For London Design Festival 2016 three popup salons were curated that were open for an audience. Each time Dutch and British speakers discussed different topics around furniture & the changing position of the designer: what has changed their daily practice and what are the future changes that might come?
The classic role designer-client has changed in the last 20 years. Self producing designers came up, taking care of sales and production completely on their own and the once existing single-minded furniture designer is now hard to find. Designers work hybrid: on different subjects (furniture, interior, product) and in various contexts (limited editions, one offs, mass production, concept development craft and high technology).Cooperating with Modern Design Reviewan informal conversation took place at Ace Hotel Londonas appetizer for the 2016 Shoreditch Design Triangle events.
Date & location: 19 September 2016 - London Design Festival: Ace HotelModerator: Max Fraser (curator, design writer and London Design Guide)Speakers: Piet Hein Eek, Max Lamb and Yael Mer (raw edges)Photos: Thor ter Kulve
Max Fraser: The aim of the discussion tonight is to talk about 'hybrids 'and the changing world of designers where they no longer just work as furniture designers, but have multiple different outlets for their work, they might be self initiating, they might run a small studio that they collaborate with others on, they might be set up with galleries and sell their work to the high end or be producive through mass production and the more traditional ones that we know.We will talk about that morphing world that we are in and I like to introduce you to my panellists Piet Hein Eek, Max Lamb and Yael Mer. Probably the best way to begin is if I get each of you just explains a little bit about your work. What is it what you do and how did you started this. Shall we start with you Piet?
Piet Hein Eek: Well I was recently surprised to discover that I have actually done the same thing all my life. When I was fourteen I went with my father in England and visited 10 up to 14 ruins a day and that was the best thing to give to me during a holiday. The first time I had the chance to buy a ruin I bought one myself. It took me ten years to renovate it and just last year - after ten years - I realized that why I am fascinated with them so much is its past: you can fantasize about the past, but my fascination also concerns the future, because you can make something new out of it. In that sense it is actually what I do: everything I design, if it is architecture or furniture, it is for me always about looking at what is available and to make something new. I use the recourses given by my own environment or by the world and don't try to make something new as a goal on its own. The ruin is in a way a story about the smallest and the biggest projects I do.
Max Lamb: I graduated in 2006 at the Royal College of Art. I had decided that my period there was my time to do my thing. Upon graduation I was a qualified designer, I thought. But no one asked me to design for them. The phone did not ring.I decided to create my own industry and to create my own way of doing things. I had access to workshops in the traditional sense of the word, but I did not have my own workshop and nobody was inviting me to make things in their workshop. So basically that is what I did: I created my own industry and my own workshops and gradually people started to ask me to make things for them. To this day I am still mixing that independent, self directed studio work with designing for industry.
Yael Mer: I am half part of Raw Edges Design Studio with my partner Shay. We graduated from the Royal College in the same way as Max. My first steps into design was a love for maths, patterns and geometry. But - as Max - we could also not find a job after we graduated so we set up our own studio and things and started to prototype. Than those prototypes - or some of them - started to be part of self production and others ended up at companies that would than manufacture them. The way it works for us is that we work on those two channels: so we go with self produced work and work for companies and within that scope we work on everything as broad as possible.
Max Fraser: It is interesting there is a kind of recurring theme amongst what you all said. Max, you used the term: create your own industry. Piet, in your introduction you failed to neglect the enormous industry that you have now created four yourself - such is the modesty of Piet Hein Eek. When you graduated you immediately plunged yourself into producing yourself and are now in an old Philips Factory in Eindhoven - of eleven thousand square metres. You have a large number of people working for you to make your work. You sell direct from there and have your own restaurant etc. You are in many respects the kind of ultimate enterprise of the design world.You all mentioned it was difficult to get work in the beginning, would you say that when you began it was just as means of survival?
Piet Hein Eek: I often say - if I talk about that time - that no one wanted a designer. On the other hand I always intended to have my own industry or company. I never thought I was going to design for others. So for me it was clear from the moment that I started at the Design Academy in Eindhoven that I wanted to have my own brand making furniture and preferably also doing architecture, which also came out. So, that was a straight line and when they said: "Piet you don't know if that works you have to study", I said: "I don't mind that I don't know, because I don't think that I will do this or that."
Max Fraser: So, some of your great success - the scrapwood furniture - was a kind of accidental success story as many of your products? I should add that in 2005 or '06 I wrote a book about Piet Hein and what a process that was to see the way that you work! One of the things that struck me than is that you would say: "Oh... I saw this machine and than you bought this machine!" and worked out out what to do with that machine afterwards. You might not necessarily design specifically for a manufacturer but the machine and the material dictate what it is that you design, which has allowed you to transcend all of these different materials you work in from scrapwood and aluminium sheet steel and so on.Do you think your approach might have started something and secondly: what have been the challenges of that over the last 20 years?
Piet Hein Eek: All my work has a story, but these stories are - in my opinion - all the same! For me materials, technique and crafts are my source of inspiration. But now, because of the ruin, I bring it one level higher. If you - as I do - like to take advantage of what is available than by nature I try to use as much as possible of what nature gives: not only a tree, but also human recourses. As soon as you take what is there as a starting point, you don't spoil it. Recycling is very direct and everybody understands that. But not-spoiling is a much deeper thing. If you have one employer working for you for 20 years you don't spoil what you have together. You learn and make mistakes, but the mistakes you make together are available and durable over the years.The ruin is again good story. I was there and understood why the ruin was there. It is a watermill so the people who build it made a dike, the mill had to be higher on rocks too and it was clear that they could only have made it there and not somewhere else. They took things from nature and used what was around. If we want to build something with marble that has to come from Egypt it is not a problem nowadays. We are creative and it is not really a question if it is available. The world makes it for us. But I think it is not such a bad thought to turn that around and wonder what there is available in your own environment.One more additional thing: I read the book 'Antifragile' by Nassim Nicolas Taleb, he is a billionaire/ statistician/philosopher that was clever on the option market. One of the things he rises in his book is that around 1900 we were able to build a lot of buildings like Crystal Palace and other big buildings IN time and IN the budget! And now - with all the money we have, all intelligence, all the knowledge, ICT, computers - we are NEVER in time and NEVER reach budget!The people at that time new about things. The used new techniques, but they new the guys who were making the steel too. The architect oversaw the whole process. We now we are a bit lost and have much more distance from our close environment.
Max Fraser: That is an interesting point because Max its is also an approach that you took when you graduated as a kind of Neanderthal man, where you were absolutely in touch with the courses and materials like stone, wood whatever and making everything with your own hands.When I met you it was 2003. We met at 'new designers' and at that time you produced work that you very much wanted to be manufactured. What changed in you to 2006?
Max Lamb: The course I did before was 3d Design in Newcastle, industrial design essentially. I was young and I was learning to make something that looked like something. We had fantastic workshops there, but I was not taught to use the workshops, or the materials within the workshops. It was about designing something on paper and than translating something into a third dimension. It is not a criticism. It is more something for me that I did not quite get at that moment: an idea that you picture in your head or on paper doesn't always translate very well into reality.As I moved to London in 2003 I started to work for a small interior design company and since I did not know anybody in London: no friends, no family no nothing... I had lots of time in the evenings and weekends to continue with my work and a year later I started at the RCA. Within that year I did 7 or 8 exhibitions: fairs, trade shows. I did not have any workshop but with the little money that I made I paid other people to make prototypes of my ideas. Andrew Purvis and somebody from Heals showed some interests but there was no success. I learned really important lessons. I was spending all my money to get my career and products of the ground and had meetings with Heals who said: we can guarantee to buy 100 of those shelves a year, we pay £22.00 per unit and want exclusivity! So that is 100 x 22.00 and not a lot of money, where at that time I made batches of 50 that cost me £ 54.00 per unit and I sold them for £ 55.00. I always thought: If I can get an order I can get a second order and make more volume and than the price will go down. Anyway it did not work and I went back to school.
Max Fraser: But than what happened there?
Max Lamb: For a year I had been deprived from a workshop and I realized that since I was not making my products myself I did not have an understanding of how things are made. I did not get quite to grips with this idea that things have to be producible, with some amount of skill and finesse, economy and quality and still be desirable and affordable.The first year at the RCA I struggled with set briefs. In 2006 we made two trips back to back to Jaipur, India and Lagos, Nigeria. They were collaborations with artisans: people who make things. We had to work very intimate with those makers, designing for them. I learned the value of being in control of the making or being in contact with someone who did the making, so a much more physical and tangible relationship with the material or the maker and for me that lead to making my own workshops. I only have fifty five square metres here in London which is nothing compared to the eleven thousand of Piet Hein, but I can work in a quarry or somewhere else and basically the world is my workshop now.
Max Fraser: I remember those days when I would go around at those trade fair halls and would ask designers: what is it that you like to achieve? A lot of them were standing there almost apologetic like an animal in a shop window waiting to be bought. There was always this hope. But there was a point where young designers would say: "Enough of this, this is not going to work".Yael, what is your approach on this did you go through this process too?
Yael Mer: I think about 10 years ago a prototype was no longer only seen as a prototype for production to be sold to a manufacturer anymore, but it was also seen as something on its own: as an edition, a designers piece. It was often handmade so there was an extra quality to it and it also did not necesarilly have to be functional anymore.
Max Fraser: For all of you, because you all balance self initiated work and editions with some success in sales with manufacturers and to some extend also galleries: have these early years been essential to where you are now - and how?.
Piet Hein Eek: Of course! But for me it doesn't mean that they were the most important. If you take them out: I would not be here, it is as simple as that. But if I think about the years where the development has been important and that have added a new world to my thinking, than I am thinking of the last ten years - when we bought the building - they were of enormous importance.In the beginning I made everything myself than I stopped doing that and was mainly organising or on the phone. At one moment the physical aspect becomes less important, because so many people work for you and it becomes more of an intellectual process - perhaps because it fits also better to your age. Actually this moment where you understand better what you do is valuable and working on just one idea is more efficient than when I work very hard on many.In the first years it actually took me weeks to come up with an idea. After ten years I talked to client and afterwards I thought: I can give him my idea immediately, because it did not take energy for me. But... I waited one week, than called and we just started straight after that.That's the craft! Craft is much more than just making something with you hands, it is about solving problems and seeing opportunities!At a certain moment you understand in what kind of process you are in and than it becomes quite interesting.
Yael Mer: For us it is always a struggle, we work ten years now and we are always amazed by the journey it takes and the obstacles on the way, but it is also those obstacles that interest us and where the inspiration comes from.
Piet Hein Eek: I only solve the problems in the company. If someone - a designer - comes to me I say yes or no but I solve the problems. So, if you always solve the problems - and design is in a way also a lot about problem solving - you understand better and better if it fits to your economical truth. It is very different from a more research lead approach. Actually my process from beginning to the end IS the research.
Max Fraser: Max, you mentioned that you work for manufacturers as well as on self initiated projects. Is there a difference for you and which area do you prefer?
Max Lamb: Let's say I work fifty percent in both domains. If you work with a manufacturer, a design company or an individual customer there are more rules, because they come to you with an idea of have their own production facility, therefore there is already a set of parameters, where you are obliged to cater to as a designer. If it is self directed work there is no precedent and a huge amount of freedom. That can be very liberating, but you can also get lost in your own ideas and somehow the more parameters and rules there are the easier a project can be!I like loosing myself and I sometimes miss it too. I was teaching for three years at the RCA and being one day a week with students was one of the most nourishing things I have ever done. But I missed the freedom because so many of my self directed projects were like mini expeditions: I would disappear off to China or Russia or upstate New York and spend a month or five weeks on a body of work. I could do this since I was lucky to have backing from a gallery very early on in my career. They were not paying me or the production of the work, but I knew I had an outlet and that was a great opportunity. When I stopped teaching I disappeared straight away to Vermont in a quarry. I work in my studio with a part time assistant who said he would be here tonight but he isn't so that is how open it all is and how alone I am...!
Max Fraser: Piet, your company is 24 years. How has the design industry changed for you and what has helped you along the way to make things easier?
Piet Hein Eek: You assume things are getting more easy! I don't think that is true, certainly not now with these big projects that we do, but I love what I do and that keeps me going. I like clients and the way I work. I think that creating the environment to be able to do so was my biggest challenge.
Max Fraser: But what happens next? Some say the Eames's had already a hybrid approach to design in the fifties and sixties. If you compare that to the multiple amount of routes designers today have to approach industry do you think there are more routes and what will be these routes be for the future? Max, you use a lot of videos for your processes: does that make a difference? Does the internet change things?
Max Lamb: I only use film when it is relevant for the storytelling of the project. One of the reasons why there is a presence of hybrid designers is that there are a lot of designers. There are more designers and design-schools than ever and there are not necessarily more design companies. If graduates of design want to be a designer they have to make it up themselves! There is not an immediate avenue for them to take.It is a sign of our type of work to be independent and that this is driven by designers themselves.
Yael Mer: I am not sure if hybrids are so new. We recently did an exhibition for the Vitra Design Museum on Alexander Girard who worked in the same time as the Eames's. He was a textile designer, but he also designed restaurants and for that did the space, the matchbox, the pictures, the cutlery. Ron Arad was our professor in Design Products and he designed architecture, installations and products. I think designers don't have to be super specialized in one particular field. You can be quite wide. This is not only about survival, but it is about enriching yourself and applying a fascination that you have to more than one thing.
Piet Hein Eek: This is a theme that I think about a lot. When you are a designer you have to think about the whole process: from the idea to the consumer. If you make one mistake - for instance something is not strong enough, or the price is too high, or it doesn't fit into the environment of the company - the product is a failure. In general our world has focused on more efficiency and on creating specialists.Nowadays if you have a problem you add a specialist. And sometimes you have hundreds of specialists with just 1% chance that things go wrong. However you have a much bigger chance that things go wrong if you cut big processes into pieces without a generalist! If you think about processes and design, designers are some of the few professionals who can still think about a whole process. We should not be pushed in a small area and just produce beautiful stuff. Our value lies in that we have a profession that has an overview. If you only have specialists you cannot do anything. Designers could take much more responsibility for these processes including the finances, marketing and communication. You have to think about it anyway, so why don't you get in charge of it!
Lady from the audience: Piet Hein, you are working a lot with existing resources and used materials from the Philips building that you moved into. In London there is a lot of debate about the lack of opportunities for designers to start off. I hope that Brexit will have some positive effects on this, but I like to know from you how NOT having that difficulty with space helped you to start as a designer.
Piet Hein Eek: Well I think Eindhoven is like Manchester compared to London. It is a very poor city and it is cheap that is why we are there. There is also a lot of production going on and twenty years ago, when Philips left Eindhoven, everybody thought the whole area would be bankrupt and also that a country like Germany would be bankrupt, because people thought you could not make money by making something.In a city like Amsterdam the circumstances are different: spaces are more expensive, you can not produce, but you can sell much better. You should take your direct circumstances as a starting point and focus on what is possible. In Eindhoven there are a lot of young designers and also more well known ones. Each time that they move to another space they forget to ask if they can buy it when they move in. The price is not important than but ten years later - when they have made the place and everybody likes the area - the price is much higher and than they cannot afford it. You have to cope with what is there but you also should not be afraid of the commercial aspect too! In London there are also opportunities but you have to negotiate. It is stupid that you get not rewarded for the value you add to a city.
Yael Mer: London as a city offers a lot. I am original from Tel Aviv in Israel, but for me it would not have been possible to set up a design practice and get the exposure like I did here in London.
Max Lamb: I think it is a misconception that Brexit will have any benefit to real estate, property and rental for young or old designers. There is so much energy and desire to be here that it will just continue. There is this crazy distinction between London and the rest of the country and my fear is that is only going to be worse too. There is an amazing community here. It is not going to be any cheaper, but that should not be bad. You just have to work hard and deal with it.
Max Fraser: To finish on that (and to get back to this 'hybrid approach' ) being Hybrid is maybe symptomatic for a place like London where the costs of being here are so challenging that it means that, as a designer, you have to be as versatile as possible and take any and every opportunity you can. Let's take this is a nice moment to end on.