The first East London studio-salon concentrates on the status quo and context of furniture design today. The changes we notice and expect and the current attitudes in the furniture world with the different positions of designers, producers, retailers, curators, design labels and press in this whole. What is furniture's identity and scope now we have so much access to images and impressions via on- and offline media that we can see more objects in a day than Queen Victoria owned in her life? What are the critical questions to ask and to deal with?Date & location: 2 February 2016 - Canalside Studio of Ineke Hans, East LondonModerator: Gareth Williams (Prof. Middlesex University)Startup speakers:- Ineke Hans introducing briefly about why she set up the salons on furniture in London.- Benjamin Hubert explaining why he completely changed the set up of his studio in 2015 and what he is aiming for now.- Jana Scholze talking about her perception on furniture with questions from a user and curator's point of view.Participants: Laura Houseley (Modern Design Review), Max Fraser (London Design Guide), Daniel Charny (Fromnowon), Johanna Agerman Ross (Disegno), James Mair (Viaduct), and designers Merel Karhof, Sarah van Gameren (Glithero), Tomoko Azumi, Yael Mer (Raw Edges), Thor ter Kulve (photo's)
Gareth Williams: I was very pleased that Ineke came to me last summer and said she wanted to come back to London and do a series of events for which she had also contacted some others. So than there was a chat with Ineke, Daniel, Johanna and Max and me and together we came up to this series of salons and today we talk about furniture and us. Welcome everybody, feel free to join into the discussion: please lets all talk! But Ineke perhaps you could first explain a bit more about why you wanted to set up the salons.
Ineke Hans: Well... I had the idea to go back to London for a while. I left in 1998 and set up a studio in Holland which was a very good thing to do. But after a while – and perhaps you recognise this – I started to think: well I know where I am, I know what I am doing. It felt as if I knew the hoop that I was jumping through. At the same time I also bumped into all kind of things in the furniture business that had changed and were changing. That is good and it has always been like that, but there were also issues that I wanted to think about more and deal with and that you don't do when you are running your studio on a daily basis: you don't get your head around it. So when I actually decided to go back to London and work from here I thought to organise salons next to it and look into these issues with more depth. The reason why I set up salons specifically on furniture is because I love furniture, but there are also changes that have a specific impact on furniture:– Traditional opposites 'contract' and 'domestic' furniture have infiltrated in each other's domains. The office has become more informal, people are lounging there nowadays and it is more used to meet and discuss than to work. There are also people that can't be bothered anymore to have an office: people work from home, cafes or shared desks. This has an impact on furniture.– Especially in a city like London urbanisation has lead to smaller and more expensive spaces to live and work. For furniture it means there is less space and less financial means for it and different needs to serve.– There is a generation that is not interested anymore in possession but in sharing: why would you try to buy a house if you can't afford it and if we are so mobile that its easier to share a space in London, Amsterdam and Singapore?– There are new and inspiring digital developments like open source technology and online sales and marketing that enrich the way furniture and products can get to users.And than I looked at myself when I did some fantastic projects in the north of Canada a few years ago: Fogo Island. Here I worked with the people from the island on the furniture that I designed for the inn and I worked with men that used to be fishermen in the workshop to work out how they could make it. This furniture is now sold through Canada and other places because there is a well thought-out-social strategy behind it. This felt to me also as something very valuable and when I design for clients worldwide I sometimes feel we are just designing objects for catalogues. The design system has become a treadmill in which - I think – we produce too much, but there is hardly any time to think about where we are actually going or to wonder or if it makes sense what we do.'New' seems a more valid motive than 'necessary'. The time that these new objects are shown on fairs, or in catalogues and get attention is in general getting shorter and the batches that companies produce are smaller than before which makes that the reality of getting royalties over a product for 50 years has changed completely and leaves designers struggling to making a living out of their profession. Furniture design is a very funny business where a lot of people work for free also writers, retailers, but people are very involved and in this business because they like it. At the same time there are also a few things wrong.Then I thought It could be nice to sit around a table to talk with designers about this but I talk to many people in this furniture world: retailers, designers, writers, curators, manufacturers and maybe it is very nice that they all come together and by speaking to each other we find out how we are all moving into new directions and perhaps that could be helpful for all of us, maybe we can change things a bit together. This might be slightly ambitious but... you never know!
Gareth Williams: In a moment I will pass over to Benjamin Hubert to talk and we also asked Jana Scholze to reflect on furniture and the state of play now but, just by way of preamble: when I walked up to this event this evening it dawned on me that it is nearly 10 years since I published the book 'The Furniture Machine' which was then a snapshot of the furniture industry trying to capture a moment in design, a snapshot of major trends and designers in contemporary furniture design over the previous 15 years. Featuring leading international designers such as Ron Arad, Tom Dixon and Jurgen Bey. Over that time designers had become inspiring individuals and feature designers unlike before. Also some manufacturers had developed new technologies that were transforming design as were also some of these feature designers changing design through conceptual design. Contemporary design had moved into a lifestyle industry, had slipped into fashion and media and design had become popular, desirable and sexy.
Looking at design now it seems we are less hung up on signature design and signature designers. Technology in manufacturing is still important but the biggest change has been the rise of digital technology that has changed marketing and distribution. How we buy and design seems less top-down. Big factors and companies used to work with designers and tried to sell into markets that were dominated by big fairs and big media but it feels not like that anymore now. It has become more bottom up: designers are also initiators of design processes.Design seems to have a more democratic ground-up flow: 'crowd-sourcing', 'crowd-seeking', 'user-centred' and 'human-centred' are words that you hear in design nowadays. The language has changed and this has reshaped the way designers are working and what they are working on. The boundaries of the disciplines have softened up and there are just a few designers that are still very discipline specific; many of them design furniture, products and do projects.So this is my setting of the scene of 'furniture and us and where we are now and after this I would like to pass over to Benjamin Hubert. We were very interested in the fact that you relaunched and repositioned your studio as Layer because it seemed to pick up on quite a lot of these cultural shifts that I just identified and there were things you could not achieve as Benjamin Hubert studio.
Benjamin Hubert: Yes, well it is still early days and I am stillvery visible by talking about it and using my name on the designs. What should go first: What design is for or The business of design? I changed the name in October last year; 5 years after I opened my studio and quit my day job as a designer for some of the major London consultancies that operate very much user-centred based. I was thinking about what I had been doing for five years also in furniture and the returning groove of Milan and saw myself still doing that in 20 years in the future. However... I wanted something that reached more people and enriched more peoples lives, less in the luxury industry and focus on things we need rather than on things we want. If you look at fairs like Milan, they don’t really relate to the wider world any more. I looked into the numbers recently and this year 1323 companies are showing in Milan. If they all show 5 products that is about 6600 products and in my five years 33000 new items in furniture where we solved mayor problems in furniture already a long time ago.I think it is design’s responsibility to design problems that are more necessary to be solved and help more people. We spend a lot of time pitching furniture projects – of which everybody knows you have to do a lot of them and everybody thinks you should work for free till 3 years later you earn some royalties if you are lucky. I donate that time now to charities and non-profit organisations. We are still not making money on this time but these projects do give back, fulfil a personal need and values that I like to achieve and do what I think it does what design is for. So we do some work like that now, next to consultancy and work on other projects.
Gareth Williams: In this perspective: is it possible to still design furniture or is the world over saturated?
Benjamin Hubert: It is possible, sure. There are all kind of social implications to what you design. This can be a teacup as well as technology for the working world. But how much impact are you going to make!? What moves the world forward? Technology does this and furniture taps into that just with a small amount, where all kind of area's utilise technology more and make much bigger steps, rather than just saving 20 grams on a piece of furniture. The big steps are made in software and services.
Gareth Williams: Playing devil’s advocates: this sounds as if you turned your back on furniture?
Benjamin Hubert: Yes I realise that it sounds a bit biased and we actually still do some furniture work, but I find it very difficult to say WHAT makes the difference in the furniture industry. As Ineke was saying there are so many companies that fill their catalogues with furniture and they promote only 1 or 2 products of it. There are of course exceptions, companies that pick and choose very well and carefully and also take promotion seriously.
Ineke Hans: I agree that there is not a lot of rocket science to be expected from furniture at the moment and there also seems to be more about styling than innovation.
Gareth Williams: This was different in the past where furniture design was stretching boundaries and where ideas were pushed and this is why Milan became so important. The cutting edge moved away from furniture for one reason or another. But what about you Jana, what is your take on this?
Jana Scholze: Well there might not be a lot of debate about furniture, but as long as there are human beings we will need furniture. What the numbers are are not the point, but there seems to be a kind of pause as if we are paralysed.Furniture it is very close to us and because it is so close and seemingly not so involved in the digital, the discussion for furniture will move back to the physical space and the human being. We have all seen how the domestic space has collapsed into one space but we also see that that doesn't work: we are working 24 hours a day. There is a need to bring things back to a human scale again and to deal with technology in space and in our lives. We see that the individual needs can be served better nowadays because of technology. Better than in the times of mass production....
Gareth Williams: ….when the chair for everyone was the holy grail of furniture!
Jana Scholze: Exactly!
Gareth Williams: But the fixation on the virtual and the digitally-made also means there is more space for the analogue processes and the handmade and that also seems to attract and becomes fashionable.
Benjamin Hubert: I think that fashion has a hand in furniture too much and that is exactly the problem!
Gareth Williams: Why should furniture not be fashionable? Furniture can bore and we change our needs. Things wear out, also psychologically things get boring: we change our needs.
Ineke Hans: I wonder if that is true. If you are looking at the needs and the furniture that is coming out now, what is still produced since Charles Eames and Bauhaus and what is around second hand: there is too much! If you ask people how often they buy a new table this doesn't match with the amount that is around us and coming out. Needs are imposed on us as well!
Gareth Williams: But we – all here – are complicit to that system, if we write, or design, or sell and that system requires novelties and new ideas.
Ineke Hans: Perhaps the idea of novelty needs to be discussed.
Benjamin Hubert: Novelty has become a gadget, a gimmick a one liner.
Gareth Williams: I am weary about a design agenda with regulation, we have been around there before.
Gareth Williams: Until now its all about how furniture is produced, but lets look at how it is sold... James?
James Mair: Yes, interesting times for that really... but I 'd like to take the point on the fashion side of furniture. When things get to you via open source and online distribution too easily you risk ending up with too many mediocre ideas. There is a lot of that going on and that numbs the furniture industry as well. Maybe we need to have the specialists, evangelists and signature designers as the game changers to deal with that. In Italy there is no new Castiglioni at the moment, but they have these amazing craftspeople of which you hope that they keep going, but till now things are still presented at fairs and create a demand.
Gareth Williams: And that can only go on if there is a demand!
Ineke Hans: But this demand is a funny thing, it is not always tested if there really is a demand. The reality is: there is a fair coming up and we need new things for it. James, do you actually notice in your showroom that people are changing furniture quicker?
James Mair: Well, clients spend tons of time on research, sometimes know more than me and than buy somewhere else. Many think they know everything through online research and they almost have to make a few cock-ups before they come to us and realise there are lots of filters. We are not just a showroom but work more in the realm of service design and can also advise to go somewhere that fits better.
Max Fraser: You mentioned game changers earlier. Is that not what all designers aim for and the media fuelling that?
James Mair: The interesting thing about media like made.com and clippings is basically that they chop me out, but also they sell direct from the makers. For a small designer that can be a profitable model since there is hardly any other way. But with Vitra or Hay that is slightly different.
Ineke Hans: With online sales I first thought that people would not spend so much money online without seeing products life, so it would perhaps work for smaller objects and accessories. But people now spend also a lot on expensive pieces of furniture. They go to showrooms like Viaduct but buy online or buy just the clichés of which they know they are safe like the Eames chairs. And that makes the furniture world less exciting as well!
Gareth Williams: People buy mattresses without trying them out. Is this changing the relation between designer and consumer?
Laura Houseley: There are different types of consumers there have always been consumers that research and careless consumers.
Daniel Charny: In fact when looking at the volume of purchasing that careless consuming is probably the most!
Gareth Williams: And does technology have an impact on design and this social change you describe?
Benjamin Hubert: I think the careless consumer is actually implicated. You can easily send things back nowadays, prices are an important issue, things get more flatpack.
James Mair: One Nordic and than HEM did flatpack furniture very nicely.
Benjamin Hubert: But what I don't understand is that in their products there is no really groundbreaking technology and it is still very expensive, not like Ikea and that is where they perhaps went wrong.
Gareth Williams: But that Vitra took over HEM probably means that they think it will have an impact on technology, furniture design and social change?
Daniel Charny: The main point about furniture & us IS social change. Not the way things are produced. The biggest issue in social change is: employment of consumers. We don't get employed or we don't go to work, but work from home. Also a huge social change is how people are priced out of areas and have to move all the time! What Benjamin just described with Layer is what used to happen with luxury and limited editions where designers experimented through investing collectors and took that knowledge onto other places and into industry. This is the model that needs to happen now too: doing work in one place and shift the knowledge to another where it is very valuable and has impact even if there is perhaps no one able to pay for it. I recently came across a project in Bhutan where two industrial designers set up a little factory to produce earthquake safe school tables. To make that viable they had to find local manufacturers and learn from them. They made jigs to teach them and used open source knowledge to inform. They had to use a lot more furniture-design-knowledge than just doing a table. The level of design that goes into such a situation is much higher! So...furniture design needs to be more CLEVER and connect all kinds of realities. We have to look into local manufacturing with global knowledge!
Jana Scholze: Again: in the 20th century have looked in to office and office space work but we need to look into private space and think about how we can protect ourselves from work!
Daniel Charny: You are right but I think we also need to look into the community spaces like libraries where more people are using the same space where it doesn't belong to someone and has to perform much more.
Ineke Hans: Public spaces in- and outdoor will become more important also because our living spaces are getting smaller.
Daniel Charny: Actually knowledge that people acquired over the years is very powerful. Authority and authenticity are becoming valuable with all this endless info and data coming over us. The thing is: How do you make sure people that don't know about you reach you?One of the things concerning the fair in Milan is that you go there to meet other people and clients that you don't know yet, but most of us see people and shows we know about! This proprietary model is eating itself. So in terms of change: we are NOT talking to the right people nor looking and active in the right places!
Gareth Williams: So what are these places?
Johanna Agerman Ross: Well if you look at IKEA they are growing and growing but they also look at other places. There is a new middle class in India ready to spend. They look at that, report back tweak the furniture to that taste or to the taste of the Middle East where they are also active.
Daniel Charny: You mean they are looking for new markets! This is like LG from Korea selling video cassettes into 3rd worlds countries in the 90's when everyone knew cd's and blue-ray was the next thing. They were just extending their production longer in those places.However bringing things back to furniture... living space is a real important issue and in terms of employment we use the day differently, we share space and furniture will have to deal with that.
Ineke Hans: Concerning the private space I think it can indeed be a relief to get away from technology and work, mind you some of the digital technology is not put into furniture because it gets outdated sooner than the furniture.
Jana Scholze: When you work 24 hours you look more for privacy without technology, but many people also don't know what to choose and how to choose a chair they want to keep for life.
Sarah van Gameren: And because of that some end up with a piece of IKEA as a temporary item for life!
Daniel Charny: Here you get to another layer. Digitalisation of information has democratised choices. The original luxury and bespoke moment of selecting a fabric, material, etc. for your piece of furniture has opened up and there is so much choice that people are paralysed or disempowered. A side to that is that people are able to create things themselves that are useless or so horrendous and specific for anyone else that it doesn't survive one season. Here you also bump into taste, but the filters that James can provide don't come in here.
Gareth Williams: Will that change furniture and manufacturing to customisation and open source production?
Ineke Hans: I had students last year and they see open source platforms as a really interesting way forward for them as well as other new ways of getting their work out and finding ways to get some money out of it. Hardly any of them are interested in pitching for companies or going to the actual fairgrounds because the featured designers are often the same and they cannot be bothered to get into that system anymore.
Thor ter Kulve: I can speak for my generation and I agree on that shift. Young designers see furniture as a medium to talk about ideas and materialism. They want to storm the world with manufacturing skills and use of materials.
Merel Karhof: A lot of young designers only want to research materials and that is what they do. They also make machines. If you ask them what they are going to do with that, they don't necessarily want to design anything from it.
Sarah van Gameren: I would like to put myself in the same generation. I recognise this. We were never relying on large-scale manufacturing. Somehow we did not expect money out of it, but we were also against it.
Ineke Hans: The education system in Holland – and later also elsewhere - was very much built up around this idea. The great ideas and concepts were most important, more than designing a chair with good lumber support. This seems to have grown into such a thing that designers seem to be excused not to make proper furniture. I like the conceptual approach and I am happy that it is part of my thinking, but it has also become a monster of its own that is perhaps top heavy.
Merel Karhof: Is that not changing though? That concepts turn into real products again?
Ineke Hans: I always tried to work in both worlds and work with conceptual thinking in the industrial world. Crossing those borders also fed me. Where in Holland designers would more often make a choice for one: the conceptual and that's it.
Thor ter Kulve: And that has changed too. Designers are everything now. I would love to say: I am an industrial furniture designer, but the current system requires that I design objects and furniture, limited and not and this and this and this....
Sarah van Gameren: Not only the designer, also the consumer has to do this and this and this. And... the consumer is also designing!
Daniel Charny: In this, design has to start somewhere and to design a chair for the O2 stadium is something you simply don't do as a student in art education. If you would you'll hardly find a student that can finish the project! Still these are very important chairs and need to work well and the amounts of plastic going into it is probably more important than the shape when you look at the quantities. Here is where the cleverness comes in. It is less about personal expression and exploring the profession. For these projects knowledge needs to be locked in at an early stage and this is where furniture has lost the plot because information and knowledge have not accumulated properly.Looking at the model presented at the beginning of this conversation on star designers: students today are interested in that knowledge and take part in that. They do not necessarily want to be stars. That is why exploring materials is relevant. The designers complete their bit to this knowledge and contribute to something bigger.
Jana Scholze: And again also this counts for consumers: when we opened the furniture galleries in the V&A we were afraid that (without big didactical concepts) it might be too specific and too educative for general visitors, but people were really pleased and said this is a place where you really learn something. Also because they cannot find it anywhere else anymore.
Tomoko Azumi: If you realise that all these big concepts have lead to ignored traditions and techniques we should look after this knowledge. Designers need to maintain this. For myself I am bored about concepts, making models and not been taken into production.Since 2006-2007 I am doing projects rescuing and reviving furniture techniques. People are less interested in iconic furniture, but do like a well made piece of furniture. Part of the interest in vintage furniture is also because the making is very well and it lasts! I am working nowadays with companies trying to see how we can adopt these qualities back into the market again. An online platform like made.com lacks things here because they focus on a cheaper price and instant decision making. There is a gap between the technology used for that cheaper price and the technology for good quality.
Gareth Williams: So you suggest that the different acceptances of furniture market and industry need a different response from the designer?
Tomoko Azumi: Yes but also from the market!
Gareth Williams: This is like a rhizome, a diagram where you change one aspect of an interconnected network and everything else starts to shift as well. The world of furniture is this big network of distribution, customers, designers, manufacturers and media. If things change new networks and connections are created and new situations and responses are required.
Daniel Charny: That has always been so, but the question is if something is pulling so hard that connections are breaking and things happen? For instance: in the PR business of fashion there has been a shock because some companies don't use Instagram and looked down on social media. They lost clients or went out of business because customers turned out to buy instant from Instagram! The bigger players in this world are the users: they are offered a lot of new choices but are also not interested in all of them.Back to the rhizome of furniture: are we still in a world that is moving and tweaking a bit or are bigger shifts taking place? For me a shift is that the actual making has really changed where value is created and where it is captured. Digitalisation means that value is there before something is made. Previous something used to be made, stored, shipped, distributed and than paid and there was a lot of money going around in that process. Now users are involved in decision-making and give their data and money really early on, so they give the value before something is made!
Tomoko Azumi: But we don't know yet if the consumers are happy with that.
Sarah van Gameren: Well if you look at Nike ID shoes online it is all very tempting. Interesting for a designer is that some outcomes look very boring.
Benjamin Hubert: For me it was the worst quality trainer I ever had patched with thick bits and pieces. They obviously used some very poor factories, so I gained something but I also lost something.
Merel Karhof: In furniture customisation could work to adapt a table to the size of your room or home and than you get back to the carpenter making a table especially for you.
Daniel Charny: That story and making local is compelling for people and in that way open design becomes important, not because it is OPEN but because it is LOCAL.
Gareth Williams: Well I hate to be awkward but I think we should have a drink. We are moving out from furniture and us and moving into topics for the later salons.20160419