Up and Coming
International, furniture designers


Brian Eno is playing, green tea is brewing, and there are half-finished projects and prototypes stacked up round the place. I could be in any East London live-work space. But as I talk more to my hosts — Marc Bell and Robin Grasby of the emerging London design firm International — I realize there’s something simple that sets these two Northumbria grads apart from the thousands of hip creatives populating this corner of the city. They started the studio a year or so back with the intention of doing something a little out of fashion in the design world: “Our approach is quite commercial,” admits Grasby. “We are looking to create a mass-produced product.” Yes, he’s used the c-word — and it isn’t “crafted.”

By opting for production, rather than taking advantage of London’s buoyant collectors’ market, the two are aware they’re taking a tougher route. Bell puts it plainly: “Rather than shapes we enjoy making or colors we like, our designs really are function-led.” Their work always seems to boil down to intended use, and at this stage they aren’t interested in seeing their pieces in galleries.

But while there have only been a handful of designs released to date, International have been getting the right kind of attention. Their first project, Maintenance, a series of modular household cleaning tools in maple and aluminum, caught the eye of Wallpaper magazine, who awarded them Best Housekeeping in their 2011 design awards. It’s their Apollo light, however — a series of interchangeable anodized light shades that slot together onto standard light fittings — that truly put them on the map. The project took third prize in the [D]3 Contest Innovation Award (a competition for self-initiated projects at Cologne, Germany’s annual furniture fair). Entering was a bit of a last-minute decision, they tell me; they were finishing Apollo right up until the deadline, carrying it on as hand luggage on their flight. But the gamble paid off. The project flooded the design blogs and manufacturers are in touch to get them into production. With two awards to date they are on a roll.

The two both hold full-time jobs — Grasby makes work for Damien Hirst, while Bell holds a post at a contract furniture manufacturer — but they spend every spare moment working on International, sketching and making in the evenings, talking through ideas when they are down the pub. They live and work together, having converted an old second-floor office into a workshop/living space. “We’re very lucky to have somewhere to live and work and while it’s kind of messy and awkward at times, it really has made such a big difference to our work,” Grasby tells me. “But you do often get covered in sawdust when you sit on the sofa.”

Favorite thing you’ve ever made:
Bell: “The remote control balsa-wood aircraft I made when I was 10. I built it from scratch, with an engine and controls. I’ve always been fascinated by things that fly. I started my model-making at a young age. It taught me a lot about construction techniques and how things work, which is a very useful skill to have when your are designing.”

Favorite material to work with:
Grasby: “I worked for several years as a joiner at a brilliant father-and-son workshop in south London. They taught me an enormous amount and I’ve loved working with wood ever since. But our fascination with industrial manufacturing has led us to all sorts of materials. We have a function-led design approach, so different materials become relevant according to varying utilities.”

Best place to shop for materials:
Grasby: “Whitten timber yard in Peckham.”

Claire Walsh is a London-based editor at Stylus. She writes about design and travel and occasionally works as a stylist. She is the author of the Wallpaper* City Guide to Helsinki and of books including Interior of London Style, from the Japanese publisher Editions de Paris. 

International-Studio_Apollo v2

Inspiration behind your Apollo light: “My dad had been given an old Poul Henningsen Artichoke Light by some Danish friends,” says Grasby. “It was in pieces when it arrived, so he gave it to us to fix. It was really complicated to put back together. We are interested in trying to simplify systems for use.”


Bell: “So for our own lighting design we began to explore the idea of using a standard fitting for a light shade, and then letting the user adapt it. Once we got ahold of that idea, the light really developed. In our process, we looked into astronautics, and the forms began to take inspiration from some of the craft used in NASA’s Apollo missions. Apollo is also the Greek god of the sun, which was a handy coincidence!”


Event that made you want to become designer: Grasby: “I grew up round design. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side taught architecture at the Bauhaus before he and his family were evacuated to Britain during World War II. My father and his father were both architects. After retiring my grandfather made incredible clocks in the workshop in his attic. His hand-made Wimshurst machine, and him teaching me to ‘blue’ steel, are some of my earliest memories.”


Favorite tool in your workshop: Bell: “An industrial sewing machine. A retired upholsterer, who I worked with, gave it to me. He used it for years and wanted to pass it on to me so that I could improve my skills. I have started to learn the basics and managed to upholster the sofa that we have in the studio as a first project!”


Favorite everyday object: Bell: “My cup. It’s a Falcon (old British brand) enamel beaker. I like everything about it. The proportions, the color. It’s sturdy, it’s well made. Pressed and then enamelled.”


Favorite object you own: Bell: “My paraglider. It’s such a simple design solution to a very complicated requirement. The design of the wing is so simple; stitched fabric over the frame, and harness. You can fly for hours. I have wanted to do it for years, and finally started training last year. I use it as a way to escape London on weekends.” Grasby: “My bike. I built it myself. I'm always into the mechanics behind things, and it seems a lot more fun riding something you know inside out. It has a beautiful Viking frame from the 1960's. Viking won the Tour of Britain five times in that decade.”


Favorite design object: Grasby: “I always look for the Eames DSW chair in design stores. Wooden dowel legs, black framework, and fiberglass seat. I just think it’s the most beautiful balance of materials, it’s an icon of great proportion. But I like that the bolts and the pressure joints are exposed. You can see how the entire thing works.”


Favorite design ritual: Bell: “For me the best bit is working out problems. When we are talking things through, and you come up with a solution, and you know you’ve got a product to make.” Grasby: “We always make a good breakfast before we start working. Loads of eggs and loads of coffee. I suppose it’s not actually the working bit.”


Do you collect anything? Bell: “We’ve started a collection of little, simple things that we like. Zips, stools… we keep adding to it.” Grasby: “I like sifting through old tools at carboots. I look for simple hand tools that are hard to get hold of now.”


What are you reading? Grasby: “I’ve been reading a book about the elements recently. I’ve been researching the periodic table and I’ve found all of these alternative designs that are spherical and more organic. They make more complete sense in some ways, but are harder to read. It’s a different way of how to present cold hard facts.”


What are you watching? Grasby (right): “I watch a lot of How It’s Made on the Discovery Channel. It’s just footage from factory floors, with cheesy background music and puns. Bizarre but incredible. They pick four products per show. It’ll be a surfboard, a wheelchair, a wooden duck... and lots of food that will put you off eating it ever, like fish fingers. But it’s incredible seeing the processes in place to make all this stuff.”


Designer you most you admire: Grasby: “Jasper Morrision. He has such an interesting approach to the actual essence of an object. He looks at how it effects the people who will use it and interact with it. And his work also looks amazing.”


Last place you visited that inspired you? Bell: “I visited a foundry in Birmingham recently.You walked in and there was a thick black smoky atmosphere. Nothing modern in it, huge old machines, aluminum all over the floor and stacks of casts. All of the employees had blackened faces, thick with soot. It was as if you had stepped back 50 years. Being there made me really want to do some casting. Factory spaces are the best places to get inspired. It’s amazing to see how these places work.”


If you had an unlimited budget what would you design? Bell: “All of the ideas we have but can’t afford to make yet. The opportunity to work with new materials. I’d like to look into doing cast work, glasswork and ceramics.”


Right now International is: Bell: “A studio at the beginning of a push to be something full time.”