Design Indaba kicks off tomorrow in Cape Town, with three days of speakers on making “a better world through creativity.” One of those speakers is Benjamin Hubert, who presents an interesting case study for the independent designer looking to do more than just bring nifty new products into the world. In 2010, at the age of 26, he founded Benjamin Hubert Studio and began making a name for himself with high-end furniture and housewares for brands like Cappellini and Moroso. Then, last fall, he announced that he was changing the studio’s name to Layer and would be focusing on “human-centered” rather than “style-centered” projects. Recently, we spoke to Hubert to find out more about this change of direction and what he’s learned so far about making products for the greater good.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Inside Layer’s London studio
You’ve renamed your studio Layer and will now be focusing more on “human-centered” rather than “style-centered” projects. Did you just hit a point where you could no longer justify bringing more and more high-end chairs into the world?
Well, I’ve been doing the furniture side of things and the more luxury, stylized sort of things for the last five years. And I do enjoy it. But it comes to a point where you start asking really hard questions: Do you want to do just this type of work for the rest of your career? Or can you take the skills that you’ve built up and actually use them for the better? So, yes, that’s the point I came to.
The rate of consumption society has now is obviously unsustainable, and it becomes more and more difficult to justify introducing new products—particularly in categories that have been looked at a lot. For example, we solved the problem of sitting down comfortably a long time ago. But in this industry there is a big focus on continuously producing chairs. We like designing chairs, and we will continue to do one or two. But we want to move toward finding real needs, and projects that have a meaningful impact on people’s lives. You don’t always get the opportunity to find those projects, but increasingly we’re in a position to have those conversations with the brand partners we work with.
What you’re describing is something a lot of designers want to do, but I wonder, as a small studio, can you get companies to pay you, and can you keep a studio running, doing projects that are for the good of society?
It depends on how you approach it. Some things we are doing are at the grassroots level in developing parts of the world, and often those types of projects are not big commercial projects. We’ll be working with a not-for-profit or a charity, and we do those because we want to actually use design to help people.
But other times the projects are with big corporates, and the things that we’re weaving into the projects are about reducing the amount of material, making things more accessible, having really smart functionality—so if you have a convergence, then people don’t need two products, they just need one. There are ways to weave this kind of “greater good” approach through what seem to be more commercial products.
Layer's newest project, Scale, is being billed as “the world's first super-modular and stand-alone acoustic system that grows and shrinks with today's constantly evolving workplace.”
You recently launched Scale, a modular acoustic divider system. How does that project embody the Layer approach?
We were asked to do an acoustic system by a brand that does acoustic products. But we wanted to make sure we did something that, environmentally, trod much more lightly and that was super-modular—that could be flat-packed, could be shipped out easily, and was made from sustainable materials. So it was making sure—no pun intended—that we were building layers of value into the work. And it doesn’t matter whether, aesthetically, you love it; it’s about the hard values that people can’t argue with, the holistic values having to do with: Is it super functional? Does it work really well? Is it responsible and sustainable and does it belong in the world and supersede everything that came before?
Are you finding that clients are pretty open to these conversations? I get the sense that corporations know by now they have to think about this stuff. Is it ever a hard sell?
Only when it comes to cost. It’s never a hard sell as long as you can make things the same price or cheaper. Then everybody wants all these values and everybody wants to do good, ultimately. Our constant fight and the thing we’re really focused on is making sure we can deliver these values competitively. Everything is like a game of trying to get as much into the conversation and through the other end, whilst maintaining a competitive product that makes everybody money.
Worldbeing is a concept device and app for tracking users’ daily carbon footprint.
It got huge pickup, actually. I was quite surprised at how broad the interest was, and very pleased, because that was the aim of it. It’s a polarizing subject. Some people are very much like, “When can we get it? Sign us up.” And other people question it and say, “Do I want another thing telling me what to do?” And that’s what we wanted to happen; we knew it was going to be a conversation-starter. And for us, really, it’s about understanding how to take a project like that forward.
And how do you take it forward? I watched the video and it seemed like there’s such a complex web of credit-card and Google Maps and home-electricity usage data that would have to be incorporated. How do you get started on that?
One thing at a time. The vision that we set out was complex, and we knew that. We wanted to start with bigger, broader ideas and then focus in. Part of the reason that we published the project before it’s ready to be fully used—although parts of it are being prototyped and beta-tested at the moment—was to find out which are the more valuable parts, which are the superfluous things, which are the things where partners come forward and say, “We can help you with this.”
In addition to the beta testing, now we’re having conversations around investment—so getting venture capitalists and others interested in potentially backing it, because it needs a reasonable amount of financing to get it to be really meaningful. There’s no point launching it on the market and not having the support for it, because it will just disappear. So we’re trying to understand which elements of it are really worthwhile and really meaningful and that people will actually interact with. And that process is not an easy one. But it’s exciting.
Being able to show that you had success with the crowdspeaking campaign—is that meaningful to investors? It’s still a pretty new idea.
To be honest, the jury’s still out for me. I’m not sure. I think it was a hook for people to write about it and talk about it; it was a tangible thing. It’s like everything’s crowdsourced these days, so you sort of have to be able to talk through those terms in order to spread the word, and it was a great tool for that. But like you said, it’s really young, it’s a really new form of communication, and I think it’s got a way to go. Both the platform and the way it’s handled need to mature before it becomes really, really powerful.
Going back to the bigger picture for Layer, are there any problems that you are itching to take a crack at or that you would particularly love to try to solve?
Well, we’re having conversations with some really big charity organizations that do some great things, and one of the challenges with that is trying to get products on the ground. So whether it’s disaster relief or the refugee crisis or water sanitation, to actually get products on the ground and used in really tough environments, that’s one of the areas where we’re facing some challenges. We’re looking for those opportunities. And it isn’t a commercial decision in any sense. We’re saying, Hey, we’ve got a skill set here, and we’ve got a lot of experience, and we want to get products on the ground that change people’s lives. It’s like an open call, really. And we’re talking to a lot of people about it.
Last year, Layer designed a new charity box for Maggie’s, a network of cancer care centers in the UK.
Like what sort of products?
The refugee crisis is front of the mind at the moment, and the crisis around refugee housing. Can we get things in people’s hands that help with sanitation? That, particularly, is an issue we’re talking about in the studio. We’re working on a lot of digital solutions—apps and things like that—but quite often it’s really simple analog hardware that solves problems, and I think that’s one of the things we’re trying to work out: How can we create something super simple, super low-cost that works in really inhospitable environments, that actually makes a small difference? Or a big one, hopefully.
So who’s missing in the chain? I know there are a lot of considerations, but is it about dealing with local governments, or having some sort of middleman between the people making these products and the people who finally need them?
Well, the first thing is, these organizations are huge and complex. So getting enough of the right people to say yes to things and to work with you—you know, it might be a UNICEF or something like that—they’re super multilayered and really complex, and one of the biggest challenges for us is working out who to talk to and getting the right people in the room to enable things. It’s not just about getting the person to ship it and deliver it and distribute it; that’s a logistical issue.
And do you feel like these people are open to designers’ contribution? Do people understand what designers bring to the table in these situations?
Everybody wants to do it, yes. There’s no shortage of will. I think it’s about people that can really deliver it. Also, I’m quite sure we’re not alone in terms of being a design company wanting to do this and give back and provide the support that we can here. So it’s a tendering process as much as anything, and it’s not a traditional tendering process, where everyone is trying to make a commercial gain; it’s where everyone’s trying to help the world, and who can be the most helpful. It’s a weird sort of process.
A chart showing Layer's growth from “style-centered” to “human-centered” projects
One thing I hear a lot from designers is that word “designer” is an awkward fit for what they do—that when they tell people, “I’m a designer,” people think that means that they make things look beautiful or they just deal with aesthetics. Do you think the profession of design needs a rebranding?
So—design is a broad church, right? Lots of people are designers and create many different things that have very different values to very different groups of people. But I think the heart of design is problem solving. And maybe there is a branding piece of work that needs to be done there. If I talk to anyone about being an industrial designer—nobody knows that industrial design is. But that is the best term to sum up what a problem-solving, entrepreneurial designer that can engineer things is.
So I don’t know. At Layer we talk much more readily in entrepreneurial terms, and also in business terms, to be completely honest—design for business more than designing the beautiful end commodity.
That’s interesting. Do you wish that you had snuck in a business degree along with your design training?
A lot of this is: you learn along the way. All the theory in the world is not necessarily going to point you in the right direction. You know, problem solving for me is about solving the problems of business as much as the ones of function and making things more beautiful and delightful. You’re either geared up for it and you think like that or you don’t.
But if a young person came to you and said, “I want to do what you do. What should I study?”—would you say industrial design?
I think if you want to do something, if you want to solve problems or you have a particular issue in mind that you think you can resolve, then I don’t think it matters what you study. I think that it’s about that will to do something and make change—it will get you to the right place ultimately, whether you do it directly hands-on or you work with people who can. So I’m not sure what you study really matters in the end.
Mason Currey is a former Core77 editor and the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Previously, he was the executive editor of Print and the managing editor of Metropolis. His freelance writing has appeared in the New York Times and Slate, among other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.