A Bit About Design

Having a website is a wonderful excuse for a bit of self indulgence and to drone on about my favourite subject; design. Strap in.

Colwill and Co exists to make furniture and household objects that adhere to a few simple criteria. The things we make should do their job really, really well. That means that they should work well from the get go, i.e. be easy to put together by the user. They should do their job perfectly. No if’s buts or maybe’s, if a thing does not do its job then why does it exist? They must be easy to maintain or ideally be maintenance free. They should last, even if they get a bit of abuse and used in ways you don’t expect. Their production and delivery should be as sustainable as practical. And finally, they should as far as possible, be recyclable. As for aesthetics? Well, I think that if we get everything else right then the chances are it will look right. Finally, the total cost of ownership should be minimised, though not necessarily the purchase price (but I would say that wouldn’t I?).

 

To try and meet these objectives I have one design philosophy, that of simplicity. I believe that the simplest answer that meets these design criteria is almost universally the best one. It’s the Occam’s razor of design. Take, for example, our bottle openers. I really like them and yes, they are what I use at home, because they are the simplest way of comfortably opening a bottle I can devise. They do not require any assembly by the user. They work really well, easily, comfortably, reliably. They require no maintenance (okay, you may need to tie a new piece of leather on after a few decades but…). They are made from a piece of fallen wood and a nail, so pretty low tech, low impact and sustainable. They come in a recycled cardboard box packed with shredded paper, or are placed in your hand if you collect or buy at an event. When you are done with it (though why would you be?), pull the nail out and chuck the handle in your green bin or on your log burner and the nail in the recyclables. There are simpler ways of taking the top off a bottle but I believe they all fail to meet the criteria in some way. There are more complex ones that offer some extra function but why? What other function do you need? The problem with simplification of course is that when you get it right, after hours of head scratching and prototyping and refinement, it looks, well, obvious and very often as if it should cost nothing because anyone could do it. Maybe they could but they didn’t.

There are three major themes in the pallete of materials I use, industrial, reclaimed or recycled and ‘mainly by nature’. I love to use industrial materials because they tend to have an honesty about them. They are generally intended primarily to do a job and for a long time and aesthetics are a secondary consideration, this means that they are fantastic for subverting to another cause where, provided they meet our overarching criteria, they can bring great qualities of honesty, solidity and longevity and often the enjoyment of seeing the familiar subverted into an unfamiliar role or context. Reclaimed and recycled materials bring with them the element of sustainability and very often a fantastic patina and history. This is good news as they are often a pig to work with as their supply is unreliable, quality highly variable and thus require considerably more labour to convert to a usable form than new materials, but it is worthwhile. ‘Mainly by nature’ is my favourite. It is the term I have adopted for using materials, most often wood, because of the shape it already is rather than trying to form it into the shape I want. This was very common practice in the pre-industrial age when a craftsman would not consider spending hours making a piece of wood with a bend in it if he could find one instead. It means that I cannot produce hundreds of similar items and that each one is effectively a prototype with all the consequent effects of risk and cost but the result is an item that is truly unique and designed ‘mainly by nature’. One often sees products with a bit of wood in them described as unique and because wood is inherently unique in its grain, colour and texture even within the same tree, that is true but these pieces go further. They are unique because of their shape, you could not make another unless you found an identical tree and, take it from someone who has often tried, that does not happen.

Lastly, I have a strong belief that objects, furniture in particular should be customisable, for practical and philosophical reasons. When property is as expensive as it is, why do we have so many little spaces in our houses because the furniture in that space does not use it properly? If you add them all up you probably own or rent thousands of pounds worth of space that is just there, doing nothing because a piece of furniture that saved a few quid only uses part of it. (I found some time to research some of the numbers on this here.) Most of what I make has very little of mass manufacture about it. I have a few jigs for things I often do but that is about it. So why not make stuff that fits the job perfectly, have a console or side table that actually fits, where you want it. I may have to rework some of the numbers but you are already paying for a low volume piece of furniture so why not get the full benefit.

I feel better for getting that off my chest. There will be more such design based wittering in the blog as the muse strikes.

Leave a comment