Table Manna

Lynda Relph-Knight discovers a Modernist’s dream table launched by a growing Leicester design group

SBHD: Lynda Relph-Knight discovers a Modernist’s dream table launched by a growing Leicester design group

What a lot of tables! That’s the first thought when you walk into Atkinson Contracts’ furniture showroom. Glass tops, laminates, sleek woods, chrome legs, enamelled legs, all in an assortment of configurations and colours. It takes a while to realise you’re looking at just one concept, expressed in an awful lot of ways.

Paul Atkinson, designer and proprietor of the Leicester showroom, describes Text as a “table programme”. Deceptively simple, it’s been designed to work in the home, office or wherever, as a coffee or dining table, a desk, or in a conference format. Its London launch next week will mark the end of two years’ development by Atkinson and his colleague Tim Gluyas of parent company Atkinson Design Associates.

I visited Atkinson as the last bits were being assembled for Text’s London debut. We rummaged through the usual detritus of a product design studio – in Atkinson’s case a run-down building in Leicester’s Frog Island district – to find an early model of the all-important “bird’s beak” joint that is Text’s main selling point.

Across the road is the new showroom – a waterside former pub transformed by Atkinson’s contracts team into a cool, white environment in which to show top-end interiors products, and wryly described by him as “a beacon of respectability” in a down-at-heel area. There, amid artefacts from the likes of Herman Miller, Mackintosh, Vitra and Artemide, we looked at Text, tested the marketing packs designed to hold enamelled metal samples and checked out the promotional graphics. They’d treated my visit as a deadline for themselves, Atkinson said, so all the goodies were there to see.

Text puts Atkinson in the league of designer/makers such as cutlery king David Mellor (see Old Master, DW 17 March). But what is special about it? To the purist, its simplicity. An elegant aluminium frame is bolted together by way of the seamless bird’s beak joint, which is held together by a single key fastening. It is clean and easy to assemble, if you are as adept as its authors who claim they can assemble seven tables in 33 minutes using one Allen key. It is available in a wide range of standard models and designed and finished to a high specification. Yet , at a list price of around ú800 for a 1600mm x 800mm unit, it is relatively cheap.

Atkinson has designed a variety of products over the past ten or so years. At the big end, there’s been a trussed building system, but there have also been light-fittings designed for British Rail’s Liverpool Street station, the Hazel Duct uplighter for Concord Lighting (selected by French designer Jean Nouvel for this year’s International Design Yearbook), and a desking system for Kimball. Currently on the boards – or rather the CAD system – are a hand-held navigator with graphics by Grundy Northedge and a sign system for London Underground.

The idea of developing his own products came to Atkinson two years ago for a variety of reasons. Having the showroom from which to distribute, it made sense to distribute a product of his own. A good product would also open up the market for Atkinson Contracts’ sales team, allowing them to sell to cities such as Nottingham, Sheffield and Bristol. London distribution of Text will be handled by independent operator Robert Webster, while Tony Walker Interiors is agent for Glasgow and Edinburgh.

But perhaps the main motivation for Text’s development was Atkinson’s personal passion against the discount system with which the UK furniture industry is riddled, and a passion for quality – the sort of quality you can generally only achieve if you’re in control. Under the usual trading system, “you can keep moral and ethical standards high and still get stuffed by cheats”, he says, recalling bitterly furniture contracts his team has lost through “stitch-ups” in competitive bids. He has also railed against what he sees as British manufacturers’ general disregard for good design, not least at the National Furniture Forum earlier this month.

His own venture into manufacturing started with designs for four different products. He put Gluyas on the job for a couple of days a week – days when he wasn’t working on the consultancy’s paying projects in time which couldn’t be charged out. That was quite a major investment for a small product group, says Atkinson.

Text emerged from this process as the idea with “the most commercial mileage”, says Atkinson. It has the broadest application of the four concepts, provides a vehicle for the sale of accompanying chairs, and is particularly sympathetic to the Herman Miller stock which, with Vitra, makes up some 80 per cent of the showroom’s sales. Above all, it allows Atkinson Contracts to go national.

“We wanted to do something discreet, beautiful and high quality,” says Atkinson, adding that it had to be something for which he could obtain a patent. Application for the patent is in – for the bird’s beak detail – and, as Atkinson says, “the expression of the product is in its function”, which takes care of his first three requirements. And there is a market. Atkinson’s team alone has found it needs 30 low tables a year to meet interiors clients’ needs, let alone the desks, dining tables and conference suites.

Atkinson’s plan for Text is only just starting to roll out. After taking on the UK mainland, he has his sights set on Ireland, and is talking to manufacturers in Germany and the US about a possible licence agreement and royalty deal.

What’s more, a second-generation product is on the cards, which, Atkinson hints, is likely to be in the conference arena. And when that is underway there is a possibility of a third project. “It’ll take us two to three years to get six products in the range,” says Atkinson. Who said British designers weren’t bullish and commercially astute?

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