Interview: Benjamin Hubert

Aug 31, 2011
  • Article by Alexa Kempton
  • Designer Benjamin Hubert

Despite the relative youth of this British designer and his flourishing London-based studio, Benjamin Hubert is level-headed and pragmatic about his success. Having already received a string of acclaim and awards for his work, Hubert ascribes his achievements to hard work and determination, and is cautious about being swept up in the glamour of the design industry.On a recent trip to Australia as the guest of Great Dane for Saturday InDesign, I caught up with Hubert to talk about his working processes and the evolution of his studio.

Benjamin, I’d like to start by asking how you established Benjamin Hubert Studio.
BH I actually didn’t plan on starting up a design studio. I always thought I’d be a designer, but I just wanted to work my way up in one of those big consultancies and become a director. I thought that was the prestigious sort of thing to do. Then we had our university graduate show in London, which opened my eyes a bit. I had no idea what the furniture, lighting and interiors industry was – I’d done some lights, but they’d been more technology based. I guess the trip started my interest in the industry.
So I went to work at a consultancy, and started working on projects in evenings and on weekends. I did that for what seemed like forever! I had my first exhibition in 2007, most of which went terribly wrong because I’d never done it before. But I got some attention, so I started holding a few more exhibitions – including one at 100% Design in 2009, when I did a show called ‘A year in the making’. It included seven or eight objects that I’d produced in one year, working with a number of different brands. That got a very big reception, and won some awards – which is sort of like validation.
It was at that point that I could really see the business working. It’s one thing getting press and exhibiting; it’s quite another turning that into a working business. But I got to a point where I was thinking, “why am I doing this?” Doing my own work at home after a full day working in an office… It was killing me. So I jacked in the day job, got a few more commissions and it worked. It was a bit of a risk, but I thought: if I don’t do this now, I’m never going to do it.

You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself a furniture designer, and are more of an industrial designer – your studio’s tagline is ‘Materials Driven. Process Led. Industrial Design.’
BH That’ll never change. Partly because that is my training, and what I would most comfortably call myself. But also because it allows you to cover a broad range of sectors and challenges – furniture and lighting design is very niche. As a business, I think it’s more sensible to be open to different things. Actually, even as a furniture designer you should be able to move across and apply your process to other products.

And your business model is based around partnerships with manufacturers – as opposed to being a designer/maker. Which is more in keeping with your industrial design role, rather than that of the traditional furniture craftsman.
BH I’d agree. I can make things, but we only do prototyping in the studio. I could learn to do ceramics, or become a better cabinetmaker or woodworker, but it takes time and energy and I’d much rather just do the design work and help to manage the process. Conversely, I don’t really want to sell things and be a designer/maker and have my own brand, because I don’t want to be doing sales and distribution. If possible, I’d like to stay in the pure design part of the process.

And rely on manufacturers to play that middle-man role?
BH There are points when I think I’m gaining so much knowledge – understanding about retail, design and so on – that perhaps I should just do it myself. But there are plenty of well-known designers who have tried that, very few of them successfully.
The real upside of having that collaborative approach with a manufacturer is the scope of things I get to work on. If I was setting my own brand up, there’s no way I would invest €50,000 in a tool and hope the product sells. That’s a lot of money even to a big company like Flos or Alessi, so this way I get a greater remit to do things I couldn’t do on my own. Working with other people gives me the freedom to explore things that would otherwise be unattainable.

It would also give you much broader scope to work with new materials, and enable you to consult others for their expertise?
BH The expertise bit is a strange thing. I don’t say this to elevate what I’m doing in any way, but I normally have to solve most problems in these projects – and it’s only through learning about each process. I work with some very good product developers in other companies, but quite often it’s a new process for them as well. Some people think you design it, hand it over and that’s it. But projects just wouldn’t happen. 70 or 80 percent of my job is making things happen – working through the development stages, and learning the expertise. I meet very few experts, even in something very old like upholstery. It’s been going on for hundreds of years, but if you come along with a new shape or a new process, they’ll turn to you and ask: “Well how do you think we should do it?” Obviously they know more about the traditional techniques, but if it’s a new approach then the designer is almost as valuable in that process as they are.

Your Float pendant is made from agglomerate cork, which finds a new application for a very functional material. You’ve also made a series of cast concrete lights, which again challenges common perceptions of how a material can be used. Can you discuss your approach to materials?
BH Materials, whether it’s as a block or on a product, are still the things that stimulate me the most. Even with something like flooring: it’s not the shape or the tiling but the texture that I like. I suppose it is a reaction to my background and that hands-off approach. Because I fell in love with materials and, to an extent, process, I’ve tried to develop that into the brand and integrate it as much as possible.
That’s not to say every project begins purely with materials. A lot of what we do is trying to solve a functional problem or a usability issue. But rather than just saying, “let’s solve this by making it from plastic”, we try to integrate materials with a bit more soul and personality. And even if that’s a hard, industrial material like stamped metal, we can still showcase the quality of that material.

There’s an industrial influence in some of your work: boat building in the Maritime chair, cranes in the Crane light and roof tiles in Roofer. Do you often take inspiration from industry?
BH Yeah, I really like industrial equipment, and the industrial language. I think there’s a quiet beauty about very un-designed, functional objects, and it’s just in my subconscious. Sometimes its more prevalent, sometimes it’s more subtle, but I’d much rather take inspiration from found objects and something that is inherently functional and designed for use.
Too many people look too closely at their own industry, and you get a lot of derivative stuff. And there are two schools of thought: either you don’t look at anything, and hope that what you’re doing is original; or you look at everything to guarantee that what you are doing is original. But if you do that, well, the subconscious is a powerful thing! I try as much as possible to not look at my contemporaries or too much design history, and occasionally it catches me out. But I’d much rather feel original in what I’m doing, even if sometimes that path goes a bit off course or veers close to other, similar work.
You only get one chance at this sort of thing. It’s too easy to do it for the wrong reasons. You know – you need media, attention and exhibitions. But the glamour of Milan and trips to Australia and so on, it’s only about ten days a year: it’s not the reason to get into design. I love Milan, but it’s like nothing else. I’ve never seen so many chairs and lights in my life! I come away from it every year with very mixed feelings. It’s great to be launching products at the epicentre of the industry, but I think: how and why am I going to start my next project? There’s so much out there already.

Which brings me to sustainability. Do you feel people are starting to approach sustainable design in a different way, moving away from a vague idea of ‘recyclability’ towards a whole-picture approach where sustainability is integral to every part of design?
BH The funny thing is that’s what people should be doing, and some people are – but 90 percent of people are focusing on just one aspect of sustainable design: recyclability, say, or upcycling. But they’re forgetting about the rest of the process – shipping, disassembly and so on. That’s what actually makes something sustainable.
People talk about sustainability as a buzzword. I talk about it, but I don’t hold it up as a top-line part of what I do. If you’re going to be a good industrial designer, it should be integral to your work. There’s a Dutch company that I work with that are very particular about it – they’re certain that eventually there’ll be laws that if you can’t dismantle something easily, or if it has a big carbon footprint, you’ll be heavily taxed. And I think that’s a good approach – hopefully it will happen.

So what’s next for your studio?
BH The next immediate thing is the launch of the De la Espada range at The Tramshed for the London Design Festival. It’s less commercially oriented, and a little more craft-focused – not in its aesthetic, but in its material selection. Some of the pieces are very labour intensive; we’ve got hand-turned marble, leatherwork, a lot of timber and some hand-turned granite. It’s a high quality project and it’s quite close to my heart, there are a lot of values in it that I believe in. Beyond that, we’re working on pieces for Milan next year, and also broadening our horizons, working on things from watches to spaces.
We’re now being approached by some really big brands, so we’re trying to be a bit more strategic to hone down who we partner with – to ensure the business has longevity, and to concentrate on serious projects rather than spreading our thoughts too much. If you work with fewer people, you can probably be a bit more definite in what you want to do. The business is still young, and I could be quite critical about some of the things I’ve done, but I sort of chalk them up as experience. As I’ve said before, a “no” is often as constructive as a “yes” – and I think sometimes when things don’t work, it can be as beneficial as when they work really well.


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