June 1, 2009
Industrial Facility masters the fine art of stripping function to its most elegant and elemental.
You could be forgiven for wondering what on earth Sam Hecht does for a living. His London studio, which looks out across a jumble of Georgian and Victorian rooftops in Clerkenwell, is so anonymous that it’s all but impossible to guess that this soft-spoken 39-year-old is one of Britain’s most distinguished industrial designers. Last year he was made a Royal Designer for Industry, an accolade granted through the Royal Society of Arts to the cream of the profession. Hecht, however, is as well-known in the United States and Japan, two countries he has lived and worked in and, in certain ways, made his own.
The studio, founded in 2002 by Hecht, a Londoner by birth, and Kim Colin, is called Industrial Facility. It’s an intriguingly generic name for a company that, once the all but secret force behind many of the Japanese retailer Muji’s products, is now increasingly sought after by major design-aware companies, from Herman Miller to Epson. I can’t help thinking that the name is a quiet, appreciative nod to the studios of British designers past, who sought excellence in creating everyday objects without overtly seeking personal fame. The Design Research Unit, founded in 1943 by Misha Black, comes to mind, as does DS Associates, the self-effacing team founded by Douglas Scott, which styled the famous London Routemaster double-decker bus.
Significantly, both studios did much of their best work for London Transport, at a time when the operator was the model of good everyday design, admired and influential worldwide. When Black said, more than half a century ago, “We should approach each new problem from the base of practicality: how it can most economically be made, how it will function most effectively, how can maintenance be simplified, how can a use of scarce resources be minimized?” it might almost have been the partners of Industrial Facility speaking.
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Hecht, Colin, and Ippei Matsumoto, the third member of the team, work in tandem as equal partners, with Hecht as the spokesman. They sit at white desks in a spare white room seemingly free from models, drawings, or any other sign of their work. And then, like conjurors pulling white rabbits from a hat, Hecht and Colin get up, root through a range of blank-face filing cabinets and produce an endless supply of small, beautifully resolved products for me to look at and, more important, hold in my hand.
Floppy-disk drives, a computer memory stick, a radio for the shower, and a desktop phone follow one after another. Small, useful things, they are wholly unpretentious. There are no sudden edges. No slick, ostentatious graphics. No winking lights or beeps. No ironic design games. It’s as if they have looked at the work of Dieter Rams, the celebrated minimalist design director of Braun, and decided to make things even simpler. Industrial Facility creates objects that have the outward simplicity of a Japanese teahouse, a pavilion by Mies van der Rohe, or a child’s building block, and yet each is clearly the result of quietly intense thought. The firm works using timeless methods: sketching and model making. Computers are useful for toying with designs and refining them, but at the heart of what Industrial Facility does is an insistence on knowing exactly how a product works. Hecht, Colin, and Matsumoto are convinced that without a real understanding of materials, mechanics, production processes, and how a product might feel to touch and use, designers are little more than stylists.
“We like to get involved with the actual workings of a product,” Hecht says, “to try to get to a point whereby any gadget is easy to use because it’s inherently straightforward.” When I ask Hecht for an example, he hands me the Jetlag alarm clock, which he designed for IDEA International. A sliver of a thing, no bigger than the palm of your hand, the clock is ingeniously simple to use. One pair of buttons sets the time, forward and backward, and a second pair sets the alarm. Both times are displayed on a clear digital screen. A green button on the top of the clock sets the alarm and switches it off. And that’s it.
“I designed this because I needed one exactly like it,” Hecht says. “It doesn’t have any other function.” No radio. No sudden music. No built-in toaster. “There’s a temptation for manufacturers to load too many functions into what should be a simple tool. We like simplicity, but to achieve it a designer needs to understand how the product works and, best of all, to get it to work in the way they’d like it to.”
“We also aim to design for anyone, anywhere, of any age,” Colin says. “If some of our designs are fashionable, this isn’t the objective. We’re trying to work aside from fashion. We can’t claim to be producing timeless objects—we’re all creatures of our time—but where possible we hope to make them adaptive over time. And we try to shape things that are obvious in the sense that you don’t need a design manual to tell you how to use them.”
With this particular approach—low-key, efficient, practical, thoughtful, all but Zen-like—it’s easy to see why Hecht is the creative adviser to Muji Japan. Currently, projects for the retailer account for about 20 percent of Industrial Facility’s work. In the early years, before commissions from companies around the world began piling up, this figure was closer to 80 percent.
Hecht’s instinct for Japanese ways of thinking about manmade objects was strengthened by his experience at IDEO in the early 1990s. While working in San Francisco, he struck up a friendship with a Japanese colleague, Naoto Fukasawa. They were the only two smokers in the office and took to chatting about all things design while dragging on cigarettes on the company’s roof. The two men shared ideas of Eastern and Western styles and methods that have affected them both. Today, Industrial Facility is equally indebted to the modern European masters of craft design, such as Hans Wegner, and the concept of hari (the tautness, rightness, and inevitability of a design), which is central to Fukasawa’s creations.
Throughout Industrial Facility’s work, there is an impeccably fine line drawn between modesty and self-awareness, quietness and expression. There’s also the inherent contradiction in humble, everyday objects that are often destined for display in galleries and museum collections.
This happy tension is intriguingly borne out in the working relationship of the three Industrial Facility partners. Where Hecht and Colin are natural and unpretentious communicators, Ippei Matsumoto seems as still as a porcelain vase, working silently at a laptop in the white Clerkenwell aerie. It’s as if he represents the spirit of anonymous design authorship.
Before I visited the studio, I looked around the house to see if I might have an Industrial Facility object. I was sure that I didn’t. But then, staring me in the face was a pile of bricks my daughter was playing with. The bricks, called “City in a Bag,” come from Muji in plain cotton sacks. The “City in a Bag” series, starting in 2002 with London, is designed by Industrial Facility. Here, in a product that could hardly be cheaper or less complex, is Hecht’s philosophy neatly summed up. It is clearly a good sign that this simple bag of bricks, entering its seventh year, is as much used as ever. This is an object that you might be able to date but that will never really age.
Electronic goods, however, do become dated in the sense that the technologies that drive and, to an extent, define them are quickly superseded. Hecht has been thinking hard about how we can reuse obsolete equipment rather than continually throwing it away. This summer he will be taking part in a show at London’s Design Museum called Super Contemporary, which looks at socially relevant and progressive designs for the city. What he proposes is a highly modified telephone kiosk, one of the thousands of increasingly redundant glass-and-steel cabinets lining the curbsides of London.
“These kiosks are standing unused at a time when branches of the post office have been closed in huge numbers,” Hecht says. “As the kiosks were originally commissioned and operated by the post office, I thought we could give them a new lease on life by turning them into the world’s smallest post offices in areas where they’ve closed. You’d open the door using a credit card and, once inside, talk to a real person via a screen who’d sell you stamps, TV and car licenses, and sort out many of the things you used to queue up for at the post office. It seems a much better idea than leaving these things to rot.” Currently, most are plastered with advertising, frequented by prostitutes, and used as walk-in urinals.
“We’re often called minimalists,” Hecht says, “although all we’re trying to do is to make everyday designs simple or to clarify designs that might be complex by nature because of the electronics they contain. The last thing we want to do is to display complexity as an aesthetic.”
Even so, Industrial Facility is increasingly happy in a world of slight ambivalence. Table, Bench, Chair, which the firm recently designed for this year’s Milan furniture fair, is both simple and open-ended. It serves as seating, and yet it’s also a table of sorts and a place to store things. The unfixed nature of the design is an attempt to address the ways we actually use such furniture, particularly in waiting rooms and other public spaces.
“When you observe people in waiting rooms,” Hecht says, “you’ll see that they want a place to sort out coats, keys, wallets, glasses, documents, and other things. So we’ve come up with the Table, Bench, Chair that serves this real need. We plan to have it made in a number of materials so that it could fit into any context, from historic interiors to airport lounges. This is what I like to call an ‘in-between’ or ‘second-glance’ piece. It serves functions that can’t be precisely defined, and its logic and aesthetic qualities only emerge and make proper sense when you’ve appreciated what it can do.”
Hecht also shows me designs for the Enchord table, for Herman Miller’s Lifework furniture range. The oak, steel, and die-cast aluminum table features a secondary sliding surface beneath the tabletop; when it’s used at home as a work desk, laptops, phones, gadgets, and wiring can be stored away out of sight in the gap between the two surfaces.
Industrial Facility’s designs reflect a truly mature approach to contemporary product design. Not surprisingly, the firm has reportedly been tapped as creative advisers to Herman Miller, an impressive assignment given that company’s long and illustrious history with outside consultants, including Gilbert Rohde, Charles and Ray Eames, and George Nelson.
Many of us have tired of everyday objects that work too hard for their living, designs that try too hard to look interesting or are simply too complex for their own good—or our patience. Industrial Facility seems to be saying—echoing the sentiments of designers from Rams to Jasper Morrison—that we’ve reached a stage where we should relax with gadgets. They should be low-key, simple, easy to use, and yet if and when you do look at them for more than a few seconds, they should be elegant and satisfying in their own right. Industrial Facility is learning to shape quietude, a welcome form, and quality in a world of ever increasing visual noise.