Blazing saddles

Had Richard Seymour’s parents got their way, their son wouldn’t have been a designer at all. He’d have been a ballet dancer. But Twinkle-Toes Seymour it wasn’t to be. Why not? “Well, getting quite big was one thing. Also, when you hit puberty you start to ask yourself, ‘Do I want to hop around in a tutu all my life?'”

Resisting the call of the codpiece was a good move. Sadler’s Wells’ gain would have been design’s loss. “Getting quite big” has led – very indirectly – to Seymour’s partnership with Dick Powell, and a design group which itself cannot be taken lightly.

In May, Seymour Powell became the first product design group to receive the British Design and Art Direction President’s Award. It joined creative heavyweights such as Abram Games, Ridley Scott, Frank Loewy, Terence Conran and Alan Parker, all past-winners of this personal expression of admiration, made annually by successive presidents. President of D&AD Mary Lewis picked Seymour Powell, “first because of its significant contribution to product design, and second, because product design is not given sufficient support in this country”. For the recipients, the award ranks among the very best moments of their partnership.

Despite the accolades, Seymour Powell is not wholly accepted by its peers. Its courting of the press with provocative product concepts and good copy guarantees regular coverage. Seymour is naturally articulate, peppering his speech with metaphors musical, astronomical and microbiological. Only occasionally does he slip into the kind of “let’s-run-this-one-up-the-flagpole-and-see-how-it-flies” verbiage bandied around in his former trade of advertising.

Anyone seen to be habitually parading their creations and opinions is regarded with suspicion. And legions of more earnest, retiring types in British product design have a bit of a problem with Seymour Powell. Its owners just seem to be enjoying themselves a bit too much. They revel in the agent provocateur role.

They want to be “a bit dangerous” with their designs. Outside their office – a converted chapel off Fulham’s North End Road – there’s a gang of powerful motorcycles that you have to fight your way through to get in and out of the building. And Seymour looks like he’d rather be down at a roadside bikers’ convention on the A23 near Dorking.

It is easy to wonder whether this pairing of such different individuals was manufactured, like a pop group. The hairy large one and the smooth slim one. The fact is, they are one of the most enduring partnerships in the business. They sit about four feet apart every day, and, in the perverse way of many successful partnerships, their differences make them compatible.

After two hours in conversation, it is hard to find contradictions between what they have done and what they claim to have done. The company has won more exposure for its speculative projects than for the projects that have gone all the way through the mill to production. And the pair are not short of a good word for their own efforts. But the media-sussed sheen has blinded one or two people to the pair’s natural and complementary gifts as designers.

Every project flows through either or both of the partners. Says Seymour: “We probably do more pen-in-hand design, Dick and I, than anybody else in the business. I say that with almost certainty. We structure the company in a completely different way. We haven’t moved up out of the tawdry business of physically creating things into some sort of Olympian, string-pulling puppeteer role. We do a hell of a lot. I can point to most things that come out of this company and say there’s a big dollop of Dick or Rich in that, and I can point to several and say that’s exclusively Dick Powell.

“We do it this way because we spent 11 years reducing it on the flame, getting the water out of it to the point where it is an essence, and it does function remarkably in all sorts of ways that normal business structures don’t. “Everyone pokes their noses into other people’s business. If a job changes course, we all want to know why and whether it can be applied elsewhere. If you’ve got a train and a motorcycle and an aircraft and a watch and a razor and a deep-fat frier going through the company simultaneously you get very odd things happening. You can get extraordinary harmonic developments.”

From the start, the pair set out to build a brand; an almost uniquely astute thing for a British product design company to do. Having the consultancy’s name moulded into products such as a series of watches by Casio is the outcome of that process, as well as a catalyst to its further development. The brand was built through self-promotion, but its centre of gravity was styling. In the early Eighties, before Memphis, Colani and Cranbrook had dented Modernism’s monochrome mindset, styling was still connected with the excesses of Fifties American consumerism and built-in obsolescence. Design’s great and good considered it meretricious and superficial. There are still establishment designers who gag on their hairshirts at the mention of the word. Seymour Powell made styling its mission. Within the first year, with no major products in its portfolio, the consultancy had three or four big-name clients. It had, as Seymour puts it, “tied the right fly”.

The company’s high hit rate in adding to its client list some of the biggest names in consumer products – Tefal, Clairol, Yamaha, Casio – owes much to the partners’ articulation of words like design, function and styling. The “X factor” that they talked about may have just been the extra, creative spice that all good designers bring to the process, but it was also the bit that few of them can easily or alluringly express in words. “We describe things around the product much more than the thing itself,” says Powell. “We paint a picture of what we do through anecdotes, through understandings, through how we see things, how the client sees things, without trying to define what design is.”

“The very fact that these words are difficult to define,” adds Seymour, “means that when you talk to a new client – and this is where the magic fairy lives in this conundrum – the first thing you do is try to work out what their vocabulary actually is. There are some clients we work with where how a product looks, even how it works, is seen as some sort of vanity, and all they really want to talk about is how much it is going to add to the bottom line. That’s what it comes down to for designers: we’re trying to create wealth for the client. While some people have trouble talking about styling, a lot of designers have trouble talking about dosh.”

Seymour Powell’s most lasting contribution to the design industry has been in forcing design into the public arena. Its unalloyed enthusiasm for what it does has carried the name into sections of the media hitherto dead to design. It has also won new support for the profession. Seymour is caustic about the industry’s wallflowers: “I look at how some design companies grub around in the mire with no idea at all about how to promote their importance and then come back and whinge ‘well, we’re such a poorly paid profession and nobody appreciates us’. They don’t realise how they are part of the problem instead of the solution.”

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