Upside Up has been founded by Angharad Lewis, the editor of graphic design website Grafik.net. The crowdfunding website opens today with two projects – one created by the studio A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL), the other by designers Laura Carlin and Ben Branagan.
APFEL have produced Pellicci, a marquetry tray inspired by the fact that APFEL's studio in Bethnal Green was a former marquetry factory. The name of the tray is owed to Bethnal Green's Pellicci’s café, the walls of which are covered in marquetry. Rather than utilise the traditional, highly ornate qualities of marquetry, AFEl have used it to produce a highly graphic product.
Carlin and Branagan have created Stacked Bowls, a series of ceramic vessels that slot into one another to form totem. The collection, which will eventually be expanded to 10 pieces, is created in a potworks in Stoke-on-Trent, a traditional ceramics area in the north of England.
Over the coming months, Upside Up will launch further products from the likes of Anthony Burrill, Michael Marriot, The Entente and Astrid Stavro. Below, Disegno talks to Upside Up's founder Lewis about the motivation behind the platform, its business model and why graphic designers are interested in product design.
Why introduce graphic designers into product design?
The idea came from my background at Grafik magazine, where I became familiar with the way graphic designers work. I observed a lot of really interesting research – work with materials and processes – that would happen in the course of their commissioned work, but which didn’t really have an outcome in the finished commissioned work. They didn’t have a way to develop that into an end product.
What’s the model behind Upside Up?
It’s like a mini Kickstarter. These objects can’t be vanity projects. There has to be a market that will invest in them and to make it feasible for these objects to exist. So we get these objects to a finished prototype stage and document that process on the website. Then you buy these objects as a pre-order and the money that people put upfront goes up to actually producing the editions. So each object stands and falls on whether enough people want to buy it and invest in making it happen, with profit from the items then split between the designers and Upside Up. The idea is that the people buying it are the catalyst to making it happen.
But what’s the advantage to the designers and consumers to use Upside Up over Kickstarter?
It’s a more focused world and it’s closely curated. The Upside Up brand will always present objects made by very strong graphic designers. There are a lot of amazing projects on Kickstarter, but it’s a really diverse platform, so we want to promote an idea of collectability. There are people who want to invest in interesting pieces of design and they know that if they go to Upside Up there will always be something new by interesting people.
How does the curation work? How much do you guide the design of the pieces?
The designers are people I have encountered through my time as a graphic design writer and people I find interesting because they sit within this idea of being research-focused and working with a diverse range of materials. The brief is very open because with people like that there is no shortage of great ideas. My involvement is varied. I’m there as much as they need me. Or not, as the case may be.
Do you handle the manufacture, or does that fall to the designers?
It’s collaborative. It’s all new processes for all of us, so we’re researching and learning along the way. With APFEL for example they researched the marquetry process and that led the design. They visited a few different workshops and found a carpenter to work with on the body of the tray. Whereas with Ben and Laura, they had a very interesting process of finding a ceramics factory in Stoke. They looked at the whole history of that area as a traditional one for the manufacture of pottery. So far the designers have been very hands on.
Why work through you then? Why not go directly to a manufacturer?
These are people who may have had ideas brewing in the back of their mind and I’m providing the impetus to make it happen. People get very wrapped up in their day to day practice. Upside Up provides a route to make these ideas happen. It’s in getting the product out there to an interesting audience where our role comes in strongly.
Are there challenges with graphic designers working with manufacturers? It’s not necessarily a world they’re familiar with.
It’s a case of working with specialists who know about manufacture. But it is interesting to look at this idea of graphic designers making products, because I think it’s something that is happening increasingly. Independent designers and illustrators are increasingly supplementing their practice by making things for sale. There is a lot of that out there and I wanted to push that to a bit of a different level – make things that feel more complete than prints, tea towels and tote bags.
If you’re working on pre-orders to fund the manufacture of the products, how do you safeguard against unforeseen costs?
We try to be careful but there are unforeseen things obviously. You have to learn as you go along and absorb the costs as best as you can. It’s a little bit experimental at the moment. The pressure is on to sell out both these first editions and make it succeed.