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An Interview with furniture designer and maker Hugh Miller

Design Nation asked DN member designer and furniture maker Hugh Miller a few questions about his practice, future and workspace.Hugh will also be part of our Design-Nation show case exhibition at Helen Yadley’s studio during London Design Week in May.

Design-Nation asked: Can you tell us about your practice and how your business began?

Hugh Miller: I’m self taught in furniture making, and I made my first piece when I was 15. I was quite academic at school, so I decided to do architecture at university, as it seemed like a perfect mix of intellectual rigour and hands-on design, drawing and making. It was a really good decision, and I’ve never regretted it for a moment. But my natural inclinations towards wood, and my desire to make as well as design, were still strong after 6 years of architectural education. So, the week after I finished my Masters, I started my business. I’m a control freak and a perfectionist, so I new that I wouldn’t be able to train under someone else. I’m also quite happy in my own company, so starting out on my own seemed like a great option. Over the next 5 years, I taught myself about wood and furniture making. It was a sometimes-painful and often-difficult experience, and it took 5 years for me to feel confident with the material.

D-N: Who has been your most influential teacher or mentor?

HM: Being self-taught, I haven’t had too many mentors over the years, but some people have been really influential. My first architect I worked for in London was really influential. His name is Tom Young, and he worked on his own. I remember seeing his set up and thinking it looked pretty good to me. It’s the autonomy that was so attractive to me. I’ve recently completed the Walpole ‘Crafted’ business mentorship program, and my mentor there- Alistair Hughes of Savour Beds, has been hugely influential on the way I now approach my business. He comes from an economics background, and nothing gets past him. Whenever I’m making a business decision, I always think ‘what would Alistair do?’ I have learned an incredible amount from the makers and designer I met on my research trip to Japan. A chair designer called Santaro, and a box maker called Suda Kenji have both been particularly influential on my design work. Finally, my brother is a huge influence on me. He is an architect and landscape designer, and we collaborate on lots of projects including architecture, furniture, and even a room for the Icehotel in Sweden. He’s a fantastic designer, and very few things leave my studio without him having some sort of influence on them.

D-N: What inspires you and your work?

HM: The time I spent researching in Japan is still hugely inspiring for me, and I think it always will be. It’s the subtleness of their design language that I find so enticing – this is what I try to incorporate into my own work. And architecture is the other thing that inspires me. I think of my work as small pieces of architecture, and my designs are composed like buildings – with elevations, and hierarchy, and mass.

D-N: Can you tell us a bit about your design process?

HM: My design process is a relic of my training as an architect, and I switch quite freely between ruminating on the details and form of a piece, to sketching and thinking about logistics and sizes and construction, to scaled and measured drawings, to modelling and full scale prototyping. It’s not a linear process, and I go back and forth between all these methods. I’ve noticed a pattern that, with my best design work, I tend to think of an idea and draw it immediately. Then I let it sit at the back of my mind for a year or even two. When I eventually come back to it, it’s pretty much fully formed in my mind, and I start prototyping and making. This is how I developed the Coffee Cart, and the Folded Record Bureau, and I’m almost ready to make a drinks cabinet that’s been in my head for about 3 years. It’s quite an exciting process, especially when I think I’ve got something that’ll be a knockout. I also think that the making process is a designing process in itself. This is especially true of furniture, as it needs to be sensitive to the human body. This can often only be judged through full-scale prototyping. My dining chair, which is possible the piece I’m most proud of, was the product of 7 full-scale prototypes. That’s why it’s called ‘Dining Chair no.7′. The design changed vastly during the prototyping phase, and the necessity for these changes only became apparent when the chair could be sat on and experienced at full scale.

D-N: What is your workspace like?

HM: The studio, where all my pieces are designed and made, is in the Baltic Triangle area of Liverpool. Located on the 2nd floor of a Victoria warehouse, the studio is a tall, columned space with memories of it’s maritime past, and is the perfect setting for my modern furniture studio of today. All materials are hoisted up the outside of the building, as they were 100 years ago, and finished pieces are taken out the same way. The studio comprises two distinct spaces. The main space is a traditional woodworking shop, with machinery, benches and layout areas. All my pieces of furniture are handmade and finished here. Connected to the woodworking shop is the design studio. This is where I draw, model and design, and where clients come to discuss their pieces during the designing and making process.

D-N: Do you work hard on your PR or do you work with others on marketing?

HM: I work really hard on PR, and at times it can feel like I’m creating a lot of heat but no a lot of light. Then something will come out of the blue, and you know that it’ll be that someone has seen some obscure blog or article, or they’ve seen an image on pinterest. In general, I try to spread the net far and wide, in terms of newsletter, events, opens studios, exhibitions, talks, demonstrations and press. But yes, I work very hard on PR, and I wish I had the budget to offload it onto someone else.

D-N: What are the main challenges in your practice?

HM: I have to balance my time between the better paid commissions which maybe don’t further my practice and the applied-arts pieces that may not sell but are vital for my development and also for my business profile. It’s difficult as both are crucially important, but completely at odds with each other. Employing people is very challenging, partly from a cash-flow point of view, and partly because of the amount of time it takes to train someone. Also, the nature of the craft sector is of makers who are fastidious about detail. I’m a control-freak, so employing people is never an easy thing as it means I have to let go of that control. Being based in Liverpool can sometimes be a challenge, and most of my clients and opportunities are down in London. However, the cost of my space is affordable here, and it would be prohibitively expensive to base my studio in London.

D-N: Where would you like your practice to be in 10 years?

HM: In 10 years time, I would like to have developed my business so that I was employing craftspeople to carry out the majority of the making work. This would leave me free to design, prototype and develop ideas, which is the part I’m particularly good at. I also hope that I retain the range of work I do now – furniture, architecture, product design, design for industry – it’s fun and challenging and keeps me motivated.

D-N: If you could collaborate with someone who would you like that to be?

HM: I would love to collaborate with some of the architects and designer that I met in Japan. FT Architects are a pair of inspirational designers who I love, and who I’d be thrilled to work with. I’d love to collaborate with Santaro on a chair design, as I respect his design instincts so much, and he’s such a good maker. And I’d love to collaborate with my sister, who is an artist, on a project – we haven’t found the time yet, but she’s awesome and I’d love to combine our disciplines of furniture and etching.

D-N: If you weren’t a designer what would you be?

HM: This sounds a bit ridiculous, but I’m really interested in philosophy. I think I would want to be involved in philosophy and politics. Definitely behind-the-scenes – I’ve not got the temperament, patience or aptitude to try to get elected to anything.

D-N: Why did you join Design Nation? What do you enjoy and find helpful from being a member?

HM: I really like the community of makers that are members of design nation. The standard is incredibly high, and I feel inspired and intimidated by some of the members CV’s. It makes me raise my game. I also like the opportunities there are to exhibit and showcase. DN is very active in promoting its members, and this is hugely appreciated.

D-N: Have you got any exhibitions, commission or event coming up you are taking part in?

HM: The most exciting thing is that I’ve recently won a National Trust commission to design and make a new piece to be added to the collection at William Morris’ Red House, in Bexleyheath in London. It involves some really interesting making, culminating with me taking the completed piece down to it’s new home, and (partially) setting fire to it in the garden. Truthfully. It’s going to be an amazing project, I think, and will be completed around September 2018.

Other exhibitions include:

9th – 13th May 2018

London Craft Week as part of Design Nation Showcase, London

@ Helen Yardley Studio, A-Z Studios, 3-5 Hardwidge Street, London SE1 3SY.

‘Noir Series’ on show as part of Design Nation Showcase,

9th – 13th May 2018

London Craft Week as part of CRAFTED Alumni Showcase, London

@ Circus West, Battersea Power Station, Sopwith Way, London SW11 8NN

Furniture collection on show at the ‘CRAFTED’ Alumni Showcase in Battersea Power Station

26th May – 9th June, 2018

Designweek Karlsruhe, Germany

Pieces from the Noir Series will be on show at designweek Karlsruhe as part of the Design Nation Showcase.

8th – 10th June, 2018

‘Eunique’ trade fair for one-of-a-kind designer objects

@ Trade Fair Centre Karlsruhe, Messeallee 1, D-76287 Rheinstetten, Germany

Pieces from the Noir Series will be on show in Karlsruhe as part of the Eunique applied arts fair.

7th July 2018 – 30th June 2019

Nordic Craft and Design Exhibition, Manchester Art Gallery

@ Mosley Street, Manchester M2 3J

‘Dining Chair No.7’ will go on show at Manchester Art Gallery until June 2019

12th – 21st July 2018

‘The Hand Of The Maker’  Exhibtion, with the Society of Designer Craftsmen

@ Triangle Gallery at Chelsea College of Art and Design, 16 John Islip Street, London, SW1P 4JU

Pieces from my furniture collection will be on show as part of the SDC biennial exhibition.

Interview by Laura Jacometti

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