Design underpins this industry, regardless of one’s place in the market. While creating something from nothing can appear to be the province of high-end European designers, the UK has a core of solid, hard-working creative professionals that keep the industry alive. In this exclusive series, Rob Scarlett of Scarlett Design UK goes in search of the unsung heroes of the industry to find out what makes them tick. In this article, Rob meets Marks & Spencer’s Adam Daghorn …
Adam is the lead furniture designer at Marks & Spencer (M&S), an area worth over £135m. After studying Product Design at Nottingham Trent University, Adam moved to London and worked for a small design firm, First Man Standing, before moving on to Robert Timmons Furniture, and then on to Next. His work has been shortlisted for the Design Guild Mark by the Furniture Makers Company, and has been featured in a multitude of consumer publications.
What was the most valuable part of your education?
The ability to translate an idea into a 3D digital model has underpinned my design process from day one. Working in the retail industry limits the amount of prototypes and models that you can make by hand – instead you have to rely almost completely on the accuracy of digital modelling, which in turn becomes the technical drawing. Ensuring that the proportions and scale are correct is vital.
What was your first design job?
My first design job was for a small design company based in North London. Mainly industrial design based, I learnt so much in my first six months that I felt like a complete novice. I was part of the team that developed a new design of wheelchair to help reduce repetitive strain injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome. The role included making prototypes, 3D modelling, sourcing materials and completing patent drawings.
Where might I have heard your name before?
I doubt you have heard of my name, but I’ve designed several best-selling furniture ranges for M&S such as Burchill, Jakob, Colby and Dawson.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I am about to start designing the new products for autumn/winter 2016. The last few weeks have been about finding inspiration and deciding the new types of product that I want to design to ensure we continue to push forward as a company. I have visited exhibitions and shops in Milan, Paris and New York to see what new types of products and materials are being used or are coming through. I then decide what is right for the product I am designing – and, more importantly, the customer I am designing for – and try to factor in the inspiration I have gathered.
How do you mentally prepare yourself for work each day?
I clear my desk. I often find that if I can declutter my work space, it’s as if I have decluttered my head. It then feels like I have a fresh start or a clean break to start the next design.
A blank sheet of paper can be daunting – what inspires you to fill it?
I always keep an A3 pad in front of me on my desk, and by turning over to a clean page I feel like I have a blank canvas to work with. A blank sheet of paper doesn’t daunt me – in fact, I find it inspiring. I get to start a brand new design process every time I start drawing.
“Working in the retail industry limits the amount of prototypes and models that you can make by hand – instead you have to rely almost completely on the accuracy of digital modelling, which in turn becomes the technical drawing”
We often compromise designs to make them commercial – how do you maintain your quality despite such pressures?
Compromise is very important when working in a retail environment. The product is a combination of price, style and quality. Being true to your own beliefs and ideals is important to ensure that the product doesn’t lose its soul, and also to make sure it is as unique as possible. You have to be confident enough to know what can and can’t be compromised, but you can only know this through experience and by developing your own set of ideals.
Which area of your work do you enjoy the most – and the least?
My favourite part of the job is visiting the factories and seeing the prototypes for the first time. Being able to see my idea or design come to life is extremely satisfying. What is less satisfying is the excessive amount of long-haul flights I have to take to get to the factories in the first place!
Which range are you most proud of, and what inspired its creation?
My favourite design is the new M&S Hampden range. It was inspired by Scandinavian mid-century furniture by companies like Ercol and G Plan and designers like Hans J Wegner. The use of the material and the shapes and details involved hark back to a golden age of furniture making, when the materials and processes were designed around delivering the best product possible. It is true furniture design.
Which is your favourite designer retailer, and what is it doing right?
My favourite designer retailer is West Elm. The materials they use and the quality of the products seem to be the most important factors they consider when designing furniture.
On today’s furniture market
Pick three words that sum up UK domestic furniture design today
Cheap, soulless, uninspiring.
What aspects of it make you despair? And, conversely, hopeful?
For some retailers, furniture is becoming a throw-away item. They have dropped their price along with their quality. Rather than offering an investment piece that will last years, like a product from Ercol, for example, the pieces are made of cheap materials that are designed to be replaced quickly. There are some companies who are resisting this trend, such as Marks & Spencer, West Elm, Ercol and Conran, who continue to produce products that will become future heirlooms. We can all remember some random piece of furniture from our childhood that our parents or grandparents still own. Creating furniture that could be a future antique is something that is disappearing from the high street.
“A blank sheet of paper doesn’t daunt me – in fact, I find it inspiring. I get to start a brand new design process every time I start drawing”
What’s the last design that really caught your eye?
At the Milan Furniture Fair in April I saw the new Zio dining chair, designed by Marcel Wanders for Moooi. The chair has some beautiful details, with chamfered edges and soft curves, and the seat back is supported by a wrap-around section of timber which helps tie all the different elements of the chair together. It’s a stunning chair.
What’s the future of furniture design?
I think the future of furniture design will involve rapid prototyping. I have used the process before – albeit on a very small scale – to check proportions and the scale of my designs, but I think it will play a major part in how we sample products across the industry. Instead of sending production drawings off to factories on the other side of the planet and then waiting six weeks for samples to arrive which could be wrong, a drawing could be sent to a 3D printer, and the prototype is ready to examine the next day – for a fraction of the cost and the time.
On the industry
Which industry event or platform gives a designer the best step up?
New Designers and 100% Design are great events to see new products and designers. The furniture fair in Milan is also massive, and a great place to network and meet fellow designers and companies.
What design website do you visit most often?
Dezeen is a great website to find out about the latest news and products in design, technology, architecture and interiors. It’s also great for showcasing emerging brands and companies that aren’t mainstream yet.
“Creating furniture that could be a future antique is something that is disappearing from the high street"
What’s the biggest challenge you face?
Never standing still. I constantly have to push the boundaries of what I design with the aim of attracting new customer types, styles and formats.
How do you think the industry views designers?
I think designers are viewed as a necessary component to delivering a product. No one is irreplaceable, so being able to adapt and change what you design and how you design is extremely important. Having an understanding of the market is paramount, and I think designers that can illustrate that knowledge and translate it into commercial, aspirational products are well respected.
What advice would you give to young designers just starting out in the industry?
Don’t give up. It takes a long time to build up a reputation and a catalogue of work that is worth someone investing in, so you have to be strong and confident in your own ability. Decide what you want to achieve from your career and then go for it.
Rob reflects …
“Don’t give up. It takes a long time to build up a reputation and a catalogue of work that is worth someone investing in …be strong and confident in your own ability.” Wise words indeed for anyone entering the design industry, and particularly pertinent to cabinet designers as well, as the development timeline can be rather long from initial design to launch.
In fact, a designer may never receive portfolio-standard photography as that is down to the client to produce – as often as not, photography is not forthcoming.
All that makes the ability to produce accurate and attractive 3D models more important – both for a designer’s portfolio, and for presentation to retailers. I actually learnt to ‘model’ on the job, but I’m glad to hear that universities are beginning to catch up with the needs of the workplace. I still feel that our industry lags behind others in promoting the digital side of design, though – mainly because it is quite a large time and cost investment.
The process of realising one’s designs digitally is time-consuming, and more like an art than a science, but once they have been built it can actually end up saving time and cost further down the line. A company might only need to make one set of samples rather than two before they’re happy with a product, if only they would front-load the design and development process.
Adam seems quite confident in the future of 3D printing, and I will be watching the development of rapid prototyping closely to see how it could be used in the future. However, at the moment I think it needs to develop a long way before there’s much application for mid-market furniture. Scale is currently an issue, as well as achieving any kind of accurate finish or colour – although no doubt some enterprising developer is already pushing the boundaries of texture and material. I haven’t even mentioned the potential costs of these prototypes and the inherent waste potential from human error.
As always though, I balance my optimism with practicality, and fear that the cost and time investment in rapid prototyping will be a bridge too far for our industry until the merit can be proven conclusively. However, I’d prefer to leave you on a lighter and more optimistic note from the great Winston Churchill: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity – an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” The future can be great if we make it so.
Scarlett Design was established in early 2010 by British designer Rob Scarlett, who began his career when he was named the 2003 Young Designer of the Year. Subsequently, Rob has played a key role in the design teams of some of the best-known brands and businesses in the UK furniture industry, including Willis & Gambier, Nathan Furniture, Mark Webster and Yinihome. He has also enjoyed success with ranges launched through UK retailers such as Heal’s, Marks & Spencer, Furniture Village and John Lewis.