Simon Pengelly Q&A

— 10 July 2020


2020 has certainly been a mighty strange year for everyone but it also marks a milestone for us at Modus as we celebrate 20 years in design. Circumstances have somewhat curtailed our celebrations and a more introspective, reflective stance has been required, so we find ourselves rolling back these past two decades to look at where it all began – a chance meeting with Modus’ co-founders, Ed Richardson and Jon Powell and young British designer Simon Pengelly.

The starting point of your journey into design was a very practical experience. At what point did you begin designing without making and does losing that hands on aspect of a product’s creation rob you of part of your relationship with the finished product?

‘I don’t think I’ve ever lost that relationship as once a maker always a maker, it's like a sixth sense and so even when the project is physically made by someone else I've gone about designing it the way I would make it, although it is fair to say that with most projects I still have some kind of practical involvement at some point. Obviously, I'm making far less than I used to but it’s never been entirely absent because it's how I think and design.

I started (making) when I was eight and so by the time I went to college I was a very competent maker. At the time I don’t think I realised but when I look back I understand and appreciate how much that experience and knowledge has played a huge part in shaping the way I now do things.

My Father was chief designer at Ercol for a long time and I spent all my weekends, all my spare time in his small workshop in the garden. I just used to hang out and watch what he was doing, I was a really dyslexic child and I just found in 3D things a way of understanding. I was very lucky to have that workshop to play around in and I began when he showed me how to cut a set of dovetail joints on one corner of a box and then left me to do the other three. We are a very practical, creative family and that knowledge of making and materials, the muscle memory of manipulating all the different sizes and species of timber, you just soak it in.

VWork is a good example of the return to wood-based desks and tables (after a long spell of inorganic materials in the workplace). With the rise in biophilic design are we starting to see a wood renaissance?

Subconsciously we are drawn to warmer, more tactile materials and objects and the workplace has been going that way for a long time. A domestic, more residential feel where you can work where you want, when you want, has naturally migrated over to the workplace. I think the COVID situation has accentuated something that was already happening, where less prescriptive, more relaxed and informal environments that enable you to use them in the way you want are becoming the norm. Furniture has evolved to allow this flexibility and a natural part of that is for materials to be less harsh, more emotional, more tactile. Natural materials, green spaces are all part of the way it has been going for a number of years and I hope that will continue.

We are also starting to see wood being used in a very technical way, in both small scale furniture designs and large scale architectural projects. What role do you think wood might play in the future of design? 

It’s always been here, from the point at which man developed a tool to chop down a tree and so we have to be careful that wood isn’t seen as the solution to everything. Plastic has had a bad rap and in many ways this is deserved...it’s about appropriateness based on the knowledge of materials. Using wood for wood’s sake may actually be less sustainable than another material because of the processing required, just because it is natural doesn’t make it a panacea for all things and for furniture to be commercial it needs to be made in the right material and be at the right price, we have to be honest about that. 

I’d love to see it used more in buildings but it needs to be understood as a material; it moves, it warps, it splits. I see so many furniture students picking wood without really understanding its qualities and appropriateness. When it’s the right material for the job and it’s used intelligently without excessive wastage– that’s when wood really sings. If we continue to plant trees, nurture them and cut them sustainably then wood will be a resource we can use as long as we aren’t fucking up the planet.

The Milo chair was the first of our chairs to have a removable cover. In line with our aspirations to become much more circular we are developing removable covers for many of our other chair ranges. Where do you think the designer’s responsibility ends and the manufacturer’s begins in terms of making products more circular?

A designer’s responsibility for a product should never end. With Milo the need for a loose cover came about as a solution to a different problem. The chair was designed to be moulded using one tool, with and without an arm and it was the challenges of the upholstery that led to the development of a replacement cover...it just so happened that it also made sense form a circular point of view. But when you think of a chair as a platform from which you are able to change the upholstery without replacing the entire chair, that’s fantastic.

We should be revisiting products, if things are timeless it’s easier to do that rather than trying to shoehorn them into doing something it was never designed to do. We should be thinking – that wasn’t as good as it could be so let’s make it better. A really great product is quiet, simple and honest, accessible and adaptable, people ‘get it' and it will still be as relevant as when it was first thought about. I don’t like furniture that shouts and is very ‘of the minute’ and if we had to choose it’s much better to have furniture that is used again or handed down and is able to be adapted and re-used.

As we begin to develop more bio-based materials, is there a material you would especially like to work with?

There are loads. Years ago I saw a moulded chair made from ground sea-shells with a biodegradable resin as a binding agent. Beautiful and light but the problem was that it was expensive and for all intents and purposes it looked like a plastic chair, the importance of its material lost. The use of a material needs to be in context and so it’s important to understand a material’s characteristics, not just physical but also its processing costs and therefore its commercial appropriateness...we need to be rigorous about every facet.

We had already started to see a crossover between domestic and workplace furniture, what impact do you think working from home will have on workplace design?

It’s highlighted something that was already happening. We’ve had a bit more time in lockdown to look at Instagram and there’s been a bit of a knee jerk reaction to social distancing in furniture design. It’s important we’re not all rushing out and designing around that, we need to be conscious about people to understand how furniture is used and think about the emotional impact. Yes, we’ll need more space. Yes, more people will be working from home. It’s about allowing people to be flexible, specifying existing furniture in an intelligent way rather than thinking we need to start again.

Trying to make a fast buck seems entirely inappropriate, it’s what got us here in the first place, the lack of thought about the environment amongst other things. Let’s step back and understand the emotions of people to make them feel safe and thought about, considered and cared for. We shouldn’t be changing our approach to the way we design furniture overnight.

You were part of our journey right at the very beginning, Meta was the first product that Modus produced, followed by Stripey, both ranges remain stalwarts in our collection. What is it that makes a piece timeless and gives it aesthetic longevity? 

I’ve often pondered this. I think it’s about familiarity, creating things that are at home visually, and from a functional point of view, with any other product in the same environment. It’s about honesty and restraint. Honesty of materials and most importantly of function. If a product continues to give on an emotional level, because of a particular joint or detail that is there for an appropriate reason, these are the things that really interest me, these are the things that people will warm to and will want to keep. Because its subliminally right and honest and not trying hoodwink people, it’s not there in an arbitrary way, it’s there because there is good reason. It’s not only about detail, its comfort and proportion and ultimately ease of use. We need to really think about the people who will use (a piece of furniture) and how it will be used rather than just the visual aspects.

If you love the process and care about the people you're designing for then it comes across in a piece, it’s so hard to articulate or quantify but it’s about a product being honest, pragmatic and familiar. Designing furniture is a process that is not about expressing my signature or my personality, it’s about caring for the people that are going to use it.

Over the years the process of design has become so much more enjoyable for me, there’s no deep philosophical reason for it, no headline, and it’s not about my ego at all...it’s an emotional attachment from beginning to end, feeling in touch with the process and the people you're designing the product for and that comes across, a good product oozes that.

VWork is a development of the VTable, carrying forward the key elements of the original design, is there any other product that you would like to redevelop and expand upon?

When Meta was first developed I thought about lots of other features to go with it, cantilevered tables, clothes hangers, doors and so on. Generally, if something is simple enough it can evolve over time without it looking like an afterthought. A product needs to be immediately understandable, if it’s not then it’s difficult to sell because it’s difficult to communicate. The VTable always had that simplicity, the V is a very obvious way to support a top but it’s also partly because that X leg is very reminiscent of refectory tables of bygone eras, picnic tables etc...it's familiar.

It is twenty years since you first met Jon and Ed, what are the key changes that we have seen in furniture design over the past two decades and do you have any predictions for the next twenty years?

There are obvious changes to the tools that we have at our disposal, computers, CAD, it’s made us more productive but it hasn’t really changed the process. The biggest change is really around social media and communication. Twenty years ago, you went to an exhibition, a shop or a showroom. Now you see it on social media or on a website. Going to an exhibition now is in some ways secondary and the cost of an exhibition stand for most of our clients would buy a nice house somewhere, and I struggle with the appropriateness of that. That said, I miss having to wait for the monthly design magazine or the four or five yearly exhibitions for a 'furniture fix' as we now seem to be saturated with info and images (real or not) on a daily basis.

There is a risk of losing touch with some of the fundamental processes that we go through, designing, developing, making and selling, there’s so much emotion involved if done properly and if we go too high tech we'll lose that connection to the process. We're at risk of homogenising everything and it all becomes so much more about the visual aspects of the process which is shallow. 

I get frustrated – is this a rendering? Does this product really exist? That I worry about, in the same way I worry about education. When I was at college we had workshops and we didn’t work on computers...a computer doesn’t tell you if a piece of wood is going to bend or snap if someone sits on it. As much as computers, tech and progress are wonderful things, I think we may be losing something if we’re not too careful as they are simply tools, it is the physical and emotional part of what we do that has so much impact on the end result. 

Now mankind is having to think about social distancing and tech being a good answer to that but it’s the feel of the fabric or the joy of a junction between one material and another that is the main part of experiencing the piece and is what endears people, a product has to speak to you in a subliminal way otherwise it feels abstract and the experience of enjoying it is hollow.

What is the next product you would like to design for Modus?

That should be a secret between Modus and I! It may not be a new product, maybe we will evolve something we already have, When we do that it shows we have belief in a product, that we are investing in it for the long term, made easier if a product is quiet enough to enable that evolution without it looking like an afterthought or a knee jerk reaction to one customer’s requirements. The best thing is to expand or make better what we already have, to make it more relevant. You guys have to be brave to invest in our ideas and we need to help you maximise on that investment, we (designers) need to be honest and respectful of that bravery.