Report

Terence Woodgate's Solid

London

7 May 2014

Articles about designer Terence Woodgate invariably mention understatement. “The quiet man of British furniture,” ran a profile in The Observer, while fashion writer Tamsin Blanchard assessed his public profile thusly: "Unless you are a design aficionado, however, or one of his friends, you will probably not have heard of Woodgate.”

It is a reputation that stems from the strain of modest, modernist design that Woodgate, a Royal Designer for Industry, typically practices. He trained as a design engineer in the 1980s and eschews the theatrics and flare that typically garner design column inches in the industry. Even one of his more "statement" designs, the sliver-thin carbon fibre Surface table he created with John Barnard for Established & Sons, is an exercise in reduction and simplicity. Woodgate is more a man for studious detailing than grand proclamations.

Yet this sense of understatement is one of the reasons why his recent decision to launch an eponymous lighting brand is intriguing. "I’m no longer a person, I’m a brand,” Woodgate says and behind his levity there is a serious point. The progression from designer to producer is a complex one.

The debut collection for the company is Solid, a set of LED pendants and surface downlights. The lamps are each cast as a pure geometrical forms – simple columns and sawn off cones – and are executed in Carrara and Nero Marquina marble, oak and walnut. Throughout, there are subtle Woodgatian details that come to the fore: the gentle curve of the material as the pendant moves from exterior to interior; a triangular support that allows the fitting to be adjusted and locked into position such that the light always hangs true; translucency in the white Carrara marble that means its base glows ginger when the light is switched on. “I've always thought that the devil is in the details,” says Woodgate. "A lot of the time is spent doing stuff nobody ever sees or is aware of."

Woodgate's move into production is significant for several reasons. Primarily, it is an opportunity for the designer to assume control in a way that is impossible when working for a company. "I’ve worked for some really nice companies and still do so, but there’s always one or two aspects that I’m not completely happy about," says Woodgate. "The way the product is exhibited; the way it’s photographed. Now I can look after that myself and that's empowering. The most important thing for any designer is to have their work realised and you spend a lot of time convincing manufacturers that this is the way to go. Now I don’t have to. The market will prove me right or wrong."

It is common to hear designers speak of the attraction of manufacturers in terms of their production capabilities, or of the strength of their research and development divisions, yet marketing is a compelling factor also. The rise of design blogs and websites means that products have an online existence that runs parallel to the objects themselves; the way in which a design is photographed or presented becomes essential, as such documentation becomes one of the principal ways in which that design will be consumed. And some companies are better at this than others. The rise of Established & Sons in the late 2000s, for instance, was driven in large part by the slickness of its presentation.

"The theatrical grabs people’s attention. I know when manufacturers exhibit furniture they sometimes choose an upholstery fabric that will catch people’s eye," says Woodgate. "Nobody would buy it in that fabric, but maybe it photographs well or looks interesting or dynamic. It’s a different agenda.

"Designers want reward and recognition and it would be nice to get both equally, but that's very rarely the case. You might do a design that Cappellini sells a few of, but it’s featured on the front page of a magazine. Or you make something that sells a lot, but nobody knows you’ve done it. It’s funny how it balances out."

Solid therefore represents an opportunity for Woodgate to explore such issues in more detail. It is a collection presented the exact way its designer intended. Yet there are also points of interest in the way in which the product has been developed. Designing for a company brings considerable challenges and financial costs (as detailed in Justin McGuirk's Designs for life won't make you a living) yet also offers a certain protection. It is the company that invests in tooling and the company that bears the immediate financial consequences should the product fail on the market. Not so with self-production.

"There are the three -tions of design," says Woodgate. "Conception, conversion, construction. It’s conversion that is normally really difficult and where you earn your money as a designer. You have an essential form you’ve created and now you want to convert that into an actual product. But the big difference with your own work is that there comes a moment when you have to commit to the tooling and the costs for construction. That’s all your hard-earned money that you’ve got to put down and that’s pretty scary. Then when you sign it off every morning you’re coming in thinking, ‘Is that right? Have I missed anything? Could it be better?’"

It is concerns such as these that make Solid an important step for Woodgate. Technologically the lamp is progressive. It uses Megaman LEDs that are fitted with a bluetooth connection such that the lamps' settings can be operated through an app, while the lights themselves are low watt and efficient. Moreover the fact that LEDs produce no external heat (as traditional halogen bulbs do) has afforded Woodgate space to make witty material choices: lights encased in flammable oak and walnut pendants.

Yet there is a certain traditionalism in the form of the lights. "For our first collection using this lamp form was right, as one of the restrictions on the uptake of LEDs within the residential market has been cost," says Woodgate who has priced the Solid collection between £147 and £197. "I based the design on a lamp where I knew the cost could be kept down and it would be viable. All of the major lamp manufacturers produce such lamps and they’re very competitive in prices. I’ve always designed within the Charles Eames model of design. If you’re aware of all the constraints and design within those, then there’s no need to compromise."

What Woodgate is convinced of however is that such constraints are changing. His entry into lighting production coincides with major changes within the industry, where the rise of technologies such as LED and OLED in place of traditional halogen bulbs are beginning to fundamentally alter the design of luminaires. While Solid may be a traditional first product, Woodgate is aware that the market is moving away from its own past.

"It’s an exciting time because we’re leaving fire behind,” says Woodgate. "Back in 'cavedom', light was a burning torch and an incandescent lamp is really the same – it’s a filament that’s burning. Now with LED, lighting is more associated with CERN and what’s happening with the Large Hadron Collider. We’re talking about quantum physics here – semiconductors that emit photons. It’s revolutionising lighting."