Locale for Herman Miller (2013). Images courtesy of Industrial Facility unless otherwise noted
Given the current vogue for local, handwrought, artisanal or otherwise bespoke goods, the tide has effectively turned against mass production as millennials forgo the efficiencies of economies of scale in favor of purportedly more meaningful modes. The appeal of these objets is ostensibly the deeper level of personal connection—the prospect of shaking the very hand that made your wallet or dress or dining table is simultaneously atavistic and avant-garde—that justifies the cost of championing local production in the face of, um, faceless overseas manufacturing. This resurgence finds its most fundamental expression not in made-to-order heirlooms but in locavorism: Food products are literally rooted in a place, yet the fact that they are perishable precludes preciousness.
It's ironic, then, that "America has this great tradition of keeping kitchen appliances on the countertop." Kim Colin, co-founder and partner of design firm Industrial Facility, brings it up in the context of the broad shift away from the materialistic mentality of yore, rattling off a few generations' worth of examples. "Mr. Coffee's been there, the Kitchenaid's been there, George Foreman's grill was there for a while, the soda machine might be there now..." That these appliances have a shelf life (with the exception, perhaps, of the stand mixer) is a testament to the consummation of a consumer culture that revels in excess, the food itself being incidental. Whether or not we use them frequently enough to justify the countertop real estate, our society has long kept these objects on display, not only as status symbols in themselves but also because we have the luxury of space.
Or at least we did, before the world's metropolises drew in the majority of its 7.2 billion people and twentysomethings found themselves with less space and fewer things anyway. More kale, perhaps, but less of the other stuff.
The Branca Stool for Mattiazzi (2014)
"We don't go out and find work, people find us."
Industrial Facility is arguably the best-kept secret in certain circles that extend far beyond its geographic locale of London. In contrast to the likes of Philippe Starck (with whom IF collaborated on TOG) or, say, friend-of-Apple Marc Newson, Kim Colin and her partner Sam Hecht opt for fly-by-night anonymity, much like one of their longtime clients. "[Muji is] not using design as a personality... if there is a personality, it would be Muji." Like kindred spirit Naoto Fukasawa, Industrial Facility's work dissolves into the client's brand—assuming, of course, that the client shares their refined, purposeful design philosophy.
When Colin notes that "there's a kind of strange public awareness about us—we have what I would characterize as a cult following," she's referring to clients—Established & Sons, LaCie and Issey Miyake, to name a few—but the statement is true of consumers as well. It's not so much a signature style (again, they're designing for the likes of non-brand Muji) but a perspective that guides with their sub rosa appeal. "We're very interested in the actual ways we're living and the ways that's changing," Colin says. "We study it through the different kinds of clients we have... we learn how they're seeing the world, and we often have a very different point of view." She continues: "Those companies then realize that we have more to offer than a specific project on its own, and that we might have something to say about their business, or growth, or direction." Naturally, these deeper relationships tend to be self-selecting, and it's telling that Industrial Facility works closely with companies like Muji and Herman Miller in a design advisory role. "Our clients are unafraid of our level of questioning."
Hence, Colin draws the distinction between their design practice and that of the 21st-Century artisan. "I think there are a lot of people working in design that are doing local products. Those are small batch, limited production or production-on-demand," she matter-of-factly declares. "Our scale is mass production, really, and that's why we named our studio Industrial Facility and not Sam Hecht and Kim Colin Studio. We want big companies not to be afraid to use design."
Formwork for Herman Miller (2014) Prototypes of Formwork
"It's different—the context, the environment, is different."
Dealing in economies of scale has long been the hallmark of industrial design and will be for the foreseeable future, but the rest of the world—the one in which we live and work—is changing before our eyes, and Industrial Facility is in a unique position to respond to these tectonic shifts. "Sam and I come from two different disciplines—I was trained in architecture and he was trained in industrial design, and both of us have masters in those areas," Colin says. "When we were starting the studio, our defining characteristic was that we would look at products in a different way, adding a kind of architectural perspective in that we looked at products and their context." (She recalls working on Epson's first home color printer: "The blue light of Epson glowing might be fine in an office or in a copy room... but is that what you want in your home? Do you need a big button to say 'Print' any more? Because it's yours, it's a personal product now, it's not an office product.")
Founded in 2002–3 (according to a company timeline [PDF]), Colin notes that they've since grown to about seven people—"everyone else is trained in industrial design, although they often have skills in other things, as well-trained people do"—and "we have all of our brains in all of the projects." Moreover, Industrial Facility is "quite an international office: Sam's English, I'm American, Ippei's from Japan, Philip's from Germany, Julia's from Spain..." Born and raised in Los Angeles, Colin fondly reminisces about her hometown but hasn't looked back since she moved across the pond, Sci-Arc degree in hand, in 1998. "I wasn't a big Anglophile, but I always wanted to live in Europe, and I really feel like I get the best of both worlds here."
Photo by Ray Hu
Colin is the only one at the studio on the day that I visit in late April (the entire industry seems to be recovering from the Salone); located in the heart of Clerkenwell, the space consists of an open main office area, with a modest workshop and conference room down a spiral staircase. Although London is certainly among the top cities in the world for design and designers, Colin dismisses the notion of an insular design scene, instead attributing the appeal of the city to its cultural offerings across the board. "All of the clients come through London; everyone comes through to see something—museums, fashion, money markets, whatever—its a great condenser. It's the most international city, I think, anywhere."
The timeline also indicates that Industrial Facility has been working with Muji since its inception—"it's an honor and a pleasure [to work with them]"—and if Tokyo seems to inform their thinking as much as London does, it is precisely because they "think in a more urban way than anything." After all, globalization means that borders are growing more porous on every level, which means both that they "don't have two clients in the same domain, and usually not even from the same territory," and that our needs, as a global urban culture, are converging.
Muji thinks about city life from a Japanese perspective, but they're now a global company, so they're thinking about it in a much bigger way. So some of the ways that Japanese people live in cities are really applicable in the rest of the world... If a way of living in [a specific] culture has a relevance globally, it justifies the making of the mass-produced product and distributing it.
Industrial Facility has been invited to design and curate an exhibition at the 2015 Biennale Internationale Design Saint-Étienne
"We're interested in the reality of how people are living, and the small things—what seem like small things but are probably the big things."
Mass production need not entail excess or superfluity—nor should it be regarded as a necessary evil—rather, it can simply be considered as a constraint. Hecht noted the double-edged sword of scale in our questionnaire: "...the complexities are very big because the responsibilities are multiplied. Just one improvement in this world can be hugely impactful." And often it's a matter of making a case for new thinking; Colin invokes the proverbial rose-colored glasses, elaborating:
We formed Industrial Facility with the specific aim to make it easier for large companies to work with a small, engaged design team with a discovered point of view. At that time, we noticed that design for mass production was actually having less design and was now the full territory of marketing and middle management structures. In other words, large companies found it predictable and safe to often work with consultancies to design by committee. But the service we wanted to offer is very different, very concise and contemporary. It has proven to be very valuable to companies that need it, who know it's crucial if they want to stay at or get to the forefront of their business, and they accept that they have to take risks to do so—the alternative being too derivative.
As outsiders to an organization, the scope of Industrial Facility's work has expanded beyond product design to what Colin calls "thinking on a larger scale." She is loathe to peg it as strategic thinking and outright rejects the notion of trends, opting for the higher-level characterization of "how to talk about design." "Without a conducive language and understanding about what design is meant to be, its value is merely seen as an 'add on' rather than a conductor of consciousness, ease and simplicity of use."
Locale by Herman Miller Photo by Ray Hu
It's not as abstract as it might sound; even as they look to grow this side of the company—tentatively called Future Facility—Industrial Facility has achieved concrete results with a certain storied American manufacturer. "Herman Miller had a kind of gap in their own thinking—they had a heritage of design, and then design kind of came to mean something very different and then they were at a kind of crossroads... so they brought together us and a few other people as design advisors." Their findings eventually coalesced into Locale, an office system expressly intended for collaboration, inspired by none other than the English High Street.
The Locale system is based on the idea of making this cluster, like a neighborhood, and I don't think we could have understood the working world—or how teams work and collaborate—if I hadn't really understood how the English High Street works, because there's just nothing like that in America. Even what was Main Street is a strip, but in England there's a kind of depth, and a real social viability of what is called the High Street. And here, not all of them are failing, so they don't have the bad rap like they do in the States—it's just such a vibrant and varied place. We really applied that as a spatial and social condition when we were looking at the office, and how people work together.
"People want less stuff, but stuff that really suits them, or does the job right. Those are the kinds of things that we would like to design."
Locale is also the subject of a book, published by Herman Miller and launching this week at London Design Festival, which captures Industrial Facility's design philosophy through the product. Why Locale covers topics from "why rounded worksurfaces and cantilevered tables (leg-free) make it easier to spontaneously gather 'round" to "how Locale fulfills what we feel is the 'promise of the open plan'" and will be available at the Retail Facility pop-up shop at their studio from September 17–20.
Bottle Watch for NAVA (2014)
While this is the third year that they are opening their doors for London Design Festival, Industrial Facility has experimented with online retail since 2009 and recently relaunched Retail Facility with several discontinued products by IDEA alongside new releases such as the Bottle Watch for NAVA and the Formwork collection for Herman Miller. "We started it because people would contact us from around the world, saying, 'I live in in Australia, where can I get the Two-Timer Clock from Established & Sons, they don't have a dealer here.' Or 'I'm in the U.S., where can I get your coffeemaker for Muji, they don't sell it here.'"
Hypothetical though they may be, these discerning customers are precisely the end users that Industrial Facility has in mind when it comes to designing for mass production. "In this time of austerity, I think everyone is supposedly living around fewer things because they can't buy as many things, but the benefit is that we're also more conscious about the things we do buy and keep in our environments." Just as sustainability doesn't necessarily mean jumping through hoops to meet certification standards, conscientious consumption isn't limited to local or handmade products. Rather, both refer to the lifespan of a product:
There's so much dissension about what sustainability really means—is that a distribution problem, is it a material problem, is it a resource problem, is it a labor problem, etc. etc. And our response is, for design, the best thing that we can do is make something that you want to stick around for a long time: You don't have to throw it out, you don't have to make more.
In a sense, it's the opposite of planned obsolescence, marking the shift from conspicuous consumption to a more conscientious approach at scale. "It's kind of an old model, but we try to give longevity to the products that we design."
Photo by Gerhardt Kellerman
To learn more about Industrial Facility, check out their website or stop by the Retail Facility Pop-Up Shop at their studio at 20 Britton St, 2nd floor, Clerkenwell, London, EC1M 5UA, which will be open from September 17–20, 11am–5pm daily.