and Pot’s Slim is a contender. “It’s like the fastest car, you know, it’s the thinnest table,” he jokes. But Slim Office, and the idea of multifunctional furniture, is right in step with workplace trends. “It’s a sort of 1980s modernism to have less of something. Now if you see what students are making - they are all making art design where they can express their feelings through a product,” he says, with an impish chuckle. “But now I’m being cynical.”
Which is something to watch out for with Pot. It dawned on me, as he described a revolving chandelier he had started to make for a Michelin-starred restaurant (it’s got a black and white stripey core and floppy pieces of reflective polyester sheet, slightly silly), that there is an element of mockery in some of his creations. “I wanted to make something that was like a chandelier but a modern version of it. If you get food at this restaurant, on the plate you will have maybe a bit of jelly here and something else there. You eat it and it’s … magic,” he says, grinning. Are you taking the piss out of them, I ask? “I’m being quite sincere although I realise with everything there is a double layer. There is a funny side to it too and maybe I’m addressing that side as well.”
In any event, the chandelier is not likely to go into the restaurant but was eventually shown this year in Milan along with a honeycombed back chair for the launch of a new Italian furniture company, Skitsch.
After leaving Pot’s studio, I was struck by what a funny character he is and how that comes through in his designs. However cynical, there is still a real joy in his work, almost as if he is winking at the world. I emailed him later to ask whether this was true.
“It’s not about the humour itself. It is more about looking at the stuff differently than other people do,” he says. “The outcome can be funny, but that is exactly what makes a joke funny. It is twisting the truth in an unexpected way. If there is nothing true about a joke, it’s not funny. If nothing is twisted, it isn’t either. Making jokes is not my goal but I do like to twist things.” And that, in a nutshell, is Bertjan Pot.
Tom Holbrook appears very patient of the attempts by property managers to install suspended ceiling panels in the multi-use creative workspace in Cambridgeshire that his practice, 5th Studio, has completed.
It is hard to imagine the world of fashion without creative PR. It is an integral part of the machinery. After 9/11, for instance, Anna Wintour, Vogue’s notoraious editor-in-chief, spearheaded a PR campaign to get people shopping again.
Sebastian Conran has design pedigree running through his veins. After studying industrial design engineering at the Central School of Design, in 1979 he joined branding giant Wolff Olins, and three years later moved to Mothercare to design and develop its merchandise. In 1999, he merged his design studio with the Conran Group to form Conran & Partners, where he is now the director responsible for all product and graphics work.
So there you are, pootling along the streets of Battersea one morning, minding your own business, when suddenly a shock of flame-red hair shoots past you. What else, or who else, could it be but Vivienne Westwood on a bicycle?