The British industrial designer explores how lighter, more malleable materials can spawn a range of furniture that is eco-friendly – and sexy.
It’s easy to forget that Benjamin Hubert is not yet 30. On the day we meet, he wears fashionable jeans, a striped sweater, delightfully mismatched socks, and no shoes (the result of a late start, he tells me sheepishly). It’s not his look that makes him seem surprisingly mature; it’s the manufacturers he now has as regular clients – Moroso, Cappellini and ClassiCon, among others – the kind of premium list most designers can only dream of. Ruth Aram, director of the London design store Aram, has known Hubert since 2009, and she sums him up thusly: “Benjamin has an amazing determination and tenacity, and he has managed to be taken seriously in just a few years.”
Admired for his material- and process-driven approach, he showed off his flair for smart design last September at the London Design Festival with Ripple, a super-thin plywood table that measures one metre by 2.4 metres and is light enough for one person to move with little effort. It embodies his ongoing interest in new materials and technologies, and for his knack to self-initiate. He first contacted Corelam in Vancouver after spotting the company’s lightweight corrugated panels online. “I thought it was a beautiful material with interesting strength properties,” he says. “Corrugation is not new, but it’s relatively new in timber, so I wanted to see if it could be incorporated into larger pieces of furniture.”
More often used for architectural panelling and acoustic systems, Corelam comes in various woods, but Hubert settled on Sitka spruce, the same species used back in 1947 to build the Spruce Goose, the largest all-timber airplane ever crafted. The wood’s strength comes from an undulating form developed by Canadian industrial designer and professor Christian Blyt, who worked with Hubert via e-mail and Skype over six months to help engineer Ripple down to its nine-kilogram weight without synthetic reinforcement. Hubert now bills Ripple as “the world’s lightest timber table ever made.”
When it will be available commercially remains unclear, but Hubert’s exploration into lightness reacts to what his clients are after. “The way companies operate now has changed,” he notes, “particularly in Italy. Furniture brands are responding to the recession there by exploring more cost-effective methods. Our presentations are as much about strategy and figuring out how the business will go forward as they are about making beautiful products.”
For his Talma chair, designed for Moroso and launched at the 2013 Salone del Mobile in Milan, he wrapped a steel frame in a composite textile by Dutch manufacturer Innofa. The padded upholstery resembles a blanket that has been tucked and folded into place. Because he has eliminated the labour-intensive foam work and detailed stitching required for fitted upholstery, the chair takes less time to make and uses much less material. “It’s a powerful way to talk to the brands about products, because you have a tangible point of difference,” he says. “It’s not a subjective question of ‘Do you like this’; it’s objective: ‘Actually, this is half the price of your other chairs, and it still looks good. Why wouldn’t you produce it?’ ”
He is working on other products for Moroso, among them his first sofa; and a version of Membrane, a woven textile mesh chair he designed for ClassiCon that weighs just three kilograms. The studio is also moving into wallcoverings and home accessories, including ceramic pieces for Bitossi Ceramiche of Italy. Down the road, he envisions branching into interior design and a furniture and lighting collection under his own name: “Something low cost and more accessible, to complement but not cannibalize the higher-end stuff,” he says, adding, “That’s the idea, to see if we can go full circle and design the products, sell them, put them in the places we have designed, and then, next step, take over the world, chair by chair! ”
Ever the entrepreneur, he is only half-joking about world domination. His immediate next step is a move into bigger premises in London’s East End, which will make room for projects slated to launch in 2015. “We are now working with companies that are very rigorous in terms of how they want their products to perform functionally and commercially,” he says, though he can’t reveal who those collaborators might be.
While his future looks bright, Hubert says he sometimes struggles with finding sense amid the continuous cycle of new stuff: “If we’re designing things that perform in the way people need them to, they should last a lifetime, so why are we producing so much every year?”
It’s a salient question, and as a prolific designer he recognizes the contradictions in his argument. “I’m not going to stand on a soapbox and say we don’t do things that are sometimes unnecessary,” he says. “I’ve come to a point where I’ve decided to question what the industry is doing.” Does the world really need another chair? I ask, somewhat glibly. He responds in a flash. “It does if it’s a smart chair. Every industry needs progression, the chair industry included.”