Designers do it themselves: Pt 2

In PART ONE of this series I talked to Alexander Lervik: inventor, designer and entrepreneur. I also compared Claesson Koivisto Rune‘s new venture Smaller Objects with Airbnb, Uber and TIDAL. In part two I’ve been mithering designer pals for opinions on royalties, manufacturing their own designs, plus some tips for young aspiring designers. I spoke to three leading furniture designers in the UK: David Fox, Simon Pengelly and Jonathan Prestwich. These fine chaps have a wealth of design industry experience and a deep understanding of what makes the market tick. Between them they’ve designed for a long list of renowned names; Allermuir, Arper, Boss, Chorus, Connection, Davis, Foscarini, Hitch Mylius, Modus, Montis… and many more.

What follows is a summary of our discussion:

In your view do manufacturers take advantage of designers (particularly young designers) when agreeing royalties? Have you had any experience of this?

David: “You are always going to get manufacturers working on the naive aspects of a young designer… some designers make it big and then are reluctant to return to that manufacturer, so who loses in the end? It’s about what you’re willing to accept at that chosen time in your career”

Simon: “Unfortunately, yes. It is an anathema to me that we are still expected by some to accept a cap on royalty income…when the manufacturer continues to charge the same for the product, essentially pocketing royalties… (that) are paid for by the end customer.”

Jonathan: “The simple key from the designers point of view is to figure out what they need from that client… and not accept a deal they aren’t happy with. This is the business side of the job…”

Smaller Objects pays designers 75% of retail prices

Have you been tempted to manufacture your own designs in order to increase profitability and retain complete control of the product?

David: “Tempted yes, but the reality is most designers manage the creative process very well. Managing a sales force and producing your own furniture is a departure from that… Different skills.”

Simon: “Yes indeed, although the financial implications of marketing and distribution need to be borne in mind at the outset.”

Jonathan: “I have been tempted but after seeing recalls of products, quality issues, installations that run over etc… I feel the job of a designer is more pleasurable.”

Simon Pengelly’s UNIA chair

Do you think designers today need entrepreneurial spirit in order to succeed?

David: “You have to have a business mind, the creation is only a small part. How do you get yourself seen? It’s very much like a sales and marketing role”

Simon: “Absolutely, but the majority of design training is still in the dark ages in this regard, so it generally has to be learnt on the job.”

Jonathan: “Always! Everyone needs this. There is however a difference between the employed designer and the independent designer”


David Fox’s Zuki Lounge chair

Would you say it’s easier or harder for designers to get recognition and success in today’s marketplace compared with 15 years ago?

David: “I think the power of the internet makes it easier for designers to become recognised, you can publish images very easily. Again, keep making connections, keep showing, talking about your stuff…”

Simon: “I’d answer yes and no to that question! It is easier because of access to better technology, web and social media exposure. Harder because it is easier and therefore there are more designers all trying to work for the same manufacturers!”

Jonathan: “Much harder. 15 years ago we were still in the Capellini phase of design where the designer was crucial to a product having kudos. There is less of that today which I think is fine. The manufacturer’s brand is the most important but I don’t think this takes away from the importance of good product design.”

Jonathan Prestwich’s LINK chair for Davis

Any advice or tips for young designers based on your personal experience?

David: “Work very hard – it takes at least 4 years before you become anything like comfortable. There is always someone that is going to tell you it is not very good, keep going…Look for the brands that most suit your style… Never be afraid to work with smaller unknown manufacturers. If it is cluttered… ‘unclutter it’ – purity always stands the test of time…”

Simon: “If you love what you do then go do it, if you’re doing it for fame and fortune then go and sing on X factor!”

Jonathan: “Get out there and meet people in the real world. A face to face conversation is worth a thousand emails.”

Some great insight there – thanks David, Simon and Jonathan!

For young furniture designers looking to bag their first deal, the advantage clearly lies with the established manufacturer. You, the young designer are an unknown, and they (manufacturer) might suggest you have more to gain. However they are also taking a financial risk by investing in your design, so this must be taken into account.

As per David’s comments, if they’re too tough during negotiations, yes – they could come out of it with a great chair design at a snip, but what about when you’re Milan’s most wanted and you won’t return their calls from your Karl Lagerfeld photoshoot. It’s about finding balance (Daniel-son). There clearly needs to be more education available to young designers about the commercial realities of getting a furniture deal.

Simon Pengelly’s Theo chair

What about the future…?

In relation to designers producing their own furniture, there’s clearly still considerable concern and risk. But my view is that the market will be revolutionised by a wealthy major disruptor or two (think Tesla’s Elon Musk), as 3D printing become widely accessible.

In the not too distant future, 3D printing will see the creation of a network of small to medium sized community production facilities to cater for a wide range of consumer homeware production. Designers will upload furniture (and other homeware) designs to online Apple / IKEA / Amazon stores. Consumers in turn can buy and download ‘design recipes’ in encrypted CAD format. These can be 3D printed, upholstered and finished at your local production facility; which is permanently stocked with various upholstery and finish options. This will cut lead times, reduce carbon footprint and create a network of jobs. Competition amongst furniture designers will further increase, as young designers vying for attention muddy the waters by uploading designs for free download.

But meanwhile, for the furniture designers of today, it’s clear that you simply have to get out there, to network and meet people. Milan Furniture Fair is the ideal place to make great connections and is on from 12-17 April. I’ll be there. The question is… will you?

I hope you enjoyed my two part blog – if you did, please share it. Thanks!