Where did your initial interest in product and furniture design begin?
My initial interest in product design began during my education in the UK. When I went to art school, I thought I was going to be an artist. But, when I saw how good others were in school, I said to myself, “I better be a designer.” I knew I was creative, but not creative enough to be a great artist. Designing furniture seemed like the best fit for me. The idea of building things with my hands and making things in the workshop was the rationale behind doing furniture design in the beginning. Subsequently, I have learned it is a much more complex process. I received a degree from Glasgow School of Art and then went on to the Royal College of Art. I studied product design for 7 years. Studying something for 7 years: you would think I should have been quite good, wouldn’t you? And yet, after leaving the Royal College, I asked Ettore Sottsass, “can I work with you?” I needed to learn more.
How do you define creativity?
A great designer defines their own creativity. One thing I say to the guys who work for me, you should never work for your client, you should only work for yourself. You should always be pushing beyond what the brief is asking for, and should always be demanding more. It is definitely a vocation being creative. It’s not something you do from 9 to 5; it’s something you do your whole life. For me, walking the dog is the best for creativity because it’s like a washing machine for the brain. Designers are visual creatures. Their eyes are connected, maybe, in a different way to their brains. When you are designing, if you design (20) solutions and a client chooses one, you never throw away the other (19) Creativity is continuous design. If you are authentic and true to what you do, ideas you had (5) or (10) years ago will come back into play in some form in the future. That’s why the young designers that work with me, sometimes they get a little frustrated, they say “we’re doing (1) chair and you’re asking us to design (25) chairs.” My answer to that is; that is creativity. The leg detail or the upholstery details of one product might not come into life for that product, but it will definitely be something that carries through. You have to have an amazing visual memory and you build that up over experience. That allows you to enjoy all the projects in the past, all the projects that may not have come to fruition.
When we started Orangebox, we were coming into a very mature market. A market with brilliant companies like Vitra, Steelcase, Miller. We knew as a newcomer we had to find leverage. There is a great phrase that says you never take competition head-on, you always have to go above it, below it, or around it. When we formed Orangebox we made the decision to go in between the powerhouses of corporate furniture. We said, these cornerstones, these powerhouses that already exist, we’re going to build a business from the gaps in between them. That was the vision that we set up for Orangebox. When we did this, Orangebox was on the periphery of the market. Now? It is increasingly the center of the market. The big issue is technology; the idea that you need to be in a precise place to interact with technology is very rapidly changing. Of all the design markets, the most interesting place to be right now is in the office. More changes are coming through the office than any other environment. Design in the office is reinventing itself.
Tell us about how the Air Pod by Orangebox was created. What was the influence behind it?
We knew of a brilliant design engineer, Mark Partridge. We saw Mark’s company and his first generation of products, and we knew it should be a vital part of our landscape. We bought the company Mark founded and then he came into Orangebox. The idea of the Air Pod was that we posed these questions: Why do people build walls? What can we do as a company to allow people to not build walls? We still need rooms in a given area. It was as simple as that, being able to make a microarchitecture that can exist in any open environment. The first generation was simple, but then you start working with architects globally and the complexity of the problem starts to manifest: fire safety, electrical connection. Architects started plugging them into the central systems, which defeated their purpose. These new problems led to the development of the patented roof system. The Air Pod is all a part of that language of solving different problems in new ways. They begin to understand it is a living, breathing thing that communicates with us. For instance, some people use the Air Pod as a way to structure meetings, saying okay the roof is opening in fifteen minutes, if you can’t make something happen in that time, the meeting will be over.
The first generation was simple, but then you start working with architects globally and the complexity of the problem starts to manifest: fire safety, electrical connection. Architects started plugging them into the central systems, which defeated their purpose. These new problems led to the development of the patented roof system. The Air Pod is all a part of that language of solving different problems in new ways. They begin to understand it is a living, breathing thing that communicates with us. For instance, some people use the Air Pod as a way to structure meetings, saying okay the roof is opening in fifteen minutes, if you can’t make something happen in that time, the meeting will be over.
In the world of design, what do you find to be the most challenging aspect?
The challenge for design is to stay vital in a world that is changing and to not be intimidated by the dynamic of technology. Technology was supposed to make our lives easier. It has done the opposite. It has demanded more of us. That is why my new thesis is “THE POWER OF DESIGN NOW IS TO HUMANIZE THE OFFICE”. The big role of makers of office environments is about a counterpoint to technology. If we don’t do this with confidence, technology will push us too hard. I remember a world without technology. The world produced stuff before technology, quite successfully actually. When you walk about a city and look at the architecture that was built in 1890, these people who were making architecture, they had the long view. They knew they were making cities, building buildings that would transcend their time. We live in the exact opposite. We think that last year will be irrelevant to this year. I like the idea that design slows things down.
Human dynamics are exactly the same. That’s the beauty of furniture design. A chair from 1920 is essentially the same as a chair of today. The chair is consistent and the table is consistent, but what is not consistent is the dynamic of the context around them: what happens at the table, all the paranoias and ideas of the people sitting at the table, that’s what’s changed. changed unbelievably, dramatically, in ways we did not think. When I give a talk I often end with a slide from Blade Runner. And I use the example of Blade Runner, it is one of my favorite movies, I’ve watched it 50 times. At the beginning of it the title comes up and it says: Los Angeles 2020. It was made in 1984. 2020 is a couple of years down the line and Los Angeles isn’t going to look like it does in Blade Runner. We not very good at making judgement calls on how our world is going to shake up. We really don’t know. The dynamic of change is so dramatic, let’s design for it. Let’s not make it an problem, let’s turn it into a virtue.
50 years is pure science fiction, even 5 years. I think especially for companies that are growing rapidly, the good people will be the ones that will say, 2 years we can get a fix on, but 5 years we don’t have a clue. The biggest thing is that I hope I won’t be replaced by an algorithm. Look at companies like Adobe. They would happily replace the world of designers with the world of technology. The designer would no longer be involved in the process. I think that is a potential reality. The challenge for designers, is to find new narratives. To say okay, the technology can do this but the technology will never be able to do that. I’ll give you example. I’ve just done a new product which is a big table called Bay Table. I was in a big country house, a luxurious, aristocratic house where there are many servants to make the house function. In the kitchen, they had a huge refectory table for about 20 people. The simplicity of that, the community of that, is what I loved. We are building communities for people who will sit down for ten minutes or for two hours. looked at that refectory table and I thought, that is exactly what they were doing in 1860. It was the communal table where all the servants had their meals. It is not that much different from an organization. You have this collective group of people who are a community, and because of them the organization can exist. And there you have it. I’ve just designed this new table, but actually I am just picking up on the dynamics of function and comradery and companionship that was existing in 1860. I always say to everyone, you don’t design product, you design stories. It’s stories that make the world go ‘round and make us connect to each other. If design doesn’t have a story, it doesn’t have a life, period.
What excites and inspires you the most as Creative Director of Orangebox?
I’ll end as I began. I originally thought I was going to be an artist and I realized I wasn’t good enough to be an artist. One of my greatest inspirations is art that thrills me. I visited the de Young museum in San Francisco last time I was there; what a delight. What a beautiful building. If you are ever in trouble as a designer, go look at some art, because art is the most difficult thing. It has the power to make something relevant in my world that has no function other than to inspire, make me see things afresh. In the end what inspires all creative people? Other creative people.