by Jerry ElengicalJun 09, 2022
Viewing problems from a multidisciplinary perspective is now integral to the operation of most major architectural firms across the globe today, particularly with the advent of greater cross-pollination between different design fields. London-based firm Foster + Partners, helmed by celebrated British architect, Norman Foster, is no exception to this shift, with an in-house team boasting expertise from several domains of design. In this regard, the heterogeneity of the studio's staff brings a unique spin to each element of their many ongoing endeavours, carefully moulding and reinventing their distinctive aesthetic. A particularly noteworthy department within this ensemble is the firm's Industrial Design team that undertakes design commissions related to building elements, as well as collaborative furniture and product design ventures with partner organisations in the industry - all while working as an essential component of one of the UK's most sought-after architectural firms.
Having received a wave of recognition and commendations for their prolific output in recent years, the Industrial Design team is making its mark on Milan Design Week 2022 with two new product launches, in addition to the numerous older designs that will be exhibited by their collaborators as part of the showcases during Salone del Mobile.Milano. The first of their offerings is a new family of lighting design fixtures for Italian manufacturer Artemide - titled IXA - inspired by the mobile sculptures of American sculptor Alexander Calder. Featuring remarkably spindly profiles that terminate in a spherical head, the lights that constitute the family were devised as an interpretation of 'elegant balance' through precise engineering. The head itself possesses exceptional freedom of movement, with larger models such as the floor lamp employing spherical counterweights and several points of rotation to adapt to a multitude of applications - ranging from task lighting to ambient and decorative uses.
Alternatively, the Cordoba Chair has been described as a fusion of "Nordic precision and Eastern spirit", utilising an elegant wooden frame to support a leather back and seat. Both elements of the chair's design have been crafted to allow for easy dismantling and maintenance, in honouring the studio’s desire to move towards sustainable design and placing emphasis on longevity and high-quality manufacturing. Having been involved in the creation of both products, James White, a member of the Industrial Design team and Partner at the firm shares while speaking to STIR, "There's always been an industrial design element at Foster + Partners. If you think of buildings, in many ways, they are all made from products, and one aspect of the integrated approach we follow is using specialised internal teams to take on various tasks." He continues, "I have worked with the Industrial Design team for 16 years now on all sorts of things: from consumer electronics to furniture, from bespoke to mass produced, or even transport design. You never quite know what's going to come through the door, but the diversity always keeps me interested."
Over a long tenure at Foster + Partners, White’s gilded résumé includes collaborations with prominent brands such as Knoll, Poltrona Frau, LG, Lumina, Mattiazzi, and Porcelanosa. In a Zoom interview with STIR, the British designer dives into the origins of the new products, the Industrial Design team’s inner workings, as well as the cross-disciplinary interaction and collaborative environment that sets Foster + Partners apart from their industry peers.
Jerry Elengical: Could you tell us about what’s in store from Foster + Partners' Industrial Design team at Milan Design Week this year?
James White: I am sure many of our collaborators will be displaying pieces that we had done for them previously. But we are also launching two new products. The first among them is the IXA lighting family with Artemide and we have been working with the engineers there for about a year now, to refine what we came up with initially. It's a very sculptural series that will be shown at the Rho Fiera itself and they will have displays at their showroom. We are also launching a new chair - the Cordoba Chair with B&B Italia, who we have previously worked with on projects, but this is the first catalogue product we are doing for them.
Jerry: What was the initial brief and scope of collaboration in the cases of both products? What sorts of interactions did you have with the brands and their teams?
James: The Cordoba Chair really came from a series of architectural projects we were working on and was inspired by a sense of relaxation: whether on your balcony or reading a book inside. We envisioned it as a very elegantly crafted chair - it's timber, leather, and cord. There was a lot of time spent getting the ergonomics correct and making sure that it suited the environments that we were working with. It's kind of a classic piece, but made exceptionally well by the team at B&B Italia. On the other hand, the IXA lighting family with Artemide came from this idea of creating lighting for home or work that was far more sculptural than mechanical. We were really inspired by colder mobile systems and incorporating counterbalancing into the design. So it's a very analogue way of using light and has some really interesting effects. Look out for that one as well!
Jerry: What are some of the core values that you strive to ingrain into all the work that you do at Foster + Partners?
James: I think we always start by considering what the product or piece of furniture should do and what it shouldn't do. There's a lot of research and discussion about that before we start drawing anything. This is central to our process regardless of whether we are working on architectural projects, product design, or at any other scale. Once we can start defining those things, we can start designing. That's the core principle – research, discussion, lots and lots of model making. The best way to test things for humans is to do it 1:1 and experience it - to resist jumping onto CAD too early. It's a tool, but one for the right time. I think that would describe our process, do the right thing for the right part of that process. And I think the result then is that the form starts to define itself a bit.
Jerry: How has that been reflected in both of the products you are launching?
James: With Artemide we made so many models from plastic and plasticine and whatever else we could get to create an effect, create the right proportion, the right ergonomics, and optimise the size of the head. This was to understand how it would work and how a user would interact with it. It's all done through making things. We are very fortunate to have 3D-printers and workshops where we can create pretty much whatever we need to work it all out. With B&B, it was a little different with the pandemic. We weren't able to travel to the factories as much as we usually would, but we worked online and sent prototypes back and forth to keep the conversation going. It really was an exercise in tactility and detailing. Again, lots of mockups defining how we would do things, which were all part of the dialogue.
Jerry: You work on a lot of scales, from bespoke commissions for architectural projects, to smaller products and collaborations with brands. How do you find a balance between working in digital and analog mediums at all these levels?
James: The core principles are the same. I think maybe in architecture, there's more of an emphasis on the bespoke, the more one-off for a particular project. And then when we work with manufacturers, there's obviously more of a batch to mass production. It's vital to keep those things in mind when you are designing because the tools and processes used are completely different. That's another reason why we really try to go to factories and see what their capabilities are. We won’t design something that someone can't make. It's understanding and really getting underneath that. But we start the projects in the same way. There are times when we go quite far in working with very large scales, where you can walk in and experience things - like in the case of an atrium. If that's needed, we use virtual reality sometimes early on to explore. I think it’s getting to a level now where you can make some really conscious decisions about things just by exploring digital space. That's playing more of a role and it’s a really good tool for speeding things up.
Jerry: You use the term integrated design to describe a lot of the work that goes on between departments. Could you elaborate on that and whether it is in any way related to the concept of total design?
James: In a way, I think it is. So at Foster + Partners, about half the staff aren't architects. It's about 50-50. We have structural engineering, mechanical engineering, environmental design, urban design, industrial design, and all other kinds of communications, as well as people in the model shop. So the people you can consult are just two desks away. Instead of contacting an outside agency and waiting for a response, I can stand up and walk 10 metres to ask someone and vice versa. You can just inquire about something, and someone will tell you about what they are looking into. This really lets you play off each other and possibly find a design solution that might be relevant to what you are doing. That's really what integrated design is. We have got so many things under one roof, which enables us to react very quickly and stay abreast of what's new.
Jerry: What aspect of working with brands and designing fascinates you the most?
James: I think what's really engaging and interesting is when you have developed an idea enough and you really start to get into discussing it with your collaborators. We work with very passionate people on the other end with the manufacturers and there are some great engineers at Artemide and we go back and forth all the time. Looking at drawings and discussing details, dimensions, sending them the information and talking is fascinating for me. Then, in the end, both sides can be really proud of the output. So I love the whole process really from the thinking right through to the product being realised in front of you.
Jerry: Sustainability is a major concern, especially in large scale manufacturing considering the global climate crisis. How has that factored into the products you are launching at Milan Design Week?
James: We really study what materials we are using, with regards to where they are from and how much energy is consumed in making them. We always adhere to a philosophy of keeping materials quite true, not over finishing, not making them with alloys because you can't separate. You have really got to be responsible both as a designer and a maker. Longevity always comes into it. It's not about fashion, it's not about style, it's not about creating something with any sense of it being temporary. It needs to be something that's made really well and has an aesthetic that will work in lots of environments. It's things that you hope people will appreciate, keep, and invest in. If you make them well enough, they should last a very long time.
Jerry: What is one thing that you would like to see, and one thing that you would not like to see happening in the realm of industrial design in the future?
James: I think we are getting to a place where we need to consider what we consume. Perhaps we have just been in a world where we consider things as temporary. "Buy this, have it for a few years and then replace it," that kind of world where a product is just not economical to repair. I think that part of industrial design and making and manufacturing needs to change a bit. We need different business models so that things can be repaired, replaced, and kept for longer. I suppose the opposite is where I wouldn't want it to go. I think what we have done for too long is to just make, make, make, and disregard. Just an attitude of: "Okay we’ll just buy a new one." This is why we are in a bit of a mess.
Jerry: Since you have been visiting Milan during the fair quite regularly in the past, what are you most excited to see over there?
James: I am mainly excited to just get back into it. As I said, it's an annual event for me and has been for nearly 20 years. So having a few years off has been a kind of missing piece. But I think Milan is a very special place for launches. People save products to be launched there. It's a celebration of design as well as the business side of things. But it's also a great place to see people, meet people, and make new contacts, always an important place in the diary.
STIR takes you on a Milanese sojourn! Experience Salone del Mobile and all the design districts - 5vie, Brera, Fuorisalone, Isola, Zona Tortona, and Durini - with us. STIR’s coverage of Milan Design Week 2022, Meanwhile in Milan showcases the best exhibits, moods, studios, events, and folks to look out for. We are also excited to announce our very own STIR press booth at Salone del Mobile - Hall 5/7 S.14, Fiera Milano RHO.
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