Industrial Facility


6 January 2013

“Look at your pen,” says Sam Hecht, the co-founder of Industrial Facility. Next to him, the studio's other co-founder Kim Colin looks at my pen. It’s a Uni-Ball Eye Fine, designed by Mitsubishi. UB157 red. “Here’s what’s wrong with it.”

Hecht’s interest in my pen is unsurprising; Industrial Facility is a design studio defined by its attention to detail. The practice is not interested in artistic statements or promoting a brand image. Instead, it produces simple, carefully designed responses to a client’s brief. “We’re often put in the same conversation as designers like Tom Dixon and Ron Arad,” says Hecht. “But that’s a mistake. They’re on their own, personal trajectory. We’re not.”

The studio was founded in 2002, when Hecht and Colin were working at the design consultancy IDEO. Hecht is a London-born industrial designer who studied at the RCA, while Colin trained as an architect at SCI-Arc in her native California. From the beginning, the pair have been joined at Industrial Facility by the designer Ippei Matsumoto, whom Hecht had previously worked with in Japan.

“The idea behind the studio was that we would combine our disciplines,” says Colin. “Product designers are typically thinking about the object: the surface of the object, the edges of the object and that’s where it stops. They’re not thinking about context so much and architecture is all about context.” Last year, the studio celebrated its 10th anniversary. “It was a nice moment to reflect,” says Hecht. “We had a party.”

There is a lot to reflect on. Over the past decade Industrial Facility has worked with brands including Issey Miyake, Herman Miller, Established & Sons, Louis Vuitton and, most importantly, Muji: the studio’s first client and a brand to which Hecht remains contracted. But more than the diversity of clients, it is the breadth of projects that surprises. Hecht and Colin have designed a cycling shirt and an electric piano, through to an aluminium chair and fold-away hairdryer. There is little to connect the individual projects beyond Industrial Facility’s attitude towards design: “Every project should move seamlessly into the world,” says Hecht. “It should not create attention.”

Alumi chair for Tectona (2012)

Now sat in their Clerkenwell studio drinking coffee and water, Industrial Facility’s attention is on my pen. Hecht starts turning it over in his hands. “It’s been printed with things like ‘waterproof’ and ‘fadeproof’,” he says, bringing it up to his eyes. “But you’ve already bought it. So why do you need to be reminded every day that it’s waterproof and fadeproof? And there’s a barcode printed here: what do you need that for? You’ve bought it, it’s done.” “That’s signage that’s there for the moment of purchase, but you don’t need that for living with it,” says Colin. “So that’s the first thing that’s wrong with it,” finishes Hecht.

Deciding what a customer needs is important to the studio. Hecht and Colin describe themselves as being on the side of the consumer, but not necessarily on the side of the clients who commission their work. When approached to develop a project, Hecht and Colin make a single proposal and frequently challenge the brief they have been set.

The studio’s Branca Chair (2010) for the wooden furniture company Mattiazzi is a prime example. The Branca is made from thin, colour-stained ash tubes - as one might expect from Mattiazzi - but also contains features not requested by the company: arms, a lightweight frame, the option to stack the chairs on top of one another. “Those were all conditions that we felt were important for modern times,” says Hecht. “The Branca Chair was never, ever asked to be stackable, but how can you buy a chair that can’t stack?”

The Branca’s focus on use in the real world is a statement of Industrial Facility’s sympathies. Rather than pursuing a defined aesthetic or character, the studio is concerned with function. Whereas many designers’ signature pieces are dramatic and highly-wrought - Marcel Wanders’ Knotted Chair, Konstantin Grcic’s Chair ONE - Industrial Facility’s are unashamedly everyday: the putty coloured LaCie Little Disk hard drives (2006); the Ten Key Calculator (2007); the plastic Muji Toilet Brush (2007). All of the studio’s projects are focused on how they might blend into a user’s life. “We still get letters that praise that toilet brush,” says Colin. “People say they’re just the right thing.”

Ten Key calculator for IDEA (2007)

Yet in spite of this attitude, there is an Industrial Facility aesthetic. The studio favours plain, boxy shapes and its products are finished in block colours: red, black and white. The simplicity recalls Dieter Rams, but the products lack the starkness of Rams’ work for Braun; there is a gleeful quality in the way that Industrial Facility’s products are finished. The thickset, tactile casing of the Bell clock (2009) is a joyful parody of an alarm clock, and the oversized keys of the Ten Key Calculator are more reminiscent of a nursery toy than an office tool. For a studio inspired by function, Industrial Facility’s work is surprisingly fun.

The Ten Key's use of computer keys is nostalgic, playing into the low-tech aesthetics of computing's past. It is a style evident in much of the studio's work. The dual-faced Two Timer clock (2009) - a clock designed to show two different time zones - shuns any digital means of meeting its aim. Instead it collides two analogue, 1960s-style airport clocks together in a single aluminium casing.

The discussion of aesthetics returns Hecht and Colin’s attention to the pen on the table. “This is obviously a red pen,” says Hecht. “But under the cap the plastic is black. So what’s going on? It’s not really communicating anything to the customer. Furthermore, the barrel is made from clear plastic, which is a virgin plastic. So it’s not coming from a recycled plastic. The list of problems with this pen goes on.”

Two Timer clock for Established & Sons (2009)

Hecht and Colin’s concern with the pen is born out of the studio’s inquisitiveness. In 2011 the studio published Usefulness in Small Things, a book displaying a collection of small, mass-produced items that Hecht had purchased while travelling; each item costing less than £5. The book is a celebration and critique of the everyday: lighters, ketchup bottles, cones, pots and ice cream scoops. Industrial Facility's products have a highly mannered aesthetic, but the studio is nonetheless accepting of and strongly affectionate towards more mundane items. Both Hecht and Colin are sensitive towards existing environments; their products are intended to complement, not overshadow or replace.

Industrial Facility is a purposefully small studio, perhaps in part reaction to its origins at the large, international IDEO. Beyond Hecht, Colin and Matsumoto, its only other employees are the designers Philipp Von Lintel and Petra Schmidt. As a result of its size, the studio is relatively unprolific - completing just three projects in 2012 - but it is highly theoretical, prizing itself on the level of thought behind each project. Early on in the creation of any new product, the studio devises a macro and micro viewpoint of the design process: the micro to examine the details of the design; the macro to identify what the overriding nature of the design should be.

This two-tiered system was on display in the studio’s Cantilever (2008) an electronic piano concept that the studio developed for Yamaha. Cantilever moved away from traditional styling and instead housed the instrument inside two white plastic cuboids, stacked to form a gleaming lectern.

Cantilever piano for Yamaha (2008)

“With the micro you need to understand how a piano functions, the components that are involved and why they are the way they are,” says Hecht. “But we build that knowledge simultaneously with understanding what the point of a digital piano is. That’s the macro viewpoint. Why do electric pianos look like grand pianos when they don’t need to?”

“I think as designers you become interested in points of view about the world and the way the world makes sense,” says Colin. “The world is continually not making sense, with things coming along that don’t fit. That calls into question your design philosophy. That’s part of the nature of our discussion: finding out the nature of our values and what it means if we stay committed to them. Design has to be philosophical.”

But what is the Industrial Facility philosophy? “We always say that we don’t have the Renaissance point of view that the human is the centre of the universe,” says Colin. “That idea was that all viewpoints come back to the human, but we say that humans are on par with everything else. Everything has its own point of view; everything is perspectival.” Colin picks up my pen for the last time. “In relation to this pen, the classical model would be all about the hand.”

“Kim’s right,” adds Hecht. “The classical model would say ‘The pen is for the hand and writing, and that is what is important.’ But really, it has as much to do with the pocket you put it in, the pencil case you put it in, the table that it’s resting on or the notebook that it’s attached to as it does to your hand when you’re writing with it.”

Bell clock for IDEA (2009)

Hecht takes the pen from Colin’s hand. “In this case, you have a metal clip which is a separate component and another component holding that clip in place,” he says. “But how many times do you put it on your coat? Yet you have a pen with a clip on. That’s the level of detail we look at as a studio. As a practice, we’re founded on the belief that design should make some acknowledgement that everything has its own level of importance and everything is connected.”

He puts the pen back down on the table. “And those are all the things that are wrong with this pen.”

I look at the pen that is now rolling around the table, clinking into the half-drunk cups of coffee and empty glasses of water. It’s covered in barcodes, has confusing colouring and uses non-recycled plastic. And it has a metal clip I don’t use.

“I think I hate my pen now,” I say.

“Go to Muji,” says Colin. “You’ll be much happier.”