5 minutes with … Benjamin Hubert of LAYER!
With AXYL, his new range of furniture in collaboration with Allermuir, Benjamin Hubert reinforces the importance of substance, style and sustainability.
When Benjamin Hubert first put pencil to paper for what would later become AXYL, his design intent was clear. The founder of industrial design heavyweight LAYER, Hubert sought to create a range of flexible, affordable café furniture with a sleek “international” feel and a strong focus on sustainability, longevity, and robustness. From this kernel of an idea burst forth a collection of furniture made from recycled and reclaimed materials that together amount to far more than the sum of their parts.
Launched as part of the 2017 London Design Festival, AXYL marks the latest chapter in the ongoing, ever-evolving narrative of chair design. Over two years, Hubert worked with iconic British furniture brand Allermuir to bring his designs to life, transforming his early sketches into a family of products that make inventive use of waste materials and seamlessly blend classic and contemporary forms. Allermuir was a fitting collaborator for the project; for years, the iconic brand has maintained an ethos of “anything but ordinary”, a descriptor that fits the AXYL range to a tee.
We caught up with Hubert in London to learn more about the fascinating design journey behind one of London Design Festival’s most talked-about releases.
It’s been said that AXYL has a very international feel. What do you think is meant by that?
Hubert: I think that it means that there is something about AXYL that isn’t driven by a culture from a single part of the world. AXYL carries a pretty broad, modernist and relatively accessible language. It’s simple, minimal, and it’s something that we wanted to have a universal appeal.
It also seems to me that AXYL is highly aware of referencing different moments of design history. Was the blending of different design vernaculars an important aspect of the design process for you?
Hubert: Most of our work follows a pretty modernist train of thought really, like reductionism, simplicity and materiality and all the kinds of things that are the mainstay of what I believe to be good industrial design.
But I think that this chair particularly, carries a lot of cues from mid-century, Scandinavian forms. So the wrap-around shell was something that was really defined here in Europe during the 1950s-1960s (particularly in Denmark), but it’s a language that has become popular again. We were keen to utilise some of that and but then give it a twist of producing it in a more interesting materiality and combining it with a more interesting architectural frame work.
It’s the idea of familiar yet new. For me that’s a balance which I think can bring a lot of success and it means that a product that can be used in a lot of different projects.
Well, it seems to me that this bridging of the familiar and the new also carries through to the manufacturing process as well. So how much of the manufacturing side of things was experimental for the range?
Hubert: We worked with a really some good manufacturers – a great Italian plastic manufacturer for the composite biodegradable plastic elements. And then we worked with a really good German aluminium manufacturer. It was very important for us to ensure that the geometry, the thickness, the flow, and even the surface finish reached a high degree of resolution.
How long did the whole prototyping stage continue for, then?
Hubert: The entire development phase was about two years in total. From first conversations and talking around this idea of an identifiable café chair, all the way through to pre-production. So when we launched at the London Design Festival last year, it came to the market about 4 or 5 months after that.
And it seems that since then, the reception that AXYL has received has been very strong.
Hubert: Absolutely. It’s enjoyed a really great reception from the design community and from a design point of view. It’s picked up and picking up a lot of design awards – so, that’s nice and reassuring because it is our peers and colleagues that are judging these programs and ultimately really respect our opinions.
Now it’s also going into quite a few projects too. We always designed this to have commercial appeal and it was never supposed to be just a design study for its own sake. And I think it’s always interesting to see it in lots of contexts. AXYL is being picked up as a contract chair, but in the context of some really big and very diverse projects – some big hospitality, commercial and retail brands, and even a big auto brand too.
So you can imagine that we are pretty happy!
Do you think that this degree of positive reception is also in response to AXYL’s materiality aspect too?
Hubert: We are always engaged with being responsible in the design projects that we work in (whether it’s the efficiency of the material or whether it’s something that’s long lasting, can be recycled, or from a recycled material).
Allermuir was interested in the idea of something being very robust, long lasting. For both of us, sustainability is a holistic subject, and we wanted to integrate several ecologically responsible elements into our approach to achieve that outcome. We were constantly testing ourselves and asking questions like ‘just how far can we push the long lasting aspect?’ Time is a difficult thing to quantify but we wanted to ensure that AXYL is something that people would like to live with for a long time. Then we turned to the materiality aspect to achieve this, but with a more sustainable, responsible approach that can give back.
So did working with that kind of material palette or even just the composition of the material itself present any challenges for you during the prototyping stage?
Hubert: Well, whenever you connect two materials together it always presents challenges because materials all behave differently: they are more or less easy to manufacture, they have different shrinkage rates, and so on. All the kind of tech stuff that you don’t really think about or most consumers don’t think about in the first instance represents the kind of challenges that we had to innovate around.
For me, I remember a lot of the questions we were grappling with in the refinement stage – getting a joint working really well, getting the fittings perfect, making sure that things connecting and they are strong enough, as well as how to create a language so that they look like they belong together. This is the back and forth we traced throughout the entire process.
I know that one of LAYER’s philosophies is this concept of ‘change, but in a meaningful way’. And I was wondering did AXYL push that into new realms for you?
Hubert: In a way, everything that we do at LAYER pushes us to consider things in a new light, discover new processes and push us creatively as designers and design thinkers. But with AXYL, it’s not like we were reinventing something here. It is definitely an evolution rather than a revolution. We are not the first people to use sustainable materials; we are not the first people to use smart structures. But you have to do those things in order to have something that feels appropriate, modern, and to a degree progressive. The ‘meaningful change’ that AXYL brings here is surrounding the detailing and the subtleties of the object in use – whatever the sector or application – and definitely ensuring that these speak to the goals of a long-lasting design that is sustainable, responsive and, ultimately, responsible too.
And I know that this inaugural range comprises the chair, the stool, and also the table. Had you conceived the range like so, or did it of start with one particular piece and then everything flowed as iteration thereafter?
Hubert: In developing AXYL, it was always about setting a café scene. The chair obviously tended to that very strongly. Then the stool stemmed out of that project, but initially it was always going to be a chair, or a chair and a table for a really classic café setting. That’s when we quickly realised that the language could be great for a stool too. The dining chair/table was the next iteration of that. Once you have a small café table then you think about a large table – and now we’re excited to be developing new family members for AXYL that will be coming next year.
You mentioned earlier that in developing AXYL you really had your eye on the café setting, but now that it is being picked up in other sectors, was a multi- sector appeal something that was very important to you?
Hubert: Yes, absolutely. AXYL operates in that kind of soft contract space where it could flex into domestic and it can flex into hard contracts as well. Having something with that kind of flexibility and the degree of customisation means that it can be tailored to suit a huge degree of applications and environments.
One of AXYL’s best assets is that it really isn’t constraining in this sense. We hope lots of people and sectors will be attuned to like it, because it is distinctive, but it is fairly simple as well. This cross-context capability is something that really enriches the range I think.
One of the things that impressed me early on is the fact that the customisable aspect of the whole range is really broad. Is this something that was really important to you in developing the range?
Hubert: As a designer, I think it’s amazing to have the opportunity to design a chair and put a stamp on the product, but I don’t think that AXYL is the world’s most customisable piece of furniture. There is a degree of being able to interchange shells, use awesome colours and the ability for it to fit into different types of projects. But for me, the degree of customisable options that the range allows means that an architect or interior designer can also put their mark on it and participate in its ongoing design process.
Was there something about the range that surprised you – either in developing the range, or the reception that it has received?
Hubert: I think one of the things we did for the launch at the London Design Festival was very interesting. We wanted to celebrate the componentry. We built a huge tower to form a leg structure and put on display the elements that people don’t really see: the structure underneath the seat for example. Showing AXYL’s sides you don’t normally see or consider – like the engineering parts of it – really contributed to the reception the range has subsequently enjoyed. I was very pleased with the bits that we focused and fussed over in the studio, and being able to share that with everyone was very rewarding.
At first glance you get an impression but at closer inspection you can see the care and attention to something that you never really notice. I was pleasantly surprised that the audience viewing the project really loved those aspects. You know, I guess people love the story! People like to see the way that things are designed and how they are engineered. It was such a pleasure to be able to show those aspects.
And what other aspect of the range do you believe has not been recognised as much as it should?
Hubert: Ah, well, I think one thing that was a big part of the project here, but I think is surprising because nobody has really drawn attention to it, is that we focused a lot on the stacking possibilities. [Laughs.] I know that stacking is not such an exciting subject in general, but the way that the chairs stack I believe is quite innovative since the form is an unusual framework in terms of its inverted Y shape. It was a really big challenge to make sure that it stacked reasonably efficiently. We spent a lot of time in CAD simulation and prototyping to make sure that we had a decent stack. It’s not the world’s tightest stack but having such a distinctive and new frame while also getting it to stack well was a big part of the project and something that we are pretty impressed with in the end result.