“Classic chairs like the Egg, the Swan and the Womb should no longer be held up as symbols of great design,” says Tom Lloyd. It’s a provocative statement, and intentionally so. It’s not the products’ formal expression that the designer is knocking, however, but rather the way they are constructed. “These chairs are basically made of four materials — textiles glued onto foam that surrounds a mould with a steel structure inside — that can never be unbound.” That might not have been an issue in the 1940s and ’50s when they were first produced, but it is now.
Tom Lloyd and Luke Pearson founded Pearson Lloyd in 1997. Over the past 26 years, the London industrial design, branding and sustainability strategy firm has garnered a reputation for its robust portfolio of elegant products — healthcare, transportation and public realm projects for manufacturers including Walter Knoll, Joseph Joseph, Teknion and Arconas. Making the planet a co-beneficiary in the design process, as both Lloyd and Pearson put it, has been a concern of the practice for a long time. “Eight years ago, we designed a fairly simple stacking chair for a Danish company called Howe where we didn’t put any glass in the polypropylene moulding,” says Pearson. Why? Because if you put glass fibre and other additives into plastic to strengthen it, you can’t chip and remould it.
Around that same time, the duo completed another sustainability-minded project at a much larger scale: wayfinding and outdoor furniture for Bath. “We persuaded the city to make the street benches out of cast bronze,” recalls Lloyd. “It requires no finishing or recoating with paint every couple of years. The timber slats are just a standard section with a standard radius on the edge so that any carpenter can repair them; you don’t need specialist machinery or knowledge to update or restore the product.” The project has been so successful that the practice is currently expanding the collection of benches for the city and creating pieces at different scales.
If these earlier projects shaped the firm’s commitment to a do-no-harm ethos, the past few years galvanized it to make their intentions as clear as possible — both to themselves and to their collaborators. “Macro changes are having big impacts on the way we design and procure manufacturing. Alongside the climate emergency, and since COVID and Ukraine, globalization as a system and idea has proved to be very fragile. The dream of global supply chains is now shown to be flawed, so a lot of production is returning to Europe. This has an impact on how we design, as labour costs are higher here. Energy prices are also impacting the choices we make,” explains Lloyd. “We’ve stepped back a little bit and really challenged ourselves on our position in a sustainability future as designers of mass-produced pieces. Now, the responsibilities and the opportunities have gone hand in hand.”
In 2021, Lloyd became the master of the faculty of Royal Designers for Industry and used the opportunity to present a redefinition of the designer’s role in society. “We now understand the impact of unfettered consumption and need to re-evaluate our contribution to the physical world we inhabit,” he wrote at the time. “The building blocks of our relationship with the built environment and the vocabulary of design are being redefined: / From novelty to longevity / From linear to circular / From extractive to regenerative / From exclusive to inclusive / From owned to shared / From designed to co-designed / From human-centred to nature-centred.”
Just a year earlier, the studio had moved into a new workspace in East London. And even that project became a purpose-driven endeavour: After ideating for a year on a dazzling new build for a site with several dilapidated workshops and factory buildings that were due to be demolished, the practice had a change of heart and decided to keep as many of the existing buildings and materials and original features as possible. “The retrofit has 60 per cent less embodied carbon than if we had made a new building,” says Lloyd. “It was also about 20 per cent less expensive.”
Today, one of the first messages you encounter on the firm’s website is a manifesto of sorts, entitled “circular thinking.” The questions the mission statement raises exemplify the firm’s aspirations. “How can we make changes in our process, in our conversations with clients, and in the execution of our products that will serve the needs of the planet alongside those of the user, so that we may become allies to the planet?” Pearson expands on this idea: “Rather than waiting for our clients to be ready, or for major system changes to happen, we’re trying to develop tools and best practice now so that it’s embedded in the thinking from the start of the process.”
It’s not straightforward, he admits; sustainability is a complex area and though there are established real estate–based standards such as LEED and BREEAM, “at the industrial design and manufacturing level, the metrics and under- standing of carbon, offsetting and circularity do not seem well-established,” Lloyd says. “We need to focus our attention on consumption and disposal.” The firm is currently working on its “circularity design brief,” which it will attach to proposals at the outset of a collaboration. They will do this knowing that any approach to circularity is laden with contradictions and surprises.
One such surprise might be a product the firm designed for Polish company Profim: a modular workplace seating family called Revo. Instead of using plywood for the internal structure, Pearson Lloyd proposed using recycled expanded polypropylene (REPP), having worked with the material 10 years earlier on a conceptual project during which they realized that it offered advantages in terms of both reductions in carbon produced and labour required. Fortunately, the company is very forward-thinking — it recently made the decision, for example, to eliminate glue and staples in all of its products to enhance disassembly and circularity.
Not only did the use of REPP reduce the weight of each element by around 40 per cent, explains Lloyd, but the material can also be endlessly remoulded, whereas plywood is single-use only. “It has so much glue and resin inside,” says Pearson, “that it can’t be separated down into its constituent raw materials.” Wood may be an important element in a lot of sustainable design, but if you’re talking about circularity, plywood doesn’t make the grade.
Later this spring, with U.K. furniture manufacturer Senator, Pearson Lloyd will launch its first collection aimed at the higher education sector. It’s an area that is curiously underserved in terms of customized furniture, says Lloyd. “All the universities seem to specify contract furniture that is just not fit for purpose. It’s not strong enough, not sustainable and can’t be repaired, but it also isn’t offering value for money.” Another reason why this type of furniture isn’t fit for purpose, the duo explains, is down to changing curricula and learning styles.
The practice spent a year researching the sector and speaking to university estates departments, faculty, students, architects who specify furniture for universities, maintenance teams and so on. During their deep dive into the sector, they learned about a phenomenon called flipped learning, which started in educational institutions in North America and is slowly becoming more prevalent in the U.K. “In the past, you would come into school to receive knowledge and then go away to do your homework and assignments,” says Pearson. “Now, knowledge is accrued off site during online lectures and you come in to university to collaborate with people and work together to solve a particular problem.”
The trend was accelerated, of course, by COVID and the rise of hybrid learning. Gone (or going) are the more conventionally designed lecture halls, classrooms and libraries. In their place are more agile and informal spaces: classrooms that are also cafés and co- working spaces, libraries that function as hubs, and so-called “third spaces,” usually circulation and atria where vital post-teaching debriefs, brainstorming and spontaneous group activities can happen.
The new furniture range, called CO-LAB, is inspired by islands and bridges. It includes beam seating, benching, easels, tables and chairs that allow for different postures. In terms of “planetary needs,” the collection has been designed so that its various elements and materials are both durable and easy to disassemble for repair and re-use. It’s a deceptively clear and simple solution to a range of complex needs. And it’s also relevant to the workplace; post-COVID, the office is morphing into a place of learning and continuous professional development in order to attract and retain staff. This means it requires a similar level of versatility.
Pearson Lloyd still works in other challenging sectors, such as the aviation industry. Even here, they hope to make change. “We either just walk away from it as an industry or we try and engage,” says Pearson. “And there’s an awful lot of innovation going on within the supply chain, whether that’s fuel, weight, materiality or customization,” adds Lloyd. Some 26 years on, the practice is still questioning, learning, innovating and risk-taking across the board.
Pearson Lloyd is on a mission to create closed-loop furniture and objects that enhance both human life and the natural world.