Farm Designs

Mar 12, 2009
  • Article by Online Editor
  • Architect Farm Designs

Spending a couple of hours with young British design collective Farm Designs is an engaging and heartening experience. Its members only graduated from a furniture design BA at Loughborough University in 2006, but have already enjoyed a fair bit of media coverage and are buzzing with ideas, projects and, above all, genuinely infectious enthusiasm. “When we came out we had a lot to learn,” admits Giles Miller, one quarter of the collective and probably the most written about member so far due to his innovative use of corrugated cardboard (more on that later). “None of us had much of an idea about reproduction, showing or costing our work.”

It’s difficult to break into the design world, they all agree. “But we’ve all got different things that we’re doing that are feeding back into Farm,” says Miller.
This is true. As well as working on Farm projects Miller, Alexena Cayless (known as Ali), Guy Brown and Sebastian Hejna all do many other things, mostly in order to remain solvent. Cayless works full-time as a studio manager in a luxury design company (she also has a sculpture degree and spent six years working as a paramedic in the Midlands); Brown does a lot of technician work for various clients in Nottingham (he started out as an aerospace engineer, but soon “got bored” and decided to do a design degree); Hejna does renovation work with his father, some TV presenting for the Extreme Sports Channel and is about to start a design teaching course in Kensington; Miller is currently studying for an MA in Design Products at the Royal College of Art.

Although they are confident that one day in the not-too-distant future they will be able to focus solely on Farm-related projects and commissions (“We’re building ourselves up to a point where we are going to be able to make it work,” they say), the foursome are excited about the unique attributes their different experiences bring to the communal table. Brown’s “awesome knowledge of materials and processes” and his access to diverse materials and resources seem to be particularly valuable to the group. His private jobs give him free rein in different workshops and allow him to model-make, metalwork and experiment with composites and plastics (“Stuff you probably shouldn’t be doing anymore,” he cheerfully admits) to his heart’s content.

The four members of Farm started “naturally bonding” while at Loughborough, in part because three of them – Cayless, Brown and Hejna – were ‘mature students’, a term rather mystifyingly applied to any student in the UK over the tender age of 21. “Not to be dismissive about younger students, but three of us had already worked and we were all very determined about what we wanted out of the course,” says Cayless, namely, a career in design. In an unlikely scenario for much of the student population, the four of them were constantly being “told off for being in the studio too early,” says Brown. “Or too late at night,” adds Miller. “We wouldn’t leave ‘til we got kicked out,” chimes in Hejna. There was a real divide they say between the people who just wanted to get a degree and the students obsessed with design. By the end of the second year, this mutual obsession led them to come up with their name (Farm as in “the cultivation of ideas”) and to decide to keep working together once the course ended. “It was so exciting,” says Miller. “We just wanted it, we were hungry,” adds Brown, without a trace of affectation.

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At the time they took the course it was called 3D Design (Furniture). It has now been renamed and goes under the moniker of ‘3D Design: New Practice’ and takes in furniture, ceramics, metalwork, jewellery and silver smithing. “We like to think we played a part in this,” says Miller. “I think the tutors were quite inspired by the fact that we were crossing over into other mediums.” The course used to focus mainly on wood- and metalwork. “And then we went in and started melting plastics,” says Brown. “Stank the place out with resins and upset everybody.” He laughs.

I first came across Farm Designs via the work of youngest member Giles Miller. At only 24 his cardboard-only designs are remarkably beautiful as well as functional, and he has been much lauded for making sustainability sexy. One of Miller’s most attractive and original pieces is his corrugated screen (though his similarly fluted, and incredibly durable, laptop case comes in a close second). It features his trademark fluting technique (where the angle of the corrugation is alternated to produce different shades and patterns) and looks more like patterned damask than plain old cardboard.

Miller now says he wants to move on from cardboard, partly in a bid to resist stereotyping. Some sections of the green consumer press have dubbed him the ‘King of Cardboard’, and though he is thankful for the attention and agrees with the philosophy of sustainability in design he is also keen to avoid becoming the designer who only does cardboard.

The other Farm members have a similarly flexible approach to design, but, like Giles, have pet materials or fascinations. Cayless is particularly interested in veneers and expensive and rich materials such as ebony and rosewood. She likes her pieces to have a strong emotional connection. It follows that her wonderfully accomplished Remembrance sideboard has many different compartments that she says serves social or secretive functions, or represent hierarchy and value. When I say how cerebral this sounds, Miller is quick to say that he thinks the quality of Cayless’s work is what shines through the most, both the quality of the finish and the design. Her fish and chip condiment kit highlights her interest in contrasting materials (it is made of a rosewood veneer case, porcelain flask and silver fork) and the group’s celebration of all things British.

Hejna’s drape collection on the other hand seems to express a concern for preserving personal histories and memory. His faintly provocatively titled Easy-hard armchair and light table, and Well-hung chandelier, were made by covering existing armchairs and chandeliers in a resin-saturated cloth and removing it just before it went into its solid state. “You see the form, but then it’s not actually there,” he says, “so it’s like the ghost of what it used to be.” It’s an appealing idea and the objects’ previous existence gives the new creation meaning. “The armchair for instance was one of my friend’s grandmother’s chairs,” he explains. “He had a real connection to it.” This narrative gives us a connection to the object too. (And, in case you were wondering, the plastic armchair has been reinforced with glass fibre and can be used both indoors and outdoors regardless of weight.)

Like many designers working today Hejna says his pieces are about re-appropriating objects that exist, like in the case of the coat hangers he makes out of old chair-backs. Both his coat hangers and some of Miller’s cardboard pieces are due to go on sale in London’s glitzy new Eco-Age design store, which was opened last February by Colin Firth and his wife, Livia Giuggioli.

Brown is the most prolific member of Farm and certainly the most fluent with a wide range of materials. His pieces are made out of metal, plastic, carbon, glass fibre, found objects and wood, to name only a few. His most compelling series so far is arguably his series of crazed chair-related pieces, such as the Siamese Chair, the Chair Coat Stand and the Conehead Chair. The fourth chair in the series is not yet finished, but will be shown at Milan. As his pieces illustrate, Brown likes to “elongate and distort dimensions”, but he is also on a mission to make design more affordable and “more appealing to a wider audience”. Accordingly his forthcoming range of computer and side tables, which he also plans to show at Milan, is being created to require the minimum number of welds possible.

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Farm has always proclaimed an interest in promoting British industries and “not just working with manufacturers that are design-related”.
“We believe in trying to renovate British manufacturing industries,” says Cayless. By appropriating these manufacturers’ techniques, they hope to “add some diversity” to the companies’ manufacturing processes.

Farm has already shown at the London Design Festival twice, both times rather fortuitously landing on their feet in terms of the space and location of their stand. (During 100% East at the 2006 festival, for example, they were supposed to show separately, got their own stand very late in the day by chance, scraped together enough material to fill it and were able to be seen as a group, something they were very happy about.) Next stop is the upcoming Salone Satellite at the Milan Furniture Fair. “For Milan we’re all working with industries from where we originate,” explains Hejna. What this means in practice is that the four members of Farm are researching the traditional industries of their home towns or regions – i.e. textiles in Leicester, lace and engineering in Nottinghamshire, boat-building in Chichester and leather in Northamptonshire – and using these local and age-old techniques and materials to create something brand new. This time around, however, they are a lot more organised than they were for 100% East. The pressure of working full-time means that Cayless is looking after the administrative side of things and will consult on the others’ projects. It’s not something she’s done particularly willingly, but she is sanguine about it. “[If] we want to be professional designers, we have to act like professional designers,” she says.

It’s the group’s mature and supportive spirit that will be their greatest asset. “We value each other’s opinions hugely,” says Miller. “These guys played a massive role in my progress and development.” Hejna adds, “We’re very influenced by each other’s work and processes.” These compliments come across as completely genuine rather than weirdly sycophantic. It may be early days, but the bond seems real and strong. “We’re all so into it, we can’t help but get on,” says Miller. “We’re sharing a pretty awesome experience.” And they are going to enjoy every minute of it.


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