09 Oct When Companies Take Risks
One of the things that truly ignited my passion for design was witnessing designers and companies embarking on unconventional ventures, or at least making an attempt.
It was the late year of 2008 when Vitra introduced the Vegetal chair, a creation by the Bouroullec brothers. The project had its inception in 2005 as a mere sketch, taking three long years to come to fruition. What intrigued me the most wasn’t just the chair itself as an object, but rather the process that birthed it. At the time, it was a game-changer: inspired by the growth of trees, it aimed to resemble roots emerging from the ground, eventually forming a seat. Nowadays, you can find numerous products following this approach, but back then, it seemed like an impossible feat (in fact, the imitations are far from capturing its distinctive shape and comfort). When they initially conceived it, producing the result seemed unattainable. While 90% of designers and brands might have thrown in the towel, they persisted. It’s fascinating to observe the entire development online and witness how the concept evolved, all while preserving its original essence. A true work of art—the process itself.
The troubling game some individuals are currently playing involves sending soulless briefs to random designers, hoping to garner free ideas for potential development. This practice is undermining the traditional approach that led to the creation of such masterpieces. The real advantage of witnessing a renowned designer collaborate with a prominent brand is that they formulate a well-defined brief and invest time and resources to achieve it. It isn’t simply a matter of “I like it – I don’t like it” based on a few renderings within a compressed PDF.
Two primary factors have contributed to this situation. First, designers often feel the need to produce a multitude of pieces, potentially sacrificing the depth of their concepts and research in the pursuit of quantity. Second, and equally significant, companies harbor the misguided notion that they can casually scan their surroundings to identify trending items that can be mass-marketed, all thanks to the right choice of color, an appealing shape, and a strategic marketing plan.
It may sound somewhat oversimplified, but this encapsulates what occurred when designers began approaching companies via email, proposing collaborations founded on a “show me something, and then we’ll decide” mentality. This represents a flawed evolution of a prior approach that had fostered success for both companies and designers. However, several critical distinctions render this new approach vulnerable.
More or less until 2008 (yes, it still feels like yesterday, but it was a considerable while ago), the primary means of discovering emerging designs was by encountering them at fairs or festivals, such as the Design Week in Milan. One of the prime spots was the Salone Satellite, where you could showcase your finest work and where company owners and design directors perused the stands in search of intriguing talents.
Back in 2011, I was employed at Jake Phipps Design Studio in London. I distinctly recall Jake recounting the story of his Salone Satellite exhibition. At the time, he was producing and selling his products. However, after the exhibition, he attracted the attention of prominent design companies interested in producing his collection. First came Cappellini, who wanted to produce his entire collection. Subsequently, he established collaborations with other renowned brands that approached him, including Innermost, Riva1920, Gebrüder Thonet Vienna, and others. Thus, his career was launched through a single event.
This practice of scouting for talent in the world of design still exists, albeit in a different form—via email. These companies are inundated with emails from designers seeking collaborations and offering free pitches. However, what happens next? A prototype carries significantly more weight as it represents an advanced stage of design. It effectively demonstrates whether something works, revealing proportions, functionality, and allowing the designer to explain their creation confidently, having invested substantial effort into it. When you merely send a free PDF, it lacks real value for a brand until it evolves into something more advanced.
This situation perpetuates a cause-and-effect cycle detrimental to all parties involved, both designers (compromising on quality while pursuing quantity) and companies (losing sight of the true value in curating design pieces). Consequently, taking risks is discouraged from the outset of a project evaluation.
Italian and European companies excelled in the past due to their commitment to innovation, which inherently entails a willingness to take risks. You cannot achieve something new by adhering solely to what has been done before.
Remarkably, we still have great companies collaborating with exceptional designers, although it is no longer the prevailing norm. Consider the case of a product category currently experiencing a notably stagnant period: sofas. They all seem indistinguishable, lacking distinct concepts beyond “rounded shapes” and “comfort,” the sort of statements marketing offices make when they have little else to say.
I won’t delve into Stefan Diez again (my admiration is palpable), but I would like to mention @Philippe Malouin and his creation for De Sede, aptly named DS-707. The design is truly exceptional, seemingly originating from an entirely novel perspective, as if Malouin had never encountered a sofa before. It presents a wholly new approach to shaping upholstery within this category.
Imagine pitching this concept to a medium-sized company, with the design director doubling as the PR manager, hastily crafting CAD designs over the weekend and socializing at the company owner’s house during their days off. Their response might have been something along the lines of, “It doesn’t even resemble a sofa to me. People won’t understand it, I’m sorry. Please return with something else after the summer break. We really like ‘Another Company’s’ sofa; can you create something similar?” However, De Sede and Philippe Malouin both have unique stories. Marrying these two narratives has sparked a conversation that has yielded a masterpiece.
I can’t ascertain whether this design collection is selling exceptionally well or not, but it’s a risk worth taking. Alberto Alessi once conveyed that companies pushing the boundaries between the possible and the impossible are the true innovators. I wholeheartedly concur.
Next time I will probably talk about a very difficult topic: breaking userser habits through design. Support needed! Please share, comment and all suggestions are more than welcome!