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.
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