Meet the makers

Furniture Works asked a group of manufacturers to work with selected designers to create a collection that used out-of-favour materials and techniques. Hannah Booth finds out how the collaborations went

When John Miller matched a group of designers with half a dozen East London furniture manufacturers for a project called TimeFrame in 2003, the results were mixed. The prototypes that emerged from the initiative were well received, and the designers – among them Ed Carpenter, Tim Parsons and Morph – raised their profiles considerably. But few of the products made it to market. A year on, he wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.

Miller, manager of Furniture Works, a centre for designers and manufacturers, opted for a different approach when he decided to run a second scheme, the results of which are unveiled this week. His maxim? Start with the manufacturer, not the designer.

‘In a new designer/ manufacturer relationship, the designer tends to take the lead, as manufacturers are seldom used to being hands-on with design,’ Miller says. ‘We wanted the products to be design-led, but also hit the spot commercially, which is where we went wrong before. So we sat down with the manufacturers first.’

In early 2004, Miller and Grant Baker, head of support programme Furniture Link, approached seven London furniture manufacturers and explained their simple concept: they wanted to create a branded collection of furniture using out-of-favour techniques, created by separate teams of designers and manufacturers, and bring the results to market. They called it the Isos Collection, from the Greek for equal.

Miller and the manufacturers developed a set of briefs, which stipulated which three underused processes were to be used: aluminium extrusion, 3D veneers or cold cure foam. It wasn’t pure altruism. Three companies that produce these materials – Sapa, Reholz and Elastogram – lent their support.

‘I was introducing most of them to the concept of design briefs,’ Miller recalls. ‘With the exception of the most experienced manufacturer in the scheme, Hitch Mylius, none of them had worked in this way before.’

Once these initial meetings were finished, the 17 designers were selected. Drawn from Furniture Works’ membership, they had responded to an advertisement and were asked to present their portfolios. The chosen designers were then teamed with a manufacturer. ‘We decided to pair both experienced and younger designers with the same manufacturer,’ Miller says. ‘We hoped the designers would benefit and, in the nicest way, it spread the risk for the manufacturers. In making the matches, personality was very important, too.’

Young designer Tom Price, who graduated last summer, joined forces with Royal College of Art postgraduate Max Lamb to work with manufacturer Farrugia on a table. ‘At our first meeting with Farrugia, we decided to design the table using 3D veneer,’ Price says. ‘I don’t think our client had ever worked with designers before, so it was a learning experience for him. But the collaboration changed my opinion of manufacturers. I’d always imagined they were distant and impenetrable – someone you present concepts to, but don’t work with. But the nature of this project, in which we were working with a very demanding material, meant that we had to collaborate closely. I learned lots from him too, in particular about craftsmanship.’

Elsewhere, established furniture designer Rock Galpin, paired with father-and-son-run East End upholsterer Pekalp, was sceptical about the project at first. ‘I was very disappointed when I met the company,’ he says. ‘I would never have approached it naturally. It had no profile and its market wasn’t right for me. But our first meeting really fired me up and our relationship grew.’

Galpin opted to design a sofa using the cold cure foam technique, which enabled him to create a deep and loungy L-shaped sofa with a tapered back rest. ‘My design was perfect for the foam technique, and it meant less labour and lower tooling costs for Pekalp,’ he says.

However, he was astonished by Pekalp’s lack of understanding of the design process. ‘The father, Joe Yusuf, trained as a traditional frame-maker and upholsterer, and he had set views on furniture design. But working with a designer – something the company had never done before – has given them a much better chance of entering the lower top end of the retail market. The sofa’s style is potentially top end and it is competitively priced, so they’re aiming for the likes of Ligne Roset, John Lewis and Purves & Purves,’ Galpin says.

Pekalp benefited, but what did an experienced hand, such as Galpin, gain from the collaboration? ‘I have used a technique I’d never worked with before, and probably never would have used. This made me re-evaluate my own design processes,’ he says. If the sofa is successful, Galpin says he’d love to carry on working with Pekalp.

Miller has high hopes for the Galpin/ Pekalp collaboration, describing the latter as ‘a real find’. And he believes that Farrugia, which has worked with Martin Grierson on a cabinet, as well as with Price and Lamb, will also be popular with both trade and public markets. Other relationships include designers Studio Kew Bridge, Gary van Broekhoven and Andrew Figueira with manufacturer Alma, and office products specialist Davis Cash with BDM design and Jasper Startup.

The essence of the Isos Collection is diversity – in materials, designers and manufacturers. But if its raison d’être is to be a commercially viable branded collection, surely it needs some cohesion? Miller agrees that the collection doesn’t hang together as a whole. ‘In commercial terms, the Isos Collection as a concept is a bit vague, so that will have to develop. But the pieces are high end, design-led, bespoke and easily available, and that’s common to all of them.’ A panel of respected retail buyers – from among others Purves & Purves, Liberty and Heals – drew similar conclusions.

‘They thought that individual ranges with manufacturers hung together well and could be expanded,’ Miller says. ‘It would be great if Isos continued as a consortium of manufacturers, and each employed a single person to manage design collaborations.’ If Price and Galpin are reliable barometers, the designers are backing the scheme. Next week’s launch will tell if the trade is interested. Designer/ manufacturer collaborations are not new – the Design Council has been down this road many times – but done well, they benefit all parties.

The Isos Collection, designed by Shin and Tomoko Azumi, launches at the Furniture Show, NEC Birmingham, which runs from 23-26 January. It opens to the public on 4 February at Furniture Works, 41 Commercial Road, London E1, continuing until 4 March

The collaborators

Manufacturer – Alma Designers – Studio Kew Bridge, Gary van Broekhoven and Andrew Figueira

Manufacturer – Pekalp Designers – Rose Cobb, Rock Galpin

Manufacturer – Farrugia Designers – Martin Grierson, Max Lamb and Tom Price

Manufacturer – Davis Cash Designers – Jasper Startup, BDM design

Manufacturer – I-Glass Designers – Wills Watson & Associates, Small Architecture

Manufacturer – Hitch Mylius Designers – Simon Pengelly and Ed Parkinson-Bates

Manufacturer – Sunday Designers – Morph and Sam Johnson

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