Q&A with Sir Kenneth Grange & Jack Smith of SmithMatthias

— 21 April 2020

Back in 2014 Modus joined forces with one of Britain’s most prolific and successful designers, Sir Kenneth Grange. Designer of some of Britain’s most archetypal emblems; the black cab, the InterCity 125 and Royal Mail’s rural post boxes, Sir Kenneth Grange is also renowned for his user centric approach that has seen his domestic products reach cult status, the Kenwood Chef, the Kodak instamatic and the redesign of the Anglepoise lamp to name a few.

Bringing to the table an emerging designer with whom he had developed a friendship during his time spent teaching at the RCA, Sir Kenneth introduced Modus to Jack Smith, one half of design partnership SmithMatthias. Six years and five products later, we asked both designers a few questions about their new chair and about working together. Despite being decades apart in age, it seems they have a lot in common, not least an exceptional fondness and respect for one another that has been evident in every project they have worked on.

March Lite is their latest collaboration, a pared back version of the March chair, launched in 2015 with, as Jack explains, an extremely resourceful approach to material use.

Sir Kenneth Grange

Back in the fifties you wholeheartedly embraced modernism, seventy years on, how do you feel about the shift from hand drawn and made to digitally drawn and manufactured?

On the pro side, every stage in a new product is now much faster. Digital everything is unavoidable - and wonderful.

On the con; there are the physical hand skills that are rewarding, no longer learned (or ‘needed’) and sometimes envied - just as a pop star can have any sort of sound manufactured ‘by machine’ but those who can sing AND play an instrument must be the richer for it. And as one gets older - from an early age - almost every day the available ‘technology’ - is demanding that you are a part of it. And that must get very tiring…………Personal skills - hands on skills, are very ‘personally’ rewarding. Now I envy anybody who can play an instrument - not just strum along, really play…..

At ninety, you could be enjoying a quiet retirement, what is it that keeps you working and what dreams are yet to be fulfilled?

Stop and you die faster…….and it’s a habit. Not much left to desire, but more and more to bang on about….

“Instinctively, I trust a product designer” 

You have worked a lot with young designers at the RCA. Do you feel in any way obliged to pass on the legacy of your design knowledge?

I enjoyed my years at the RCA immensely. I joined soon after Ron Arad had turned the place upside down, and then; one year after the other, the calibre of the new students got richer. So, I learned a lot from them and some became good friends. Of course. there’s nothing but pleasure - no obligation - in passing on experiences and the odd nugget. It’s also a fact that in our trade there is a high proportion of decent human beings. I doubt one would have the same experience visiting at Harvard, or Accountancy at any Uni -  instinctively I trust a product designer. 

How does your determination to problem solve until a design is resolved spill over into your personality and wider life?

More and more, as my physical abilities diminish, I am critical of every damn thing I use. So, at whatever level of complication, repairs, improvements around the house - or wherever I can poke my nose - are more harshly worked over. An example; the common handrail: Now my fingers are very tender and also clumsy and when I need to use a handrail, often I hit the supporting brackets. They can be set at an angle and profile that allows the fingers to slide along and miss the brackets. But it looks as tho’ every architect is unaware of this little factor. I’ve always been, but now am resolute about, waste - not only in stuff but most rewardingly, in physical effort. I get a mischievous treat, if when I pick up something to wear and it’s inside out, then I put it on and so save the effort of turning inside out just so that it’s the ‘right’ side out... So, next time I appear you’ll know whether it’s an inside-out day or day 

In very simple terms, quality over quantity or longevity over planned obsolescence could be concepts that fit your design philosophy, of all your belongings, which pieces do you cherish for these reasons?

Whichever outlast me.

“The key is that any partnership for a product comes from three interdependent players; the User, the Maker, and the Designer. And often it’s the designer who represents the user.” 

In achieving the perfect product, how important do you think the relationship is between designer and client?

It’s everything. Years ago, I was looking at an invite list for a party with my Graphic Partners and most on their list were fellow designers. Most on mine were my clients. Mine I had for decades and we made one another. But the key is that any partnership for a product comes from three interdependent players; the User, the Maker, and the Designer. And often it’s the designer who represents the user.

“We would like something that goes on and on…..’sees me , even Jack, out….”

After April, April system, Spring, March and March Lite, what is next for Sir Kenneth Grange and Modus?

Whatever Modus thinks we can do well. We would like something that goes on and on…..sees me, even Jack, out….

You have been so enormously industrious for the past 7 decades, what gets you to switch off and be lazy? 

Where I come from  laziness is disallowed. And switching off is sickness. If I’m working when I drop, that will cheer me up no end.

“He’s all I have needed in an equal partner.”

Authentic, accessible, inclusive would be words that could be used to describe your work, how would you describe Jack’s work? 

Those merits are his too. As a person, he’s generous to a fault, and much more skilled than I, particularly with hand skills . And we enjoy the same tastes. and humour. The big difference in our ages has worked perfectly, I think. I’ve wondered a couple of times what would have happened if he’d come along before Pentagram when I was looking for a partner.

I’ve learned - been taught - the manners, the diplomacy, of getting along with all sorts and we get on just fine - plenty of give and take. So, he and I would have made a long-lasting partnership. Jack will flourish I’m sure and our little partnership will, I very much hope, contribute to his ongoing success. He’s all I have needed in an equal partner.

You could have designed for any number of clients, why Modus? 

A friend and client I trust, recommended me. I had recently done a chair - my first bit of furniture in quantity production and I enjoyed it and Ed and Jon seemed to have the same ambitions in their line-up. Their workplace is ‘local’ -  I have a home in Devon.  It felt right  joining their enterprise. I knew and admired Jack as a student at the RCA. I approached him, I would need to make the interface digitally, He is like me, passionate about making, and I knew his talents. 

To Modus I did spell out that whatever I would do, it would have to be properly comfortable for my age too. I knew what that would mean; heights of chairs that you could get up from - and fall asleep in….

So, when Modus asked me, I said yes, but with my new young partner, and all fitted….  And I knew that my new partner was genuinely not embarrassed by the antiquity of his new partner…………..


Jack Smith 

SmithMatthias seem to excel at working with wood, what other materials do you enjoy working with?

We do love to work with timber. We generally prefer to work with natural materials, a few of our favourites, aprt from timber, are cork and Piñatex® by ananas-anam ( a textile made from pineapple fibre leaf) who we’ve collaborated with in the past. 

How important is it to you to come to the factory to see your designs at each stage of production?

It’s very important. Firstly, there’s no other way to gauge the performance, scale and aesthetic of a product than seeing it in the flesh. You can check details, consider line and better understand the way a product can be used and improved. Secondly you get to speak with the artisans making the products day in, day out and this is invaluable. We believe conversation is key to a good design.

Marchlite is a more resourceful take on the March chair, using simpler and more economical technology, how do you think we should be changing attitudes towards production as we move into a future with a greater understanding of planetary boundaries?

The original March utilises a 3D ply for the back rest whereas the March Lite backrest is slightly smaller and produced with 2D ply. How our designs impact the planet is very important to us, not just because it is a current topic of conversation but because it’s innate. Both Gemma and I have grown up within nature and we feel very connected to it and want to be positive in sustaining it. Utilising technology to be less wasteful, more efficient with energy and materials during production and considering the materials we use is something we should all be considering.

“If, at the age of 60, I have the energy Kenneth has at 90, I’ll be very happy and lucky, I’m very privileged to have such a mentor. 

Sir Kenneth is a dauntingly hard-working mentor, how do you live up to his work ethic?

I like to think we share a determination and expectation to design things well, to be thoughtful about details and how products can be better. Design is something we love to do so it’s natural and enjoyable for us to work hard and expect the best. Maybe it’s this that drew us together.

If I, at the age of 60, have the energy Kenneth has at 90, I’ll be very happy and lucky, I’m very privileged to have such a mentor.

“March Lite will be timeless and durable and at the end of its life it will go back into the earth”

There are hundreds of thousands of chairs out there, what makes March Lite special?

Yes and our consciences grapple with the fact there is so much out there. We don’t want to design a product just for the sake of it, therefore we put a lot of thought into making a product the best it can be. The March Lite stacks, it’s comfortable and we believe it’s beautiful and a good price point. It’s made from Solid ash and plywood with a water based, low emitting lacquer finish which means it will be timeless and durable and at the end of its life it will go back into the earth without too much impact.

Your collaboration with sir Kenneth has been very fruitful so far, do you plan to work together on any other projects?

We are always keen to work with Sir Kenneth - we will see what the future holds!

What relevance do you feel material health has in today’s world?

When you don’t suffer from allergies it’s easy to take for granted how the items in our homes or workplaces can add to the pollutants and the health of our environments.

What has been your impression of our new joinery factory here in Somerset?

Very impressive, it’s so clean and ordered! Modus are now able to carry out all finishing giving more customization possibilities - it’s exciting!

Working with your partner isn’t easy, how do you manage on the days when you aren’t getting on so well?

We think it’s easier in fact because we can be open, frank, opinionated and not offend each other; we’re in this together and have the same approach. We don’t have a huge egos and don’t get offended easily.

Modus turns twenty this year, where do you hope to be in your twentieth year?

To have a big, light studio with lots of space to prototype and a multidisciplinary, happy, experimental team working with us.