Perfection V Ambition (part two)

Following my discussion with Roger Stephenson OBE (Architect) and Paul de Zwart (craft furniture owner) in part one, I continue to ponder if big business success means selling your design soul. Or is it possible to have both?

I recently caught up with a pal of mine – multi award winning Interior Designer Simon Millington..

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“In my world, workplace design continues to change and evolve at a rate that is difficult to keep track of.” Simon explains, “The edgy spark isn’t so much about the aesthetic, that’s actually relatively easy to keep fresh no matter the scale of your studio. Being edgy is actually more about the increasingly brilliant ways you can innovate and make an environment more engaging and productive to its users.”

I shuffle forward slightly. Go on.

“It’s a massive mistake to think that this is simply about whacking in a few swings and slides in an office space in the lame belief that your workplace is now the best place to work in the world. That is actually about as edgy as an amoeba wallowing in the primeval soup.”

Let’s stop this now.

I’m with you on the slides Simon, I’d be afraid of ripping my pants, but all this talk of soup is getting me hungry.

“To push boundaries you have to engage with your client’s company at all levels – you need to truly understand how they work as individuals and as a collective. You need to understand their brand, their culture and the frustrations and challenges they face on a daily basis in the work environment. You have to become imbedded and have the right thought processes to make valuable and unique responses that suit them without patronising or alienating their team. To get this right, it takes time, commitment and comes at a cost to the designer and indeed the client” Simon enthuses.

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“more often than not, the full potential is not delivered through fear.”

As someone that has worked in, founded and owned large and small design studios, what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

“In a small studio it becomes all-consuming and you effectively have to shut the door to outside projects and distractions – not good for business. The small studio needs to be careful not to cut corners to remain a viable business. For larger studios, it is actually easier to be fully committed to a project and become truly imbedded with the team. You have the back-up resource to keep the wheels turning as you immerse yourself into the project and really research the potential solutions thoroughly, but it’s also true to say that pace and value drop off a cliff in this situation. The approach to taking educated risks or challenging the norm becomes more conservative and more often than not, the full potential is not delivered through fear.”


I had a feeling the ‘F’ word might be coming. Large scale commercial design studios aren’t generally known for risk taking… So where’s the line? How do you get the best of both?

“The unexpected and uncool answer to all this is a bit like the tale of Goldilocks” says Simon, “It needs to be just right. To push boundaries and innovate you need to keep the pace, passion and concentrated talent of small team. You need the studio owners to be on the tools to be a stakeholder of risk, but you also need to have the security and back up of a wider team working on a full spectrum of projects and programmes to keep the wolf away from the door, and this is what the larger companies enjoy.”

‘Nailed it’ I mutter to myself. During my career I have met a number of design studio founders who chose to intentionally halt growth once their team grew to a specific magic number. At first this puzzled me, but the name of Mancunian band ‘A Certain Ratio’ sums this up beautifully: it’s recognition of the fine balance between a well oiled machine… and dysfunction. Maintaining work quality and design philosophy is intrinsically linked to a senior designer’s ceiling limit of how many projects they can manage at any one time. There is a limit. A number. Going beyond this magic number can have disastrous consequences.


Simon concludes, “From experience, the really remarkable work comes from a studio that isn’t an international brand, nor is it a pop up that has only existed for a few years. The spark of genius comes from a medium sized studio where a high level of skill and expertise exists without dilution of the masses.”

This is a key difference between aspirations of Designers versus furniture producers. The holy grail for many designers is to have a small to medium sized high quality studio, with an extensive client waiting list allowing free creative expression. The ultimate goal for furniture manufacturers however is expansion, high number production and (for some) world domination. In the final part of my mini series, I talk to Matt Welsh of Naughtone, who has just agreed a deal with Herman Miller to take his UK based business Global….

Thanks Simon!