As far as sustainable Australian industrial design goes, few brands can match the pedigree of Schamburg + Alvisse. Since 1997, the design duo shaped the local conversation surrounding environmental stewardship and the place of sustainability in design, far predating the sustainability movement that has swept through design in recent years. The true definition of ‘early adapters’, Marc Schamburg and Michael Alvisse used their diverse expertise – Schamburg in Design and Alvisse in Architecture – to hone in on the question of sustainability long before it entered the mainstream of design culture.
Driven by strong design skills and a genuine commitment to securing the future of the environment, the pair set out to design a range of commercial furniture solutions that delivered style and functionality without costing the earth. Their efforts were rewarded when they became the first Australian furniture (designer) to satisfy the rigorous green timber standards of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and Greenpeace, earning them the rightful reputation as one of the nation’s most important voices in eco-friendly design.
Today, Schamburg + Alvisse remain immersed in all aspects of the conversation surrounding sustainable industrial design, and continue to innovate to meet the growing consumer appetite for environmentally sustainable solutions. Schamburg + Alvisse designs are celebrated as outstanding pieces of design in their own right, and are part of the permanent collection of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. Selected pieces from their catalogue have also been exhibited in Milan’s Triennale Museum, San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, and the Melbourne Museum.
Over the years, Schamburg + Alvisse have remained central to the Australian sustainability movement thanks to their unmatched ability to channel cutting-edge design and technology to meet emerging market demands. One such example of this the recently-awarded EDO Streetscape (Gold, Good Design Awards 2018: Product Design), which responds directly to the challenges of a distinctly contemporary space: the agile workplace. Constructed from sustainable materials including FSC-certified timber, the modular seating collection creates “utsukushi basho” (beautiful places) for people to work, learn and refresh. EDO Streetscape offers spaces for flexible team settings, private team settings and quiet focus areas. EDO Meet, Work Lounge, Workpod, Teahouse, Campfire, Low, Lounge and Modular Lounge come in a variety of sizes and configurations.
But that is merely part of EDO’s fascinating story that starts, in fact, in an unlikely place: Tokyo’s back streets. Celebrated around the world for its unique blending of ultra-modern architecture with the time-tested traditional design, Tokyo continues to be a design mecca and a wellspring of inspiration – of which, EDO is the most recent beneficiary.
In fact, EDO not only takes its design cues from Tokyo, but also its name – 江戸, the former, traditional name of the city when it was the centre of power for the Tokugawa Shogunate from The Seventeenth to The Nineteenth Century. A period coloured by the growth of Japan’s global trade, a rising middle class and increased industrialisation across the board, this chapter in Tokyo’s history is also significant for reimagining the region’s vernacular architecture.
To this day, the megalopolis remains instantly distinguishable by this quality, with its great bustling squares counterbalanced by its warren-like back alleys. Of the latter – yochoko, as the locals fondly call them – patrons flock to tiny three by three metre (!) bars, restaurants and cafes for a moment to decompress, indulge and forge connections.
Restrained by this small floorplate, solitary visitors will often sit next to one another, share a meal or drink as equals, converse and forge an instant, earnest and, albeit potentially fleeting, connection.
Rightly noticing the qualities of chance and creative collisions to enriching the sociable experience in the yochokos, and the attendant correlative to this situation across workplaces seeking greater collaboration amongst their teams, Schamburg and Alvisse were inspired a particular form of interpersonal engagement that is ultimately equal parts organic and democratic.
Spatial Economisation In Australia’s Commercial Sector
Not dissimilar to the restricted floorplate of the yochokos, EDO’s essential form responds to the contracting spatial economy of the contemporary workplace. Where, in Australia, collaboration in the workplace usually occurs near or at an individual’s workstation, the increasing popularity of breakout zones, common areas and ‘hubs’ for creative collision throughout Asia, Europe and the Middle East (in particular) is gaining traction on our shores.
Remembering that for the future of white-collar work some 20-40 per cent of this workforce in the near future will be contractual workers, Schamburg and Alvisse sought to incorporate some of the ‘trust-building’ and ‘instant sociability’ they saw in action in the yochokos into EDO.
Intervening in the political makeup of workplaces of the future, EDO’s democratic and indiscriminate design scheme – one that chooses not to differentiate its many and varied end users – promotes mingling and connection between individuals and, as such, also contributes to the building of interpersonal trust while also knocking down hierarchical boundaries existing between individuals.
Addressing not only this important interpersonality between end users, but also the changing nature of spatial diversity in the workplace of the near future, EDO Streetscape caters to commercial interiors where health, happiness, collaboration and community provide the basis for workplace pride and professional stewardship. The newly released EDO Streetscape is available throughout the region through Zenith Interiors. Read more about the fascinating design journey of EDO Streetscape, here.
We often hear about changes in the commercial space from the perspective of the owner or end-user – as designers of commercial furniture, what do you view as the biggest changes in the commercial landscape?
S+A: For us, probably the biggest change has to have been the emergence of the agile workplace. More than ever, we’re finding that clients are looking for furniture solutions that support flexibility in all its forms: so multi-purpose furniture, or modular systems that can be rearranged as the team grows and changes. That’s a big challenge that we tend to hear about a lot – people are staying in jobs for a much shorter period than they used to, and they’re moving around a lot within that job. So clients are looking for furniture that accommodates this.
We’ve also noticed that the idea of “wellness” is far more mainstream in the commercial sector now than it was previously, as is sustainability. But overall, the biggest change is probably that idea of agility.
In terms of this change – agility becoming a major priority, and, I suppose, furniture needing to keep up with this – which factor do you think drives the other? Does changing workplace culture inform commercial furniture design, or vice versa?
S+A: It works both ways. Design never exists in a vacuum – it’s always going to be influenced by other things – but it definitely does also shape behaviours. As designers, we need to walk this fine line between responding to existing behaviours and encouraging new, hopefully better ones, and to do this requires a bit of give and take. So, yeah, it definitely goes both ways.
Does technology have a role to play in all this?
S+A: In changing workplace culture? Definitely. The agile workplace is, at least the way we see it, a by-product of a lot of the technology that’s come into offices in the past twenty years. A large part of why people can now work in such a wide range of ways and places comes down to things like mobile devices, the internet…tech has also helped break down a lot of the more traditional barriers of communication and made collaboration a more natural, appealing idea.
Last year marked twenty years of Schamburg + Alvisse, which is an incredible achievement. In the time that you’ve been involved in the industry, how have you seen attitudes evolve in terms of sustainability and environmental issues?
S+A: When we first started in 1997, sustainability was very much still a sort of fringe idea. Not too many people in commercial furniture were interested in pushing the envelope of ‘green design’, and looking toward making products that didn’t cause unnecessary harm to the environment. We had to search long and lard to connect with kindred spirits who cared about sustainable design, eventually connecting with the likes of John Gertsakis, Kirsty Mate, Dr. Cameron Tonkinwise, and a host of idealistic architects and designers all grappling with improving indoor air quality and conserving fast dwindling natural resources.
This has definitely turned around, with the Green Building Council and Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) being instrumental in facilitating this change. Designing for compliance with GECA is now seen in architecture and design as simply ‘best practice’. The mainstreaming of sustainability is now such that it has become a sort of marketing buzzword. In that sense, I think you need to approach sustainability with a bit of caution, because some of the genuine engagement with environmental issues is lost a bit in this marketing conversation. But overall, sustainability is definitely more widely embraced now and that can only be a positive thing.
S+A: We’re more committed than ever to making our furniture with healthier glues and reducing its environmental footprint. What’s most exciting is that our partner Zenith is completely committed to greening their supply chains with the help of independent certification by GECA, Gobal Green Tad and the Forestry Stewardship Council. With Zenith, we’re committed to making sure that all our products and processes – and the materials, too – are sustainable, and that they have as little impact as possible on the environment. It’s just become part of our design process now, so it’s almost second nature: if a product meets a need but isn’t sustainable, then does it really meet the need? In that case, it’s usually back to the drawing board, where we can take another look at things and fine tune them.
What direction would you like to see the conversation surrounding sustainability take in future?
S+A: It’ll be great when sustainability is so second nature to us all that we don’t need to talk about it at all! Until then, our job is to make sustainability attractive – and most importantly for consumers. Easy! So easy, in fact, that it’s a no-brainer. That’s the beauty of GECA, Global Green Tag and FSC Labels since they make it easy for people to buy authentic sustainable product. What we’d really like to see is consumers changing the way they think about cost and sustainability and starting to understand that it’s a long-term conversation, and that sustainability is an investment.
What was the inspiration behind EDO Streetscape?
S+A: We were actually in Japan, where we’d spent a couple of days exploring yokocho, which are basically these very narrow, very closely entwined back alleys. These tie together these quite miniature cafes, bars, restaurants – I think we saw one that was three by three metres – where visitors have to sit together in quite a restrictive floor plate. What’s incredible about these spaces is that because they’re so small, strangers often sit next to each other, share a meal and drink as equals, have a chat, and make this instant, if fleeting, connection. We really wanted to translate this idea into the workplace, so with EDO Streetscape that’s what we set about doing.
How does EDO Streetscape fit in with the broader Schamburg + Alvisse product family?
S+A: With most of our products, even though they might use a different material palette or different forms, they’re all united by the same approach. By now we’ve developed a pretty consistent design approach and process, which means that our products all have the same core elements: sustainability, comfort, utility… our customers always know what they can expect from our products. With a twist of the unexpected.
What’s next for Schamburg + Alvisse?
S+A: We’ll see! We’ve got some great things in the pipeline so stay tuned!
The A+D world faces a precarious future: dwindling local expertise, unlikely local capacity, and a race we thought was heading toward the bottom but seems, instead, to be heading nowhere.
The Anxiety Of Influence
Although the current state of our property market might indicate our growing status as a well-designed nation, few of us in the A+D world are quite so sanguine. Tasked to close contracts faster and cheaper than ever before, our A+D community continues to report a culture of fear within the industry, circuitous monetary flows and wildly ambivalent consumer confidence – whether for key developments in our property market or for the position our industrial design will index on the world’s stage in the face of growing international competition.
At all avenues, we appear to be racing to the bottom faster than ever before. Needing to curb costs wherever possible in order to bolster our value proposition to the market, (namely, a value proposition that hangs solely on price point), the collateral damage has been enormous and, sadly it would seem, largely silent.
Within the space of a single workforce generation, our local manufacturing industry has experienced an ongoing period of contraction, falling to record lows on the Industry’s Group Index. In the 2015-2016 financial year, manufacturing’s injection into the national economy capped almost $30 million AUD. Throughout the last financial year, however, it contributed less than $15,598 million – a drop of almost 50% (which, comparatively, outstrips the drop experienced during the same parameters for our equally anxious mining industry).
Manufacturing Industry’s Performance Activity
(% contribution to AU GDP):
But Is It A Question Of Déjà Vu?
It may sound flippant, but it feels all-too-familiar to me. Though few might be willing to see the correspondence, we find ourselves today in an oddly similar position to mid-Nineteenth-Century Europe. As the cause of industrialism continued to make in-roads into European social and political circles, the correlative emerged simultaneously for the continent’s economic thinking: the purportedly unspoken virtues of laissez-faire market drivers. We have novelists, in particular, to thank for the gainsaying. In the British tradition, Dickens, Eliot, Carlyle, Gaskell and any one of the Bronte family filled reams and reams of paper with the very human-centric tales of entire industries falling to task as the race to the bottom became more of a chaotic sprint.
But what might the Victorians teach us here? Well, for one thing, their response was inspired: intervention. Charter after charter was passed from the 1848 People’s Charter onwards, delineating strategies for mutually beneficial relationships between industry sectors: the cotton industry bolstered the weaving industry, textile trade and international trading relationships (even the colonial military) all working collaboratively to manage the ongoing struggles of ameliorating the rapid effects of mechanical innovation into an otherwise localised cottage IR structure. In short, the shift in industrial relations produced highly specialised skillsets as relationships became entirely driven by exclusivity and specialisation for quality control.
Do Industrial Designers Have A Responsibility To Manufacturers?
Needless to say, such effects are also currently extant within the A+D community. Relationships between our industrial designers and suppliers have never been richer and more penetrative. And yet, the local manufacturers still appear to be lucking out. While our lower dollar continues to boost manufacturing export volumes, weak local demand continues to subdue total activity as designers seek cheaper offshore alternatives
According to a recent report by Fairfax, 83% of Australian votes believe that we have a responsibility to generate more revenue and jobs within our total manufacturing capacity. Such sentiments could not have arrived at a more pressing moment. Between 2008 and 2016, more than 300,000 manufacturing jobs were lost, now accounting for approximately 1 in every 13 workers.
“The public’s instinct is absolutely right,” says Jim Stanford, economist at the Centre for the Future of Work at the Australia Institute, following his key findings that this nation displays a significantly lower proportion of manufacturing capacity than any other comparably advanced economy. “We risk paying a long-term price if the decline continues.”
So, should the A+D world reconsider its relationship with manufacturers? After all, government deregulation of the commercial sector in particular – plus the constantly changing landscape of taxation and tariff control – doesn’t bode well for too heavy a reliance on offshore manufacturing in the long term (even if it does satisfy short-term commercial imperatives). While local expertise continues to decline, we are actively complicit in creating an arena that is not sustainable for our local industrial designers, their local and international suppliers and the push for seeing our local design language make a loud impact on the international level.
Under such conditions, never has ecologically and socially sustainable approaches to our industrial relationships been more pressing. And thankfully, some industrial designers are proving that understanding the future direction of our collective practice and the potentially errant market forces at play is key to our overall success – as a nation, as an industry, and as a design community.
Rethinking The Designer-Manufacturer Relationship
Keith Melbourne is one such forward-thinker. Following the launch of his Pino collection for Zenith, Melbourne sat down with me to discuss his unique relationship with manufacturers, underscoring his discussion with the insight that closer collaborative approaches are key to the success of industrial design as a discipline, and design as both collective practice and community.
From designing all unique manufacturing componentry for the range, not to mention furniture kitted with ergonomic solutions for the manufacturers needing to construct these difficult product typologies – it becomes clear that it is near-impossible to delineate where Pino’s design story ends and its manufacture story begins. At all points, the difficulties, necessities and support systems for the range’s manufacture appear to inform its design resolution from the beginning. What emerges is not simply a product to decorate our mantle as a well-designed nation but, rather, the vital support system needed to ensure that the mantle will no longer be top-heavy.
David Congram, Indesign: You’ve commented elsewhere that Pino is unique for you because it was very much a balancing act between sustaining its characteristic wire form and still providing the level of comfort and performance we wouldn’t normally expect from hard furnishings.
Keith Melbourne: Yes, and ‘balancing act’ is the perfect term for it. [laughs] Well, sometimes, but it really was more of a pleasurable experience as a whole. And probably the number one thing which I found especially arduous this time with Pino was the manufacture. It was a wonderful challenge but I seriously underestimated the scope of the manufacturing side. We developed twelve manufacture components, and then spent two years refining the manufacturing process as a whole.
DC: Well, since the manufacture for Pino was largely uncharted territory for you in terms of the form of the range, was it key to collaborate with specialist manufacturers?
KM Oh absolutely! It was a very mutually-rewarding experience for both myself and the manufacturing team because it was such a prolonged collaborative process. Manufacturing is something that is very hidden, so I enjoy coming out and championing that part of the design process. Otherwise, how would people know?
DC And people are intensely interested in that part of the design process, too, I feel.
KM Yes, extremely so. It’s always met with a very high level of fascination. It has a tendency to ground the product, and really sweep away the unecessary ‘mystique’ that surrounds design as a discipline.
DC And when you were refining each element during that questioning, how many prototypes were required to truly test its functionality?
KM Interestingly, not many at all. I normally make a lot of models when I’m designing furniture, but it’s almost impossible to make a model of anything in the Pino range. When you take it down to one fifth of the scale, the wires don’t really translate. The accuracy required during the prototyping stage to inform the end-result just couldn’t be achieved for Pino because of its peculiar materiality. So largely it was done in CAD with some mock-ups in MDF for an ergonomic point of view.
DC That’s quite interesting because I imagine it would be rather uncommon –
KM Well yes – prototyping is an important part of any design process, but the material that constitutes the bulk of each piece wasn’t very welcoming of traditional prototyping, and certainly wasn’t particularly suited to dropping down the scale. I developed a new type of prototyping for this range using laser cut MDF to make a simulation of the chair, for example, so that you could sit inside to test the distribution of load and weight. Although it differs incredibly from the end result (not only in material) this way I was able to test and refine the ergonomics of each piece. But largely, I think we only did one prototype overall.
KM Yeah! But, thousands of megabytes of CAD data as well. It was an interesting challenge because I normally do like to make many models and work directly with the material and form. Unfortunately, or actually quite fortunately in a way, the material in this instance worked against the way I normally design.
DC You’ve told me quite a bit about the manufacturing side of developing this range, and I’m curious to know your opinion of the manufacturer-designer relationship.
KM Oh it’s extremely important! It’s critical as far as I’m concerned. I don’t work just by completing the design process and then passing the spec sheets through to the manufacturers. I prefer to work more collaborating alongside the manufacturers and I find very often that this also colours the design process to a great extent too, while also influencing the success of the design from a performance, quality or even aesthetic angle.
DC Do you think that is standard or rare for the design community currently working throughout Australia, in particular?
KM All designers I know have slightly different relationships with their manufacturers. Some, like me, are quite involved, and others can be very removed, some removed entirely as we often see with those who use offshore solutions. But I think that the line in the sand – where the manufacturer finishes and the designer starts – for me at least is very blurred. Perhaps that’s more informed by my engineering background than I know. But I love the relationship with the manufacturer. I spend a lot of time physically in the factory refining the manufacturing process. And the manufacturers love it too.
DC I imagine that the stronger the relationship between the manufacturer and the designer leads to a better-resolved product at the tail-end of the whole process.
KM Yes I’d have to agree. The whole process of the tooling side of things is about spending time refining those elements that can improve quality but also save time and a lot of funds too.
The design process for me can sometimes be quite lonely. I do a lot of the legwork alone and then the collaboration starts with the manufacturer where the sparks start to fly. I have a lot of respect with the manufacturers I work with, and the transference of skills and expertise is by far one of the most rewarding parts of this relationship.
In the lead up to his launch of Pino for Zenith, we sat down with Keith Melbourne to get a behind the scenes glance of the designer
It has been said before, and yet I will say it again. Keith Melbourne has carved out a unique place for himself in
the world of contemporary design. Exploring the sometimes twin, sometimes twain, virtues of rational engineering and creative design, his work bears an unmistakable signature: highly resolved end-results that appear equally whimsical and graphic, but soon start to reveal a litany of calmly determined design choices to bestow the invisible comforts of everyday life.
Having recently launched his latest collection – Pino – for Zenith,
it is clear that the union of engineering, manufacture, R+D and creative design continues to be a strong driving force for Melbourne. Across the entire range, comprising wire-work
dining and lounge chairs, stools, and accompanying tables, Pino carries a sometimes surprising back history that Melbourne was kind enough to share:
David Congram: It has been said before that your engineering background heavily influences your work. I was wondering, however, whether your background in aerospace and automotive engineering
also influences it more directly?
Keith Melbourne: That’s a good question. I don’t think that it
is directly influenced by aerospace and automotive engineering
as much as it is by manufacturing. I work with manufacturers to refine the design of the product and pre-empt moments where
we can refine the product (as an end result) and the process of its manufacture. The aesthetic … well, maybe I’m not the best person
DC [laughs]. No no, really?
KM [laughs] Ah, well no not really. But I do think that in terms
of aesthetic, Pino has so many lines and in that way it is almost
like drawing. The different lineweights express the product in a different way. So we start with much finer seating wires that hang
in a frame, and these lineweights add more definition to the product.
So in terms of its aesthetic influences, I’d have to say it’s the precision I choose to work with … You can take the boy out of engineering, I guess!
DC And is that quite common for your work process? Designing functionally first, and then aesthetically second? Or are they constantly intertwined for you?
KMDefinitely intertwined. But having said that, I’m a strong believer in the functionality of products. So much time on this product was spent trying to perfect its comfort. I was adamant that although it is essentially a wire chair, it should be as comfortable as possible for its category type. So I spent a lot of time reworking the distribution of load over the wire seat, minimising or eliminating pressure points that lead to discomfort. I always start with thinking about the functionality and comfort of each piece, and then rework elements of its aesthetic dimension – so they are very intertwined.
DC So when you began with the functionality and comfort of Pino, what was its initial seed?
KMWell the very first part of the design journey for Pino is this softened hexagonal hoop that forms the seat and back of the chair. That’s the distinctive feature of the chair – it screams out at you from the other side of the street. The wires that hang from the hoop almost forge a sling shape – very soft, and very surprising given the hardness of the material.
Right from day one, the key features of the product were still
there, and they really did determine the direction and the
DC When I sat down with the other editors in the office, we were refreshing our memories of your recent work for brands like Stylecraft and Zenith, and the one thing that really jumped out at us was the strong graphic nature of your portfolio –
KMThat’s interesting because if I had to choose only one word to describe my work it would have to be ‘line’. How line in the 2D and the 3D form then translates into a sculptural presence. I obsess over it, really. Complex lines and vital lines are a central theme in my work. So when you recognised the graphic nature of what I do, you’re right on the money!
DC [laughs] So you feel that Pino is very harmonious with your previous collections?
KMI do, yes. Well … actually, that’s a difficult question.
DC Well, do you feel then that Pino offers something new and slightly divergent from your back history of work?
KMIn a way, yes. For the dining chair in particular, I hadn’t tackled that type of product before – let alone in wire! I’ve done a lot of upholstered furniture and soft seating and stools, but for me I would nominate Pino as ‘hard’. One of the main challenges (which, in a way was more pleasurable than frustrating) was the fact that when you work in wire, everything is on display.
The ergonomics, the aesthetics, you can’t hide anything! By sculpting the piece to achieve comfort, you’re radically changing the sculptural form of it at the same time.
DC Well on that, Pino has this sense – at least to me – of wearing its heart on its sleeve (if such a thing could be said of a wire chair…) –
DC And I have a feeling that this comes from its very flexible nature. Not only is it appropriate both indoors and out, but I can see it being equally at home in residential, commercial and even hospitality environments. It’s equally casual as it is formal. Was this versatility something very much at the centre of your design intent?
KMYes – and I viewed it particularly while I was developing
the chair, as ‘a chair’ not ‘an outdoor chair’, for instance. I wanted
to develop it to a level of comfort and aesthetic refinement that would allow it to sit in a home. I think that if people find it appealing enough to want it in their home then that’s top of the list. That’s the hardest nut to crack. And it’s been overwhelming because the manufacturers and the sales people and the general public who
have been introduced to it have already said to me that they’d
love it in their homes – and that’s extremely rewarding for me.
DC So what were some of the questions you constantly asked yourself to achieve this degree of versatility?
KMComfort was one that kept coming up. And also, the pieces need to be universal – from a scale point of view, it needed to be quite universal in that way. But then also making sure that I was able to refine each piece for its specific function: dining chairs, lounge chairs and stools all require different negotiations of scale, weight and features, so it was definitely necessary for me to really question the relationship between form and function, without favouring one over the other.
DC How did the range itself begin to take shape? Did you have quite a resolved idea of the relationships between each piece – where they diverged and coalesced – or did it emerge quite organically?
KMWell when I began designing the tables to accompany the dining chair in particular, the soft hexagonal form kind of transferred across as a motif. I really did try to hero the chairs in particular,
so the tables are much quieter in form to allow the chair to be the star. But for the collection as a whole, it really did start with the dining chair. About a year in total was spent refining that particular piece, and then the rest of the collection iterated from that quite quickly in comparison.
DC So the dining chair was … true north, I guess?
KMAbsolutely! It was very important for me to get the chair to a stage where it was harmonious, dynamic and highly resolved so that the rest of the pieces in the range had the best aesthetic and functional blueprint to work from.
DC And what do you think is going to capture the imagination of the market for Pino?
KMAesthetically, the soft hexagon is the key feature of the product. The curvature is very key, but I do believe that the fanning gesture of the wirework – particularly in the sling leading up the back of the seat – will be one of the more popular aesthetic touches. It gives the piece a sense of spaciousness and expansion.
DC Yes, it’s quite an elegant gesture –
KMAnd I think that will lead to it being equally as suited to the residential market. But in terms of what the market will love best, I guess we’ll have to wait and see!
Distance is no barrier to global impact for New Zealand-based studio Formway Design. An international perspective and the creativity fostered by a remote location bring a unique point of view on workplace furniture to the world.
Kent Parker and Paul Wilkinson, the Joint General Managers and Lead Designer and Engineer (respectively) at Formway Design, have no qualms about the word ‘antipodean’. They are based on New Zealand’s north island in the city of Lower Hutt, nestled between a mountain range and the sea.
“Yes, we are way down there!” jokes Parker as we chat in Zenith’s Singapore showroom. There are 45 hours of travel time between them and the headquarters of European brands. He adds, “It makes us hungry to know what’s going on everywhere else and it makes us naturally resourceful. New Zealand is full of creative businesses that have been established out of need. But there’s also an advantage in the fact that we can stay away when we need to, and just focus on what we do.”
And what they do could be summarised as such: creating products that will really help people in their lives. Formway Design focuses on intuitive performance seating. “That’s where we want to push the boundaries,” says Parker. “It’s always been part of our culture to figure out how people can work better, and how we can affect that,” he adds.
The Life chair, designed in 2002, is a great example of a winning solution. It’s Knoll’s highest-selling task chair. The Be task chair (known as the Generation chair in the US) is selling around 160,000 units per year, notes Parker. He also cites Formway’s first showing at NeoCon in 1996, when the studio presented the Free desk system – a moveable, flexible plug-and-play design. It won four ‘Best of NeoCon’ gold awards at the fair.
The key to Formway’s impact is perhaps the rigour with which the team evaluates everything they design. Says Parker, “We don’t just want to create another chair or another table. We want to create solutions to make everyday lives richer. We mark ourselves quite hard; we ask, ‘What’s the real benefit of this product?’”
Research is a huge part of arriving at meaningful solutions, and – though you might expect it to have an impact in this regard – the distance at which Formway Design works is no barrier to investigating working and living trends at a global scale.
Part of the key to Formway’s reach is maintaining a large international network of contacts. With the help of this network, the studio carries out observational work, with cameras set up in workplaces and homes (“People are actually really open,” remarks Wilkinson); undertakes global surveys (the most recent one involving 2,000 respondents from Germany, the UK, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand); and holds face-to-face discussions with customers about how they work and live. The gathered information is carefully processed and the team seizes on opportunities that emerge through data analysis.
Another big part of delivering on-target solutions is nurturing rich partnerships, say Parker and Wilkinson. “Our partnerships with brands like Zenith are all about delivering value at the design end and partnering with people who believe in what we’re doing and can take that to market,” says Parker. These relationships are also another way for the team to keep on top of trends in different markets.
“The trends we’re seeing in Singapore right now are quite different to what we’re seeing in Australia and the US,” says Parker. “These markets are at different stages of the cycle of how people work.” He adds that they have started seeing some pushback in Australia in terms of activity-based working. “You have to get the balance right,” he says. “Not everything has to be collaborative and not everyone works well in open spaces.”
These days, co-working and the ability to work from home are having an effect on the workplace, suggests Wilkinson, and on the types of products designed by Formway. For example, the Belite chair was introduced as a variation of the more technically advanced Be task chair, offering similar performance but a lower price point.
The need for adaptable products that suit smaller home environments is another trend being addressed by Formway. “But I don’t think the traditional office will disappear,” says Wilkinson. “It’s still the place where everybody gets together.”
What is changing in the office is the growing influence of domesticity. “The warmth and domesticity we provide now for work is very different to what we had ten years ago,” says Parker. “We realise that we need to match the functional performance of our products with the aesthetic side.”
Yet the colour primarily specified for task chairs is still black, shares Wilkinson. “It’s a lot easier to change, for example, a laser-cut wall panel than it is to change the office seating, so other products still tend to provide the accents,” he explains.
Of course, it’s a different story in the residential sphere. We’ll watch with interest to see how Formway’s product offer expands to cater to the ever-changing trends of living and working in New Zealand and around the world. Without question, the stoic underpinning of Formway Design’s methods and philosophy will continue to serve the studio and their customers well.
Team Zenith is your Official 2017 INDE.Awards Platinum Partner. Join them at the inaugural INDE.Awards this June and meet the future of our region’s A+D superstars.
Sustainable furniture pioneers Marc Schamburg and Michael Alvisse were in Singapore recently to hold a series of presentations and conversations with interior designers. Narelle Yabuka from Indesign caught up with them at Zenith’s Singapore showroom to hear their latest news.
Since the 1990s, Australian designers Marc Schamburg and Michael Alvisse have been recognised as trailblazers in the area of sustainable furniture – a full decade before green standards were embraced by the construction industry. These days they work closely with Zenith, creating singular products as well as diverse systems that can cater to the variable needs of different company cultures around the APAC region.
What are your most recent product releases and what sorts of trends and issues do they address in terms of how we’re working and living?
Michael Alvisse (MA): TheEdo range was introduced two years ago, but we’ve been constantly releasing new iterations of it. It’s expansive product offering, and it’s been interesting to see how the ABW space has evolved to the point where now the consensus seems to be that it’s about providing a range of work experiences and not being prescriptive in terms of being collaborative or personal and private. Every company has its own culture and needs a mix and a balance between these various things. The balance will be different for each organisation. We’re really creating a kit of parts.
Marc Schamburg (MS): Intuitively we’ve been doing that with all of our ranges for the last five or six years. But Edo is by far the biggest offering, being a streetscape of different options. The kit of parts gives Zenith the opportunity to create a component-based manufacturing system. It makes it easy to manufacture, assemble and stock. It also creates so many different manifestations of the product.
MA: And more and more it’s becoming quasi-architecture.
MS: We are moving into creating spaces and rooms instead of standard items of furniture, which we were doing in the beginning of our career. So it’s interesting how the whole industry has evolved.
MA: The psychology of workplaces is becoming a lot more interesting. The awareness of the importance of how people’s minds work, how the creative process works, how solutions are actually generated, and what kinds of conditions encourage that, has been really interesting to see. As neuroscience grows, workplace psychology becomes something that more and more people begin to understand. We’re seeing a much greater savviness about the impact one’s environment has on how they behave, think and feel, and how productive and innovative they are. Especially as AI increasingly takes over the repetitive work, it’s not just about productivity anymore; it’s now about how you encourage lateral solutions and creativity – which is a completely different conversation.
MS: That’s right. That’s something that AI and mechanisation won’t do.
Have you been exploring any new directions in sustainable design or production?
MA: I think that the directions we’re exploring are less and less about the technical material aspects of things, because the good thing about the strength of the certification systems is that they are quite prescriptive. Also, in terms of benchmarking performance, they’ve pretty much got it covered. And as the technology improves those certification processes will likely become more rigorous.
What’s really interesting now is to move beyond that. The thing people are still getting their heads around is sustaining the human being – the sustainability of their thinking and their creative process. Here at the beginning of this fourth wave of the industrial revolution, we’ve got a whole stack of challenges ahead of us. We know what we need to do in terms of physical sustainability. In terms of mental or psychological sustainability, and creative innovations – that’s a whole other area. The other stuff can be taken care of by technicians now.
What are your best-selling products in the Zenith range?
MS: It keeps changing, but Edo is up there right now.
MS: Mason is also probably in the top three right now. They’re all systems that started off as one thing and ended up being much more collaborative and modular – so they offer a lot. They’re not all at the same price point, but they offer similar things in different ways and with different aesthetics.
At ZENITH, trend forecasting has been pushed to new frontiers.
Responding to the connected workplace of the future, ZENITH
creates products to meet emerging needs. Where, commonly,
design is reactive (where products developed are matched to a
client’s identified needs), ZENITH Design works at the forefront of
embryonic need and advanced technology. The team’s approach to
product innovation springs from extensive anticipatory research.
Drawing information from a range of research initiatives squarely
positions design thinking within the arena of empirical reasoning,
distilling the practice of design down to one key question: if this is
happening now, then what will happen next?
Bob Stewart, who sits at the helm of ZENITH Design, states:
“We’re very focused on what the end-user needs and what their
workplaces require. We have a forward-facing work methodology
in our design approach.” Little wonder, then, that the latest offering
from ZENITH Design, KISSEN, is already responding to the functional
requirements of a new breed of commercial environments. As a
collection of tables and workstations carrying a strong timber
aesthetic and distinct leg profile, the range takes its name from
the German word for ‘cushion’.
With an interchangeable kit of componentry and custom material
choices, KISSEN’s supreme economy of space streamlines the products’ form and accessory options to provide ease of team
expression and identity. Responding to the need for tomorrow’s
diverse work models, KISSEN seeks to foster connection in either
social or collaborative settings.
While KISSEN responds to the primacy of collaboration in the
commercial environment, EDO by Schamburg & Alvisse responds
to the desire for new degrees of flexibility. Inspired by Tokyo’s dori
(streets) and yokocho (laneways), the EDO Streetscape is an elegy to
the city’s vibrant melting pot of technology and tradition. Whether
offering flexible modularity for interactive team meetings, formal
catch-ups or more private settings for focus and retreat, in the
words of EDO’s designers, the range offers the design community
“the tools to create utsukushi basho (beautiful places) for people
to work, learn and refresh”.
Comprising a suite of single and supplementary modular
lounges, ottomans, collaborative modules and additional tablet
arms, EDO’s custom options carry across timber and powdercoat
legs, high or low backrests, removable armrests and upholstery. KISSEN and EDO are available throughout Asia Pacific thanks
to the team at ZENITH. With showrooms throughout the region,
contact your nearest ZENITH team to view these latest collections
designed for tomorrow’s commercial sector.
For more than 20 years now, the designer Wolfgang C. R. Mezger has been one of the most inspiring progressive thinkers behind the modern office.
Finasoft Cantilever Conference Chair
The qualified typographer, graduate industrial designer and specialist for executive offices is in demand all over the world. He also has considerable experience in lecturing in London, Berlin and Schwbisch Gmnd.
Harmonious concepts and intelligent details are the hallmark of Mezgers aesthetic philosophy. He finds the answers to complex questions with simple solutions. His feeling for the spirit of the times speaks to the customer as can be seen in projects for Brunner from Germany, Artifort from the Netherlands, Davis from the USA and Allermuir in the UK.
Sean Dix of Dix Design and Architecture talks to Karen McCartney about his cultural and philosophical drivers, reductionist approach to design and favourite whiskey.
You worked in Italy for many years and have adopted the notion of ‘progettista’ which means “somebody who makes a project” rather than the segregated attitude of architect/designer etc. How does this mind set serve you?
Until very recently, the Italians had no word for designer, in fact they didn’t have any designers at all. (It could be argued that things were better back then.) Instead, they had architects who were trained to think, to consider the whole picture, to develop any project from a considered conceptual foundation. Ernesto Rogers from BBPR called for architects to take responsibility for the design of everything “from the spoon to the city” (“dal cucchiaio alla città”). This conviction that a designer has few limits is inspiration for me.
Does the discipline of designing for a particular project help focus you mind in a certain creative direction? With particular reference to the Yardbird Collection.
Designing products for specific architectural projects helps me a lot – first of all, like most designers, I need a deadline. But more importantly, it gives me a conceptual and practical framework within which to work, and helps guide the design process by giving the object a specific context. Some of my favourite designs were created that way, like the famous lounge that Eames designed for his friend Billy Wilder. “You design for someone in particular,” Eames said, “and then you find out that other people have more in common with the object of your affection than you realized.”
With Yardbird we always had this idea that it should feel Japanese (it is a yakitori place, after all) but it should feel like the kind of cool Japanese place that you would brag about discovering in Tokyo, hidden around a corner, filled with hip creative types, listening to old-school hip-hop and drinking Hitachino Nest. What hip Tokyo designer needs Japanese restaurant clichés?
Yardbird’s building itself is quite unusual for Hong Kong – it’s very old -1940’s – with a kind of Bauhaus design. So we got on this idea built around Bauhaus-era factory canteens, anonymous institutional furniture, and this idea of punching the design details down until we were certain that there was nothing extraneous. The furniture that was born from this carries that vague sense of something utilitarian that a drill press operator could sit on all day long.
You talk about the act of ‘deleting’ in the design process. How do you know when you have reached that perfect point of balance?
Jasper Johns wrote “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. (Repeat.)”
While that may be a legitimate approach to making art, for designers I would argue that usually the reverse is better: “Take a project / Take something away from it / Take something else away from it. (Repeat.)
A lot of design today, especially in the world of commercial interiors, brings to mind a desperate clown, riding a unicycle, spinning plates, juggling bowling pins, and – wow – also honking on a kazoo.
For interior projects, I always try to strip away everything but the essential. Excessive design is like humour – what joke is funny the second time you hear it? Better to strip things down until what remains is something you can return to again and again, something that provides a backdrop for the real protagonists – the people using the space.
4. You have recently collaborated with award winning chef Matt Abergel on Ronin in Hong Kong – a spare 14-seat izakaya and whiskey bar where precision and a sort of rarefied luxury (I am thinking of the 150 year old log) were the key drivers. What did you learn from this level of refinement?
Most guests probably don’t notice a lot of the details and refinement that went into Ronin but they sense them – it just feels “right.” The pieces all fit together precisely, the “edges” are smooth, and the materials are supple, tactile, and natural. We spent a lot of time thinking about how to create the vibe of the space – every design decision grew from those initial ideas – warm, comfortable, understated, comfortable, quiet, calm, friendly, informal but precise.
I believe that when the concept is really clear for the designer and the details are well-defined then people don’t really need to understand it on more than a subliminal level. There are so many things that are more important than the concept – in Ronin, specifically, the overall experience, your dinner partner, the fantastic food, the informal but very professional service, the hand-chipped ball of ice floating in your yamazaki 12 year… Who cares about the concept – it’s just a small part of the machine. Of course you need it – it’s important – but do you really want to talk about it? Do you care how your carburettor works?
The furniture pieces that you designed for this project are now available. How would you characterize them?
My inspirations for the Ronin furniture were the worn-leather club chairs in cigar lounges, bucket seats from the great American muscle cars of the 70’s, Steve McQueen, and padded samurai armour. Ronin is among my favorite of my designs, and lends itself to a lot of different contexts – we’ve just done a version with wooden legs and another really cool version with arms and casters we’ll start using here in my design office.
6.You enjoy the blurring of lines (which is only logical) that a table can be a desk or an office chair a dining chair etc. Do you think the consumer is ahead of the industry in terms of this flexibility of use?
It must mean something that so little office furniture makes it into homes and that ostensibly domestic furniture is migrating into the office. My interpretation of this is that users mostly don’t want a bunch of extra features; they crave warmth. I’m fascinated by the challenges of the office furniture world – I’d love to get the opportunity to design a task chair and a work station system that users would also want to use in their homes.
7. Your work successfully draws on historical references be it mid-century modernism or Bauhaus. Do you think a strong understanding of the past is essential for a designer to interpret the present – and move beyond to the future?
Designing is like making music – it’s always taking and interpreting and elaborating inspirations from what others achieved before you. You study, you learn to play, you play some more, hopefully you get better. The quality of your work is formed by how much you learned from what others did before you and what others are doing today. By understanding design history you get more notes to play.
Quick fire questions
Best colour combination of powder-coating and leather on Chom Chom?
I like the stealth version: rough black powder coat, black-tinted ash, and black leather.
Eames or Saarinen?
Saarinen. While of course I’m influenced by my fellow Missourian, I love Saarinen’s sculptural rationalism and his pluralist approach – he never got sucked into repeating a style.
Do you subscribe to the term multidisciplinary?
I’m suspicious of anyone that can pronounce it properly, especially if they are using it to describe themselves. “Interdisciplinary” is probably a better description for how I think, integrating ideas, knowledge and methods from different disciplines. But I wouldn’t try to pronounce that either.
Justus Kolberg, designer of Senator’s new Circo and Ecoflex chairs, is passionate about developing chairs. “The possible variations when designing a chair are huge. This fact is what makes every architect dream of one day developing a chair.”
For Justus, chairs have somewhat of a “human dimension;” they are very important because they accompany us throughout our daily lives; we should feel comfortable with them.
Kolberg’s innovative designs made waves in the industry (working for Castelli, Bene, Wilkhahn, Renz, Kusch, Garpa, Howe, Tecno, and Allermuir to name a few). He has received such high-calibre prizes as: the IF Hannover Product Design Award; the Red Dot des Design Centrum NRW; the IDEA -Gold Industrial Design Excellence Award (USA); and the Japanese Good Design Award.