The mid 1990s began a phase in which amorphous forms predominated in design. After almost a decade, there has been a recent return to the hard edges and precision offered by geometric principles. Whether out of a desire for stability in an increasingly unstable world, or the challenge of creating forthright objects that belie their complex computational formation, designers are again embracing sophisticated geometries. The overriding sense is a maturation of design, and is typified by the work of the young design company, Viable.
Magnus Long (1979-), Charles Trevelyan (1974-) and Gala Wright (1970-) established Viable in 2005 after meeting at the Milan Furniture Fair that year. As they make the transition towards designing more collaborative products, Viable affords the three designers a platform to debate and promote each other’s respective ideas and processes.
Influenced by her degree in physics, Gala Wright’s work explores the interplay of opposing forces. The elegant Delta seating system blurs the boundaries between rigid and flexible structures while the Mekong table – a luminescent globe caught within a glass cube – plays on the optical illusions created by the materials.
Charles Trevelyan's integrated shelving and chair unit, Shelflife and the Helve chair and footstool are intricately calibrated structures that speak of Trevelyan’s background in engineering and his discerning appreciation of the end-user’s needs.
Beyond functional storage solutions, Magnus Long’s Standing Hanger and Shoe Shelves provide rigorously researched and elegant sculptural installations. But it is Long’s Petit Fleur light – a pendant lampshade that fits over the waist of a light bulb – that best captures the Viable spirit: manufacturable and marketable furniture and lighting designs that can also enjoy a light-heartedness in an often overly serious industry.
Q. When did you each first become aware of – and interested in – design?
Magnus: I remember brainstorming with my family when I was eight, we were seeking alternative uses for a BIC Biro. My big idea was a device for planting seeds – pushing the shell of the pen into the soil and dropping the seed down the shaft. In the end we came up with over 80 alternative uses. That kind of thinking was always encouraged in my family, especially by my father.
Gala: I was always interested in how things were put together and preferred making working robots out of my brothers’ cars and cardboard boxes than playing with dolls. My mother has always been a keen collector of furniture, textiles and ceramics – which undoubtedly had a huge influence on my appreciation of design across a wide range objects.
Charles: Similarly, I think parental influence was a key factor. As my father is a mechanical engineer he was always building us toys and encouraging us to investigate, while my mother has a keen eye for design, and encouraged a more artistic side. The first inkling of design aptitude was when I would create meticulous 3D birthday cards for my family in paper and cardboard. I didn’t study any visual arts or design through school, so it wasn’t until after university that this interest was properly rekindled.
Q. Why did you decide to study design?
M: I didn’t ever consider any other subjects other than design. I studied maths, physics and design prior to my degree in furniture and product design, and it was the combination of logic and creative, abstract thought that appealed to me. I like exploration and investigation.
G: Being very academic at school led to me studying physics at university the first time round, and it wasn't until later, after becoming disillusioned with my job in film, that I took a step back and was able to think about what I really wanted to do, and how I could better employ my brain!
C: My academic background led me down a scientific path. At the time, I was deciding between a degree in the sciences/engineering, or something more creative such as architecture or design. I knew that I could always return to design if necessary, so chose materials engineering. While very interesting, I knew I’d prefer to be working in a more creative discipline. I went on to do a one year postgraduate course at art school which covered a fairly broad range of areas including some design, albeit far removed from a more formal product or furniture design course. From here I took a roundabout path, finally getting back into 3D design through graphic design.
Q. Which of your early projects was most important in defining your approach to your work?
M: The Standing Hanger was a concept I originally had five years ago at university – it was a wire frame back then. I was studying how people use their clothes on a day-to-day basis: from the washing machine to the wardrobe to the bedroom floor. It was fascinating hearing about people’s different clothes-management-habits. I also wanted to consider how wheelchair users interact with clothes rails; often they are too high to reach so the Standing Hanger was intended to enable them to grip the rigid frame from a lower vantage point. The idea of creating one design for many people is something I always strive to achieve and I would like to explore Inclusive Design more.
G: Although my approach is constantly evolving, I’d say that drawing on my science background, and working with tubular metal produced the folding, rocking loop lounger, which relies heavily on mechanics to make it work.
C: I can’t really name a specific piece, largely because I feel that my approach has developed over a number of years working in areas other than design, and that my early projects were a result of this development of ideas. Also, I feel that my approach varies considerably depending on the project at hand.
Q. What was it about each other’s work that drew you together?
A. When we met in Milan in April 2005, we knew very little about each other's work apart from the pieces we were exhibiting there. At the time we were all under-whelmed by the poor exhibition designs on display and, over drinks, started drawing pictures of our ideal exhibition stand (incidentally, we used that concept five months later at our launch exhibition in a gymnasium in Kings Cross).
We discussed the idea of forming a design studio together and came to know more about our respective portfolios. Because we each have quite distinct styles we felt we could create a more dynamic mix than if we were all producing similar work. Most importantly, we recognised in each other common goals and a commitment and dedication to driving our work forwards. Another very important aspect was that we all seemed to get along together and hence work well as a group; a strong dynamic is essential.
Q. How do group projects work within the studio – what is the division of labour?
A. Although we each bring different skills to the group, fundamentally we’re all designers and therefore there aren’t any distinct roles within the studio. We work collaboratively right from the beginning of a project, when we tend to bounce ideas back and forth between us. Often at that point we’ll each take up a particular concept to work into a design, but we’ll meet and review progress regularly to ensure that the project follows a direction we’re all happy with.
We are beginning to differentiate the work we each do according to our own particular skills (for example Charles does much of the graphics work), but we all still contribute to every phase of the project and debate the issues of the day.
Q. How did the design of the Petit Fleur project develop?
M: The light bulb is a beautiful shape; it has a bulging waist and because it is made in glass, it’s very easy to see and understand what’s going on inside - Petit Fleur was meant as dressing for a bulb; a tutu from a Degas picture. However, the most important aspect of the design is that the shade hangs directly from the bulb and so avoids having a separate fitting. The bottom petal shape hangs lower on the bulb’s waist as it has a larger hole in the centre. The shape is laser cut and is packaged like a record in its own cardboard sleeve. That means it’s easy to store and transport in larger volumes.
Q. How did the design of the Mekong project develop?
G: I'd wanted to design an object that used the properties of a one-way-mirror, which the Mekong table did by producing multiple reflections when the internal light source was switched on. I decided to make the light removable so that the reflective properties could be appreciated. The cube is a more convenient size but also demonstrates the one-way-mirror effect even more dramatically, as the light is contained completely inside the cube.
Q. How did the design of the Shelflife project develop?
C: I wanted to create a piece with a distinct visual identity that retained a strong functional aspect. It was an idea that had been lurking for a while without becoming anything more tangible. Having watched people struggling to browse, read and hold books at the same time, it seemed that somewhere to sit and read would be a useful addition to a bookshelf. The obvious progression of the idea was to then combine these two functions; the chair was the starting point for the overall form with its angles dictating the surrounding structure of the shelving unit. I wanted to avoid something that looked like “multipurpose furniture”, hence the chair and side table became almost part of the structure of the shelves rather than trying to hide or tuck them away. The various angled and straight shelves were carefully considered to provide a range of storage and display spaces – the overall form has a strongly angular, almost graphic appearance.
Q. What is the balance between concept and commerciality in your work?
M: For me the concept comes first and then the question ‘is it commercial?’ If the answer is no, it either needs more development or needs to be ditched. There are so many criteria for ‘good design’ and for me this includes commerciality – there has to be a desire or need something. Abstract-concepts with no tangible purpose are probably something else outside of design.
G: I think it depends on the project. Different projects are designed for different outcomes. Although the ideal is for the product to garner interest from both consumers and the industry, some of the more attention grabbing products gather more industry interest than customer interest. There is definitely a need to increase the commercial appeal of our products now that we have been successful in attracting industry interest, and I think my time at Habitat was invaluable in helping me recognise what this is.
C: While we feel strongly about designing pieces that are manufacturable, a new design studio such as Viable needs to generate attention in order to attract sales and commissions. To date we have focused largely on profile, and therefore we have produced several concept driven pieces such as Shelflife, Striata and Gala’s Hide’n’Peek bed. We are working on a new range of work to be launched next year that draws upon the styles we have developed to date, but brings them back to something that is more commercially attractive.
Q. Have your objectives changed since forming Viable?
A. On forming the studio last year, we set out to build a dynamic design studio producing ideas for manufacturable products, increase our own standard as individual designers and create a momentum between us. These objectives have remained fairly constant throughout the first year and we continue to build on this. However, from a creative point of view, we are working in a far more collaborative way from an earlier stage of the design process than we did previously. By pooling our ideas at the beginning of a project, we are finding that the end result holds true to the ideals we have set out, and there is less backtracking. By becoming a studio, we’ve focused our drive and passion as designers into something bigger than three individuals. We’ve created a sense of purpose and direction between us, and it is this that people seem to pick up on.
Visit Viable’s website at viablelondon.com