Architecture & design

All on the table

Creating multi-disciplinary studios and new product lines has proven a hugely profitable endeavour for a number of architecture’s most recognisable brands. But what gives architects the right to design products? Abi Millar asks leaders from Foster + Partners, Zaha Hadid Architects, and Matteo Thun.

In recent years, a number of designers have made the jump towards large-scale architecture. Ranging from Dror Benshetrit (who started out with vases and chairs and moved onto artificial islands), to Karim Rashid (who launched an architectural firm, Kurv Architecture, in 2017), they have pushed at the boundaries between the disciplines in a manner that might enrage an architectural purist.

“Many, many, many years ago creative people used to do more than just one thing. Education fragmented the arts into a lot of different specialised professions. And I see that changing back,” said Benshetrit in 2015.

Unsurprisingly, the topic has provoked intense debate, and riled more than a few trained architects. It’s easy to see why, after studying architecture for seven years or more, they’d feel that a designer building an island was flying a little too close to the sun.

What’s perhaps more surprising is that we rarely hear the argument made the other way round. Whether or not designers have the right to design buildings, do architects have the right to design products?

In 2015, the furniture designer Marcel Wanders – who had worked on a building – sidestepped potential criticisms by pointing out this double standard. As he told Dezeen: “Architects think they can do furniture all the time and it’s fine, I don’t have a problem with them. It might be crappy furniture but it’s their furniture, if they like it it’s fine.”

Arguably, this isn’t a debate people are having because multidisciplinary studios are now so ubiquitous. These days, most big-name architecture studios have also carved out a niche in product design, in some cases via a separate wing of their practice. What’s more, they will have a dedicated industrial design team working on that piece of the puzzle, as opposed to leaving it to architects.

“It’s quite frustrating,” says Mike Holland, partner and head of industrial design at Foster + Partners. “All too often, we could launch a product and the public perception is that it’s been designed by an architect, but that isn’t the case. There are different specialists working together to design something or bring it to fruition.”

That said, with so many practices dabbling in smaller-scale designs, it is worth asking why product design has become so important to their brand. To succeed today, does a studio need to be capable of turning its hand to every scale of commission?

Diversify and fill all niches

In 1952, the Italian architect Ernesto Rogers coined the slogan ‘dal cucchiaio alla citta’ (from the spoon to the city). It described the typical approach of a Milanese architect of the time: working on a spoon, chair, lamp and skyscraper all on the same day.

He was far from the only 20th century polymath. Mies van der Rohe was as famous for his Barcelona Chair as his Barcelona Pavilion, while Frank Lloyd Wright had a sideline in home furnishings. And Charles Eames, asked why he made furniture, said: “so I can design a piece of architecture that you can hold in your hand”.

When Matteo Thun founded his own Milanese studio in 1984, he took his cues from this philosophy.

“For me architecture and design means the same approach – it is just a different scale,” he says. “I built my studio following the ‘Milan School’, the spoon to the city. Today, my partner Antonio Rodriguez and I – and a team of 70 architects, interior designers, product and graphic designers – work on an interdisciplinary level in offices in Milan and Shanghai.”

Over the years, Thun’s practice has tackled everything from wristwatches to golf courses, from ceramics to luxury resorts. The watchword across all these commissions is ‘simplicity’ or ‘zero design’.

“Our work is based on technical and aesthetic durability, meaning that a building should still look good after 10 or 50 years or even more, and a product should not be designed to correspond the zeitgeist but to be timeless and iconic,” he says. “In short, I’m very keen to create aesthetic durability and that’s why we do very, very simple things.”

His latest venture, Mattheo Thun Atelier, was launched at Milan Design Week in 2016. Focusing on furniture and lighting design for hospitality, healthcare and residential projects, it aims to “combine our experience in architecture and design with the expertise of Italian craftsmen”.

The firm itself is structured like a network, with a constant exchange of ideas between the disciplines.

“Since this structure has grown over the last 35 years, there are only advantages to working in big and small-scale in parallel,” he says. “It allows us to realise substantial projects in one office, our clients have one counterpart, and the architecture and interior design have one handwriting.”

Creation through collaboration

Foster + Partners too has worked in product design almost since the outset. While best known for its high-profile architectural projects, the practice has a 16-strong industrial design team and takes an ‘integrated approach’. As Holland points out, this doesn’t mean that one group of people tackles everything, but rather that each project draws on the expertise of different specialists.

“Since the very early days, we have placed great importance on the role of furniture and product designers in the practice as a whole,” he says. “We take the view that everything you touch and everything you interact with is as important as the broader architectural vision.”

The industrial design team, he says, is a little different from the other disciplines within the office in that it doesn’t just support the architectural practice. It also collaborates with industry partners, for instance creating lighting products for Lumina, furniture with Walter Knoll and Vitra, and nautical commissions for YachtPlus.

“We’re inwardly facing in that we work on site-specific bespoke elements for architectural projects, but we also have our own client base outside the office,” says Holland. “We’d like to keep a 50-50 balance between the two, because so often working within the architectural realm you’re engaging with craftsmen, and that thinking informs our commercial products.”

In this regard, Foster + Partners isn’t unusual. For many studios, the first forays into product design come about as an offshoot of their architectural projects.

“Since we do a lot of hospitality, healthcare and contract concepts we are often forced to design products that we cannot find on the market or that do not correspond the budgets given,” points out Thun.

Further down the line, it may make economic sense to develop these products commercially. Or they may be approached by a product manufacturer, who reasons that an architect’s name could spell lucrative branding benefits.

Learn from one another

“Approximately 90% of our product designs are stand-alone pieces, collections or editions, while the remaining 10% of are commissioned specifically for our architectural works,” says Maha Kutay, co-director of Zaha Hadid Design. “Some of the earliest projects in the office were designs for products and interiors, with furniture projects being part of our repertoire from day one.”

She points out that architectural practices can learn a great deal from their product designs. Since the production process is much quicker for furniture than it is for architecture, it affords greater opportunities for experimentation, and in turn for new fabrication technologies.

“Our product designs allow us to express our ideas through different scales and through different media, and we see it as part of a continuous process of our ongoing design investigation,” she says. “It’s a two way process – we apply our architectural research and experimentation to these designs, but we also learn a great deal from the process of collaborating with others in different fields.”

In short, product design can inspire architecture and architecture can inspire products. And while doing both may not always make sense economically (that will vary from practice to practice), it can certainly pay dividends creatively.

“There is a strong connection between the two, and to some extent this is to complete the experience we as architects try to realise for the user,” says Kutay.

Holland points out that, while furniture designers and architects have different mentalities and work in very different ways, there’s no reason why the studio as a whole should stay in a particular lane.

“We’re consciously growing the team and we’re working on furniture and products that people wouldn’t consciously expect us to work on, projects that are very different and diverse,” he says.

This article appears in the Summer 2019 edition of the LEAF Review

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