Professional: The creative challenge

Manufacturers and designers have a close and interdependent relationship. Commercial concerns sometimes clash with creative impulses, so it takes a skilled team of professionals to navigate a course that keeps both sides happy and creates products the public want to buy.

by Elizabeth Choppin

Once a designer and a brand make the decision to work together, there is often a long, windy road between the initial discussion and bringing a product to the market. The average cycle is 18 months – but it can stretch up to three years, as with Spanish rug company GAN, which recently collaborated with Swedish design studio Front on a range of 3D rugs. Traditional colour palettes inspired the geometric designs, but the feel is totally contemporary, with rugs in the collection doing something rather unexpected: rolling up into cube-like stools. There’s no doubt this was an ambitious request by Front, which leads to the question whether tensions ever arise about costs and manufacturing capability, as well as designers’ desire to push boundaries in terms of materials and techniques.

“Developing new products with existing or innovative techniques always implies a cost, sometimes a very high one,” says GAN’s design director Mapi Millet. “But it’s our main defining feature, that is what GAN is and what differentiates us, so I look upon it as an investment. We never reject exploring an idea simply based on cost. At least not in the prototyping stage,” she says.

Perhaps most fascinating are the ways in which brands and designers challenge and stretch each other’s capabilities – but does the relationship ever blow up? In short: yes, although most designers and brands are too diplomatic to go into detail.

Christian Grosen, design director for Danish homeware and furniture brand Muuto, says tensions actually do arise, “but that’s the beauty of it. The challenge is to balance economy, aesthetics, supply chain, design DNA, and time from the very beginning of every project. It can be a long journey, but when it works, it’s fantastic.” Presumably, brands and designers find themselves working together because of a shared affinity or sensibility – such as Muuto’s highly successful projects with Scandinavian designers like Form Us With Love and Cecilie Manz. “It’s my experience that if you choose designers who are a good match with your brand, there is always a solution,” says Grosen. “I think that passion and dedication around what you do as a designer is often misinterpreted as being complicated and causing problems.”

Experience of working with designers can be very valuable when it comes to maximising the creative and commercial value of such partnerships. “Our role is to help the designers express themselves, in any possible way,” says Concetta Giannangeli, head of creative team and prototyping atelier at respected Italian manufacturer Moroso. “We offer our guidance and 60+ years of experience in the field. When, instead, we start new partnerships and the relationship is just at the very beginning – think of the young designers we often collaborate with, who might be presenting their first piece with Moroso, say at the Milan furniture fair – it is fundamental to leave complete freedom and room for ideas and instinct. Only in these conditions, a designer, as a person, is truly capable of expressing their own true personality. With no external “contamination” or restrictions, they can be original and authentic.  And that is how you can get to truly unique and unseen results. The projects we are involved in are born from personal relationships, there has to be a feeling for that person and that special talent. This is why all what we do is so unique.”

Sheridan Coakley, founder of British homeware brand SCP which recently launched collections with Matthew Hilton and Phillipe Malouin, says choosing whom to work with depends on a number of different factors. “It could be that they’re technically very good and they can apply their creativity and understanding of the process to make a good product,” he says. “Or it could be the opposite – thinking it might be interesting to see what would happen if you asked Reiko Kaneko, who is a ceramicist, to design a piece of furniture,” he says. “Sometimes a designer can get a product so right from the start and there is no real feedback from us, we just price it up and make it.” Such was the case with Hilton’s Beam table, which was designed, prototyped, and in production in less than 8 weeks. “But more often than not we give feedback,” Coakley adds. “That might mean seeing if there is a cheaper way to make a product but have the same affect… as in, we can’t afford marble – how about we try glass? But overall we’re probably more slap dash than bigger companies that will invest a few years in a new product.”

Enter the Poltrona Fraus and Fritz Hansens of this world – powerhouses within the Italian and Scandinavian design scenes facing the two-pronged challenge of looking after celebrated heritage while keeping their brands moving forward.

Fritz Hansen’s head of design, Christian Andresen, says he’s usually planning ahead by several years to makes sure the brand is on the right track. “If projects are close to the core of Fritz Hansen, then we might invite two or three designs to submit ideas – or perhaps we might need to develop a product with some kind of innovation,” he says. “For retail projects, we are usually much more certain of the style, tone and trends we need. Sometimes we also need younger designers to keep the DNA alive.” Benjamin Hubert was recently drafted in design a stacking chair, while over the years Jaime Hayon has brought his distinct brand of humour into the mix. “Some projects start in what I call the sandbox, where the designers can also let off steam. We have a steady stream of projects but we also experiment a lot,” says Andresen. “There are often multiple problems with projects – you just have to get past these crises. Some designers need to argue with themselves to resolve conflicts – they may have difficulties with the commercial part, with the demands of mass production.”

And not all projects end happily. It doesn’t happen often, but there are instances when a deadlock results in a parting of ways or a total change of direction. “Sometimes we have to agree to disagree,” says Andresen. “With Benjamin Hubert we jumped tracks twice. We made the chair in plastic, and then wood and plastic, then an interchangeable design, and then we arrived at the final design. And sometimes we have to disappoint our marketing department if products are not ready for a specific date,” he adds.

Challenges are part of the process, but Moroso’s Giannangeli wants to offer the designers as much as possible. “For us it is fundamental to support the creative and designing process. We don’t always have immediate access to the right materials and technology suitable or needed for that project,” she says. “They need to be researched, resourced, found, and it is not easy (and sometimes not even possible) to establish beforehand how much time we will need to develop and finalise an idea.

“Sometimes we can find what we need and what we are looking for, but these solutions turn out to be far from being cost-effective. This does not mean that the project is abandoned and we move on – no, this means that we need more time. We slow down, regroup, and keep on watching and researching, until we find the way to make it. When we start working on something, we truly believe in it and we have learnt to give time to time. We want designers to be a part of our family, from a business perspective too, so we need them to be informed and aware of the implications that derive from specific techniques of manufacturing, specific details or materials.

“This has never limited our process, because this is often a wonderful way of finding new and innovative solutions to ‘problems’ and it happens that these come from the designers themselves. This company has both a big heart and a clever mind.”

Nicola Coropulis, marketing director for Poltrona Frau, agrees that it isn’t always straightforward and there are times when the vision of the brand and a designer diverge. “But these relationships are the pillars of our industry,” he says. “The creative process of Poltrona Frau is a process where both the company and the designer are equally involved – like giving birth to a child and their form. I like to say that we’re the mother and the designer is the father…except our child takes 18 months instead of 9.”

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