Wartime fighter-plane technology has provided the inspiration and raw material for the sleek, understated plywood and steel furniture of London group Byproduct. Formed four years ago by designer-makers Rob Melville and James Cannon, the East End company’s trademark is its use of the structural honeycomb material Dufaylite. ‘It was invented by George May for the nose-cone of the Mosquito,’ says Melville. ‘Between two sheets of plywood there’s a honeycomb of cardboard, which gives the finished sheet tremendous structural strength – you could jump up and down on it without causing any damage.
‘Since the war, its most common use has been for making doors. It’s also incredibly light and achieves the maximum with the minimum of materials, making it fit perfectly with our company’s green ethos.’ In fact, early Byproduct designs featured aluminium legs, but the pieces felt so light that prospective customers distrusted their strength; steel is now used instead.
Melville became fascinated by the material as a student at Ravensbourne College of Design, and it was when he teamed up with Cannon, an industrial design engineer, that the opportunity arose to exploit the material’s properties using his wood-working expertise. Their first collaboration was made possible with an RSA Student Design Awards bursary for exploring new and sustainable materials in furniture design. ‘Because it’s such a thin sheet of ply, it has a natural curve,’ explains Cannon. ‘We developed a way to cold press the sheet into shapes; the material loses none of its integrity because the honeycomb inside compresses at the corners and makes it even stronger.’
Their first chair won the Edward Marshall Trust and Crafts Council Chair Competition Award, which led to an order for 85 chairs from the Crafts Council. Since then, the basic product range has expanded to include tables and stools which are sold through the interiors contract specialist Co-Existence. Orders for Byproduct’s’ furniture, which also include a number of special bespoke designs, have been completed for clients as varied as Virgin Atlantic, the Geffrye Museum and an NHS trust in Newhaven.
For a product which looks so thoroughly machined and mass-produced, it comes as some surprise to learn that the pieces are so labour-intensive to manufacture – they’re hand-made and finished. ‘It had been a dream of ours to create a design and take it right through to completion,’ says Cannon. ‘For the past couple of years we have been revising and refining the designs to reach a point where mass-production is possible, and we are now just about there. Along with changing the legs, we’ve also rethought the finish – at first we used a dead matt polyurethane lacquer, but people didn’t believe the sheet had been sealed. Now we use a satin to give a more obvious and reassuring sheen.’
Work is now underway developing upholstered versions of the designs and in mechanising the production process. The Alvar Aalto-inspired 8m-long undulating ‘wave’ exhibited at last week’s Designers Block exhibition illustrated the versatility of Dufaylite. ‘But the ultimate would be to try for something really big,’ says Melville. He has ambitious plans for the future. ‘I’ve always wanted to build a house with Dufaylite and James one day plans to build a boat.’