Conversation

Attention: This design is honest

Meet Lex Pott, Independent Designer

We met with him in his Amsterdam studio to talk about his thoughts on sustainable design, cooperation with traditional companies, and materials science in the eyes of the designer. During our conversation, it became clear that Lex is part of a new generation of independent designers who don’t take materials and craftsmanship for granted. His work interested us especially because of the intelligence that is behind it. All the projects that Lex takes on seem to have a message beyond just being articles of furniture or decoration. He somehow manages to shed a new light on known subjects, and that is why we decided to contact him and talk with him about what motivates him and how he deals with the projects given to him.

Lex Pott

I couldn’t imagine working in any other way than I do right now. Very often, when I start with a project, I don’t know the outcome yet, and neither does my client. I believe that the creative process is much more efficient if designers are granted freedom to design instead of being restricted to a detailed briefing. I’m not so good with briefings, since the outcome of many of my projects is the organic outgrowth of the way in which I design. Personally, I am very curious and I want to get to the bottom of things. That is why the result of my projects is something that I don’t want to have to settle in the beginning. I prefer if my client asks me to do something with a particular material, for instance wood or metal, and then there may be vases or clocks coming out of that. In general, the finished piece may turn out to be sculptural, functional, or affordable. I’d like to not have to tell that in the beginning of the process.

How to think independently and to solve problems by applying creative methods is something that I have definitely taken away from my time at Eindhoven Design Academy. We learned how to translate ideas into a design that can be used for the mass market, which is of course essential for producing affordable design. Maybe a chair that I design for a big company will initially cost 5,000 euros, but if somebody likes my approach and they want to develop it further, the manufacturing process can be optimized and the chair can be produced for a tenth of the price, thus allowing more people to purchase it.

When I go about my work, there is one question that guides me in my design: Is this something I would want to have in my house?

LEX ON CHANGING TIMES

I can tell that there is a crisis in the design industry, and there is more and more self-initiative and independent working.

Even though I am a young designer, I can tell that times are changing. When I look at the internal structures of companies, there are changes in how full-time employment is handled, at least in the design department. Traditionally, companies preferred to agglomerate their design capacities in-house and have all the products developed from the inside out, but now there is a movement towards working with independent designers. I had this situation with a client that was a Dutch company; they asked me to design a whole series of couches and sofas, even though they have an in-house design department. What’s more, they wanted me to come up with some suppliers and developers as well, because their own people had been there for 25 years and they wanted a fresh perspective. I can tell that there is a crisis in the design industry, and there is more and more self-initiative and independent working. Designers present their sets of skills online and then companies approach them about potential projects for their portfolios.

I, for example, like to take my time when I create something. Coming up with a creative idea sometimes happens really quickly. Mostly it doesn’t. Companies have to act fast these days, but all this acceleration leads to inferior products and I don’t want to participate in that process.

LEX ON AFFORDABLE DESIGN

Often, when I work with a mainstream company, it means that my design must be capable of being mass produced. It also means that I need to make sure to keep up the dialogue with my client. My learning from past projects has been to always talk with clients, and to make sure to find out how they work and what they can and cannot do. I was instructed to do a sofa and an armchair once, and I made the mistake of not asking about my client’s production capabilities. After working on the design for a while and having the client really push their production line, we figured out that we couldn’t manufacture my proposals in the end. That was definitely a rude awakening for me, because I really had not taken production limitations into consideration.

Ever since then, I make sure to properly check the facilities and analyze the possibilities of the client. This is particularly useful for my work with the Danish furniture company HAY, because I really know their portfolio and which ideas I can present to them. They give me a lot of room to experiment, so working with them has been great. In my opinion, Danish and Dutch companies are very modern, because they are very open to collaboration with young designers who don’t adhere to traditional design methods. Those companies have realized that there is a new generation of emerging buyers that demands different things from a product. That new generation, (which includes me) wants good-quality products for a reasonable price. An active movement to create and spread this so-called “affordable design” is nothing new. The synonym for this term is “democratic design” and the concept has been around for a while. Affordable design is not cheap design, but it is not just reserved for the elite either. Unfortunately, this is a concept that doesn’t always work out. Nowadays, technology helps us to spread the word and it prevents a kind of elitist exclusiveness from developing. In a sense, democratic design is finally catching on, because it is finally possible.

LEX ON COLLABORATION

When I work with my clients on a project, I feel that there is an almost family-like structure. It is as if my client and I were the parents of the project, with a lot of family members getting involved (which would be suppliers and distributors, etc). Everybody needs to work together to make this project successful, and there should be a continuous dialogue to make the transition into a finished product smoother. When a company invests in a project, it also wants to be involved in the design, which makes it sometimes hard to work without being influenced by their vision. But the more I collaborate with clients, the more I see that there needs to be a balance between my parameters and theirs, so that the finished project satisfies all parties involved. This doesn’t mean that I will cave in or not try to push the production process. It is important for me to be involved every step along the way, because as an industrial designer, I am trained to know different production modes and how to facilitate my designs. It is my responsibility as a designer to make objects as efficient and functional as possible, but the company needs to be flexible as well. I recently designed some metal vases for a Danish company, in which I applied an oxidizing process in order to give them a certain look. The company knew some suppliers in China who they thought could do it, and they really put a lot of effort into finding the right kind of supplier experienced with oxidizing metals. That company pushed very hard and in the end it worked out.

There are companies like Vitra that can afford to invest in experimenting and spending time to think about different materials, and there are others that have the budget but lack the willingness. Unfortunately, there is not much I can do for companies that have the willingness but lack the budget. Experimentations are investments, but if a company wants to stand out or invent something new, they should shift some budget towards research and experimenting with materials and finishes.

LEX ON TECHNOLOGY

I have a very ambivalent relationship towards technology. On the one hand, I think it is great that we can connect with people all over the world, and for me as an independent designer, social media is great for acquiring new clients. They see my work on blogs or design platforms, and that is how we get in touch. On the other hand, there is a lot of frustration with smartphones and all the other digital devices we use, because people get very impatient with them. All you hear is “This doesn’t work,” or “This is too slow”, instead of appreciating the fact that we are connected to the entire world and that we can get messages out to Asia in a matter of seconds. This is where an enormous disconnect between us and technology happens. We don’t appreciate what technology can do for us. I find that there is too much focus on creating useless apps rather than actually adding true value to my life. Also, technology in itself is miles ahead already, but the design is still lagging behind. I mean everything is floating in the air and very impersonal, and that is why people do not feel attached to their devices.

I have spoken about my responsibility as a designer before, and another aspect of this responsibility is that designers should make technology more tactile again, to bring it closer to the user. Additionally, we should bring all the knowledge we have outsourced to Asia back to Europe and use this knowledge to create products that users over here can relate to. There used to be all this knowledge and craftsmanship here, there were stonecutters and metal workers and carpenters who knew how natural materials behave and how to use them best for their purposes. Old painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt never used any synthetic pigments for their paintings, they used the best organic pigments to create something that lasts forever. We are driven too much by the opportunity to make a lot of money, and we outsource a lot of production to Asia because of cheap labor. We have exported all our knowledge, so it comes as no surprise that we feel no attachment, no respect for the clothes or gadgets we own. One of my clients insisted on producing a table in India with local wood, because it would be much cheaper than using European wood. If they had consulted a carpenter, they would have been warned that because of the completely different climate, the wood could bend out of shape. Of course, they didn’t, and we ended up with a curved table.

LEX ON WORKING WITH MATERIALS

I didn’t invent a new treatment method, I simply used an ordinary method to do something out of the ordinary.

Recently, I experimented with a wood sample that had been rejected because of some irregularities. I was wondering if it was possible to make wood transparent, and I researched trees extensively. Did you know that trees grow differently depending on the season? We all know about the rings inside the tree which you can count to tell its age, but did you know that you can also tell the seasons by looking at the rings? Every tree basically consists of a summer part and a winter part, because trees grow faster and stronger in the summer, but they have to make do with a lot less nutrients in the winter and thus they save energy by growing slower. This also means that in summer, trees have a much more open structure and in winter they are a lot more compact. I cut thin sheets of wood in a specific way and sandblasted them, which totally opened the structure. By taking out the summer part, I was able to make the wood transparent, by only showing the winter layers of the tree. Sandblasting is normally only used to treat the surface of the wood, to create a structure and a relief. So I didn’t invent a new treatment method, I simply used an ordinary method to do something out of the ordinary. This initially small project later ended up at the World Wood Society.

I really love learning about things and how I can shape and twist materials into designs. That is also why I enjoy working with natural and pure materials more than with plastics. It is incredible that I can compose different materials to create something new, something that has a new meaning beyond its original use. Natural or pure materials have a much longer history than synthetic ones. Stone and wood have been here for thousands of years, while plastic is an invention of the 20th century. And because it is produced from oil, there won’t be enough plastic to last forever, will there? Plastics have no heritage yet, because they have not been around long enough. Also because plastic is a very technical item, making it difficult to relate to for people who aren’t engineers.

The world of plastics is a highly technical and very chemical one that seems closed off to us outsiders, and therefore we have no emotional attachment to it. What we think is: there is oil and then it goes into the lab and then it turns into plastic. But if you turn that around and think about it you realize that it is quite an amazing and completely man-made product that is created out of a natural material. There is oil, and then chemicals and other ingredients are added, not unlike cooking a meal, and then plastic emerges from that. And depending on the blends and temperatures, you get a completely different product each time. Plastics are actually really interesting – it is just never communicated in that way.

LEX ON HONESTY

I think the industry should not underestimate the thirst people have for honest products and honesty in general right now.

I think manufacturers should not try to sell plastics as something different than what they are. In cars for example, they pretend that plastic is leather and give it this specific structure to make it look like a natural material. Wouldn’t it work much better if they were honest and said, “Hey, this is not leather, this is plastic, but we have given it a special texture that only plastics can achieve”, and then it would be ok? I think the industry should not underestimate the thirst people have for honest products and honesty in general right now. You could call it a trend, because you can see how it is developing in the food industry. People want to know where their products come from. A growing number of consumers, and I definitely count myself in that group, wants to find out what is in their food and clothes, they want to know about the labor conditions and how animals are being held. There is a very cool project in the Netherlands, where a cow is slaughtered only when there are enough people to share the cost for the meat. The organic food movement is huge in Europe right now; this particular market segment is steadily growing. Even discount supermarkets are jumping on the bandwagon these days. There is a big market for organic food, so now they provide organic food. Because of their pricing policy however, I doubt that they will make it in the future, because there is only so much you can reduce prices if the delivery of your goods is limited. And that is what organic food is also about: you don’t buy huge amounts of food because the amounts available are smaller and therefore more expensive. But in all fairness, how can an organic chicken cost 2 euros? It has to cost 12 euros, and I don’t think that the discounter mentality is sustainable with this model. And I’m positive that it will eventually work out this way. There is an incubation time until people fully realize what it means to live a sustainable lifestyle and then they will choose not to buy from companies and supermarkets that use a green label for a “dirty” product. Companies think in trends and they pay attention to what the competition does, but honest materials and products will stay forever, and they will ultimately win the race.

LEX ON CARS & THE FUTURE

Volvo asked me to work on a project for them in which my design needed to help reduce the overall weight of the car. I told them that a great way to save weight was by eliminating the spray paint on the body of the car. Coating adds up to 7 kilograms of weight and the coating is something that can be eliminated easily by oxidizing metals or steel, or even anodizing aluminum. Instead of adding any color to the outside, it is more interesting to change the molecules of the material itself. With anodized aluminum, you can achieve a lot of colors and the color is very durable. Materials like aluminum, copper, steel, and brass get a coating when they are changed from the outside: if you scratch the surface it can heal itself by creating a protective coating. Combining the properties of metals allow for chemical reactions that create amazing effects and even though the surface is not as even and perfect as with spray paint, the approach is a lot more honest and it actually contributes to the weight reduction efforts of car manufacturers. It may not look as uniform, but it definitely looks more natural and fluid. The message behind an exterior like that is that these are pure materials that you can play with and it is ok that the color is not even, because that is how nature works. I think Volvo was interested in the honesty aspect of my work. Even though we are still in the concept phase, they were also impressed with how much weight can actually be saved by using pure materials and using specific techniques to alter them.

I hope that there will be more car companies that think like Volvo, so they can all contribute towards a shift in our collective perception of our world. They have the responsibility to produce cars that we can use in the future and that will no longer pollute the environment. Design is a helpful tool to achieve this. All it takes is the courage to experiment and to take the time to think about alternative solutions. Everyone wants to be ahead of the curve, but they have to invest in the right ideas.

LEX ON/IN THE FUTURE

There are several paradigms I adhere to. Be critical. Be curious. Be experimental. Initiate the dialogue. Participate in the dialogue. Think in ideas and open your eyes to your environment. These so-called mantras define my work, and my state of mind.

NOW. IN A NUTSHELL

Lex had an interesting perspective on the new “honesty” movement that drives his generation. Honest food, honest materials, honest stories, it seems that we will be expected to communicate on a different level with our customers. They will want to participate in the production of our products and share the knowledge that underlies this process. Craftsmanship, or being a specialist in a field, will be the outstanding skill in our business. For us, this is pretty good news and it encourages us to move forward in that direction.

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