How architects are turning their attention to smaller things


After years of creating buildings, architecture practices are now turning their hand to smaller items and industrial design. For these design professionals, it’s about applying the same level of imagination and practicality that they have done with their larger creations.


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Words: Clare Dowdy

Architects who take a break from the built environment and turn their attention to designing smaller items are most often driven -- initially at least -- by what they see as necessity. They struggle to find the right furniture, signage or lighting for their interiors, and convince their client that they are the perfect people to design them.

Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres
Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres

Those architects quickly get a taste for the smaller scale then hunt down opportunities to design other items, in the hope that some may go into mass production. This is further fuelled by those 'big names' who are approached by manufacturers to use their signature to brand the product. While there is a logic to this sequence of events, it still begs the question: why would anyone who can get commissioned to design a building bother with anything smaller?

Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres
Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres

The perception is that buildings are long-term and high-profile, commanding fees to match. Products, on the other hand, can also take a while to come to fruition but are unlikely to be similarly remunerated. What's more, architects are trained to design buildings, so why not leave the smaller stuff to product, industrial and furniture specialists? But despite these apparent drawbacks, some architects are loath to stick to their knitting and are increasingly turning duo-disciplinary.

Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres

Of course trained architects have always diversified in this way, from Gio Ponti, via Frank Lloyd Wright, to Mies van der Rohe, with their output entering the 'classics' pantheon.

Big-brand manufacturers court big-name architects to add their creativity and their kudos to projects. A visit to any iteration of the Milan furniture fair will reinforce this. . Nowadays, it's a popular pursuit for both established and up-and-coming practices. So while Renzo Piano Building Workshop has done a wind turbine in Italy, London firm Burwell Deakins has created some lecture-theatre benching; and while Foster + Partners is behind lights, trays, pens and even airline seating, the young architects at Workshop in London have furnished a study centre in a Philippines slum.

Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres
Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres

The current trend among the very biggest names is to carve out a product design niche for themselves that has the potential to become stand-alone. Both Fosters and Zaha Hadid Architects are committing considerable resources in this direction, the former with an expanding industrial design unit and the latter with a retail website for its high-end 'objets'.

Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres
Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres

The roots of all such ventures are usually planted very early in the practices' existence. Furniture was 'part of our repertoire from day one', according to Maha Kutay, product director at ZHA. Likewise, product design was always part of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands' description, inspired by the fathers of all three founders, who were production engineers.

Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres
Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres

At Fosters, 'our first forays into product design in 1978 were really by necessity', says partner and head of industrial design Mike Holland. 'At that time, the studio was rapidly expanding, but it was impossible to find any furniture on the market that could respond to its needs, for example tables that could be adjustable for meetings, drafting or display.' Nick Burwell at Burwell Deakins echoes this: 'We're product designers by default because we find a need for a product that we can't buy.' Hence the firm's zig-zagging benching system, Connect, which responds to modern teaching methods.

Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres
Fledgling practice Workshop brought its industrial expertise to bear with its project Street Light in Tacloban in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Nerren Homeres

This sense of necessity takes on a new urgency at fledgling practice Workshop, because the non-profit schemes its works on are each a joint effort with an underprivileged community. So when its study centre for an orphanage and school called Streetlight in the city of Tacloban needed desks and seating, it ran workshops with locals to design and then make the products. The local men and women were paid for their efforts, but as well as being a good source of labour such a collaborative approach has loftier intentions. 'The main purpose of our product design is to build a sense of ownership and responsibility among the people who will use, maintain and transform the building after we leave the building site,' says architect Alex Furunes.

Getting locals involved helped Workshop to engender a sense of community in Tacloban as well as solve their practical problems. Photo Credit: Nelson Petilla.
Getting locals involved helped Workshop to engender a sense of community in Tacloban as well as solve their practical problems. Photo Credit: Nelson Petilla.

He and his colleagues hope to be able to rebuild the study centre, which was destroyed in last year's typhoon, but in the meantime they are using a similar collaborative approach in India. 'During the workshops, we discovered that one of the old farmers, Nathai Kaka, knew how to weave with jute rope,' says Furunes. 'He taught the rest of the villagers so that all the parents wove a chair for their own child to use in the classroom.'

A sketch and side view of Foster + Partners’ Tecno-Nomos Desking System.
A sketch and side view of Foster + Partners' Tecno-Nomos Desking System.

This non-commercial, joint-effort method is a million miles away from most conventional firms' experience. The usual way is for architects to suggest that they also take on responsibility for elements of their building's interiors. 'A door handle is the handshake of a building,' says Adriana Natcheva, whose firm Groves Natcheva Architects designed 'a bronze handle that was made to measure to a client's hand'. Her latest piece of furniture was 'a simple desk made from a single piece of bent steel, with a leather mat on top held by magnets'.

Sideways view and readout of Foster + Partners’ Tecno-Nomos System.
Sideways view and readout of Foster + Partners' Tecno-Nomos System.

But the economics of such bespoke design are not always straightforward, and many architects find themselves pouring a disproportionate amount of time into pieces, even if they are 'just' door furniture. 'If you looked at it from a hard-nosed financial position you wouldn't do it. It would be taking me away from designing buildings,' says Nick Burwell. 'It's a question of how much love you're prepared to put into something, and love is free.'

Designer Adriana Natcheva’s unique door handle.
Designer Adriana Natcheva's unique door handle.

One way of recuperating this output is to get these beloved creations to market, an approach that Foster + Partners took in its early days. So a height-adjustable table designed for Renault was subsequently manufactured by Tecno as Nomos. Likewise, Burwell Deakins' very successful Connect lecture theatre seating, which was originally created for Loughborough Design School, has gone into production through Race Furniture.

Rostrum designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands for Bonhams.
Rostrum designed by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands for Bonhams.

And while Connect 'might be a loss leader', it will act 'as an introduction to people we don't know', says Burwell. 'We'll continue to develop Connect, because there'll be an awful lot of refurbishment work in the future. So it's an opportunity for us to demonstrate an understanding of our field, because people buy furniture more often than they buy new buildings.'

Foster + Partners brought its expertise to bear when designing Cathay Pacific’s first-class refresh seats. Photo Credit: Steve Wong.
Foster + Partners brought its expertise to bear when designing Cathay Pacific's first-class refresh seats. Photo Credit: Steve Wong.

The next step on the product design journey is to design items independent of an architect's architecture. This is how Foster + Partners' industrial design unit spends much of its time these days, says Holland. 'Our industrial designers also work independently, whether commissioned directly by manufacturers or developing self-initiated products that emerge from internal research and development.'

Foster + Partners brought its expertise to bear when designing Cathay Pacific’s first-class refresh seats. Photo Credit: Steve Wong.
Foster + Partners brought its expertise to bear when designing Cathay Pacific's first-class refresh seats. Photo Credit: Steve Wong.

Likewise, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands has recently produced the Coda range of street furniture for Woodhouse, and is now putting the finishing touches to a carbon-fibre and leather rostrum for Bonham's auction houses around the world. The rostrum has 'an incredible cantilevered structure that allows the auctioneer to hover above the ground', says director Alex Lifschutz. Explaining the economics behind such commissions he says: 'We typically work on a royalty basis, with both us and the manufacturer putting the initial development work and tooling into the project without charge.'

The Wing, Cathay Pacific’s first-class lounge benefitted from Foster + Partners’ expertise at utilising space. Photo Credit: John Nye
The Wing, Cathay Pacific's first-class lounge benefitted from Foster + Partners' expertise at utilising space. Photo Credit: John Nye

The very big cheeses of the architecture world are courted by manufacturers for their halo effect, of course. But Lifschutz warns that there could be a downside to this. Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands doesn't always badge its name on its products, 'especially where we feel it would put other designers off specifying them!'.

Cathay Pacific’s The Cabin, a departure lounge at Hong Kong airport, was also designed by Foster + Partners.
Cathay Pacific's The Cabin, a departure lounge at Hong Kong airport, was also designed by Foster + Partners.

While product designers train in their specialism, most architecture practices take the view that their existing staff are capable of taking on product commissions. 'Whether in large-scale such as buildings or small-scale such as jewellery, architects are designing for the end-user,' says Kutay at ZHA. 'Many of the same ideas and principles used in our architecture can be applied to our design for products.'

Burwell Deakins’ Connect lecture theatre seating has been so successful it’s now being commercially produced by Race Furniture.
Burwell Deakins' Connect lecture theatre seating has been so successful it's now being commercially produced by Race Furniture.

However, Foster + Partners is bucking this trend and is consciously building up its 10-strong industrial design team. On its books are an office furniture system, lounge seating, commercial and domestic lighting and aircraft interiors, as well as bespoke pieces for the practice's own building.

Despite the potential pitfalls of making product design profitable and productive within an architectural set-up, practitioners get something else out of it. 'We are very happy moving between the scale of architectural projects and product design,' says Natcheva.

And Burwell adds: 'It's a pleasure to do something different; it gives you a different perception of what design is about.' Which perhaps goes to show that, even for hard-pushed or hard-nosed architects, it's not all about the money.

From Milan 2014 Doriana and Massimiliano Fuksas

Doriana Fuksas describes her working relationship with her husband and two of their latest products just launched in Milan in April: 'It's very difficult to describe how we work and define us. Massimiliano and I are quite different, but we are very complimentary in the way we work.

portrait by fabio lovino
Portrait by Fabio Lovino

'At the moment I'm working on smaller projects because we have just finished Shenzen airport where we did exteriors and interiors together. We started doing products because in the early days we found it very difficult to find a table that suited our work.

'Also in the Nineties, clients started to ask us for pieces to put inside our buildings. So we started to propose pieces as well.

'It's really a labour of love, a tribute to the building, because there is no money for the interiors, the building absorbs everything. But if you love the building you do something for it.

'With industrial design it is different and that first started with us with the Biennale in 2000 with Alessi. We have a book about our product design called Fuksas: Object, that was published at the end of last year.'

Archivio for Venini

'Every time you start using a different material you have to start thinking in a different way. We went to Venini in Murano and seeing how they worked and the beautiful colours of the material was the starting point. We also understood they needed something very easy to make. They have masters who can do anything you want but it can be very expensive: they can take two days to make just one lamp.

Archivio for Venini
Archivio for Venini

So part of this is cast and part is handmade. The red is taken from Marco Polo and Chinese lanterns.'

Roy for Fiam

'Fiam is a father and son company who absolutely love their work and they transmit that. It's not like architecture. With architecture you can have a client in front of you who knows what they don't want, but doesn't know what they want.

roy
Roy for Fiam

But working with the people from Fiam is incredible. It's like it was with Giorgio Armani -- it becomes a friendship and a pleasure. We have done a few pieces including a glass-top table that has a magic mirror inside - you have to see it for yourself!'

From Milan 2014 Grimshaw Elements

During Milan, Grimshaw Architects turned the focus onto its Industrial Design Unit, with a retrospective exhibition, that also saw three new products launched in conjunction with Italian manufacturer Poltrana Frau.And all were displayed in elegant travelling cabinets also designed by Grimshaw.

Nicholas Grimshaw, deputy chairman Andrew Whalley, and head of industrial design Casimir Zdanius seated at the Elements table. Photo Credit: Poltrana Frau/Fabio Falcioni
Nicholas Grimshaw, deputy chairman Andrew Whalley, and head of industrial design Casimir Zdanius seated at the Elements table. Photo Credit: Poltrana Frau/Fabio Falcioni

The three design prototypes on show were planetarium seating designed for Grimshaw's latest project, the Patricia and Philip Frost Museum of Science in Miami, highly configurable Spine transit concourse seating and Elements -- an executive table that pushes the efficiencies of manufacturing and takes its aesthetic cues from 'the lean tailwings of various aerospace craft' and 'the mantidae insect family'.

This latter project also had the designers particularly excited as the prototype, turned around in barely three days by Poltrana Frau, had just arrived at the venue.

Casmir Zdanius and the new planetarium seat. Photo Credit: Poltrana Frau/Fabio Falcioni
Casmir Zdanius and the new planetarium seat. Photo Credit: Poltrana Frau/Fabio Falcioni

The exhibition itself is all about showcasing the degree of integration of design and architecture at Grimshaw's. Head of industrial design, Casimir Zdanius, says the unit's ouput now divides fairly evenly into what he calls product design and applied design - as in applied architectural elements.

'It began with industrial design for architectural details for buildings such as Waterloo (International Terminal, 1993) and Paddington Station (1998),' he says. 'It was about shape-making and performance, not using more steel in a casting than was needed.'

As far as product design is concerned, like many architects, there was an element of wanting to populate the interior of buildings: 'It's about taking a little bit more control of your architectural environment. The more we can be involved with furniture design, signage and all the architectural elements, the more we feel the overall architecture of the building has a cohesive identity.'

Blueprint editor Johnny Tucker is shown the Elements model. Photo Credit: Poltrana Frau/Fabio Falcioni
Blueprint editor Johnny Tucker is shown the Elements model. Photo Credit: Poltrana Frau/Fabio Falcioni

It has also now moved on to the point where they will look at the market to identify areas where they think there is a need for specific products, such as Elements.

Practice founder Nicholas Grimshaw takes the germination of the design unit back even further: 'I think you can look at the Herman Miller project in Chippenham in the early Eighties, where, for the first time, the relative size of a nut and a bolt and a washer actually really started to matter and was integral to the whole flexibility of the building.

'There's also the idea of industrial democracy, where panels and the like can be swapped. With the Igus headquarters (1992, Cologne) they have expanded it four times. It was industrial design for the outside of the building. Whereas cladding systems have panels that go on and stay there, this was all about putting it in the hands of the people. They could take it off and move it. And this all starts to permeate down into how you deal with the interior of the building as well. So it hasn't been a sudden shift for us.'





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