Profile: John Small

If clients of Foster & Partners want interiors as distinctive as the structures it creates, they talk to John Small, head of the architect’s Product Design Group. As Clare Dowdy reveals, it’s a sleek combination

Alessi, Steelcase, Fontana Arte, Walter Knoll, Tecno, Duravit. It reads like a wish list for any major product design group, let alone a four-strong outfit based in the corner of another business.

But this is reality for John Small’s team. Admittedly, the business he’s part of is Foster & Partners, so perhaps it’s hardly surprising that big clients come his way.

However, Small and his three colleagues don’t only design for the Walter Knolls of this world. Foster & Partners’ Product Design Group has another client base to tap into, one that is not only large and prolific, but sitting in the same Battersea building overlooking the Thames.

For the Product Design Group’s main role is to work on the interiors of Foster’s architectural schemes around the world. That could mean a clever wall for the Swiss Re building, a sofa for the Reichstag, or door handles for some Buenos Aires apartments.

So while there may be some drawbacks to not being a stand-alone business, the advantages are considerable. For a start, with 850 Fosters staff divided into six architectural teams, the product designers are rarely twiddling their thumbs waiting for the next project to come in.

Small started at Foster & Partners in 1985 after studying product design as a mature student at the Royal College of Art in London. He expected to be there for just six months. He kicked off with an office system for Tecno to go into Renault’s Swindon building, which was then mass-produced as Tecno Nomos. That was followed by seating and lighting for Stansted Airport; soon one after another was rolling in.

‘In 1994 I was thinking that I didn’t want to do this anymore,’ says Small. ‘So I spoke to Norman (Foster) about having a product-based group inside the practice that fed off the knowledge of the architectural teams but would have its own clients.’

In 1995 Foster & Partners’ Product Design Group was born. In this new guise, Small’s first client was manufacturer Valli & Valli, which approached Small and his team for a range of door handles. A tray for Alessi and an upmarket desktop range for Helit followed. An office system for Steelcase, lighting for iGuzzini, Hoesch bathroom fittings, and a chair for Emeco (among others) have also gone to market.

All these projects are small fry compared with a design colossus like Swiss Re, but Foster himself enjoys the scale of product design, says Small, and he vets everything. This must be very different from the average product being reviewed by a product designer, but then Foster talks of architecture as design.

The demands from external clients are getting greater, so Small is looking to expand his team to seven over the next six months.

It might be nice if everything the group designed for a Fosters building ended up on the market, but, of course, that’s not how it works. ‘The danger is thinking that every product design for a building can magic its way into manufacture,’ says Small.

What’s more, certain pieces are created to be bespoke or one-offs. The new apartments in Buenos Aires fall into this category. ‘There’s a cachet (attached to having signature fixtures and fittings),’ particularly for residential clients, according to Small, adding that people like Andrée Putman and Philippe Starck offer a similar package.

He’s now finding that his architectural colleagues are increasingly asking him to develop something that’s not already on the market. Perhaps this reflects a trend – as architecture becomes increasingly groundbreaking, more innovative products are needed to complement it. The shelving unit that went into Fosters’ Cambridge Law Faculty is one such piece. It has a glass back so that light penetrates the bookshelves. This product then went on to the market through Acerbis, pretty much as it was.

While there’s plenty of work, and it must be exciting to be attached to such a successful business, the output might be considered narrow by conventional product design standards. Where are the motorbike helmets, the mobile phones, the suitcases? The furthest ‘off piste’ Small and his team have been so far is a pen range called Diplomat. But he doesn’t feel constricted. ‘The environments can be varied, and we come across very interesting clients,’ he explains.

Foster & Partners’ future is uncertain, as the corporate finance boutique Catalyst Investment is looking at options for the disposal of the business. Small says that ‘if the business were sold we might grow more’. But he says the Product Design Group wouldn’t spin off as a separate entity. ‘We might lose something if we stepped outside the umbrella.’


All items pictured designed by the Product Design Group.

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