British manufacturing Renaissance | icon 010 | February 2004

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words Max Fraser

Furniture manufacturers in this country have long been regarded as suspicious of design and unwilling to take risks. As a result, home-grown designers have had search for success abroad. But is that beginning to change, asks Max Fraser, who highlights the companies that are realising that design pays.

Over the past few years, the design industry has been slowly witnessing the emergence of a new attitude in UK manufacturing where more value is being placed on commissioning external designers. While designers can add the aesthetic “wow” factor to attract customers, they can also improve functionality, and push the boundaries of material capabilities while still saving on production costs. Company directors are starting to combine these skills with their strong in-house engineering and production knowledge, resulting in the release of successful project collaborations.

Within a global context, however, this mini-renaissance in the UK barely scratches the surface of the manufacturing prowess found in other countries, such as Italy. Cressida Granger, managing director of innovative lighting company Mathmos, says: “We can only learn from the Italians; the mutual respect and understanding that exists between designers and manufacturers, the domestic appreciation and purchase of good design, the long-established knowledge and experience that seems necessary to both make excellent products and make money from them.”

Equal-quality yet cheaper manufacturing methods abroad and global competition have been threatening UK manufacturers’ ability to produce innovative contemporary interior products at a competitive price. The effects of complacency have weighed on the shoulders of many production directors and their balance sheets for years. Plenty have folded through not adapting their businesses to compete with the fast-growing manufacturing bases of other countries. As firms close, others shun risk and designers curse them for that.

For a long time in the UK, manufacturers seem to have approached the notion of using designers with suspicion. “Unfortunately, too many mediocre, low-quality products sell well to the UK public, which doesn’t easily embrace the new,” says Jeremy West, co-director of Ferrious. “Needless to say, if the demand for this stuff remains high, manufacturers’ backward attitude towards quality and contemporary design ideas will not change. Public tastes and attitudes have been progressing over the last ten years but there is still a long way to go.” However, there are a growing number of manufacturers who are helping by targeting the higher-end of the market, using design, quality, and tailored branding to differentiate them from the rest.

Embracing industry-respected independent designers is often a good way of achieving exposure that would be harder to achieve if the product was developed in-house. “Independent designers bring new drive and creativity into the product development process which can, if you’re not careful, become very inward-looking if you’re working simply with your own employees,” says Gordon Russell’s director Tim Summerley. “There is often a tendency, when designing in-house, to design what you feel comfortable making.”

External designers are now introducing innovative solutions to problems, working with new material processes, and adding that certain “look good” factor. Manufacturers argue that it is difficult to find designers with a wide enough breadth of skills, while designers interpret their hesitation as a conservative, risk-free and therefore dismissive attitude. Summerley reflects: “I wonder how many good designs never make it to market because we don’t talk the same language?”

Bizarrely, with thousands of design graduates pouring out of UK education institutions every year, one would assume that the design-susceptible manufacturers would be benefitting. This is not the case. “Our encounters so far have unearthed predominantly average designers. Only about one in ten that we speak to seem capable of producing a higher level of creativity than we are able to achieve ourselves in-house,” claims Chris Turner, managing director of CTO Lighting. So what should frustrated designers do? “Gain as wide a breadth of skills so that you can find a niche for yourself,” says Cressida Granger. “If you plan to make a living from designing, you need to be truly talented, to leave your ego at home, to understand you are part of a team, and be an excellent sales person.” According to Summerley: “It’s not about doing the manufacturer’s job for them, but presenting them with a concept that they can see and understand in their terms.”

For many design-led manufacturers it can prove more cost-effective to commission a freelance designer and pay them a royalty than to employ a decent designer full time. It is no surprise, therefore, that more companies are embracing exterior talent. But can designer names sell? In the domestic market, very few names mean anything to the public and therefore don’t necessarily influence retail sales; in the industry-savvy contract market, it may make the specifiers take note of certain manufacturers for producing cutting-edge designs that will appeal to their clients. Names are good for PR, as the media can be guilty of slavishly following the creations of celebrity designers. How many seriously good products designed by relative unknowns never get a look in? And which items, regardless of brand or designer, will sell best once introduced to market?

And this is what it boils down to. Above all else, the success of a product depends on its ability to perform the task it is designed for and its price can be determined by any number of factors such as development time, production methods, quality of materials, production quantities, marketing spend, distribution and so on. If the UK industry is no longer able to compete with the high-volume, low-price producers from abroad, “the best companies will continue to operate in smaller niche markets where design and quality will differentiate them from the rest,” claims Summerley.

Growth in consumer interest in contemporary design is beginning to register on the strategies of many UK manufacturers and they are realising the importance of designers in sustaining innovation, marketability and subsequent sales. As Summerley would admit: “Good independent designers force you to push back barriers. Of course, you have to be prepared to let those barriers be pushed!”

While the bulk of UK manufacturers still seem reluctant to have their worldviews challenged, some of the smaller players have made the break and are making a name for themselves. If a British manufacturing renaissance is to occur, the companies profiled over the next four pages will lead it.

Gordon Russell
Gordon Russell furniture manufacturers was founded in 1919, and bought from US firm Steelcase in July 2002 in a management buyout. Co-director Tim Summerley states: “We were determined that design and designers would be the main driving force behind the new Gordon Russell.” Over the past 18 months, the company has worked with Matthew Hilton, Simon Pengelly, John Coleman and Michael Sodeau to design office furniture that will help bring the brand back into the minds of the design industry. The directors intend to continue commissioning more innovative UK designers.

Hitch Mylius
Roughly half of the Hitch Mylius collection of contract furniture is designed in-house with the other half given over to well-known contributing designers including Shin and Tomoko Azumi, David Chipperfield, Nigel Coates and Fred Scott. In 2003, company director Tristram Mylius commissioned the hm88 bench by new RCA graduate Chijioke Aguh.

Flo UK
“There is a greater focus and a keener eye looking to the emerging new talents rather than the icons in design from the past,” claims Laura Slack, managing director of the young manufacturing company Flo UK. She is an avid supporter of innovative ideas from new UK designers and has produced furniture, lighting and even wallpaper designs by Alex Macdonald, Nuf Design, twocreate, Kylie Turner and Absolute Zero. “We form relationships by word-of-mouth or recommendation. If you treat each other well, the relationship will be fruitful for both.” Slack sells a wide variety of interior items from her shop Places and Spaces in Clapham, South London.

Isokon Plus
Isokon Plus is the original producer of Marcel Breuer’s iconic plywood furniture from the 1930s. Lone and Chris McCourt, who acquired the licence to continue production in 1982, have moved the company forward since then by commissioning new pieces that are manufactured in their West London wood workshops. The duo have always used Barber Osgerby Associates, and have since added items from Simon Pengelly, Shin and Tomoko Azumi and Michael Sodeau to their range.

A manufacturer of high-quality furniture for work areas and public spaces, Keen took on the Orbital WorkStation school furniture, designed by Shin and Tomoko Azumi as part of the Design Council’s Furniture for the Future competition. Director Charles Keen admits that he tried to kill the project on “numerous occasions” but it was the enthusiasm and conviction from his team that convinced him to carry the design forward.

Lloyd Loom of Spalding
We are all familiar with woven fibre furniture, commonly known as wicker. Lloyd Loom, which has been producing predominantly traditional collections using this technique since 1917, have more recently applied the material to contemporary furniture. As well as the in-house team, contributors include Nigel Coates and Mark Gabbertas. More recently, Jane Dillon and Tom Grieves teamed up on a chair design using a Bendywood structure produced by Mallinson.

Christopher Farr
Christopher Farr and co-director Matthew Bourne have built up an international reputation through producing contemporary handmade rugs for domestic and corporate interiors. Designing his own range, Farr has also commissioned artists and designers such as Kate Blee, Allegra Hicks, Gary Hume, Sarah Morris and Michael Sodeau.

Mathmos, famous for the classic lava-lamp from the 1960s, moved its company image into the 21st century by diversifying into innovative kinetic lighting products in 2000. Ross Lovegrove was called on to come up with a modern take on the company classic in the form of Fluidium. In 2001, nine acclaimed London designers were commissioned to take a fresh look at metal spinning in lighting, resulting in El Ultimo Grito’s solution making it to market in 2002. Aaron Rincover’s design for a mobile silicone LED light was taken on, and other successful items have continued to follow. Managing director Cressida Granger admits there are no rules. “Maybe designers come to us with ideas, or maybe we go to someone we admire to work on something specific.”

Commissioning external designers is nothing new to SCP founder Sheridan Coakley who has been employing the talents of mainly London-based designers since 1985. SCP was the first company to commercially produce furniture by Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton and Konstantin Grcic. This manufacturer and retailer has built up an impressive collection of domestic and contract furniture over the years from a small yet loyal group of internationally acclaimed designers including Terence Woodgate, Michael Marriott, Andrew Stafford and Michael Sodeau.

Allermuir, established in 1971, has built a strong reputation as one of the UK’s leading manufacturers of contemporary contract furniture. The company is not afraid to employ freelance UK designers having worked with a long list including Mark Gabbertas, Amos Marchant and Lyndon Anderson, Simon Pengelly, Gary Pennington and Aktiva.

Thorsten van Elten
“I want to work with people I like on products I love. Get rid of any unnecessary politics and one is left with easy working relationships. Speed, efficiency and enjoyment all follow suit.” Thorsten van Elten is an agent, distributor and manufacturer of his own range of design-led interior items with a twist of humour that quite often makes one look twice. His range is constantly growing by an ever-increasingly number of like-minded UK designers including Alex Taylor, Ed Carpenter, Sam Johnson, Richard Shed and mosleymeetswilcox.

Illizi Home
Illizi Home is an ethical company set up to create employment in the Algerian handicraft industry. UK designers liaise with local workshops, and design-led interior items are produced for the Western markets. So far, the company has worked with Simon Pengelly, Michael Sodeau and Kate Blee. BP sponsors this initiative as part of its support of local communities in the Sahara while exploring for oil and gas.

CTO Lighting
“I’m only an OK designer,” concedes Chris Turner, managing director of CTO Lighting. “I’m more of an engineer. We want an injection of pure creativity from a freelance designer, leaving us to take care of the sensible stuff.” Turner employed Gitta Gschwendtner to design a new range of contemporary lighting in 2003 after spotting her work at various shows. “This was the first time we had used ‘an outsider’, and it won’t be the last.”

Ferrious directors Jeremy West and Paul Tempest are responsible for designing most of the furniture in their collection. They are eager to work with more external designers, “but we find it difficult to locate individuals with whom we can identify… and we don’t get approached up here in Manchester!” jokes West. That said, recent graduate Jonathan Woolley has hit the mark on a couple of new sofas.

Modus Furniture
Modus Furniture, under the direction of Jon Powell and Ed Richardson, has recently employed Simon Pengelly and Michael Sodeau to develop a rapidly expanding range of contemporary furniture made from a variety of materials and processes. They outsource components from specialist manufacturers which allows them greater material diversity across the collection. “Utilising the skills and knowledge of external designers has vastly improved the effectiveness of product development,” claims Powell. Their intention is to commission more UK designers.

Boss Design, manufacturers of contract furniture, worked with Simon Pengelly to develop the Twist chair last year. This was the company's first project with an external designer and one that steered their engineering team into new territory, as Pengelly challenged the existing techniques of material manipulation with the twisting of the oval metal chair legs along new axis. This successful collaboration will inevitably spawn further projects of this nature.

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