London Design Festival

The Wish List

London

16 September 2014

Kintbury in Berkshire is idyllic. A village set amongst rows of white poplars, it is the home of Benchmark, a wooden furniture manufacturer and workshop established by designers Sir Terence Conran and Sean Sutcliffe in 1984.

Barnby & Day's finished laminated wooden table for Alex de Rijke

While Barnby and Day's table is smaller in scale than Endless Stair, it brought its own technical challenges. The profile of the piece needed to be finalised on a high-tech lathe, the use of which Barnby likens to "standing under a helicopter rotor and sticking a chisel in. We had to bring a special inverter from Scotland to bring the speed down.” Barnby however believes that such challenges resonate with the current design climate and its appetite for craft-inflected work.

“Craft is back in the limelight and being reinterpreted afresh for a new generation,” says Barnby. "People seem far more in touch with where the products they buy are coming from and what they are meant to do. There's a handful of small businesses like ourselves doing interesting things, and people genuinely seem to be taking the time to engage with their stories which is fantastic.”

Here, among the machines, timber stores and quasi-bucolic work yards, a group of young designers spent one week this summer developing a series of new wooden objects, many of them choosing to camp in bell tents in the landscape that surrounds the Benchmark compound. From elaborate desks, to tiny pencil sharpeners and ladders that cap out in leather seats, the results are eclectic to say the least.

These objects are the outcome of The Wish List, a project now being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum for this year’s London Design Festival. Developed by Conran, Benchmark, the London Design Festival and the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), it presents a compelling model for commissioning introducing emerging designers' work to a larger public.

Norie Matsumoto consults Lord Foster on the design of pencil sharpeners for him

The Wish List has a simple premise. Earlier this year, Conran wrote to 10 of his colleagues in design (older, established statesmen such as Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Alison Brooks, Alex de Rijke, Amanda Levete and Paul Smith) and set them a question: “What have you always wanted in your home, but have never been able to find?” Each designer was then asked to work with an emerging practice to execute that piece. The older designer would set the brief, the younger would act on it.  

It is the Hadids, Smiths and Fosters who have garnered most of the headlines around the project, but it is the 10 emerging studios who are the real focus of The Wish List, as well as those who stand to gain the most from it. It is an opportunity for these practices not only to collaborate with figures as established as Hadid and Foster, but also a platform for their work to be exhibited in the V&A, a museum with an international reach and which serves as the hub of London Design Festival.

It is a considerable commission for these designers, who include among their number Felix de Pass (who completed the 2013 redesign of Disegno’s office on Kingsland Road); Nathalie Du Leval, a former sculptor; and furniture designers Robert Barnby and Lewis Day. It is a cast of comparative unknowns, but that is of course the point. "It is a project that looks to the future in so many ways and that always gets my pulse racing,” says Conran, the founder of both Habitat and The Conran Shop. "The Wish List resonates with many of my core beliefs – I have always believed in supporting and educating design talent."

Xenia Moseley stood by her red oak ladder while Ab Rogers tests it

The variety of the objects designed for the project is the result of a comparatively open brief. Beyond the guidance of their collaborator, the young designers were free to work as they saw fit, the only proviso being that they were to use American hardwoods supplied by AHEC. The results are familiar household items, but ones that are elevated by their materiality and construction. Norman Foster's tulipwood pencil sharpeners (designed by furniture designer Norie Matsumoto), for instance, can shave three different size of pencil to a perfect edge; Richard and Ab Rogers worked with designer Xenia Mosely to create a lightweight red wood ladder that peaks in a leather seat and bentwood armrest, forming a domestic umpire’s chair. Studio Areti, a collaboration between Gwendolyn and Guillane Kerschbaumer, designed a suite of white oak and walnut architectural elements for John Pawson.

The results are whimsical and eccentric – as perhaps befits the nature of the commission – but nonetheless feed into the wider ambitions of the project’s partners. AHEC has long used the London Design Festival as an opportunity to promote American hardwoods, regularly commissioning large-scale installations from studios such as dRMM and David Adjaye as a showcase for the materials.

Elements from Gwendolyn and Guillane Kerschbaumer's suite of white oak and walnut architectural elements for John Pawson

But it is a less ostentatious previous AHEC project with which The Wish List most closely shares its DNA. In 2012 AHEC collaborated with Benchmark on [Out of the Woods](http://disegnodaily.com/features/the-problem-with-design-education, a project in which design students from the Royal College of Art were invited to develop chairs in a week-long making process at the Kintbury studio. As will be hoped with The Wish List, the resulting V&A exhibition was a significant profile boost for the contributing students, with Marjan van Aubel and Jamie Shaw’s Well Proven Chair being nominated for the Design Museum’s 2013 Design of the Year Award.

A major theme of Into the Woods was the introductory role it served. The contributing students had various degrees of manufacturing experience prior to arriving at Benchmark. Yet those participating in The Wish List are all practicing designers. Indeed, Paul Smith says that he chose to collaborate with furniture designer Nathalie de Leval because of her practical skills. “Having first met Nathalie a few years ago, I chose to work with her because I was very impressed that she was a real carpenter,” he says. "She's worked the wood herself and also runs a workshop as well which in today's commercial world is very difficult to do.”

Production underway on Nathalie de Leval's shed for Sir Paul Smith

Smith and de Leval’s project is a shed ("I've always liked the idea of entering a different world in your shed, sort of like Mr Benn,” says Smith. You can imagine that in gardens all over the world a lot goes on in sheds”), but one that extends beyond basic woodwork and into something with significant architectural features, the replacement of the rear elevation with a metal frame window chief among them. "Getting the balance and the stability right was not easy,” says Smith, but de Leval remained optimistic throughout the project. “I’m very excited to be working with Paul Smith,” she says. “Its certainly not something that happens every day. He has very little time but is very concise. He had some little scraps of paper with some initial thoughts and a few ideas and at the bottom it said ‘shed' and 'I quite like the sound of this one'." 

This form of collaboration required refinement over the course of the making week and, unlike de Leval and Smith, many of the participating designers were unaware of one another before the project began. “It doesn’t feel like your usual line up of designers and I’d not heard of many of them which made it a really interesting list” says Felix de Pass, who had not met his collaborator, architect Alison Brooks, before being paired with her. “There’s a whole spectrum of different types of designers making different types of objects, not all working in the same medium and so on.”

Felix de Pass and Alison Brooks work on their stools

To combat this lack of familiarity, the project aimed to foster a collegial atmosphere. Many of the participants began their days by swimming in the stream that runs through the woods at the Benchmark site, and all participants stopped in the workshops for communal lunches. A visit to the site suggested a kind of mini-festival for design practitioners.

“There's a real push and energy coming from small scale designers,” says Robert Barnby, who collaborated with Alex de Rijke, one of the directors of architecture firm dRMM. De Rijke describes his philosophy as being “wood is the new cement” and he commissioned Barnby and his partner Lewis Day to produce a dining table built from cross-laminated timber, the same material that he himself had used last year to create Endless Stair, an Escher-like nest of staircases exhibited by AHEC at the 2013 London Design Festival.

Zaha Hadid's vessels, designed by Gareth Neal, required an upgrade to Benchmark's CNC machinery to be produced

This hands-on quality was essential to the project, with many of the designers forced to solve significant problems arising from trying to execute their commissioners’ designs. Furniture designer Gareth Neale, for instance, was commissioned by Zaha Hadid to create a series of chest-height sculptural vessels, the creation requiring an expensive update to Benchmark’s CNC equipment. While this computer technology was an aid, a large amount of hand finishing was still required to actualise Hadid’s design.

“This is by far the most ambitious, advanced, ridiculously complicated piece of furniture I’ve ever made and probably ever will,” says designer Sebastian Cox, commissioned by Conran to create a desk. The resultant design grew to become a cocoon-like room-within-a-room. Bookshelves bookend the desk, while rounded woven coppiced panels cover the back and create a funnel to a wide entrance to the front. “The level of detailing, the craftsmanship and sheer beauty of my cocoon took my breath away” says Conran. “I can't wait to get working inside it, bursting out like a beautiful humming-bird hawkmoth!”

Sir Terence Conran sat at his desk designed by Sir Terence Conran

Yet alongside bespoke, showpiece products such as Cox and Neale's, other objects arising from The Wish List are more industrially inflected. Brooke and de Pass’s wooden stool took inspiration from ideas around how a stool might create a more dynamic and interactive living space. The pair reasoned that while a chair is inherently static, a stool encourages people to gather at will and move around a space more easily. “Its really hard to find a well designed stool,” says Brooks. "Chairs sell better than stools”, but I think it’s a misunderstood market. People underestimate the potential of stools. But the subtle shape Felix created for the seat of his stool is so wonderful, its really magic how he worked it carefully out of the wood.”

“Right from the beginning Alison and I were in agreement that the project should be conceived of not as a one-off but as a production, so not to be too self indulgent,” agrees de Pass, for whom the project has also provided greater insight into the business of furniture design. This, you feel, is likely to be the chief legacy of The Wish List. It is a project intended to benefit those who have participated in it, presenting a new model for patronship in which established figures within the design industry play an active role in promoting the careers of those at the beginnings of their working lives.

“It’s a tricky career, a furniture designer," says de Pass. “This was a very interesting way for me to work with a producer and an architect from the start. Normally I create a prospective piece and then link up with architects or a location or a requirement to create an initial order. But this has changed the way I might think about all of this, perhaps linking up with an order or architects or a location first. Then the initial investment takes care of itself.”