Did Clerkenwell Design Week surprise me?
Following on from my post about how I had low expectations about Clerkenwell Design Week (CDW), I feel it's only right that I give it a review after a visit, as much of my opinion was formed by looking at their pre-event promotional material.
I went partly out of curiosity, but mainly to go see a friend who was manning Deadgood's stall, which was a beautiful melange of their new collection of furniture, lit from above by some of their lights. It was interesting going with a non-designer friend from work, who was perhaps thinking I'd offer insights into what was on show at CDW, from a designer's eye. Although I did my best to sound like I knew what I was talking about, the truth is, there was little I could say except categorise things into different styles, which doesn't take an industrial design student to do.
When you have floor after floor of immaculate-looking stands, it was hard for companies to stand out, when there were probably 99 other Scandinavian-inspired chairs for sale in the same building. You got powder-coated wire furniture fatigue. It can all get a bit sickly.
There were however, a few notable exceptions to the rule, one of them being the iconic German camera manufacturer, Leica. Their concession in the “design store” part of the CDW Design Factory told a story about their obsession with materials and manufacturing processes. OK, maybe you were put off by their slightly corny video, which, aside from the voice-over, I actually enjoyed. In the store, they showcased the process of making the Leica T from a solid block of aluminium. You could pick it up, feel the strokes of the milling head, and see how they are gradually sanded and polished out.
I’m not sure how “designer” goods became these things that show no connection with their process. Talking to some of the exhibitors, it became clear that many companies just design the furniture, and send the drawings off to manufacturers, carpenters and other craftsmen. I don’t have any problem with that. However, others think there is scope for change.
Gareth Jones, former Product Director at Dyson, and lecturer at the RCA, talking at last week’s London Hardware Collective Meetup, thinks it is much better to manufacture everything in-house, in Britain. He believes the higher costs of labour and rent are often offset by increased control over manufacturing, citing Brompton folding bicycles, in west London, and Triumph motorbikes, in Hinckley, as successful examples. This results in fewer miscommunications, fewer discarded parts, and a much better product. Aside from a patriotic feeling I get when supporting British manufacturing, the interesting aspect of manufacturing in-house for me, as a designer, is how industrial designers can produce much better work when they challenge, and rethink manufacturing processes.
Pushing and challenging manufacturing is much easier when your company is employing the people that are telling you it can’t be done. As I learnt working at Blaze, the easy thing for manufacturers to do is to say no. Without seeing for yourself why it’s not possible, industrial designers are limited as to what they can learn from that experience. Instead of revising the manufacturing process, you are blindly forced to adapt your design to a different process. A true industrial design process is a constant to-ing and fro-ing between the designers and the manufacturers, such that the supply chain is integrated into the design process. This is why Apple’s supply chain is often regarded as one of the best in the world. Jony Ive sees design and manufacture as one.
Even if they don’t necessarily have the world’s greatest supply chain, most design firms at CDW will have some involvement in making or manufacturing their products. The hoards of people who come to spend decent money on “designer” furniture and lighting still want to feel like they are getting good value. If I was in the market to buy that kind of stuff, I’d like to understand why their products cost what they do. Having a “designer” label isn’t enough.
I would want to know that somebody has been to Finland to inspect the grains of different hardwoods. I would want to know that somebody has been into every hardware shop in London to find the right kind of bolt to join the legs together. I would want to know that somebody has sat on fifty different types of foam to fill the seat with.
These are of course exaggerations, but these are the details that distinguish “designer” goods from high street flatpack goods. These are the details that justify their high prices. I do believe people want to hear those stories. It would benefit the design community, as people like us are more interested in the process than the finished object. I’d like to think “designer” labels are more than just a marketing ploy.
So, in answer to my question, "Did Clerkenwell Design Week surprise me?", the answer is no. Designers, let’s step up our game.