Originally from North Wales, Rowena Edwards caught the attention of the 2019 Design Week Awards judges with her imaginative and practical furniture designs. In her practice, Edwards insists on pushing the boundaries of functionality, adding what she calls “something a little extra” to each piece to help people use her work in “ways they never realised they could”.
Of the pieces Edwards submitted to the competition, her KIN hallway bench perhaps best illustrates this. At first glance a functional wooden piece designed to provide necessary home storage, the bench has been given a playful edge by way of moving seats and compartments.
“Even though it’s quite a simple function, I was thinking about the people and their relationships when they were using the bench,” says Edwards. “In my head, I thought about the times you leave the house in an argument, and the idea that you might start off as far apart as possible from each other as you put your shoes on, but eventually the movement of the seats would mean the argument would dissolve as you drew closer.”
Using art in design
Edwards points to her art background as one of the reasons why her pieces are so concept-driven. Before moving into design in 2014, she studied Fine Art at University of the Arts London. “I keep my art experience very close to my designing,” she says. “I think they go hand in hand, and one has definitely benefitted the other.”
But where the value of art comes from onlookers, Edwards says design’s need for functionality helps her channel her creativity more efficiently. “Because my creativity comes from painting, sculpting, drawing and making, my thoughts can be a bit all over the place sometimes,” she says. “But when it comes to a chair or a table, there are rules – if a chair or table is the wrong height for example, it’s kind of a failed piece.”
Beyond “the rules” keeping her work functional, Edwards says the design community itself helps her refine her ideas. Where art can be somewhat “cut-throat”, she identifies to the design industry as a “friendly place to be”.
“If someone designs something, they don’t want to keep it a secret, at least in my experience,” she says. “They want to show you and talk to you, and I think that’s one of the main differences between the art world and the design world. Having that environment to bounce around ideas helps me produce good results.”
Finding inspiration everywhere
Edwards’ design career began with a two-year furniture making course at the Building Crafts College in Stratford, London. Among the pieces she developed there was ROWND, a rolling drinks trolley she labels her favourite piece of work. Unlike its traditional counterparts, which she says can be “old-fashioned”, Edwards’ ROWND is a gloriously quirky invention.
“It’s basically a giant circle, and I added a weight system to give it a little swaying motion as it’s rolled,” she says. “It might have been because of the attention it got, or just because of how different it was, but it is still one of my favourites.”
Dealing in such quirky designs, Edwards relies on inspiration from a host of different sources. Underpinning it all, however, is her experience growing up in North Wales. “My sense of where I’m from is strong,” she says. And while her roots aren’t directly addressed in her work, her youth does find its way into her practice through her process for inspiration.
“Running around as a little girl, everything was inspiration and when I came to London, I felt the same thing,” she says. “Even when I’m looking at the signs on the street, I see how they’re attached to the poles and think of how I might create an attachment for a lamp or something.”
The confidence to do well
Until recently, Edwards was designing with furniture and homeware manufacturer Made. She cites the year as being “really important to her career”, not least because it was her director who nominated her for a Design Week Award. “It gave me such a boost,” she says.
“When you leave university, you’re kind of in a bubble where you only concentrate on your own work,” Edwards adds. “But getting recognised by something like that gave me the confidence to believe I was doing well.”
Now, Edwards is pursuing her career under her own name, wherein she can be part of the whole design process. With a farmer dad who “builds everything”, Edwards has been constructing since she was a little girl, and names the prototyping process as one of her favourite stages of a piece’s development.
She explains: “One day, it won’t exist – or it will only exist on paper – but the next you’ll go into the workshop and it’ll be there. That feeling of ending the day with tables and chairs that are actually in the world because of you, I really love that.”
Changing functionality depending on need
As she develops her brand, Edwards plans to split her practice between her own designs and taking on bespoke commissions. “I like the idea of the customer being involved in the design process,” she says, adding that how customers adapt and push the limits of furniture functionality is something she’s hugely interested in.
“Some of the pieces I’ve worked on in the past are now in my mum and sister’s homes, and even though they’re ‘done’ now, I love seeing how they interact with them,” she says. “In 10 years’ time, a piece you made could be functioning completely different – people could be using a chair you designed to dry their washing. It’s just interesting how users change things depending on what they need.
“It makes me think about how I could help facilitate that new function in the future. But even then, if they use it in a different way, I’ll be happy with that too.”