Furniture designers turn to model-making

Furniture design has reached a bit of an impasse. There’s still plenty of interest in British talent among manufacturers across Europe. Matthew Hilton, for example, has featured on the covers of a number of Continental design magazines over the last month. Less established Brits are meanwhile rivalling the Dutch in their reputation for inventiveness and winning unprecedented acclaim on the fringe of events such as last week’s Milan Fair.

But, Hilton’s success notwithstanding, it’s a big leap from being popular with the press and causing a stir to getting designs into production. A common concern aired by furniture designers at Milan was the frustration at being given the run-around by manufacturers – a problem shared to some extent by all 3D designers, but particularly acute in the fickle world of furniture.

Even if the manufacturer has expressed an interest, it can take an age to get a prototype out. One British designer confided that an Italian furniture firm had been sitting on his designs for months, accepting instead a last minute proposal by a better known star and rushing it through to prototype stage to show at the Milan Fair.

Of course, it can cut both ways and the technical challenges of a design can impede its progress into a manufacturer’s catalogue. Unable to resolve technical problems thrown up by prototypes, Lancashire manufacturer Allermuir has, for example, reluctantly shelved the seating ranges designed by Paris-based Scot Neil Poulton that made such a strong showing in Milan last year.

The answer has to be a greater control by designers over production and marketing, which entails a deeper understanding of materials and production techniques. One way to acquire that knowledge is to develop a sideline – small interiors products, perhaps batch produced, that ride the tide of media focus on lifestyle – to build a name and learn first hand about manufacturing.

Hilton’s success seems assured given his great talent and expanding portfolio. His latest design – the plastic Wait chair for German manufacturer Authentics – can only add to his reputation, and, with a reported 40 price tag, put his work in a wider public arena. But if he found himself strapped for cash, he could always put the exquisite models featured on our cover (DW 9 April) that he builds as part of his design process into production – the miniature furniture classics produced by Continental giant Vitra have, after all, proved popular collectables. Sadly, it is on that kind of sideline that fortunes are built.

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