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.
If you were familiar only with Uhuru’s work, it would be enough to surmise that the Brooklyn-based furniture designers are experts at creating something beautiful from practically nothing. (The formal term for this, we’re told, is up-cycling.) In the half-decade since RISD grads Jason Horvath and Bill Hilgendorf have been designing their own line, they’ve produced chairs from Kentucky bourbon barrels, loungers from the Ipe wood planks of a demolished Coney Island boardwalk, and scrapwood stools so stylish they were recently picked to decorate the café at New York’s SANAA-designed New Museum. But while it's true Uhuru are a resourceful bunch, step into their sprawling Red Hook studio and any assumptions you might have about their bootstraps process all but disappear.
As the youngest child of a Parisian architect — with three older brothers working in the same field — Victoria Wilmotte had one thing going for her when she started studying furniture design at London's RCA four years ago. But she also had a few handicaps: she was only 20 years old, she had just been rejected from Paris's ENSCI school, and her professor at RCA, Jurgen Bey, couldn't comprehend her strange working methods. Obsessed with materials and surfaces, she wanted to spend all her time in the workshop, skipping the thinking and brainstorming part and going directly to prototyping. "Jurgen Bey was really into concepts," says Wilmotte, now 24. "He was more about a table telling stories, but I only wanted to talk technically. He basically said, 'I don’t understand you. But continue.'"
For Uglycute, it all began with a Bruno Matthson knockoff. It was 1999 and Swedish design was having a moment, but not, it seemed to the group’s four fledgling members, for the kinds of edgy experimental crafts and artistic hybrids being made by the emerging scene at the time — Wallpaper magazine and its ilk were still peering into the long shadows of Sweden’s old modernist icons. And so architecture grad Fredrik Stenberg and artists Jonas Nobel, Andreas Nobel, and Markus Degerman vented their frustration in the only way they knew how: by mounting a show around a sarcastic simulacrum of Matthson’s Eva chair made from a clunky particle-board box and cheap nylon straps. Complemented by a set of primitive clay pinch pots and a crude plywood table, the installation served as a launch pad for the group, and its subject matter — elevating cheap materials in order to question traditional norms of beauty and value — lent their firm its distinctive name. “It was meant as a new take on formalistic values,” says Nobel, who with the other three partners has since built a thriving practice known for its work with museums and clients like Cheap Monday.