Small is beneficial

A new generation of design groups is springing up in New York, says Peter Hall. The trend is for compact consultancies, with flexible attitudes and low overheads

Spring sprang early in New York, and before we could say “El Nino” there was a scent of March madness in the air. Suddenly, the product design community was sprouting new firms with apparently scant regard to conventional wisdom on the upstart success rate. Within a month of each other, two former employees of the long-established New York company Smart Design separately announced the formation of their respective new firms. The arrival of Jump Design, founded by Jurgen Parlowski (educated in Germany), and Prime Studio, founded by Stuart Harvey Lee (a Royal College of Art Brit), implied less the evidence of a pact (the two designers are not, apparently, on chatting terms) than of a trend. Indeed, Jump and Prime are not the first Smart seedlings to germinate, but follow closely on the trail of Pollen Design, which was established by another Brit, Dean Chapman, last year, and Tucker Viemeister, who quit Smart recently to found the New York office of Frogdesign (which has studios in California and Germany).

From Smart to Jump, Prime, Pollen and Frog. It sounds like an e e cummings poem. If, as the office founders implied, there was really nothing untoward happening at Smart to fuel an exodus, there was at least an infectious strain of entrepreneurship. So I called to find out.

Jump, it emerged, is the initiative of a design engineer – Parlowski – on a mission to reinvent form. His company slogan takes on a non-conformist flavour: “What’s the point of cloning sheep if they already look alike?”

Parlowski’s strategy is Smart-derived; that design can be both “sincere and fun”, but his base selling proposition is – and this turns out to be typical – the minimal studio has lower overheads and a more adaptive outlook. Chapman and Lee strike the same chord. “I’ve noticed that clients want projects turned around on tighter schedules, yet still want to maintain that personal contact with designers,” says Lee. “A smaller studio can be more responsive to those needs and more flexible in its working practices.”

This decade, the experienced solo product designer arguably has gained several distinct advantages over competing mid-sized firms. He brings his knowledge, skills and contacts into an efficient operation. In the CAD age – and when designers are growing more accustomed to farming out specialist production tasks – the modelshop is no longer a prerequisite of a studio. Freelances can be hired and ditched as a job requires, and a small company’s reputation can be established on the basis of a select few projects. It’s an approach to managing growth which is already practiced by an earlier generation of British designers, such as Julian Brown, Andy Davey and Ross Lovegrove.

Then there’s also the recent or ongoing shutdown of some of the old dinosaur industrial design offices in New York to contemplate. Teague Associates consolidated its West Coast operation, closing its New York office. The entire industrial design team at Deskey Associates’ Manhattan office recently walked out to join the Coleman Group, after rumours that Deskey was scaling down its New York operation.

The last point in favour of the one-man show is made by Chapman. The new era of product design, he claims, “is about cross-pollination, reflective of the peripheral industries of fashion, graphics and the Web. They are all dealing with constant change and evolution; of materials, form and production.” The small, fresh design unit, feeding and sparking ideas off other creative disciplines, can be fleet-footed enough to make deft connections that expand or enhance a project. (Think interactive content, smart materials,virtual presentations.)

It’s easy, of course, to be swept away by the enthusiasm of this new era. In the notoriously treacherous first couple of years of business, one familiar killer is the drastic increase in overheads forced by a growing client base. If the pattern of New York inter-active design start-ups is anything to go by, it can be tough to stay small. As the demands of projects came to require increasing technical expertise and manpower, many of the smaller interactive firms found themselves in desperate need of capital in order to grow. Razorfish and Avalanche Systems, for instance, took the buyout road, and are now owned by the media giant Omnicom.

But this is also a sign that the New York climate for new ventures is clement. After years of being in the shadow of Silicon Valley, product design in New York is showing signs of new life. Prime, Jump and Pollen may be the best evidence of a resurgence yet.

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