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 goes in search of the unsung heroes of the industry to find out what makes them tick. In this article, Rob meets Corndell’s Melanie Mills …
Melanie studied BA Furniture and Product Design at Nottingham Trent University, before carrying out an internship at Dutch design house Buro Vormkrijgers, then working as a design assistant at Maarten Baas, also in the Eindhoven area. In 2008 she left to join Edinburgh’s Blue Marmalade as a design assistant, and went on to work as the project manager and designer at retailer Living Kitchens and Stone. Melanie became the design manager for cabinet giant Global Home Group in 2011, where she remains, and also works as the design director of Corndell Quality Furniture, based in Witney, Oxfordshire.
What was the most valuable part of your education?
My internships were probably the most valuable element of my time at Trent as I was just thrown into a professional workshop full time, learning technique but also seeing the flow of work. It was important as I gained an understanding of the stages of taking a concept from a sketch to a finished product.
What was your first design job?
Working at a prestigious design studio based in Eindhoven called Maarten Baas. This design workshop exposed me to a number of different techniques and possibilities. There are no boundaries working with a high-end designer, permitting you to have the scope to design and create anything.
Where might I have heard your name before?
I doubt you have, unless it was related to Corndell in some way.
What are you working on right now?
I have a number of diverse briefs that I am constantly working my way through.
How do you mentally prepare yourself for work each day?
After having an essential cup of coffee – Corndell has an artisan coffee roaster opposite the office! – I begin creating a productive plan for the day. Prioritising plays a huge role within the design industry as we seem to be permanently up against it with time.
A blank sheet of paper can be daunting – what inspires you to fill it?
On the occasion when I’m not working to a client’s brief, research plays a key factor to getting over any design block. I think the best thing you can do to escape designing a piece of furniture for the sake of designing is not to confine yourself to your desk but to go and visit exhibitions, listen to music or even to take a walk outside.
Creativity seems to hide within your subconscious and it can only be realised when you express yourself freely. Having a strong team around you allows you to bounce ideas off each other and to reflect on other designers’ perceptions of the brief.
We often compromise designs to make them commercial – how do you maintain your quality despite such pressures?
I think it is fundamental for any designer to know what can be compromised, but then what will cause the range or design to fail. If you do not have a strong knowledge of materials or techniques it could prove extremely difficult to think outside the box.
Which area of your work do you enjoy the most – and the least?
I most enjoy seeing things come to life from a drawing to the real form. It’s an exciting process after all the debating and hours spent on design development.
My least favourite part of the job is the bureaucracy and the regulations we have to work with, which are coincidentally very important to ensure we do the job right and meet certain audit standards. However, they can slow things down, causing frustration for both the manufacturer and retailer.
Describe one of your favourite designs, and explain why it inspires you
This is by far the hardest question for any designer, as I see things almost every day that I obsess over. There are a lot of concepts that come out of Eindhoven Design Academy and Milan in general that are inspiring, but it would be difficult to pick just one design.
Which is your favourite designer retailer, and what is it doing right?
I don’t really have a favourite, but I feel Oka Direct are doing the right thing by not being so trend-orientated and creating their own strong look and feel. The same three people running the company are controlling the design side, allowing the furniture to be timeless and considered, but still remaining fresh.
Another interesting retailer with a clear aesthetic is Restoration Hardware.
On today’s furniture market
Sum up today’s UK domestic furniture design in three words …
Work in progress.
What aspects of it make you despair? And, conversely, hopeful?
The last few years of recession have affected confidence amongst retailers and they’ve had to play safe with the design selections they make, which is frustrating, but understandable.
However, the success of the January Furniture Show, and the positive start to last year, will hopefully create a better environment in which buyers can start to experiment more, featuring different trends and directions on their shop floors.
Do you feel that the industry adequately supports designers?
To appeal to your target market and remain competitive, you need unique and innovative product, and to be able to recognise and leverage developing trends. Having a designer on board is therefore critical.
The industry – manufacturers and suppliers – have now realised that a designer is an essential part of their business model, which is great, but we still don’t give recognition and support to designers and design in the same way as the fashion industry does.
What’s the last design that really caught your eye?
Moooi as a brand really caught my eye in Milan in 2015. Their presentation and platform of designs were outstanding.
What’s the future of furniture design?
Personalisation and the use of technology. The future of furniture design and manufacture is going to be progressively online, with consumers having complete control, manipulating the dimensions, material, finish and handles.
If you are a retailer who is still selling furniture exclusively in stores, there’s no question you are missing out. With apps like Tylko’s, customers are no longer having to use their imagination but can see the item of furniture in their own home while being able modify all the variables.
On the industry
Which industry event or platform gives a designer the best step up?
I’m not sure about step up, but when it comes to insight, Maison&Objet Paris is a great platform if your focus is on commercial design.
That said, Milan should be your first port of call, as it showcases all the most innovative and interesting designs and trends. Zona Tortona can be quite out there with their concepts, but most designers are highly inspired and pick up ideas here and there, which can be incorporated into their own ranges.
What design website do you visit most often?
Three years ago I used to follow all of the blogs, from Dezeen to Core77, but in recent years I have found magazines and Pinterest far more useful and focused on commercial trends.
What’s the biggest challenge you face?
Cost! Cost will always play a strong factor when designing, and will continue to determine the aesthetic, quality and function of the product. The retailers are driving the industry with their price points. It’s soul destroying for a designer to be forced to remove a certain feature or a particular material just because it doesn’t meet a target.
How do you think the industry views designers?
It really depends on your age and level of experience. If you are a design graduate fresh out of university, then you have to be quite aware of the value you can add to a business rather than having to accept unpaid work experience – but everyone knows the design industry is becoming increasingly competitive, and this allows the furniture industry to pick and choose from a big pool.
What advice would you give to young designers just starting out in the industry?
Try to take yourself out of your comfort zone. It has become increasingly common to see projects from design graduates lacking the understanding of processes and the use of suitable materials. This all comes down to where they decide to study and their choice of internships.
Take the time to listen and learn from people that have experience. I don’t know any designers that are not still learning.
Rob Scarlett reflects …
Melanie says that her internships were probably the most valuable element of her time at Nottingham Trent. I’ve been working with Nottingham Trent placement students for my entire career – it’s a wonderful opportunity for students to get a glimpse of the real world. In fact, I instigated the internship at Willis & Gambier which is still going today, seven years later. Internships are great for students’ development, but they’re really amazing for the companies too!
I would recommend any company looking to bolster their design output (without fully committing to another permanent designer) to contact Nottingham Trent or one of the many other universities that offer placements.
Interns need training, but once you have harnessed that youthful enthusiasm they can be a valuable addition to your business. Plus there’s the added benefit that you have the option to employ a fully-trained (by you) designer after they have completed their course.
Another matter is time. Where does it all go? As Melanie says, “we seem to be permanently up against it with time.” I can really relate to that! A couple of years ago I worked with a well-known retailer for a while and discovered a fundamental problem – roughly speaking it takes around a year from start to finish to develop and deliver a well-rounded product in the Far East. This encompasses everything from initial briefing to the sample displays being delivered.
The problem is that because it takes a year to develop a new range, a retailer/wholesaler will need to have decided its design direction for the following year before your current range has proved itself successful or not. That’s a big dilemma for retailers. Do you both stick to your guns, research and confidently predict the trend for a new design? Or do you wait to see how the design is received, respond accordingly and deal with the inevitable truncating of the design cycle?
Most companies (and I think the practice is quite regressive) will wait to respond and try to make the design and development process more efficient. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve had furniture stuck at the docks whilst the NEC show opens more than once.
The consequences of truncating the development time is a lack of innovation and a host of me-too products. Designers need room to breathe, they need to get things wrong, then analyse the problems and put them right. They also need to see their product in the flesh – preferably in the factory where changes can still be affected.
I suppose the bent of my rant is to invest it design and give it time to flourish. It’s beneficial for everyone involved – designer, wholesaler, retailer and consumer.
Scarlett Design was established in early 2010 by 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 businesses in the UK furniture industry, including Willis & Gambier, Nathan Furniture, Mark Webster, Yinihome and Skano. He has also enjoyed success with ranges launched through retailers such as Heal’s, Marks & Spencer, Furniture Village and John Lewis.