A Personal Touch

IN AN AGE OF MASS CUSTOMISATION AND BESPOKE PRODUCTS, THE FUTURE IS IN THE HANDS OF THE CONSUMER. BUT WHERE DOES THATLEAVE DESIGNERS? SUPER-SKILLED AND EGO FREE, SAYS KEN OLLING – ENTREPRENEUR, INNOVATOR AND PIONEER OF ‘PLATFORM DESIGN’.MARK ISITT MEETS HIM

You may be vastly proud of that Eames chair you picked up at a flea market a week ago, but unique it ain’t – turned out in a good 100 000 copies since Charles and Ray designed it back in the 1940s. But it is still far too impressive a piece for you to think of pimping it up, revarnishing it or replacing the seat. Just imagine what that would do to its second-hand value.

Henry Ford’s famed quote, nearly a century old now, springs to mind, that you can have the car in any colour provided it’s black. In these days of increased individualism and personal assertion, the words have a significant resonance, because even if we seem to live in a hedonist era of shifting shapes and conceptual craziness, mass production still reveals palpable limitations. It is still the manufacturer that sets the defining frameworks, just as in Ford’s day. But while the discussion was then about colour, today’s consumers are into form and texture and patterns and anything else that is thought to express personality. The desires are nowadays so specific that more and more companies are beginning to find ways to enable the consumer to personalise mass-produced products.

Few, however, have carried this concept as far as Meld. ‘My passion and goal is to never ever create a product that I will see in someone else’s home,’ Meld founder Ken Olling asserts, with the intensity and candour of a true revolutionary. ‘A similar product maybe, but never ever my product.’

Olling was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, but today lives in the little, but cosmopolitan, district of Tøyen in Oslo. He describes himself as an untrained generalist with a passion for graphic design. What he forgets to add is that he is an overly understated person: Nippon, Nissan, Nike, Vodafone, Visa, Canal Plus, Sony – Olling appears to possess an almost Forrest Gump flair for finding himself in the right firm at the right time. He has spent the past 12 years working in the fields of international branding and interactive media communication across three continents. And to top it all he is both visiting lecturer at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design and Professor of Design at Beijing University.

‘I never got into art school in LA,’ he says. ‘They told me to go away, said I had no talent’. So I moved to Japan, went to Hamburg from there, on to Oslo and then back to Japan. Japan has pretty much shaped who I am. I plan to move back to Tokyo with my wife and son within the next year or so. No country inspires me more.’

He seems reasonably inspired even in Oslo. In addition to being one of Norway’s most sought after graphic designers, for the past six months he has also run Meld. The company is into what is known as mass customisation, an attempt to achieve near mass-manufacturing efficiency while offering a unique product to a single person. This is the kind of grandiose policy programme that smacks of large-scale enterprises, and to date only a scattering of multinational companies, mainly in the sport shoe industry, have succeeded in implementing a similar customer approach.

But Olling runs his company all on his own. The fees he gets are all shunted into the firm, which doesn’t just design products but produces them and distributes them too. Up to now his investment hovers round the $50 000 mark (£25 000), and it is likely to be higher before Meld presents itself in earnest to the world at the London Design Week in September. A trial chair is going to be on show there. Or rather ten different chairs from ten different designers, all of them originating from a basic chair designed by Olling himself.

This situation is no novelty for Olling. Two years ago he visited the same city and the same fair, if not with the same concept, with another mass-produced rarity, the standard housing project Løvetann. Snøhetta, the renowned architecture group, had designed a modular system in glass and aluminium, which in less than three weeks could be hobbled together and equipped to meet the client’s highly specific requirements. Olling, part-owner in the practice, had a field day at the fair. ‘We had 600 people waiting in line to buy houses; the selling was super easy,’ he says. But when it finally came to mass production it turned out that the design just didn’t permit the low price and high ecological levels that the company had vouched for. Løvetann folded a couple of months later. A total of 40 modular structures had been completed, 30 of them for a (much-criticised) day nursery outside of Oslo.

This experience was an eye-opener for Olling. ‘The Løvetann project proved at least one point, that mass-customised products were highly desirable,’ he says. ‘I already had this idea for a chair and when Løvetann didn’t go well I took it up again. I’ve spent the last year and a half concentrating on getting the principle to work in practice.’

The process comes in three stages: system, design, customisation. The system is like a DNA sample, it is here the product’s characteristics are defined. These consist mainly of a series of technical co-efficients drawn up by Olling. These vary depending on what type of product you want to manufacture – clothes or toys or cutlery or, in this case, furniture (in time, Olling plans to produce the lot). The way the system is structured determines the product’s initial expression. Or rather lack of it. ‘Because I’m designing the system for other designers the product is quite toned down,’ he says. ‘Rather anti-climactic, actually. If I were to put a lot more of my style on it designers wouldn’t touch it. I wouldn’t dream of asking Philippe Starck to do one of these chairs if it screams Ken Olling. There isn’t room for two egos in this environment.’

When the basic chair is finalised Olling provides the ‘real’ designers with an Illustrator file. Apart from a number of key points in the chair frame needed to hold the structure together, the designers are free to redraw as they see fit.

‘If they want to change the shape of the chair they’re welcome to. And if they don’t, then they can use it as their canvas, paint it, sandblast it, laser engrave it, whatever. If I’ve designed a good enough system most of their desires will be able to be executed.’

When the designers have had their day with the basic chair it’s time for the next revolution. The people’s revolution. This is ultimately where the chair comes into its own and – over time – the star designer will be largely cut out of the equation. ‘When you buy the chair it comes in a flatpack. The various parts are cut in plywood and you just pop them out the same way you would a plastic model. The chair is made of six parts, with four screws. Each part is perfectly symmetrical, which means that each part can be flipped. All in all, there are 36 ways to put each chair together. And if you buy another version, you can combine the two. Take the armrests from one and put it on the other, turn the lounge chair into a rocking chair or into a high chair.’

The aim of enabling the customer to personalise the product as freely as possible is what Meld and its website (www.platformdesign.org) is concerned with ultimately. The greater the range of choice the stronger the sales potential, Olling explains – though even he accepts that the range of choices can be too many.

‘Not everyone is ready for total freedom. I notice that in my Norwegian friends. If they go to the States, they go static, there’s simply too much to choose from. That’ll change in time, but it can take ten years or so. Less in the US and Asia.’

To avoid this overload of choices, he has chosen to collaborate with product designers, illustrators and artists before the London release. This time it will be their versions he uses in a preliminary product run of 300 copies per chair. But, in time, the intention is that others will have a chance to try the technique.

As with the Løvetann project, ethical considerations have been given top priority. The chair is made of bamboo plywood that is particularly environmentally friendly, and the four screws of 100 per cent recycled stainless steel. Olling estimates the life of the chair at a minimum of 50 years, ‘possibly even 100’. And the plywood itself is made in a factory in China that is free of child labour – Olling has been there himself and inspected. At present, he is working on developing an environmentally friendly distribution system. ‘I am forcing an ethic on to the design. That’s the most interesting bit for me. No matter what is done to the product after I’ve released it, it will remain environmentally and ethically correct. You may change the way it functions or the way it looks, but the ethical element is always maintained, inherent in the product. Nobody can change that.’

The only part of the process that he does not seem to have full control over, strangely enough, is the actual design stage. For that he has called upon the help of the youthful design duo Stokke Austad. ‘But it hasn’t been a matter of very much design,’ says Jonas Ravlo Stokke. ‘We’ve had a look at the ergonomics and helped Ken solve a few product engineering details. The assignment was rather to design a chair that doesn’t look designed – the chair of chairs. We’ve been steadily paring away at its personality. If we had been allowed to design the chair to our own wishes it would have looked very different.’

‘When I did Løvetann I thought I was a genius,’ Olling concludes. ‘But now I’ve realised that the idea of mass customisation was talked about by professors back in the early 1980s. In a not too distant future, you will go on-line, upload your designs, hit ‘Print’ and instead of an HP laser jet you will have an HP 3D jet and print your own tableware, your own chair. That’s what we are reaching for. Meld is merely a first step.’

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