I like simple quality which works well and lasts. Things don’t even need to be beautiful, just not ugly. It seems so easy and obvious to me and yet it is hard to find products which fulfil those criteria.
As one is apt to do when preparing questions for someone as talented as British furniture designer Matthew Hilton, I have spent a considerable amount of time studying his work for such storied brands like De La Espada, DWR, and Case Furniture. At every turn, I find reasons to be in awe of his flexibility and clear understanding of form and function, leaving little doubt as to why, in 2004, he was elected the highest honour a British designer can receive: Royal Designer for Industry (RDI) by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). That was over 16 years ago and Matthew Hilton shows no signs of slowing down. His new studio presents projects that look primed to influence designers well past the 21st century.
Whether working on his own or now with a small collective of forward thinking designers at his eponymous studio, Matthew Hilton’s insights on design will undoubtedly be worthwhile reading. In this interview, we push beyond the boundaries of furniture design. There are insights on marketing vs. making, visual consumption, and the importance of historic design.
How would you describe the origin of your design ethos?
My design school, Kingston Polytechnic in London, was steeped in quite strict modernist Bauhaus design theory. Geometric design and “Less is more”. I am in tune with a lot of that thinking, but I have also always been interested in softer organic forms with restraint and subtlety. There’s an aesthetic balance between the organic and the geometric, a point, which is different for everyone I suppose, but when you achieve that point it’s like catching a wave, or cornering fast on a track in a car or listening to some music that properly connects—theres a thrill and excitement mixed with calm and contentment.
If you think of the things people regard as great design they are not usually quiet ordinary things, they are often brave and different to what was the norm of the time, but producing those things takes courage and we are often afraid of taking the risk.
Who has inspired your approach to design over the years?
So many people and things. I admire people who have a strong ethos, people who stick to who they are, whether that means they try lots of different things and work in many different areas, or they spend their life making monochromatic stripe paintings, or perfecting making bread, it is natural to that person and they do it without compromise.
Your creative journey seems so rich. You even dabbled with fashion design, thanks to David Bowie. What motivates you to explore other areas of design?
I think it is partly a function of being a bit obsessional, and a bit of a dreamer and a need to make things. I have always made stuff, or altered things I bought so that they suited me better. I realise that my interests haven’t changed much fundamentally over my lifetime and I still experience the same frustration of not being able to find the things I want to own. There is a camera I want but it doesn’t quite exist, there is car in my imagination, a hi fi, art for my walls, carpets, sculpture, and many other things. I am a maker and if I am desiring something I start to imagine what that thing would be like.
I want things to be well made, the best they can be and I don’t have the skills to make them myself. Designing and working with companies who produce really well is a way for me to own the things I want. Why are cameras for example getting so much more complicated and harder to use? It drives me mad. Computers were like that before Apple, and major camera manufacturers have not learnt much from that industry.
There is a clear respect for classic designs in your work, like with your Windsor and Ando chairs. You also seem to have a grasp on the potency of function. How have you managed to blend these two influences together?
I dislike things which don’t work properly, are over complicated, and have illogical ways of operating. I like simple quality which works well and lasts. Things don’t even need to be beautiful, just not ugly. It seems so easy and obvious to me and yet it is hard to find products which fulfil those criteria.
What can designers learn from history?
Almost everything. Understanding what has worked well in the past and the reason why is the best foundation for success in the present and future, in all kinds of senses, in life in general, in design, in everything. The past is important, it helps us form the future. But I do not want to reproduce the past. I want make new things. Sometimes I find I just have so much respect for the ingenuity or creativity visible in an object I want to use that as a point to start something new, something which advances that attitude, or evolves the thinking because we have new techniques or ways of living that have changed.
You’ve collaborated with some of the most well-respected brands in modern furniture design like DWR and De La Espada. What makes a good collaboration work?
A good collaboration is about people, as with everything, the company is a construct of the people who own it and work in it. Each brand has its own DNA made up of the people, the resources they have, and the way they use those resources. Some companies own a factory and employ skilled makers, others use factories all over the world without owning them, there are pros and cons to each way of producing.
Organisation of the process has to be tight and focussed and also allow for creative freedom. The development team and the makers and the management all need to have respect and trust in the process and each other whilst pushing possibilities into new areas, and moving things on. There needs to be a true appreciation of design and aesthetics, a real understanding of the manufacturing challenges and a realistic attitude to business. People need to be creative and pragmatic, be able to compromise to find the best possible balance, and it takes perseverance and conviction in our ability to find a way.
Has working consistently with a small team of designers within your current studio changed how you work?
Apart from a short time at Habitat UK when I was head of a team of perhaps six people, my own studio has never employed more than two designers, so I have always worked with a small team.
I think and hope that all that has happened is that I have got better at working in a team as I get older. I have to be able to focus on different aspects of the business through the day. Running the studio as a business like any other, watching cash, arranging loans, paying tax and wages, and also discussing the finer detail of a joint in a chair with my two designers. I have to accept that I cannot do everything and other people are better in some areas than me, and I need to allow people to properly contribute. Learning all this and really absorbing it into my work life has at times been tough but in the end it has led to a place of far more freedom in lots of ways.
Bowie once said, “Turn and face the strange changes.” Social media seems like one of those strange changes. Is it having a positive effect on modern design?
Its effect is stronger on the marketing of design products I think. It does not influence the way I design things at all, it effects how finished designs are seen and sold. Perhaps trends move faster. Images of products are far more important than ever before, the retail part of the design business always felt that people would want to touch, feel, sit, and try furniture, but that has been changing slowly for years. I hear reports of online sales growing by 80% in the three months of UK lockdown, showroom sales would have been zero so it is a distortion but as with a lot of things the (Covid-19) virus has accelerated shifts in society which were already happening.
It does appear that we are living in an age where products appear to be designed simply for immediate visual consumption. Why is this a disservice?
I think this appears to be the case and is a real phenomena but I believe that there is still demand for properly designed product which is well made, functions well, and lasts aesthetically. Flicking through images and superficially liking is entertainment and does influence purchases but in the end people have to decide if they will buy the new dining table or not, and I think that parting with significant amounts of money to own something focusses peoples minds and they then make decisions based on their circumstances and needs not solely on pretty images.
Looking back at your catalogue, what projects stand out to you?
I am lucky to feel proud of a number of pieces, they will be obvious to most people because people recognise when something has the right balance and when things work. I am proudest of the things where the risks paid off. Things that have presence and which people have genuine feelings about, whether that is love or hate.
I want to make beautiful things. That is not superficial, it isn’t pretty, it isn’t to do with a trend or a style, a colour, or a material. Instead, it’s in the objects bones, in its guts. It belongs to now or a little while in the future or it is timeless. I find it near impossible to describe and it takes real work to get there and the people we work with have to trust and invest. Making things which do this is not something that happens all the time, there are too many ingredients which need to be balanced, but when it does, you get a thing, an object, a product which has lasting beauty. There is no formula to achieving that.
What does a day off look like for you?
I don’t do much on days off. I rest. I can spend a whole day listening to music and maybe sketching a bit. I want time with my son and or my girlfriend, a short walk out for a coffee, perhaps a good healthy lunch somewhere, some gym time, or a lunch at home with friends and wine, a walk and a sleep. I also like going to galleries and watching films.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I don’t really think about this apart from in practical terms of liking my designs to be long lasting and valued.