Designers need to close the furniture gap

We needn’t worry quite as much as we used to about persuading UK furniture firms to take contemporary design on board. The leadership shown over many years by London company SCP and more recently by Lancashire firm Allermuir, among others, is paying off, in that both are growing internationally through products mainly by British designers.

SCP, in particular, can take pride in the way it has helped build the careers of a stable of internationally recognised designers. Jasper Morrison and Matthew Hilton are among the most successful with Continental firms, creating designs that straddle domestic and contract markets. But there are others coming up. SCP protegé Konstantin Grcic cropped up at last week’s Cologne furniture fair with Italian company Authentics, and Michael Marriott is the darling of the lifestyle magazines.

There are UK furniture firms where a designer has taken the lead, such as the airport seating specialists, OMK and Alan Zoeftig. And both Hitch Mylius and Aero are now commissioning designs as well as creating their own. But until the furniture industry at large buys into contemporary design, the UK market will remain small.

Designers could help to bridge the gap by blending technical expertise with artistry. Manufacturers are less likely to accept new materials and state-of-the-art processes in an industry where reproduction furniture reigns, unless they understand the benefits. Public interest in shows like 100% Design suggests there is a market for contemporary design, but we need to make it happen.

Unfortunately, most UK furniture designers lack technical knowledge. One enlightened UK manufacturer brought in a seasoned product designer for the technical expertise it required for a furniture project. Another is finding it hard to crack the arrogance of its designer to change a design that isn’t technically feasible, the likely outcome being a waste of resources and an idea lost.

Italy is often cited as getting great results through collaboration with manufacturers. And with Milan’s Polytechnic overtaking the more academic Domus Academy, Italian designers are even more likely to understand technology and processes. Such cross-fertilisation is crucial.

With Ron Arad heading the furniture and industrial design courses at London’s Royal College of Art, we can expect future RCA graduates to be better rounded in their approach to design and manufacture. But it will take leadership on both sides to get a meaningful dialogue going with the UK furniture industry.

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