For the last 40 years, designer Gerard Taylor has landed in the right place at the right time. As Orangebox’s creative director, he’s now repeating his success in the workplace
“Love, work, religion: that is all we’ve got to give our lives substance and meaning. That is how important the office is,” says Gerard Taylor. The designer sits across from me in a cafe just off Clerkenwell Green, a stone’s throw from contract furniture maker Orangebox‘s London headquarters, where he occupies the role of creative director. Taylor does not exist in the same world as the star designer, a breed most commonly seen hopping in and out of limousines at iSaloni launch parties; he is from that more abundantly populated group of professionals who are content to move behind the scenes.
The veteran designer is central to Orangebox’s ongoing reinvention as a progressive design-led maker. Operating from a small studio in Shoreditch, the Scotsman prefers to let his work do the talking. And if one were to put a voice to the latest slew of Orangebox products, Network Landscapes, they would probably sound a little like late Apple supremo Steve Jobs, for the collection of upholstered timber seating, inspired by breezy deck chairs, channels the independent, do-it-yourself spirit of the tech offices of Palo Alto.
Taylor is a thinker, an analyst. His conversation is peppered with parallels from other industries, from cooking to automated transport, but it is technology and its influence on modern life that he continually circles back to. He has produced numerous studies regarding the future of the workplace and, almost inevitably, his research led him to the bespoke workplaces in and around the Bay area. It was in among the low-tech, CNC-milled furniture that the designer discovered a world that flipped his understanding of design on its head.
“I am from a generation where the idea of good design was a continuum: it was Herman Miller; it was Vitra,”he says. “Then I started going into these Google [offices] and seeing my granny’s lampshades. I was quite happy to move away from my granny’s lampshades – but for the kids using that space, it was a piece of ironic imperfection. That was a big wake-up call. The bandwidth that defined what was good design has gone.”
There is no doubt that this broadening of the frequency caught some, particularly in the workplace design sector, a little on the hop. Design, as Taylor explains, is no longer enough to make a successful company. It is an idea that puts him in an unusual category – a designer who does not believe in the object alone. “It is about the story. We all get design now. It is everywhere. You don’t need to tell a 25-year-old, ‘that’s a cool-looking lamp’; they will probably rather make one themselves.”
Taylor’s new range deliberately courts the millennials who are less concerned with high design and more interested in being individual, however impossible that may be. Similarly, the need for a readable, handmade object is a direct reaction to the perfect and distracting world of computer code that continually encroaches our lives. “We had this idea that technology will make our lives easier, but it is frying us with more stuff. It is all about take,” he says. “So the office will have to become a softer, more relaxed and kinder place.”
“We are a joined circle. We continually discuss and share ideas as they evolve”
In contrast to the improvised spirit currently pervading design, Taylor’s own beginnings could not have been further removed. Rigorous design schooling via the Glasgow School of Art and later the Royal College of Art, led him to the heart of the last great design movement of the 20th century: Memphis. As with many things in life it was all about timing.
Taylor graduated in 1981, closing his studies with a final year show that mirrored what was happening in Ettore Sottsass’ studio in Milan. In today’s austere climate, Taylor’s early work crackles with confidence and optimism. Each geometric element, arranged to form a lamp or shelving, is unerring in its clarity while displaying admirable restraint in its use of colour. For the young graduate there was only one place to ply his trade. “He [Sottsass] was the best designer in the world. It sounds a bit arrogant but I always knew I was going to work with him. I just went to his studio and introduced myself.
It is hard to picture a more exciting time to be a designer in Milan. Taylor’s arrival in the city coincided with Italy’s FIFA World Cup triumph – an occasion that sent the traditionally reserved Milanese into realms of ecstasy. “I was at Ettore’s house for the World Cup final and when they won people had to hold him down because he was going so crazy. It was like a zoo that night.”
When things calmed down, Taylor slotted neatly into the commercial wing of Sottsass’ studio, designing retail outlets all over the world for fashion brand Esprit. Meanwhile, the energy that Memphis unleashed raged out of control and Taylor became a Gatsby-esque observer of the death of an ideal – killed without remorse by its progenitor. “It was like a rock group that was too big,” he says. “I remember a lot of senior execs were over from America. Ettore had come back from lunch and knew they were upstairs. He grabbed me and said, ‘get them out’. That was how overcooked it had become. The feeling was, let’s get back to normality, let’s get back to design.”
Still, looking back at Memphis provides a colourful reminder of the power held by objects, and how design as an arena for change has moved to the digital realm. “In the 1980s you could change the world with a Formica cabinet, now it is the guys at Google that are changing the world.” For Taylor, the end of Memphis marked the slow wane of Italy’s domination of design.
“Love, work, religion: that is all we’ve got to give our lives substance and meaning. That is how important the office is”
The designer remained with his idol for five years. Faced with the choice of “going native” as he puts it, or returning to the UK and forming his own studio, he chose the latter, partnering up with old friend and fellow RCA alumni Daniel Weil. In a measure of Italian generosity, Taylor was invited to continue designing all the Esprit shops in Australia. Though it made for an arduous commute, the work ensured a degree of stability for the fledgling studio. In the long run, however, finances (or lack thereof) proved to be the partnership’s undoing. “A great company is a dynamic between creativity and business, because you give each other the space to do it,” Taylor explains. “We were a partnership that was just creative so we didn’t make any money.”
Nevertheless, the pair continued to build their expertise in retail, designing a series of shops for French Connection. Taylor singles out a furniture range for German brand Anthologie Quartett as the best work to come from the collaboration. The studio retained total creative control of the collection, even down to finding the workshop to make the products. The results are a curious blend of craftsmanship with postmodernist iconoclasm.
There were disappointments, too. The duo narrowly lost out on a major collection for Knoll. “Daniel and I were doing a lot of wooden products and Knoll had actually bought a timber company in North Carolina to do this whole new programme of work that Daniel and I had developed. And then the CEO Marshall Cogan flew in and looked at it and said, ‘we’re not doing that.'” The nature of the failure reinforced the belief that there must be a better way to make decisions. “Big companies fuck up like that because there is a disconnect between the wheres and the whys.”
“Big companies fuck up like that because there is a disconnect between the wheres and the whys”
Eventually, the studio succumbed to the pressure to make money. Weil became a father and joined Pentagram in 1992. The two remain good friends, though, reuniting to visit Weil’s retrospective at the Design Museum last year. Taylor then forged a fruitful partnership with visionary Italian retailer Vittorio Radice, then managing director of Habitat. Taylor followed Radice to Selfridges, continuing to maintain his own studio, working on private houses in London and designing, among other things, a sculptural semi-circular table called Wave, for US firm Bernhardt. Despite all this, however, he was a man at the ball looking for an ideal dance partner.
He discovered it ten years ago in Mino Vernaschi, CEO of Orangebox, whose ambition vaulted as high as his own. “Mino wants this company to be the best manufacturer there has ever been in this country. And we will be that.” No one could argue with the company’s growth. Embedded in the herbaceous Welsh landscape just outside of Cardiff is the new factory and headquarters while back in the capital the Clerkenwell showroom, already pretty expansive, is doubling in size courtesy of a Ben Adams-designed extension. The intention, naturally, is to demonstrate the versatility
of the evolving range through the agglomeration of product (“great brands are the ones that have done all the thinking for you”).
For his part, the design-educated Vernaschi must hope he has found his George Nelson. Though it is too early to draw those kind of comparisons, Orangebox and Taylor have successfully reached what the designer dubs “the end of phase one”. It has taken ten years to arrive at this moment during which time they have concerned themselves with building a sustainable working culture almost as much as making furniture. “We are a joined circle,” says Taylor. “We are not flat and isolated in little sections that occasionally come together. We continually discuss and share ideas as they evolve.”
Along the way there have been some misfires of the sort necessary to improve. Celo, a desking system featuring a clever slide-open top, was “a great product to do but a failure,” says Taylor, while the low-cost task chair Do is an unqualified success – its straightforward ergonomics and simple functionality selling by the truckload. Another notable release was Ara. Designed by Taylor, it was the first European task chair to adhere to cradle-to-cradle sustainability principles. Given the planet’s dwindling natural resources, it deserved to make a bigger impact then perhaps it did.
But one only has to look at the peerless handmade quality of the Network Landscapes range to get a measure of how far company and designer have come. “I went off to Portugal because I knew it was the best place in Europe to do these kind of products. It has a level of manufacturing finesse that we could not have achieved five years ago,” says Taylor.
There is a sense when talking to the designer that after a 40-year career comprising numerous acts, he has finally arrived at his ideal scenario. Wisely, he remains one stage removed from the day-to-day running of Orangebox but nevertheless his studio – the occasional private house aside – has slowly become a one-client outfit. There is no doubt his prolific sketching and conceptual musings are shored up by a thorough and competent in-house design team allowing him to investigate the macro trends. Taylor believes (and he will find no counter-argument here) that the office is the most exciting sector in which a designer can ply their trade at the moment.
“We went through a honeymoon phase of thinking technology would mean we do not need to go into the office. We now know we need each other.”