Furniture takes up space, but space currently goes through many changes. In big cities live and work spaces are getting smaller and more costly. Some trades in need of affordable space move out. Some (start-ups) don't even bother to rent offices anymore, but work from cafes or just rent a desk – sometimes only for a few hours. Consequently there will be less space and financial means for furniture and different needs for it to serve.Travel distances from home to work are increasing, but our mobility and online opportunities grow as well. Because of that we can actually live and work from where ever we like, but the strain on urban spaces stays high and in the near future vital forces (space consuming creative industries, students, employees) maybe can no longer afford to be in a city like London.This recently caused debate and concern, but it also causes new opportunities for furniture. Furniture has to perform different if space is scarce and it is likely that shared spaces will be used more. Streets, parks, squares, lobbies, stations and countryside are places where we move to relax, meet, wait or wonder and this effects needs and demands for furniture there. The public realm has for long been the area of architects, interior stylists and city planners but what is and can be the role of furniture design in this domain?This fourth East London studio-salon looks into the interesting effects and demands that the changing position of space (and lack of it) has for furniture: in spaces as well as in the public realm, both in- and outdoor.
Date & location: 11 May 2016 - PearsonLloyd Office, East LondonModerator:Max Fraser, design writer and consultantStart-up speakers:– PearsonLloyd designs furniture for domestic and office environments as well as for public spaces. Tom Lloyd talks about their experiences in this field and the reality of running a studio that likes to move and expand in London.– Sarah Gaventa director of MADE PUBLIC an independent public space and place making consultancy and former government's advisor on public space is expert on art and design in the public realm. She speaks about recent shifts and the demands and opportunities for furniture in shared and public space.– Nina Tolstrup of STUDIO MAMA speaks about challenges and effects for furniture when used in small spaces like in her current project: a house of 12m2.Participants: James Mair (Viaduct), Laura Houseley (Modern Design Review), Cat Rossi (Kingston University), Johanna Agerman Ross (Disegno), Gareth Williams (Middlesex University), Darryl Moore & Adolfo Harrison (Cityscapes), Sarah Mann (British Council) and designers: Luke Pearson, Lucy Kurrein, Jon Harrison, Matteo Fogale, Laetitia de Allegri, Jessie Colin, Kim Thome, Carl Clerkin, Thor ter Kulve (photo's)
Max Fraser: Tonight we look into the interesting effects and demands of space and the lack of it on the furniture business for spaces that are domestic, commercial as well as the public realm. I am called the moderator, but I would like to look at myself as the chair because of the furniture talk. We have some anchor speakers who will just put a few thoughts into the subject.I just like to say a bit about how this came about last summer when Ineke came to me and said: "I move to London". I said: "great!" and then I started moaning about London and the costs of it and said "what on earth are you coming to this extraordinary expensive city for?" She has some very good reasons and one of them was to create these salons to have discussions about the industry that we are in and to bring out some thoughts and ideas that are not discussed internally.I was moaning about the costs of London for renting and buying and this has become for me a dinner party conversation that we discuss every dinner that I have. It is not particular new, but I don't want to ignore the elephant in the room tonight and we will discuss the knock-on effects for running a studio, employing people and that sort of things in a city like London. But we will also look at the opportunities: how can we ride this elephant in the room?If we occupy ever smaller spaces what is the effect on our acquisition of furniture? Who are the clients and how do we reach them if we have a new generation that is perhaps not so interested in possessions and ownership? We seem to mourn the loss of public space to private interests, but if personal spaces get smaller what role can furniture designers have in that domain?I mentioned we have start-up speakers We have Tom Lloyd from PearsonLloyd who are very kind in hosting us tonight. We have Nina Tolstrup from studio Mama and we have Sarah Gaventa from Made Public. Tom, do you want to kicks us of with some overview thoughts on this topic?
Tom Lloyd: Well first of all Luke and I run PearsonLloyd. We design a lot of furniture amongst other things. Space is a topic that is very close to our heart because a lot of what we do has a spatial axis. We like to design furniture that informs and programs how space is used weather is it in transport, hotels, the workplace, urban space.In principle, as furniture designers, we often design in reference to pure archetypes: a table, a chair, a bed, storage that have existed thousands of years. Often the design challenge is 'just a beautiful thing' but if you step out a bit with a macro lens it becomes much more interesting - for us anyway - where you interpret how it would work within space apart from material, function, fashion, etcetera that are also incredibly important for furniture.We are quite critical about space where an architect is often not very good in planning how space is used and that on itself is maybe good since over a 150 years a space might have to change five or six times and therefore it should not be over-specified and limited.We did a big project in the city of Bath unlocking how space in the city could be used by citizens. A lot of the work we do in transport, hospitality, the workplace and cities means that you have to interact with space where you meet with strangers and friends at different moments and where you have both public and private experiences, day and night experiences... So, you have to understand that you design for multiple experiences and that is what we are interested in.There are a couple of big themes that we are interested in and the big one is the trend from owned spaces to shared spaces. You might say it is the opposite for the public realm where public spaces are being privatized, but to start from the first from our perspective sharing started with the desk as a space that - in many organisations - was given and now you share that desk and the ways you use a space changes.From there we went to offices being shared and that is a respond to real estate costs and there is technology as reason why that happened. Then we started to share our possessions: cars, Zipcars and now we start sharing our homes through Airbnb and the co-working companies are now also creating co-living spaces, a mixture between a hotel and a private members club, where you have tiny apartments and share your facilities. There is now a new a new company called Spacehop where you can rent peoples homes for a meeting by the hour.
Ineke Hans: That sounds like a brothel.
Tom Lloyd: In a way these are a market response to the pressure of costs. Furniture has to play a role in this to make sense of that. So there is an exchange between property and space that becomes very interesting and in all of this technology is the trigger to make it happen: enabdling new networks and enabling that process to respond to demands.The other thing is about status. And maybe by demand of the millennial's status is no longer about acquisition and ownership, because it can't be. Certainly not on a property level and maybe, as IKEA says 'peak-stuff', there is a realisation that we don't carry on acquiring things. The furniture market might become more challenging because people might not carry on buying things. One of our clients is now renting their furniture rather than selling it and renting spaces, so they are getting into the experience market.
It is interesting that furniture has the opportunity to respond to economic change, social change, industrial change (how we make stuff) and technological change particularly in relationship to space and that is very interesting.
Max Fraser: That is a remarkable optimistic start, but can I we just talk about something negative that we talked about earlier and that every studio I visit talks about: the costs of London. What is that doing for you as a business? And secondly what does it mean for the employment of people? Do the costs mean that you have to pay higher wages and do you see any fall out from that?
Tom Lloyd: We are very lucky that we own this space, but we are struggling to grow beyond this. We actually rented a space in central Hackney where we moved the workshop and the big screens on wheels we have in here are an attempt to be flexible with space. So now it is a big meeting space, but often it is a small meeting space and a work space. We may actually end up limiting the size of our business because of the size of our property and choosing this because the sacrifices we have to make to be somewhere else are greater than the opportunities that lie in being bigger. That is literally a daily conversation.
Luke Pearson: I think we touch here also on a another topic: the concept of growth as a business model is broken, it is not relevant. We just had a meeting with a client in Germany. Their plan is expansion with a new building every five years and that simply doesn't match with London as a business model anymore compared to 15 years ago. We have a completely different dynamic here and it will put more pressure on other cities.
Tom Lloyd: In our studio we have 15 or 18 people and we have about 12 different nationalities. London is a magnet for talent and optimistic, creative, energetic people but they are in their early 20's and duck and dive into property that sucks up their energy. If we would move to Southend we would not have that kind of talent pool. And also all our clients like to come to London because we absorb the global zeitgeist.
Sarah Gaventa: There is a downside to that. My husband is an architect and just lost a very talented Belgium architect. She is not in a relationship and she cannot afford to live single here and have a better quality of life.
Jon Harrison: I lost a business partner to Holland. He knew that in the long term the would not be able to buy a house and live here with a family and have quality of life.
Johanna Agerman Ross: Buying is a privileged concept, in Sweden you rather rent. You have flats with communal spaces for parties for laundry. And that is build into society.
Tom Lloyd: Co-living might be a commercial response to that, but unfortunately developers have started making student accommodation where they can squeeze much more people into less square meters.
Sarah Gaventa: People think that if you create housing you create communities, but if you don't provide communal spaces that is not happening.
Cat Rossi: You see on the luxury end of the housing market though, that communal spaces like cinema, gym, office are created but for a sealed off community.
Kim Thome: I moved from Hackney to Walthamstow since that seemed a nice community, but if you get to know people many would like to move on because they want to have a baby or so but they can't. That's too expensive and they want to stay in the area so they look for opportunities like building extensions to houses and so on.
Ineke Hans: This also opens a world of opportunities for designers.
Max Fraser: And that is a good junction to Nina who just bought a house of 12m2!
Nina Tolstrup: l am thinking also about the next generation. A big percentage of the world population is living in cities and the stress will not get less. However the younger generation is not going to move around lots of books but read their kindle. They end up with a life that fits into two boxes. Where I grew up in Denmark we have a lot of experience with communes and communal living. Now we share in another way. The younger generation is no longer attracted to jobs in corporate business but in start-ups and flexibility and living in different cities. They can move all their possession in an Uber.The furniture I design has often been related to spaces. Not so much for mass production but customised to fit a space. Yes I bought this house of 12m2 and we are looking for permission for another floor so it might become 24m2! However for me it is a design challenge for micro living. What is clear is that you have to adapt because it is too small to bring in standard furniture in, just as with a boat or a camper van. For that you cannot go to IKEA but you have to plan or might find opportunities online to order customised items. If you are going to live in such a place you can arrive with just 2 suitcases.
Max Fraser: That bespoke opportunity is an interesting point, but how do you access that and find those opportunities?
Nina Tolstrup: Either people would ask you, or you can work with developers, but people do it also themselves.
Matteo Fogale: It is as well a comeback to the cabinetmaker that you would go to in the past to have something made especially for you. Actually we are currently working in a shared space where we don't have our own furniture.
Max Fraser: Ah yes... I wanted to ask you about that..
Matteo Fogale: Well this shared space we are in is in a way very cool, flexible and accessible. You share desk spaces with another 10-20 people, the rent is affordable, there is a workshop with machines and tools, so you can make things. On the computer we work from home and to make things we need a workshop, but we do lack a space that ours, or chairs that are ours. We cannot even afford to have our own pieces around us and that is lowering our work standards.
Max Fraser: One of the selling points of those co-working spaces is the communities and collaborations it creates and that you are not boxed into your own studio.
Laetitia de Allegri: Well you learn from each other, everybody has different skills and profession so we found a van here to ship our project to Milan this year. There is a lot of positive things.
Matteo Fogale: Also a lot of people there are working on bespoke furniture - that is how I got to the cabinet maker. Their furniture is well done. It is not really designed, it is simple and functional. We are maybe not so functional as them, but they make a living out of this, there is definitely a business for that where we are struggling to be at the front of the design world.
Max Fraser: Do you feel that not having your own workshop has taken the burden off your shoulder of the high overhead? Now you can dip in and out of it? The machines are serviced?
Laetitia de Allegri: Well sometimes you have to wait, but what is missing is that you can have a wall where you can put ideas on.
Thor ter Kulve: We had a discussion today because we are with three people in a space where we have a kind of clean space, a storage space and a workshop. But it is so small that none of them really work well and maybe we should give up the desks since you can send emails from everywhere.
Max Fraser: You have an interesting living arrangement in London.
Thor ter Kulve: I found a way for me that is affordable and fun. I live on a boat.
Max Fraser: Your home is where ever you are docked so you have to keep moving.
Thor ter Kulve: I move every two weeks
Carl Clerkin: You don't pay a rent?
Thor ter Kulve: Well I pay for a licence and insurances, but I get big commuting distances because sometimes I spend my time in Ponders End or in Kensington.
Sarah Gaventa: Going back to communal space and Nina's remarks. I have an agreement with some of my female friends that if we are old we are going to live together and share the fridge, the care, the cleaners the good and the bad times. The thing we thought about was loneliness. It's all very nice to have these small little units when living in a city but one of the biggest problems is our lack of physical communication.
Gareth Williams: A lot of what you are talking about has been tried before in workers clubs in Russia or social spaces in Europe and North America. Often they did not work very well.
Luke Pearson: Communal living is actually in our DNA. We are talking about a very short period of time that we live in a house divided by walls from an other family. That is a relative recent invention. In lots of societies that does not exist and people still live in communities.Looking at London people also want to live in the centre where the community is. We somehow need to be together, so a city like London has this incredible energy for people.
Ineke Hans: I moved from Arnhem to London. Back there I have everything I want. I have my studio which is... ha: three times bigger than this place. I have a workshop and people work with me so it's fantastic and I am very aware of that. When I moved back to London and Max and Gareth were asking: What are you doing?! I had no intentions to set up a big studio here. With digital technology I can work from anywhere. Still there is this attraction to be in this city and if you are one of those younger guys that hop from a facebook friend in Singapore to Shanghai cities are important. You don't want to hop from countryside to countryside, but want to be in a place with a vibe where things happen around you.
Max Fraser: That is a privileged position though...
Luke Pearson: I talked to somebody in Milan about being in Berlin. It is great for start-ups and to have a studio, there are cheap rents and good opportunities, but most businesses fail if they choose to stay there because it has no infrastructure that supports sustainable businesses. London seems to be able to sustain a high degree of energy that pulls in a high level of people.
Tom Lloyd: About a majority of people living in cities... London is rare example of a rich city of which there are maybe five in the world, most of them are poor cities. Thirty years ago poor people lived in the centre and the rich in the suburbs. Now rich people live in the city and poor everywhere else. We are in danger of talking an elite problem here.
Max Fraser: Can we bring the F-word into the conversation again? Which is: Furniture. You guys, Luke and Tom, are working with manufacturers that - presumably - are thinking quite far ahead. Do they have hats on that can maybe produce new furniture typologies?
Tom Lloyd: We are less involved in domestic space and more in work space. That industry is completely changing. Think about an office in London which is used 8 hours a day. That is only 30%. Then 50% of the desks are empty at one moment so it is only used 15% of its investment. These traditional models. We discussed earlier that cities are less needed and we discovered that workspaces are actually moving out to the suburbs and you don't need to come to the city except for an occasional meeting. People commute OUT to work.Coming back to furniture all the work we do is related to the idea that if people don't own desks anymore you invest in other social spaces within offices, you reinvest in your saved space. So you half the number of desks and offer 10% more to communal and social space. The model of how you build up an organisation, through furniture has completely, changed in the last years.
Max Fraser: I like to turn to Sarah, you recently started at the British Council Offices and I know they recently took a start to change their offices.
Sarah Mann: It's called smart-working, a kind of co-working. We have a completely open space. We have about 100 people on the floor we have desks. The idea is you can book a desk and it does not really work because everyone wants to sit at their own desk and there is a kind of war in the office.
Luke Pearson: Is that a generation thing?
Sarah Mann: Partly, there are people that have been working with the British Council for years and like their own space but it's also a mind set.
Gareth Williams: I think it is a matter of ownership of space and a feeling of belonging to an organisation. I work at Middlesex University and 110 academics share 50 desks. Not all day and everyday, nevertheless it is chaos.
Sarah Mann: It brings a lot of stress.
Cat Rossi: One place where this co-working does work really well is the library where hundreds of people of every age and every type are willing to share desks every day.
Ineke Hans: Maybe the difference is that if you go to the library you know that you are a visitor, but if you work somewhere you feel you are part of an organisation.
Max Fraser: What about furniture and ownership or temporary. James you are in the business of selling?
James Mair: Well many things are brought up now. If you look at the way businesses operate on the whole people are geared up for a start-ups and flogging it as an entrepreneur. If we look at the new ways that people are living - a quick two months here and then move on - than you look at short time pods with build-in furniture that you rent for two or three months. Then there is the argument of disposable furniture because people think 'I am only here for three years and then chuck the furniture or recycle it'. Or they invest in retro furniture and recycle it again. Some combine all those things and if you are moving all over the place you have your favourite treasures - your favourite chair or table - that you do cherish and take with you. But at one point roots do happen and at some age people like to create some structure. It's at that point that people spend money on furniture and that might happen a bit later than now.
Max Fraser: Looking at opportunities: You are dealing with specifiers and the manufacturers of furniture: are their things you are missing and do you have that conversation with them?
James Mair: Well we work on workspaces that become more domestic and where furniture has to do different jobs in spaces that are used one day for a conference place than for an acdc concert and the next day it has to provide for break out sessions of an hour or two. There is a need for reconfigurable furniture often the life span is not more than four years, but adaptability and changeability are a crucial elements for it.
Max Fraser: lets make a move to the public realm. Sarah can you introduce what you do and launch us into your spiel?
Sarah Gaventa: I used to be the government's advisor on public space at CABE and looking at the quality of our public space, the design of it plus the management and maintenance of it. I thought this was an important space because it is the only democratic space left in a city where it doesn't matter what you earn or what you wear, everyone is equal.Now I advise developers and various other people on the public realm. That is often about furniture and how people use a place. I was championing the public space and a new park around the Elephant & Castle. If you cannot attract people to public space it has failed and I am trying to convince people to be more generous about public space.You can make a little office out of it if the seats are movable like in a Parisian park. You don't get that so much in London, but people do respond to a generous place and if you always design for the lowest possible common nominator you create environments that are hostile. So, part of my job is to encourage people to like people and design for them and to explain to developers that if you have a POPS - a private owned public space - the problem is not so much that it is privately managed but the way it is managed. The quality of public space for me is not about granite and shiny bollards but about how comfortable people feel and that is a bench that you can lie on. Why are you so afraid of people lying down enjoying the sun? Using public space and sitting in it is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not something people did because it was full of shit and noise. The first seats were porters rests for poor people that were carrying stuff occasionally needed somewhere to rest. There are still two or three of them left in London.Eighty percent of London's public realm are streets and I am interested in how to make these streets work. I don't know what we did 20 odd years ago in London without 'Prêt', but now every other shop front is a place to buy sandwiches and no one designs places to eat them! I don't get that. Another thing is that seats are hardly ever designed to be in the sun: In East India Dock there is a beautiful lake, but the seats are not facing it; you look at a wall. Seats are made of metal which is great to wipe puke off but they are unattractive and cold to sit on. These sorts of things matter to how we respond to our environment. For an exhibition we asked for furniture that you don't see on the streets so much, it was wooden static furniture that felt domestic. We organised it in conversation groups, so not in a row, and worked things out with the sun. It's not rocket science, but people loved the fact it was wood and enjoyed it. In the twelve weeks it was out there no one carved names in the wood!It was a nice piece of design by a furniture designer. What I find extraordinary is that we educated some of the best designers in the world weather they are from here, or studied here but if I want to see the best in graphic, furniture and product design I don't see it in the streets in London, but I have to see it in your shop window James. There is that idea that furniture in London has to be people proof, bomb proof and hostile. Why do you want to sit on that? I don't understand why our designers don't design more public furniture or not are employed by the big street manufacturers?I did a square with Precious McBane and Peter Saville was doing the plants. Between the seating we raised things up so you could eat lunch or play chess or a child could sit next to a grown up and be the same height, or a bit of the bench was cut out so if you are in a wheelchair you could sit next to people. There is something about that kind of care. Too much is tuned to what I call the 'unknown skateboarder': the big long monoliths with pigs ears as they are called. Those pigs ears are designed to stop people skate boarding.As public space becomes the office, the cafe, etcetera the furniture design within it has to help to facilitate that. We should trust people with this and that is part of creating a space that is democratic.
Max Fraser: Is the problem that there are so many people involved in the decisions for public spaces that they are stamped down by committees?
Carl Clerking: Max, as soon as you start to propose work for public space you've got 17 clients, before you can help it, it is designed committee! You are into politics!
Ineke Hans: Is that a reason not to work on it? Should we not be able to deal with that?
Sarah Gaventa: You need a good client, it is not about the designer. It is a change of mind set. With many of the clients that I work with I am getting there because they would like to use those kind of spaces themselves. A lot of regulations come from local authorities about cleaning and limited budgets, but there is no excuse for POPS to experiment more and event the city of London do try it.
James Mair: I was talking to the owners of Santa & Cole in Barcelona who are developing furniture for the public realm in modules where you can integrate a light or a fountain and with which you can create flexible spaces.
Max Fraser: Luke and Tom, you have experience of working in the area we are talking about. What were your experiences?
Tom Lloyd: Well Bath was our third city, we did Sheffield before. It is interesting that with cities it is also about the brand of the city that they want to expose. So with Sheffield, something that worked well was the best thing we could give them. Where as Bath needed a bit of a hug in a different way. But you do need a client that can cut across the different silos of the transport department, the engineering department, the health and safety department, so you do need a champion to make it understandable to retailers, citizens and culture.
Luke Pearson: We also had to look at locality, where London is an organic mess compared to European cities that are carefully designed with public spaces laid out. Some of our cities are damaged because of very rapid industrial growth. Public furniture is often shoehorned into it and not planned. These infrastructures have an infanticide impact on where you can place a bench.
Ineke Hans: I hear you speak about spaces in cities that is privately owned in London. If you compare to European cities. Isn't that the problem? And another thing: since our private spaces are getting smaller I have the feeling that all those public spaces are getting much more important in and between cities like furniture along the motorway where you have lunch or work on your laptop in the sun while you wait before going to another meeting or at a bus stop where you wait.
Sarah Gaventa: All the streets are owned by the city. Private space is a minority
Tom Lloyd: It seems the high street is no longer there to store jeans - these are delivered by van from the internet - and they no longer locate shops. Shops are now more social spaces where you can experience things. They have coffee, are tattoo parlours and that might mean that high streets become better places. City planners are learning much more about shared space and not segregating cars from pedestrians. Also our green spaces in London is very nice.
Max Fraser: Not so many designers here work for the public realm, but should they want to, who do you talk to?
Adolfo Harrison: We work in landscapes that go into the city. In unexpected places and corners we bring horticulture and furniture to people. As a landscape architect you are almost like a choreographer - and in a way I think it works in the same way as designing an office space - but we had to bring ourselves into the conversation and come with ideas ourselves. You could make something and just set it up somewhere in the middle of the night to see what happens and get people to think about it.
Max Fraser: So you suggest to create some anarchy?
Sarah Gaventa: Gorilla gardening can make people see what the opportunities could be.
Max Fraser: Perhaps on that note I was going to say that all the furniture here is available to buy! But I see we have been talking for almost two hours. There has certainly been some optimism and interesting thoughts about space tonight and I think some interesting collaborations could come from this room and beyond. So thank you all!