Nottingham design duo &then talk to Sarah Brownlee about their busy year ahead
&then design make a proper cup of tea, served at their Nottingham studio from a charming, if surprisingly chintzy, tea set complete with teapot and matching tea cups. These two – that’s designers Samuel Wright and Jamie Bowler – don’t do things by halves, which makes them just as refreshing as their tea.
Everything from their marketing material (including brochures and a canny website), through to their product range itself, is immaculately produced and presented, helping to set them apart from the competition. Founded in 2008, &then is still very young, but a combination of ambition and talent has propelled the company far in a relatively short space of time.
Wright and Bowler met and became best pals at Nottingham Trent University where they both studied furniture and product design.
“Our styles aren’t identical but we had a similar idea of what we wanted to do and felt that we had a talent for something that shouldn’t go to waste after we graduated,” says Bowler.
They set up in business together with the support of the university, which continues to act as a mentor, allowing them access to their workshop facilities, and other resources, for another four years.
Their studio is currently based at the house they share with another friend, a neat suburban property on the outskirts of Nottingham city centre. The set-up may sound more Terry and June than trend-setting, but they have no desire to head off lemming-like to London. And why should they? They’ve established themselves on the Nottingham design scene and have built up crucial manufacturing contacts.
“We’re very aware of what our competitors’ stuff costs and we think value for money is really important – especially at the moment”
“It’s more affordable and we’ve got access to all the contacts we’ve made,” Wright confirms. “The fact that we can make the majority of our products in the surrounding area is important to us. It makes sense to stay here in Nottingham until we get to the point where we can branch out.” He adds: “Nottingham is slowly becoming a very creative place [increasingly so with the launch of Nottingham Contemporary last November] and the more we do the more people we meet.”
The city appears to love them back, too: &then was nominated for Nottinghamshire Creative Business of the Year in 2009.
Their current range of products, shown most recently at 100% Design last September, has gleaned considerable interest. Not surprising when you consider how well made they are, boasting a style that is elegant and, for the most part, unassuming, but for a cheeky twist here and there.
“Our ethos is to design simple products that perform a task…” says Wright, “…but that have a hell of a lot of character,” Bowler quickly interjects.
That includes the Oliver lounge chair which boasts a chunky Scandinavian-style frame and a generous upholstered cushion inset with colourful bespoke buttons. The same button detailing adds interest to their Tilly sofa.
It helps that the pair have a keen eye for colour and materials, using Kvadrat and Bute fabrics for their upholstered pieces and solid oak for both the Oliver chair and their Leigh cabinets, although the latter are fronted with lickable Formica-laminated doors.
Most importantly, there’s nothing too wacky in their repertoire (the closest they come to this is the pleasingly jaunty Top Hat lamp that features in their extensive portfolio). This gives them that all-important, professional edge that many design graduates lack.
Wright and Bowler have varied but complementary expertise and experience. Wright grew up in what he describes as a “creative environment” in West Sussex. His father works as a freelance contract furniture designer and his guidance and support has proved invaluable to the pair, who aim to crack both the contract and retail markets. Wright worked for Noble Russell for a year and a half, giving him a crucial insight into the commercial world of design.
Bowler describes his design partner as the “upholstery man” of the team, while he professes a liking for more “architectural, linear forms”. A Yorkshire lad, Bowler travelled to Milan for his work experience where he found himself in the studio of renowned Japanese designer Isao Hosoe. While there he took part in a project to design a task chair – his idea was subsequently selected by Hosoe for presentation to the client.
“I really enjoyed working on it,” he smiles. “They told me that they had this project that would be the hardest thing I’d have to do, and that I’d have to do it straight away. The studio is very interested in studying the behavioural side of design, which I found very interesting.”
On returning to the UK, Bowler went to work for producer Thorsten van Elten in London, where he assisted him with product development.
All this experience combined has helped &then get a firm grasp of what’s marketable and what’s not, resulting in a thoughtful, but still ambitious, collection that they can be justly proud of and build their reputation around. Although they certainly haven’t gone unnoticed up until now.
They graduated in 2008 and that same year contributed (through invitation) to the über-cool Heart & Design Auction (in aid of the Royal Brompton & Harefield Hospital NHS Trust), which saw their products set alongside those by big names such as Tom Dixon, Jaime Hayon, Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld, no less.
Last year they were selected to showcase at the New Designers One Year On exhibition and received a bursary to attend 100% Design for the first time – and they’ll be back there this September.
“Last year was about proving that we have work with market potential,” says Bowler. “We’re very aware of what our competitors’ stuff costs and we think value for money is really important – especially at the moment.”
This year will be spent demonstrating the versatility and scope of the collection and getting their name out there. They’re going to be more than busy in the meantime.
Their ‘architectural stacking chair’, Quba, is going into production later this year, manufactured by Leeds-based company Igneous UK.
They’re designing a contract range for the Slick Group, based in the Birmingham area, and they’ve been asked to specify furniture for the new New Art Exchange cafe in Nottingham. Yet more projects are in the offing, although they’re top secret for now, until everything’s signed and sealed.
Like any young designers they have their dream list of retailers who they’d like to court in terms of product distribution.
“We have a good idea of who we’d like to work with regardless of geographical location,” says Bowler. “But for now we just have to get ourselves on the map and make some money doing what we want to do.”
Apart from their core range, they have an extensive back catalogue of designs which they believe have potential. This includes the aforementioned task chair and a wireless task light that Wright designed at university.
Opportunities may well draw them away from their current base in the future but for now their work, and that exquisite tea, is brewed in Nottingham.