People: British furniture makers – Rob Barnby

By Stefanie Gerdes
September 21, 2018

Contemporary furniture brand Barnby Design was established in 2012 by Rob Barnby, after he graduated with a degree in Furniture and Product Design from Nottingham Trent University. His workshop is located in Hay-on-Wye, on the Welsh border, which sits in the shadows of the Black Mountains.

What do you think the current perception of British furniture is?
The important thing is that British design has, over the last 30 years, become original and interesting. The Italians and French up to 30 years ago had the innovative edge on us, but that gap has closed and British designers must blaze the trail ahead with confidence. Brexit must not be allowed to make us overcautious and insular in our designing. Any order from abroad for a British piece of furniture is a tick in the box for a healthy perception of British furniture, and a most welcome boost to the moral of the British designer – and of course a vital boost to the ‘balance of payments’.

What do you think the history books will say about furniture – making and consuming – in the 21st century?
With all the advances set to continue with automated CNCs, fingers crossed they won’t be looking back at us as an extinct species. I think actually they’ll look back at these as really exciting times. With designers now able to use automated machines alongside traditional techniques it makes shapes and joints that weren’t possible 20 years ago possible.

How has the community of British furniture designer-makers influenced you?
Watching the various ways other designer-makers portray their businesses has always fascinated me. But what’s interesting is seeing what styles and techniques they adopt to get their stories heard. With visual tools such as Instagram you’re able to express more than just a polished image of a finished piece, but the process involved in getting to that stage.

What are the challenges you face today?
People who follow businesses like ours understandably always want to see new things. Finding the time to work on new products around paid jobs is often challenging, and it’s always expensive. After hours spent designing you’ve got the material costs, followed by all the workshop hours involved in making and altering prototypes. These are hidden processes easy for customers to overlook.

Who is your main customer type and what do you sell the most of?
Although sales through interior designers make up a portion of what I sell, the majority is still direct to the end user.
Desks have always been one of my bread and butters. I think the reason being is that people find it easy to justify spending money on something that’s going to encourage them to work harder. Then it’s dining tables and kitchen cabinets, again practical pieces that get a lot of use.

Who are your biggest inspirations/influences?
Same as everyone in the furniture industry – Russell and Oona at PINCH. They’re yet to release a product I don’t like, and I’m starting to come to the conclusion that just isn’t going to happen. From the products right through to how they portray their business – it’s all seamless.
And then there’s Benchmark, whose whole team are always so friendly and willing to give advice and help to young businesses like mine.

Do you have any relationships with established furniture designer-makers?
Sebastian and Brogan Cox – they’ve made a swift transition from up-and-coming to established.

Do you think it’s harder to start out as a furniture designer-maker compared to 30 years ago?
Honestly no idea, but the process is certainly a different one. I’ve got the advantage of being able to reach a much wider audience than I would have 30 years ago… but then I suppose so has everybody else!