Once again, the 2007 Salone del Mobile was at fever pitch. Beyond the thousands of stands in the massive Fuksas-designed Fiera grounds on the outskirts of the city, and within the leafy grounds of the more traditional Triennale, the city centre was consumed by hundreds of independent ‘off-site’ installations from the young and aspirational. Ever since Dutch design group Droog set a new benchmark in 2002 by occupying a seedy hotel in the ‘wrong’ part of town and issuing ‘passports’ for viewings of their new collection, set within a series of filthy rooms, the off-site shows have been in danger of self-parody, such is the effort to become more and more edgy.
Thankfully, and perhaps as you would expect after the company’s successful debut at Milan in 2005, ESTABLISHED AND SON’S maintained a stylish sense of calm within this frenzy. The proudly British-based manufacturing and design company presented its third Milan collection with an independent and impressive installation at Pelota, an expansive former gymnasium tucked away in the heart of Milan’s fashionable Brera district – a welcome release from the suffocating confines of the Fiera’s airless halls.
The impressive space was ordered with a series of giant cardboard box walls, an engaging strategy to present the company’s new collection within the context of previous work. Each internally framed box was hand-printed like neat graffiti with the specifics of each piece graphically embellished with the company’s branding and labelled with brief insights from each of the partners and house designers. The well-managed scale of the space, the strength and confidence of the installation and, of course, ultimately, the quality of the products, confirmed Established & Sons as a serious contender in the competitive international contemporary design market.
The 2007 collection presented 15 new products, including the beguiling Font Clock by Established & Sons’ Operations Director and designer Sebastian Wrong, an extended line of storage boxes by Jasper Morrison that builds upon The Crate (a simple box modelled on a wine case, launched to divided opinion last year), as well as the Nekton stools
by Zaha Hadid and a new table (Glide) and bench (Drift-in, Drift Out)by Future System’s Amanda Levete. A newprogram, Collaborations, extends the range by inviting contemporary artists to work with the Established & Sons’ team. This year’s collaboration produced the WrongWoods table and chest, by Wrong and British artist Richard Woods. The new work was presented in the context of the entire collection, giving a sense of drama to the more experimental pieces against accessible items such as the Fold series of lights that was recently inducted into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Conceived in late 2004, Established & Sons immediately faced criticism for commissioning work from high-profile le architects and designers such as Hadid and Levete, and launching them with elaborate and celebrity-studded parties. Added to this backlash was the predictable accusation that the company was relying on its famous connections for maximum press exposure (company CEO and co-founder Alasdhair Willis is married to Stella McCartney). Despite the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome, three years on, the company has consolidated its reputation as a respectable contributor to the international furniture-design industry. More importantly, it has demonstrated a real commitment to providing a platform for connecting design and manufacture within Britain through its close working- and business-relationship with Angad Paul from the Caparo Group, a company specialising in engineering products for the automotive industry. This ‘British-only’ mentality extends to their range of designers, although the definition is loosely applied as is appropriate for a multicultural community, encompassing designers who work within
Britain rather than limited to their nationalities.
A roll-call of famous names (Morrison, Hadid, Levete et al) is carefully supplemented by younger, cutting-edge talent such as Barber Osgerby and Alexander Taylor. “We are setting Established & Sons up as a platform for creativity in this country,” says Alasdhair Willis. “With that objective in mind then you’ve got to work with what, we feel, are the best people that represent that. There are designers that we work with that we know will never sell huge volumes for us, and yet they are often the first people on our list. [Simply] because their design work makes a very important contribution to our culture and we can identify and understand that.”
The name that has undoubtedly garnered Established & Sons the most attention is, unsurprisingly, Zaha Hadid – the only woman to have received architecture’s highest accolade, the Pritzker Prize. With numerous large-scale buildings in the process of completion, not to mention a successful retrospective at the Guggenheim and another upcoming show at London’s Design Museum, it’s hard to understand how the commissioning process fits into Hadid’s famously frenetic schedule. Willis explains: “We work with someone like Zaha with a fairly loose starting point. There’s no point giving her a really specific brief because she will tell you to ‘f-off’ and she will do something completely different anyway. She works from these beautifully bound
sketch pads and paintings and she will make these very random, quick, quick marks and we have to interpret that, and work collaboratively. We will come back with prototypes and, of course, it will be completely wrong, because that’s not how she saw it and so then we have to work through that. But the rewards at the end of the day are phenomenal.”
For Hadid one can only imagine that the freedom offered by such
a ‘blue sky’ approach coupled with a manufacturer open to pushing the boundaries of production was too good an opportunity to refuse. In addition, within the process of creating her production pieces for the group, the Aqua Table and Nekton stools, Hadid was able to engage with the emerging and somewhat dubiously titled ‘Design/Art’ market, experimenting with one-off or limited-edition designs that are then exhibited and sold at auction. Most recently, the New York branch of auction house Phillips de Pury, in collaboration with Established & Sons, held a ‘selling exhibition’ of five limited-edition designs by Hadid under the collective title of Seamless.
Without doubt one of the most significant market trends that Established & Sons have been quick to pinpoint is this emerging Design/Art market. By introducing a number of ‘limited editions’ to a piece of furniture or product, the designers have the ability to maximise the selling potential of their work. Much like the discipline of fashion, their ‘production pieces’ sell for a more mainstream price tag while the ‘limited edition’ (usually signed and dated) sells for much more, particularly when auctioned at a selling exhibition at a high-profile auction house. But it’s not all about sales potential. As Sebastian Wrong points out, there is a freedom in creating a ‘limited edition’ product that is just not viable in a commercial product line. “We see [production and limited edition] as two very distinct areas for very distinct areas of expression. The editions are by nature very different animals to the production pieces. Regardless of a fashion or political context, from a purely creative point of view they offer a designer a completely different area for expression… it’s an amazing platform for your wildest dreams.”
‘Design/Art’ aside, perhaps one of the forward-thinking initiativesin the Established & Sons’ agenda is embedded in their ongoing commitment to promoting British design. Willis is adamant: “We are British and British based, and everything we produce is made in this country. We set out at the start to achieve that and [that objective] has not changed, it is still absolutely key to our business.” Wrong concurs: “We have some of the finest craftsmen and problem solvers in the world in this country and when we present them with some amazing concepts they are actually very keen to try and make this thing work. They are being tested and challenged and it’s great for the British industry.”
To that end the company is in the process of establishing an apprenticeship scheme that endeavours to link young, creative people with manufacturing through their collaboration with the Caparo Group. The concept recalls the historical significance of Britain’s automotive industry and the sense of identity that its global presence instilled in the industry’s workers. Willis sums up: “We’ve lost something in the generation change that I think is about a simple pride in working with our hands. For example, historically in this country there was a real sense of pride in being a mechanic for a British company like Aston Martin – it was considered noble and prestigious, a kind of honourable profession. So I guess part of what we are trying to do at Established & Sons is to reintroduce that concept and potentially inspire a pride and value in something being not only designed, but made in Britain.”
Visit Established & Son’s website
For more information on British design and fashion go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain