Ryan McNeish is one of the industry’s most prolific designers. Boasting creative credits for the likes of Halo, Tetrad and At The Helm, plus numerous retail lines, Ryan now heads up Gregor Ryan Design, a full-service studio and consultancy. 

Having worked for the likes of Halo, And So to Bed, Fabb Sofas and Lee Longlands, Ryan’s current clients are Tetrad, Westbridge, At The Helm, Harris Tweed, Furmanac, Housing Units and Gillies. Ryan’s work has earned him several accolades, including: Best Stand, IFFS Singapore 2018 (Tetrad); Best in Category, IFFS Singapore 2019 (Tetrad); and Winner, Living Category, The Furniture Awards 2017 (Tetrad again, with Gatsby).

Where did you study?

Heriot-Watt School of Textiles and Design, Edinburgh.

What was the most valuable part of your education?

Leaving home at 17 for university, as it taught me to manage myself and my decisions early in life. 

At textile college, I was lucky enough to meet some amazingly experienced technicians who influenced how I worked, and showed me what was important in the industry. I met two amazing ladies who, through their own careers, continue to influence how I approach my work, even now. Without meeting them, I may have taken a very different path. 

I love learning from people with lots of history and experiences behind them. 

What was your first design job?

A local theatre project in my hometown of Fife. I designed the outside advert for a production of Oliver! at 13 years old. Back in the late 1980s, I was paid with free tickets to shows!

Where might I have heard your name before? 

I worked for eight years with Halo Creative & Design. I also worked as a furniture and home accessory buyer for Vogue House Furnishers and Sterling Furniture (Scotland).

What are you working on right now?

We have exhibitions at imm cologne, Maison&Objet and January Furniture Show coming up. Claire [Nutall, project manager] and I are working on six stand designs and project management programmes for each, alongside some product design and developments with a new client for March. 

Personally, I’m working on a new product collection with Tetrad for the January Furniture Show, alongside some accent items for At the Helm’s new lines. I’m also looking to create an own-brand collection this year, which I’m very excited about!

Creation story

How do you mentally prepare yourself for work each day? 

I’m lucky enough to love doing what I do with the clients I have. It’s all about preparation and flexibility, as things can change daily. Accepting change is the best approach in today’s working environment – make the most of your time, and always be prepared to help wherever necessary.  

A blank sheet of paper can be daunting – what inspires you to fill it?

A blank piece of paper excites me! It means something new can be discussed and created. I only ask it’s not A4 or smaller – that makes me anxious, as I feel I don’t have enough space! I prefer to create new ideas with large pieces of paper.

Designs are often compromised by their commerciality – how do you maintain integrity despite such pressures?

In any market, each design approach should always consider commercial value. If we don’t create products that sell, all we have is something aesthetically beautiful, yet unrelatable. That’s great for an art gallery, but not so much when working with clients who need margin and sales in a commercial market.  

Stand design for imm cologne 2019, At The Helm

I try to approach the brief by keeping in mind who it’s for, what they require, and how they will use it. Each client has a different set of values and market position around sales and margin expectations – I always ask questions about intent, and how it relates to the end consumer, then the quality of the design reflects its intention thereafter.

Which area of your work do you enjoy most – and least?

I have a multi-disciplinary background and I get bored easily, so I like days when I move from creative to analytical projects. 

I enjoy pricing, visualising, business strategy and computer-based design – but nothing’s better than creating ideas in your head and trying to get them onto paper.

Decisionmaking (or lack thereof) is what frustrates me most. I prefer to say I tried and failed than didn’t try at all! There’s more to learn from our failures than our successes, and we all fail more than once across our career.

What are your favourite designs?

In essence, my two choices are from different design approaches. The Timothy Oulton Saddle chair, which I designed, was my most interesting creative project. 

Saddle chair, Timothy Oulton

For me, it was a high-risk approach to design. Designing something unique is tough today – I approached this with the intention to do something that represented the brand, yet could be appealing to a global market.  

As the registered inventor of the chair, it’s something I’m particularly proud of. This was at the time that Timothy Oulton established their brand. It was a real pleasure to work in China and create something unique for them, and it continues to be a bestseller in branded retail spaces across the world. 

Lots of other designs/drawings were created during this process, but I have a personal affinity with this one.  

Next is the Halo Montana office chest. This piece was based entirely around creating a commercial, compact, multifunctional space-saving workspace and storage solution, that could be used in a variety of rooms.  

As homes get smaller and more people work from home in flexible environments, the piece was designed within the look of the brand, but was considered a very commercial approach. It became the bestselling piece for the UK market, and retailers ordered full containers of this model alone. 

I personally have an updated leather-clad version which was sold internationally for the group.

What’s your favourite designer retailer?

The Timothy Oulton store on the King’s Road, London, is currently my favourite designer home lifestyle retailer in the UK. It encompasses every aspect of great retailing – with great product, great theatre, fantastic service and a unique hosting approach to retailing, it’s a perfect combination. 

Evolution theory

Pick three words that sum up UK domestic furniture design today

Challenging, predictable, and focused. 

What aspects of it make you despair?

We are not creative enough with our home lifestyle decisions. 

… and hopeful?

More colour. Grey has replaced brown from the Noughties! I’m hopeful that a new decade will see a new consumer buying colour and the mixing of more interesting pieces, without following the obvious current trend of grey and high gloss. 

Do you feel the industry adequately supports designers?

Our industry has evolved recently, and we have new, younger designers entering the marketplace. But I think we can do more to encourage new design talent. I’d love to teach new talent, based on my experiences. I think sharing information is most important, and something some manufacturers are working towards, which is a positive step. 

Design talent can come from lots of places. I like to find people with great attitudes who are positive and adaptable. The principles we learn in education form a basis, but it’s what we do with them ourselves that creates valuable talent. 

What’s the last design that caught your eye?

I like most things from Lee Broom. He has an eye for contemporary re-interpretation. I also like Paola Navone – she’s had some iconic designs over the years.  

However, I tend not to follow interior or product designers, as I believe you follow your own interests, and doing so provides inspiration that represents you. Be aware of trends, but always set your own style values.

What’s the future of furniture design?

As Millennials continue to enter the market with different design expectations, I think aesthetics, functionality, ecological influences and technology will play a large part in how we design furniture. We need to constantly consider this.  

Berkley (featuring Mulberry Home fabrics), Tetrad

I think product sizes and styles will change as homes become increasingly multifunctional – designers will be required to make products and interiors for different uses within their market. 

I’m hopeful that more interesting design styles will flood the market, and I can see some of this with the dot-com retailers, and their approaches to commercial style. However, I’m also hopeful that disposable styles at low prices will not be the main focus for Millennials, and that a return to investing in statement pieces that wear in – not out – is becoming more important.  

Insights to inspire

Which industry event or platform gives designers the best step up? 

I don’t believe there is a specific one. It’s tough to establish yourself, especially if you come from a working-class background. 

I didn’t come through the usual channel. I studied design, but ultimately worked in retail to gain experience, and tried to establish myself through word-of-mouth recommendations. I didn’t exhibit at New Designers or Milan, as I simply didn’t have the funds to support it. I had to work hard and find my own way.  

Halo certainly gave me an international background for showcasing my talent, for which I will always be grateful.

What design website do you visit most often? 

I mostly use social media for inspiration, or to research ideas and themes. I don’t have a go-to website. I also think if you look too hard at others you become like them, so I try to shop on the high street and pick up ideas, or visit interesting places when I can and absorb the influences. 

I live in Ibiza town in the summer, where the people, restaurants, clubs and music inspire my ideas.  

What’s the biggest challenge you face?

Being relevant is always a design challenge. Adaptability is key to continuing to grow and confront all challenges. Today, I’m lucky to have opportunities – but that can change overnight, so I try to ensure we create great value for clients in business, embrace change, and provide excellent advice on design strategy. As a consultancy service, I believe in working closely with key clients to help the evolution of their business. 

How do you think the industry views designers?

I think it depends on a business’ market position, and what design means to them – there are numerous approaches to product and exhibition design.   

Businesses that are commercially competitive would involve the designer approaching a project with a value-for-money focus, so materials, simplicity of construction and material specification are key to the process.  

Other designers are more aesthetically design-based and comfort-focused. Their market position is different, so the approach to design has a different set of values. However, I do think design has more importance in the industry than it used to. 

What advice would you give to young designers starting out in the industry?

Work hard, and don’t follow anyone else. Understand other aspects of business. Don’t be overconfident. Be respectful and establish long-lasting relationships.  

Most of all, my parents always taught me that nothing great happens without hard work and sacrifice.