Newman is known for her bold and colourful furniture, designed in her Clerkenwell studio and lovingly crafted only 35 miles away in Letchworth Garden City
Words by: Sophie Tolhurst
I've come to the studio of Jennifer Newman in Clerkenwell to interview her, but from the outset, she starts asking me questions – about the colourful things I’m wearing (Newman is known for her love of colour), my own interests and career. Having people visit her Clerkenwell studio – usually a steady stream of architects and designers – is a real pleasure for Newman, not just so she can promote her products, but for the chance of fruitful discussion. Inviting people in to collaborate is a move that, despite the creative industries’ supposed penchant for collaboration, continually surprises. As Newman recalls, ‘[Designers] say, “Do you mind us messing around with this?” My reply is, “No, not at all...” I mean, sometimes they’re giving me improvements.’ This comes across more matter-of-fact than humble; Newman is passionate but not precious about her designs and doesn’t become attached to any one idea. ‘It’s the same with cooking’, she says. ‘Once I’ve mastered a recipe, I’m just not interested.’ What motivates her instead is ‘just experimenting, just pushing boundaries’.
Trestle table with steel top, paired here with Block bench seat
This desire to push boundaries, materials, and tooling techniques is encouraged by the close working relationship with her factory team, whom she is determined to visit fortnightly and speaks to daily. Their latest experiments are with hot-rolled steel, which she gleefully points out in a nearby prototype, new and as yet unnamed. Newman’s welders are based in Letchworth Garden City in Bedfordshire, and over the years they have developed a strong relationship. Not only is a team now dedicated to working only on her products, they do so with great loyalty. ‘If [they] can see we’re up against it, they will work weekends,’ she tells me.
Newman’s earliest designs were not conceived of as a commercial range. When she came to furnish a house she was building in Wiltshire, that was ‘all sort of contemporary and modern’, she realised the furniture it needed just wasn’t being produced by anyone. ‘So I started scribbling on bits of paper and thought, hmmm, I might have a go at this,’ she explains. The first experiments went well: ‘As soon as I made a table for myself it would go walkabouts,’ Newman says. This happened again and again, and spurred on by her increasing disillusionment with the art world, where Newman had been enjoying a successful career as a painter, she moved into designing furniture full-time. She realised that what she ‘just adored doing’ in her back garden was something others could benefit from too.
During the steady rise of her business since, Newman has had her family by her side. Her husband, Bernard, an engineer, has been helping since that house in Wiltshire; her son Joe, ‘the gem upstairs’ and a trained accountant, left a ‘lucrative career’ to help out the family, and her other son, Chris, previously ran the business. Giving her family some rest, they have now been joined by ‘the Four Toms’ as she calls them – an engineer and three CAD technicians. ‘We’re a small team, but we pack a punch, I tell you. We really do. We don’t stop, all day.’ I imagine her passion and force of ambition is somewhat relentless and hard to resist. She says she ‘has too many ideas’, and that her team fear her return from a factory visit or meeting for what new plans she might come back with.
Triangle table and stools
Newman is glad not to have been formally trained in design – otherwise, she says, ‘I wouldn’t be doing anything the way I do.’ Her first foray into furniture used a material that she had become familiar with through painting, aluminium Alucobond, that is more commonly used for building cladding. She had been inspired by the ‘cleanness and crispness’ that the material gave her paintings, yet turning this into furniture was to be a greater challenge: ‘I didn’t realise at the time how difficult it is to weld in the stuff.’
It is expensive as a material, but also to work with, because of the expertise required. Of her first product, the Groove Table, she says: ‘It would have been madness to approach the product that way...it’s an all-welded piece and the logistics are a nightmare. But that purity, without the join, without the fixings, to have that very tactile edge, was crucial.’ The design process seems more proactive than reactive. Newman remains unaware of what her competitors are up to so as to avoid absorbing too many influences. She is instinctively drawn to materials, colours, and new opportunities. Working with form ‘like sculpture’, she can see the negative space as much as the positive, and is able to visualise how pieces will work in a space. The best part of the process, she says, is getting in at the beginning, ‘seeing the open space and saying, “right, we need to fill this” ’. She continues: ‘I’m really lucky actually that I can be plonked in a place and I don’t have trouble thinking of how I’m going to fill it at all... it just sort of comes…’ The studio’s first large commercial project was for Nokia. This was a thoroughly enjoyable process for Newman, and she compliments the company’s confidence with colour, saying that to this day she considers it a ‘barometer’ for her products. Newman now has an impressive portfolio of clients, including Google, Nike, Amazon, Waitrose, New Balance, Vodafone and University College London.
But with some of these high-profile names comes a lack of direct involvement, or even information about a project. Dealers and architects frequently bring Newman’s products to clients rather than them coming to the project directly from her. This is a crucial part of her business, but means that she doesn’t always know where her products end up. She recently heard through a friend that her tables were in Louis Vuitton’s Sydney store, and while she knows a little about how her tables are used in the Nike HQ – topped with whiteboards so that the designers can design straight on to them – she has not been able to get images of this. Given her desire for discussion around what she designs, she is dying to know about how these companies are using her products.
Tall Trestle table, here with a birch laminate top, paired with Angle stools
As her client list attests, her colourful work is becoming a byword for progressive and adaptive institutions, and she has recently been approached by a number of financial companies as well as by those in the increasingly financialised university sector. Workspace design that embodies these values is becoming increasingly important for the attraction and retention of staff or students. Yet while she is in demand, Newman would rather be honest if something doesn’t feel right. ‘[If there was] a situation where it could jeopardise a sale, I would still tell them [it wasn’t right],’ she says. ‘I have to know that I do my best all the time.’ It is perhaps this reputation for honesty as well as a commitment to sustainability (‘we have a massively good rating with FIRA’, she explains) that means that Spotify recently ordered products without having even seeing them.
Newman is best known for outdoor furniture and her use of colour, yet she tells me she actually produces more for interiors. As the balance of her business continues to evolve, she is also coming right back to where she started, and will once again offer residential products. More than a decade on from her first designs for her own home, she is keen to return to this market with all experience she has since gained. Newman notes she now has more time for research and development. She is already keenly pursuing a number of ideas, including a new colour range for outside surfaces. For this she developed a type of coloured lacquer that achieves brilliant colour while allowing the grain of the material and fabrication markings to show through, and a small groove in the surface prevents the colours from bleeding into one another. This allows for more bespoke application of colour that she can see is ideal for branding: ‘Instead of the clients having a brand name up on the wall...we put the brand colours within the furniture.’ And all without using a ‘Formica top’, or obscuring the materials used: this colour range simultaneously showcases the material finesse of the products, and the brand’s identity.
Newman’s ideas continue to proliferate, and she has recently started working with a company that produces renders – to realise those ideas that she wouldn’t otherwise have time to prototype. She is also looking for investment opportunities, whereas until now her company has been entirely self-funding. ‘So I’m trying to find ways to take shortcuts – and I’ve only just realised that with talking to you!’ she says.
Before I leave, she asks me a final question: ‘I need more guys… I need more people working on these all the time … know anybody that’s free?’