Ahead of his talk at Design Shanghai tomorrow, the British designer spoke to Icon about his design philosophy and his connection to China
ICON What do you plan to discuss in your talk at Design Shanghai?
PAUL COCKSEDGE I’ll be talking about the studio’s work, giving a cross-section of what we do. I enjoy that because it involves looking back, instead of just being totally absorbed in what we’re doing. There will be some early pieces, some small-scale architectural projects and some gallery pieces. Hopefully it will show a nice flow, in terms of scale change, the use of different materials and technology, the different between self-generated work, like our Kickstarter project Vamp, and our work with brands.
I am also going to bring in my connections to China. I’ve had quite a lot of experience working and travelling there, seeing how cities are changing and the fascinating manufacturing capabilities in places like Shenzhen. For good and bad reasons, the UK is not that kind of place any more. You can still make stuff here, but there’s a different kind of intensity in Shenzhen. I’ve gone in quite hard in China. It’s a wonderful place – I’ve had some joyous moments and also difficulty ones. I’d like to support my talk by sharing some of those stories.
Compression Marble Sofa (2016) for Moooi – the other version, the original, is made in foam
ICON What projects specifically have you worked on in China?
PC The Vamp speakers came from finding old speakers on the streets of London, then designing an electronic product that transformed them into bluetooth speakers. I had some meetings about it but progress was slow, and I just wanted to make the thing. It was around the time Kickstarter was starting to boil up, so we jumped onto that and got incredible backing. Because it was electronic, and very different from the other stuff we’d done, we ended up manufacturer in China, because that’s the place to do that.
Another example is an interior design project we’re working on now – a permanent piece for a new sports brand in Milan with a store overlooking a park. We were invited to think of what the interior space could be, to display these running shoes by different brands. We were meant to just do the design and the company would manufacture it somewhere in Europe. But when we priced up the idea and looked at the complexity of what were trying to make – more of a sculpture than a piece of interior design – it became clear that we had to take ownership of that part of the project. We looked in Europe at who could pull off such a feat, because it needed 10 CNC machines running for about four months. On the back of that we got on a plane and flew to Shenzhen and connected with a company there with a huge factory, that was really up for trying new things. It’s in containers as we speak coming over to Milan to be installed.
ICON Do you see systems like Kickstarter as the new model for design – helping designers bypass the traditional system of working with companies?
PC It depend on what kind of person you are. For someone like me – I have ideas and I need to start making. Kickstarter allows you to take control of that without relying on convincing someone else that your idea is good, without compromising, without that weird feeling of someone else controlling your destiny. Some of my designer friends wait a decade to have a meeting with a manufacturer they think may like their work, and that way of working is strange. I’ve been there, to a certain extent, but these platforms allow you to just and dive in – you may make mistakes, but if you get it right it can be totally rewarding. You can go from someone with an idea to having a company within six months.
ICON Is it for similar reasons that you sell some of your products directly online?
PC Yes, again it means we can have an idea, make a test and just put it on there. It feeds the studio financially and creatively, and it’s a way of us not having to wait. Sometimes I’ve had an idea that I’ve shown to a manufacturer and it can take 5 years. Sometimes I'm quite envious of fashion designers because they have this explosion of creativity – they look around them at culture, politics, science, they look back and forward, then they just release. I’d love to do that, but in the product design world, it’s not as easy. Saying that, our studio does a lot of design art pieces for the Friedman Benda Gallery in New York, which is in a way our fashion release – quick, fastpaced.
Twelve Ring Table (2015), part of Freeze, a project for the Friedman Benda Gallery in New York, which explored how freezing temperatures could create seamless bonds between metals
ICON What ties your work together overall?
PC I don’t analyse the process – I almost don’t want to find connections because I see all my work as individual things. In a general way, I’m trying to explore spaces that haven’t been looked at before. I’m trying to innovate, I’m trying to make myself and the studio happy. We do work that we like – it’s not just about making money. In a way, it’s about working on things that don’t feel like work. I have to feel a project and have an emotional connection with it, because otherwise there is no point. There is a certain sliver of the design industry where it’s not about that – it’s about conforming, having guaranteed sales, having a traditional way of looking at success. For me, successful design is very different from what the traditional industrial design logic dictates.
Above: Soane’s Light (2016), an installation for the John Soane museum that filled a room with a bright, Mediterranean light
A new, stereo version of Cocksedge's Vamp system, which transforms a traditional speaker into portable Bluetooth speaker