Worth the wait

It’s been a year or so since I was last in Matthew Hilton’s studio, and at first nothing seems to have changed. It still looks like the inside of a railwayman’s hut, complete with the stove in the corner and the heaps of non-specific detritus. Cigarette butts and spent matches still litter the rough timber floor. You still get to it via a rusting external steel staircase rising from the yard of the joinery works below. But progress has been made. Hilton has done some plastering and painting, made shelving for his CDs, cleared a bit of space. OK, it’s not much. But then he can please himself. He works alone.

In stark contrast with almost any other big-reputation designer, Hilton at work retains the aura of the impoverished design student he once was. The shaggy hair, the jeans, the ciggies.

He’s back at college, though, doing a part-time MA in design studies at Central St Martins College of Art and Design. If you didn’t know, you’d never guess that he is one of the more in-demand furniture designers, with one of the best back catalogues around, a nice cushion of royalties coming in, and a rapidly increasing international workload. Then again, if you only ever met him spruced up for the many launch celebrations he attends, you’d have no inkling what his working conditions are like.

This year’s Milan Furniture Fair will be his biggest yet, with launches of Hilton ranges from three separate manufacturers. There’s a new sculptural armchair, footstool and table for his long-term patron Sheridan Coakley at SCP – urgent phone calls come in as we speak, requesting advice on last-minute design tweaks. There are two upholstered and rattan ranges for his Italian client Driade, and – most important , certainly for Hilton’s pension prospects – a blinder of an injection-moulded plastic chair, called Wait, for the German company Authentics, first seen in Cologne in January.

So this year is Hilton’s year, and although he characteristically downplays his success – other years have been as good to him, he suggests – he eventually concedes that 1999 might indeed be somewhat special. But still, he has no staff, not even a secretary. He tried having a design assistant once, and it didn’t work out. His garret-studio is tucked away in a neglected corner of Barnsbury, London, and in it there is nothing that could remotely be described as technological from the design point of view. A telephone, a fax machine, a table, a drawing board and – in a small workshop through a door that is off its hinges – a workbench. Not a computer in sight. Hilton appears to like drawing freehand.

Again, appearances are deceptive. He is anything but a Luddite. He uses the technology of the companies which commission him. He goes to them, they don’t come to him. Authentics, for instance, has all the kit for computer-modelling injection-moulded items and producing prototypes straight off the screen. Other people are all geared up to design metal castings, moulded rigid foam, upholstery, whatever. Hilton plugs into these areas of expertise as and when he needs to, while maintaining his Dickensian workbase – some distance away from his home in Whitechapel.

If you remember what a darling he was of the style magazines in the mid to late-Eighties, with his famous zig-zag cast aluminium candlesticks and his iconic 1987 Antelope table, you might think he got rich young. Not so, he says. Although Antelope was bought by the likes of Jasper Conran and Paul Smith, the circular table with its delicate aluminium hind-legs was so costly to make that it never covered its costs, though it was a great image-booster.

He ran the candlestick business profitably himself for a while, selling to big-name stores in Britain and overseas: it wasn’t exactly big-money stuff, but it helped to keep him going. His first collection for SCP in 1985, alongside work by Jasper Morrison, included some bow-truss shelving that proved very successful, but also a streamlined trolley and a large table that proved too expensive to make. In those early days, having pieces stocked by Terence Conran’s shops was a big boost to his credibility.

“The great thing was that we were among the first of that period to do contemporary furniture,” Hilton recalls, naming his fellow travellers Morrison, Ron Arad, Danny Lane, and Tom Dixon. But despite all the publicity, it was a tough time, he says, and it took him five or six years to get on an even keel financially. The moment of equilibrium was defined by the moment he finally licensed out the candlestick production to SCP and took a royalty instead.

So it’s been swings and roundabouts, but gradually, collection after collection, Hilton has established a range of pieces, like his Kerouac and Balzac sofas and chairs, that stay in production and bring home the bacon. The names of his designs are important. “A name starts to build its own reputation,” observes Hilton, who admires Philippe Starck’s facility in this area. However, as with jazz compositions, the names are generally tangential. Flipper, his famous glass-topped coffee table with its aluminium fin legs, now to be found in the Geffrye Museum and a million ad agency foyers, is one of the more obvious. Balzac was apparently named after Coakley’s dog, though Hilton admits there is a feel of Rodin’s massive, brooding, 1897 monument to Balzac.

It’s a bit of a gamble, always. Balzac, for instance, was Hilton’s first range of upholstered furniture for SCP, and was a slow-burn success. It seemed a little alien when it was first produced in 1990 – very fat and sculpted at a time when minimalism was the thing – and for the first four years it sold slowly. Then it started to appear in ads and in much-publicised loft apartments, Peter Mandelson got one, sales took off and it has been selling brilliantly for the past two years.

So Hilton can do chairs and sofas, no problem. He can continue to produce innovative and desirable variants on the theme – as with his 1997 Driade collection with its poptastic, Sixties, spaceshot feel. He does © not produce radically extreme designs, taking the view that there are classic ways of doing things, that longevity is better than ephemerality, that the furniture has to be comfortable and cleanable. He is the Paul Smith of the living room, producing classics with a twist. But you sense he wants new challenges.

Hilton trained in three-dimensional design at Kingston, though always saw himself doing furniture. He next spent some time working with a plastics company, producing such things as computer casings, before setting up on his own. The experience stood him in good stead when he started on the plastic furniture – as he says, “at least I know what the technicians are talking about”. Now he is thinking again about aspects of design other than furniture. He is wondering about his existence in a garret, too. “I’m fed up with working on my own,” he says frankly. “I’d like some people around me who are doing intelligent, inspiring, things. It’s one of the reasons I’m doing an MA.” While designing and learning, he also does a spot of teaching, so one way or another he’s got the bases covered.

The world is likely to change its opinion of Hilton when the Wait chair for Authentics takes off. This is mass-production stuff – a different type of designing, for a different customer base – potentially yielding rich rewards. It gives him the chance to reconsider what he wants to do. “At the moment,” he reflects, “I’d like another really meaty project to get into. And I don’t mind what it is.”

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