The two men are engrossed in the development details of their next design project together. As I enter the room, they look up from their conversation. These are the faces of Jack Smith and Sir Kenneth Grange, an unexpected design duo who became allied through necessity and fortuitous timing.
Both designers operate independent studios but, due to both of them undergoing renovation works, we opted to hold our interview in one of the large meeting rooms at Pentagram’s office in Notting Hill. Kenneth was a founding partner of this internationally renowned studio and he has a lot to show for it. He is a stalwart of British industrial design whose immense portfolio of much-loved products and projects has spanned a career. Jack, a few decades his junior, is much nearer the starting blocks and, suffice to say, he’s shooting in the right direction.
Uniquely, this union came about from Modus’ request to Kenneth that he design some furniture for the collection. But why would a man who has designed everything from a men’s razor to a food blender to a compact camera and even an Intercity train need another designer with whom to collaborate? Well, as he would admit, he hasn’t designed much furniture during his career and he “wanted a successful product in my portfolio other than that for which I am known.” Probed a bit more, he confesses, “I’m computer illiterate” and smiles.
The duo originally met at the Royal College of Art. It was 2011 and Jack was studying Design Products and Kenneth was visiting for intensive tutorials. Jack signed up for his tutorage immediately alongside peers who formed a “bumper year” for talent, in Kenneth’s opinion. When his solo exhibition was going up at the Design Museum – Kenneth Grange: Making Britain Modern – a handful of students volunteered to help assemble it and that is when their paths grew closer. The ingredients were ripe for their furniture partnership.
Sitting in front of Kenneth and Jack is a tantalising assortment of models showing various stages in the development of their furniture designs for Modus. Their first creation was the April sofa launched in 2013. The duo reminisce on their collaborative practice which is workshop-based and involves plenty of hands-on prototyping. It is these moments when they stitch together their design DNA through a process of discussing, shaping, editing and refining. “We enjoy the nuts and bolts bit of our process,” states Kenneth.
Several years on and with the subsequent addition of the March chair and the Spring tables, the working dynamic has found its rhythm. The unknown questionings have dispersed and methods have become established. It is apparent that Kenneth and Jack share a love of machines and the making process. As Kenneth says, “The real aristocrats of industry are the people who design the machine tools! Everything follows from it.” They’re both keen to visit the workshop and factory to interact directly with those fabricating their pieces. They agree that it is in these situations that their learning is enhanced, able to make immediate design tweaks and perhaps even stumble across some happy accidents that may determine a new detail or direction.
Throughout our meeting, our conversation digresses several times, most notably chastising the state of arts education today, the perils of over-consumption, our throw away culture and the scourge of packaging. Kenneth cheerily defends these mini rants as an “old fart’s view of life”. One such topic centres on comfort, a main concern of both designers when creating their furniture designs. Kenneth rails against the current fashion for low-level sofas. “I have no sympathy for sofas you need to be lifted out of!” he chimes. “Like it or not, the world seems to want uncomfortable sofas!” he jokes.
Indeed, comfort is central to the April sofa which was determined by making the seat height more elevated, in turn making it easier to get in and out of the seat as well as helping to maintain posture. The same attention applies to the March chair that, even as a hard wooden chair, fully integrates the ergonomics necessary for prolonged periods of comfortable sitting. The duo is adamant about quality and longevity. They reinforce this with the statement “The technologies have gone towards making things have a longer life.” Their motivation is clear: “We’re certainly not interested in it not being there in twenty years time.”
Words - Max Fraser
Photography - Mark Whitfield