American Aesthetic

An Interview with Ben Hopkins and Eric Pfeiffer.

The best ideas are generated when talented people and inspiration come together. This concept was not lost on the founders of Pair when they looked to design and develop a new line of highly customizable furnishings for the modern workplace. The spirit of collaboration is inherent in their philosophy as much as it is embedded in Pair’s simple and elegant design style.  To bring these products to life, co-founders Brian Wilson and Brian Buhl sought out the talents of Bay Area industrial designers Ben Hopkins (of Studio Hopkins) and Eric Pfeiffer (from Pfeiffer Lab).

The ONELOOK team sat down with Ben and Eric to talk about their collaboration with Pair, the challenges they faced, and their vision for a new American design aesthetic.

Download our PREMIERE issue of ONELOOK Here.

What launched your interest in product and furniture design?

EP:  I am from a family of artists, builders and contractors and have been involved in making from a young age. I had the opportunity to go to school for design and a transition happened after studying architecture and landscape design – I was driven towards much smaller scale projects. Small objects and furniture were much more intimate in the way we interact with them. They were more related to the human body and presented a great way to design things that have a positive impact on people. It really brought everything I love together.


With Pair, you are working with a really talented team. What is it like to partner with other designers and organizations on your creations?

BH: It is really exciting to work with others from varying fields of expertise and see their vision. Receiving feedback from different perspectives makes the design much more powerful. For example, Brian Wilson (Co-Founder of Pair) has an Industrial design background, but he also brings a business and market point of view. Brian Buhl (Co-Founder of Pair) brings an expert opinion from a sales perspective. They both provided great direction early into the project at an early phase. These two really know what customers want and how to fill voids in a market.

EP: I love the collaborative process, but what I liked most about this project was the connection to the market. The distance between solving big problems and meeting people’s needs was really closed down for us.


Where does an idea like Pair start?

EP: Our work is really focused on utility. As designers we are solving problems. Many times we start with research to better understand the problem. In the end, our products have to work well to have longevity and part of that is to create something beautiful.

BH: I was really inspired by Danish and Scandinavian aesthetic. These cultures are masters of furniture craft using the right form, materials, and colors in harmony. As we looked to the contract furniture industry we really saw it being devoid of that language. I wanted to bring that type of thinking to the workplace.


Why do you think the world needs solutions like these?

BH: Beautiful furniture conveys a certain emotion – it makes us look and feel good, but there is a functional aspect as well. There are lots of solutions – height adjustability for example, that hit function but lack finesse – or are beautifully executed but not useful. We wanted to bring versatility without sacrificing aesthetic appeal. If we can bring beauty and function to an organization’s workflow, a real opportunity presents itself.

EP: We identified a market segment for customers who need these types of solutions, and we wanted to see how we could fill that void with something beautiful and with a level of materiality that was not available. Take something as simple as a solid wood shelf for a workstation. You step back to look at it and it’s just a simple shelf – but bringing something so simple with a high level of craft to the workspace is more complicated than you might think.

When I launched a product line called Corral, it was born out of the challenge to move quick enough to get products to the market. I worked with a lot of partners to solve this problem and close the gap between the idea and the end user. The Bay Area moves so quickly – you simply can’t wait three years to bring a table to the market.


Would you consider yourself more of an entrepreneur or a designer?

BH: I am on the path towards entrepreneurship in this new venture.  As an independent designer, one has to be interested in business and marketing because they play such a large role in an effort’s success.

EP: I’ve always considered myself a design-entrepreneur. For the last fifteen years we have launched a lot of companies along the way. The most fun I have is that process of creating or building something – that can be a product or a company. Design can be performed in a lot of different ways, in a lot of different models. Launching a company is just another design problem.


Can you talk a little more about your approach?

BH: My approach has become more and more hands-on. I am making conscious decisions to test things to better understand how others are impacted by prototypes and designs. If I can get into the shop and figure out what it takes to build an idea – I can cut a lot of time out of the process. Another big part of my design process is to use materials and approaches that result in a competitively priced product. Things can be pretty and shiny – but if very few can afford them what is the use of that?


What is the biggest missed opportunity in our industry?

EP: I think many product designers miss the opportunity to engage with their market or customer.  Four years ago we started doing more research driven design. We wanted to connect better to the user of our products – so we went out and talked to people who sit in the offices that we were targeting with our solutions. It helped us understand what they are going through and it helped us find new challenges to solve. I think the biggest miss is that more designers should get out of their studios and do their own research to help drive their design process.

BH: Something we are doing now is working within a spectrum of custom and standard products. A lot of firms do nothing but custom, others nothing but standard – no one has been really capitalizing on the middle. People want the uniqueness of something custom – but that carries with it a risk factor. It can be really expensive or not work well. I think there is something to the idea of engineering a product that we know works – but opens the door to others to put a custom touch on it without it needing to be fully custom. The magic lies somewhere in between.


What has been your biggest struggle?

EP: Supply chain is always a struggle.  Especially finding vendors since we work in so many materials. And, people are really busy right now. Working in three time zones can also be challenging at times.

BH: Maintaining great communication. There are many people involved in the process from concept to reality. You are always going to face adversity. Everyone is working hard, stressed out, burning the midnight oil. If you don’t have good communication – even at the high point, things can still fall apart.


What else drives you?

BH: Making a positive difference in the way people work, through furniture. I want the products I develop to encourage productivity in the workplace, even if that means doing so quietly in the background.

EP: I want to be able to present a different take on contract furnishings – to create distinct products that celebrate an American design aesthetic. Right now our studio is very interested in exploring the notion of American design with our work and with the different designers we collaborate with. We are looking to create something different but with a commonality that holds it all together. We have such a rich design history here in the U.S. I wonder how we can shine a light on it and move this aesthetic forward. This is a place of so much diversity and I want to explore how we can show that through design.

Learn more about Pair in the first issue of ONELOOK magazine.

Interview by Christopher M. Good & Ivy Cheuk

Download our PREMEIRE issue of ONELOOK Here.