Priestman Goode defies categorisation, taking on both corporate designs and quirky, personal projects. Hugh Pearman pays the group a visit

Somehow it seems a little strange that an object as large and advanced as a high-speed tilting train should emerge from a rough-and-ready mews building in London’s Marylebone. But that is the kind of job Priestman Goode, occupier of the building in question, is into these days. Paul Priestman, Nigel Goode and their staff of 15 are designing two trains for Virgin: the sleek, tilting express for the West Coast Main Line, and a snub-nosed, shorter affair for the Cross-Country franchise.

They work for the Virgin Atlantic airline, too, though there is zero connection between the two clients and the commissions arrived independently. The airline’s new reclining bed-seat, which became instantly famous when Richard Branson launched it in June with the promise of a subsequent two-person “Mile-High Club” version, is a Priestman Goode design, working on a concept by Virgin’s Joe Ferry.

This is big, grown-up work. Moreover, it involves constant liaison with designers of other disciplines in the Virgin project teams. The trains, for instance, start out with the mechanicals and basic extruded structure, as supplied by respective manufacturers (GEC/Fiat/ Alsthom for the high-speed train, Bombardier for the cross-country shuttle). Everything else is taken from there: the all-important nose treatment of the trains, which gives them their character; arrangement of the driver’s cab, on which the rail unions have a big say; shape and positioning of windows and doors; the layout of the carriages with their strict statutory requirements on seat numbers, allocations between classes, disabled access and so forth. Then there are the lavatories, café, and a shop, not to mention colours, textures, and the livery.

In all this, Priestman Goode is lead designer and product designer. But it appears to be relaxed working as part of a large operation which includes Start Design for graphics and livery, JHL for interiors and colour schemes and Ashley Stockwell, who is responsible for design and development at Virgin Rail. On the Virgin Atlantic work, the group is collaborating with architect Lorenzo Apicella, now a Pentagram partner, and lighting design group Equation.

Some people only know Priestman Goode for the occasional design it produces and promotes on its own account: the Cactus and Hot Spring radiators designed in conjunction with manufaturer Bisque, say, or the ultra-safe and rather beautiful fabric desk fan, or the headline-grabbing Tamagotchi-minder (which the consultancy sold the rights to sharpish, while the electronic pets were still fashionable).

There was a time when Priestman Goode indulged in such design work in order to keep a public profile when its bread-and-butter work was designing video and TV cabinets for Far Eastern manufacturers. That work continues – Paul Priestman is proud of a new TV he has produced for the previously design-free zone of the South American market – but it is now balanced by the big corporate work for Virgin, which is by its very nature extremely high profile.

The studio could never be described as big and corporate – it’s just a little building in cobbled mews, with a couple of motor scooters outside – one of which is Priestman’s silver Italjet. Inside (where all door handles take the form of chromed spanners), the engine room of the consultancy is in a couple of big knocked-together rooms upstairs, where all 15 designers work. Downstairs is a workshop filled with bicycles and the usual product designer detritus such as mounds of carved polystyrene and sample train seats. Downstairs is the client meeting room, behind a detailed steel-framed glass wall.

Unlike many design groups, Priestman Goode has a layered set-up which means clients can, if need be, come and go in an atmosphere of hushed calm. The shop floor is invisible and only a light scattering of finished or prototype products is to be seen, like the model of the West Coast train, or a Hitachi video casing, some Land Rover brand luggage, a portable video phone for Orange and – dominating the space – an unashamedly sci-fi egg-shaped chair.

The Vibro Chair exemplifies the hi-tech entrepreneurial spirit at Priestman Goode. Commissioned by the Virgin Our Price chain of music stores, it plays you music through loudspeakers embedded in its shell and also through a transducer in the structure of the chair itself. It is a sumptuous, retro-styled object, with its polished glass-reinforced plastic shell and dark blue leather upholstery.

Three are to be found at the King’s Road branch of the Virgin Our Price chain, but Priestman Goode has the rights to it, and offers it for sale directly through its subsidiary company, Plant. They cost £2500, and a number of people – mostly rock musicians of a certain age – have been placing orders. But what interests Priestman and Goode is not the styling, but the opportunities presented by the new generation of solid speakers and noise-suppressing units, which they believe will prove to be useful in transport design – particularly aircraft.

Priestman Goode is famously on the ball when it comes to technology – it was among the first to invest in equipment which allowed it to transmit production-ready computer-generated models of its designs to its clients in the Far East, saving time and travel costs. But if you are expecting a studio like the control room of a nuclear power station – all gleaming surfaces, white coats and massed banks of computers – you are in for a let-down. Some of these computers may be Silicon Graphics workstations, some may be the latest Power Macs, but they’re all just the usual screens and boxes, and they are all made to fit into an endearing, homemade system of MDF desks. After a while, Priestman and Goode got tired of the fact that every new computer tower was a different shape, so they stuffed them all into open-fronted MDF boxes beneath the worktops to create some kind of visual uniformity.

Hanging from the roof beams is what at first glance appears to be a Sputnik: it turns out to be made of stainless steel colanders and telescopic car aerials, a joke object previously seen hovering over the Priestman Goode section of the 1998 Powerhouse UK exhibition. PG definitely enjoys state support. It has, for instance, three Millennium Products to its name, including a chiller cabinet for Marks & Spencer. This goes with a highly-sculpted and unorthodox check-out desk for the same chain of stores.

Priestman and Goode first met at the old St Martins School of Art (now Central St Martins), finishing in 1983. After graduating they went in separate directions – Goode to work for others, including Frazer Design and Allied International Design, Priestman to the Royal College of Art, then into practice on his own. The two joined forces again in 1989 and the practice became Priestman Goode three years ago.

The partners tend to head up separate projects, though with obvious cross-talk: for instance, Goode is in charge of the Virgin West Coast Mainline train, Priestman deals with the Cross Country shuttle. Separate designers are then assigned to the day-to-day running of each job – Ian Scoley, for instance, is the senior trains designer at the practice. There are no secretaries in the studio: everyone who answers the phone is a designer.

The consultancy’s tradition of designing products speculatively continues. While the fabric fan never made it into production – despite all the media interest it generated – others, like the radiators, have proved commercially successful. The latest in this line of self-generated wheezes is the Mu-fi, the world’s smallest personal stereo system. This tiny object uses a wafer-thin three-layer digital memory card to store the sound, recorded using Internet audio compression techniques.

As with other Priestman Goode electronics-based projects – the Tamagotchi-minder was an earlier example – the Mu-fi was developed with Cambridge Design Partnership. The design – a few centimetres square, with a slot to click your card of pre-recorded music into – is unaffected by vibration, since it is solid-state: no moving parts. Priestman Goode and Cambridge Design Partnership are now seeking a manufacturer.

“We are pro-active, which makes us slightly different from many consultants,” says Priestman. “You take these things so far, and see where they get to. But it’s also a creative process, a learning process. You can always get something out of these projects.” Even direct commissions, such as the new video phone for Orange, can work this way. Orange had the technology, in the form of a video compression system developed by the University of Strathclyde, that allows good quality colour moving pictures to be sent over limited bandwidths. Priestman Goode incorporated this into a phone that is shaped like a miniature wardrobe, the size of a small paperback. There is a cover in the form of two doors, which open out to form a combination of speakers, table stand, and privacy flaps – revealing screen and camera lens to the user, but concealing them from onlookers. But this, says Priestman, is not yet finished: development continues. A smaller Future Phone is planned in the near future.

Plant, the new manufacturing company run as a separate enterprise by the group, tackles the problem facing all designers – how to move beyond the world of design fees into a world where you can do everything – design, manufacture, and sell, so making a profit at every stage. In this enterprise, the big Vibro Chair is an oddity, since most of the other products are small-scale domestic items, including a perforated felt placemat and PG’s delightfully simple Centre Fold magazine storage system.

So far, this is a low-overhead operation: you cannot buy Plant goods by mail order and it doesn’t have a shop. Instead, it acts as a wholesaler to outlets like The Conran Shop, or organisations such as BAA. Plant is owned by Priestman, Goode, Scoley and colleague Oliver King. It is, says Priestman, all about “manufacture management” as an extension to design, where nothing is made until an order is received. If the Orange video phone is the upstream end of their activities, he says, then Plant represents the downstream end.

The Virgin ‘Upper class’ bed-seat

‘This is exciting,’ says Priestman. ‘It’s the first time we’ve ever been able to show this job.’ The Virgin chair – codenamed J2000 – was a commission pursued in conditions of utmost secrecy for a long time – such is the commercial rivalry between airlines. Goode remarks: ‘We do have some of these large projects which we’re just not able to talk about – we’ve been working on the Virgin chair for about three years.’ Luckily, I am interviewing them a couple of days after it was launched, hence the lifting of the veil of secrecy.

This is not quite the already legendary Branson ‘Mile-High Club’ airline bed, as all the papers picked up on with many a nudge and a wink. That is a later development of the technology and image already designed into the single seat. Priestman and Goode find the press obsession with the Branson image intriguing, and admit they are in a way part of it – working for the trains division, and the airline division, even the Virgin Our Price record shops. They have, as Priestman puts it, ‘come to understand the brand’. He elaborates, saying: ‘We tend to plan what our ideals are in any given sector. When we asked ourselves which airline we’d like to work for, Virgin came top of the list, because it’s so innovative compared to some of the others.’ Just as importantly, the airline is relatively small, with 24 big planes, which means it can roll out its designs across the fleet very rapidly compared with its much larger rivals such as British Airways.

Nigel Goode is the partner in charge of this project. Essentially, the chair is the latest take on the idea of a double reclining seat: it reclines and extends so far that it virtually constitutes a bed. In designing it, account was taken of the fact that big airliners fly in a ‘nose up’ position, giving the plane floor a slope of a few degrees. This means that the extended chair does not have to be absolutely horizontal in order to work as a bed, since the plane itself obligingly tilts it back a little during flight. This observation saves the airlines valuable space, since while real beds would take up huge amounts of room, recliners can be made to overlap – the foot of one reclining chair slotting beneath the head of the one in front. The complex mechanism that enables the system to work had to be as self-explanatory as possible.

The gestation of the project is interesting: three years ago, a designer called Joe Ferry was finishing at the Royal College of Art, and had come up with a concept for an airline seat that folded down and nested under the seat in front to give the required pitch. Virgin talent scouts spotted this, offered him a job, and asked him not to exhibit it at his show. This is understandable, for he had cracked the problem of having long, reclining, bed-like chairs, while still allowing respectable numbers of them per cabin. This was particularly important for Virgin, whose Upper Class is priced lower than rival First Classes, but still has to be commercially viable.

Ferry is now industrial design manager at Virgin, and has been working with Priestman Goode to evolve his original concept. Ergonomics specialist Ergoworks was also involved.

‘This is trying to get away from these very big, fat, plush First Class seats that you get at the moment, and which really are quite gross,’ says Goode. ‘Instead of the big-block seat, we wanted to emphasise a sportier, more automotive look.’ Hence the aluminium shell supported on clearly separate chromed rear legs. Within the shell, arms are in red leather, and the main seat is upholstered in purple fabric. The whole package looks a little like a throne for a Geigeresque Alien queen. When the elements of the seat drop down and extend to form the bed, the appearance changes; the seat casing stands alone as an object, and the red of the arms is revealed as the inner lining of the shell as well. What was the headrest, extending above the top of the casing, now becomes the pillow.

The single seats will start to appear in Virgin Atlantic’s Boeings and Airbuses from the end of 1999. A new version, the already infamous ‘double bed’ seat, is due to appear a year later.

Latest articles