With a new collection just launched through creative collective Marque Furniture, Sussex-based furniture designer Ben Fowler shares his take on workloads, commercial demands and the place of design in the wider industry …
Fueled by a childhood fascination with boatbuilding and a father who designed furniture and lectured at the London College of Furniture, Ben trained under the Bauhaus ethos and developed a design handwriting characterised by clean lines, unfussy functionality, classic joinery and expert craftsmanship.
In 1986, Ben founded bespoke furnituremaker Fowler & Co, and went on to work for high street brands, architects, and private and corporate clients, creating bestselling ranges for ercol (Bosco) and Marks & Spencer (Sonoma), plus others for John Lewis and Habitat.
Ben’s love of rowing and firsthand knowledge of boatbuilding informs much of his work – notable commissions include a quirky boat seat for Sir Terence Conran, and the doors and windows for the Royal Barge Gloriana. Other commissions include the interior of a major opera house in Germany and a giant operational sundial for Melbourn Science Park near Cambridge.
In 2020, Ben launched his own-brand collection (on sale through Design Masters at the Futon Company) with sister company Marque Furniture, which also features work from likeminded designer-makers Simon Pengelly and John Weaver.
Where did you study?
Leeds Polytechnic and the RCA.
What was the most valuable part of your education?
Meeting my much more talented fellow students and realising how much there was to learn from both them and the tutors (such as Fred Scott, and professor Robert Heritage at the RCA).
What was your first design job?
Drawing interiors for Mary Shand Associates, and after that, space planning for a London office furniture firm. I then went to work for my friend Mark Edwards, now a notorious Thames boatbuilder. With Mark, I learnt how to build boats, which has been a lifelong pleasure and hobby. I also met the extraordinary cabinetmaker Andrew Brace, with whom I set up my first workshop in 1986.
Where might I have heard your name before?
You probably won’t have! I’m a backroom boy really, but I did once get invited to dinner with Terence Conran, who liked my design for a boat seat so much that I designed and made a batch of six for a show of his favourite things at The Conran Shop.
What are you working on right now?
We recently launched our own-brand retail range for Marque Furniture at the January Furniture Show. It includes designs from Simon Pengelly and John Weaver, and as part of the collection I’ve designed a range called Chamfer, where the comb joints feature as part of the design. The dining table features my unique spring-leaf extension mechanism, which I designed a few years ago – it allows the table’s central extension to pop up from the middle, and is very easy to use.
As well as all that, I’m working on designs for a staircase made from walnut and oak, with an abstracted butterfly motif picked out in gold leaf at the first-floor balustrade level.
How do you mentally prepare yourself for work each day?
Cup of coffee and a walk with Dusty the dog – then pick up some poo, which grounds me!
A blank sheet of paper can be daunting – what inspires you to fill it?
Ideas are always there – it is mainly the problem of refining them into something worth making that’s difficult. I attack clean white paper with pencils and simply draw until something starts to emerge. The idea is the spark, then the design process is the interesting part of resolving problems and refining the possibilities. Edison used to say genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. True that …
We often compromise designs to make them commercial – how do you maintain your quality despite such pressures?
In itself, design is the business of careful, informed compromise. If you are open-minded, the problems (and sometimes the so-called compromises) can lead to harder thinking and a better product in the end.
Which area of your work do you enjoy the most – and the least?
Drawing is a pleasure, but prototyping less so as I’m an impatient cabinetmaker! I wish I could improve my making skills. However, I have highly skilled colleagues who work hard in the workshop, making up samples and realising the products in three dimensions. This is a process that brings an enormous amount to the design process.
Name one of your favourite designs, and explain why it inspires you
The Fritz Hansen Ax armchair by Peter-Havidt and Oria Molgaard Neilsen. This is the most sophisticated piece of bentwood and ply laminated joinery I have ever seen.
Which is your favourite designer retailer, and what is it doing right?
The Conran Shop has consistently sold lovely stuff, and flies in the face of the idea that everything should be cheap.
Pick three words that sum up UK domestic furniture design today
Cost. Engineered. Dissatisfaction.
What aspects of it make you despair – and, conversely, hopeful?
I am constantly amazed at the callous reliance on underpriced tat shipped halfway round the world for the sake of a competitive price point. Oak Furnitureland should be prosecuted for crimes against woodwork and trees. On the upside, ercol still thrives, thank heavens!
Do you feel the industry adequately supports designers?
Only up to a point – there is little understanding by both sides. The commercial is unappreciative of design, and designers tend not to recognise the importance of commerce.
What’s the last design that really caught your eye?
It’s a while ago now, but it’s the beautiful Ribbon rocking chair by Katie Walker.
What’s the future of furniture design?
Home-grown and locally sourced.
Ben has designed bestselling ranges for Willis & Gambier, M&S and ercol, plus the auditorium seating and interior spaces for the Ludwig Musical Theatre in Bavaria. In 2014, he received a Design Guild Mark and Wood Award for his Hat Tree hanger, which he subsequently licensed to The Futon Company. More recently, his business was Highly Commended in the 2019 Wood Awards for its Hanging Dovetailed Staircase.
This interview featured in the April 2020 edition of Furniture News magazine.