Agnes Coat rack by Sarah Kay for SCP

Agnes Collection

We are the stories we tell ourselves

SCP's editor Duncan Riches tries to uncover the true story of the Agnes Collection by Kay & Stemmer, a design in continuous production at SCP since 2007.

Earlier this year, during the very peculiar London Design Festival, SCP launched the Agnes coat rack, a new addition to the collection of the same name. Originally designed by the design duo Sarah Kay and Andrea Stemmer (under the name Kay & Stemmer), the latest piece in the Agnes collection has been designed by Sarah Kay alone, by virtue of the fact that the pair ended their working partnership and started up their solo practices way back in 2012, with Kay still regularly working with SCP on new designs. The collection now features the new coat rack, a range of stand alone shelves in different sizes, a wall-mounted shelf, a coffee and side table, and two sizes of mirror. It felt like the right moment to take a closer look at a product line that has been in continuous production since 2007, and is consistently one of SCP’s best sellers.

So, how did this very modest design come into being, and why is it so popular? When researching the story of Agnes, I had erroneously assumed that it was first launched in 2009, as part of the SCP Boxed Collection. This was a collection of furniture designs (mostly in wood) that were created with the express intention that it should be possible to carry each piece out of the SCP store in a box under your arm. At the time, SCP founder, Sheridan Coakley, had recently expanded the company’s manufacturing base to a number of Eastern European factories in Slovenia, that had considerable expertise in making wooden furniture from FSC approved sources, using advanced manufacturing techniques.

Due to the 2008 financial crash, it was important to be creating designs that were accessible, both from a practical point of view, but also in how much they cost. The Boxed Collection was a real success for SCP, the pieces retailed well, but more importantly were successful in the wholesale market (selling to other retailers). The smaller pieces in the Boxed Collection allowed design retailers all over the world to test the water with SCP as a brand, before committing to buying some of SCP’s more substantial pieces, such as armchairs, sofas and table systems. Agnes was one of the pieces that proved very successful with other retailers, it was one-piece, required no assembly and was easy to ship in volume. Therefore, in my mind, I have bundled in the Agnes with the rest of the Boxed Collection and with the success associated with it.

Agnes as featured in an SCP advert in Elle Decoration in 2008. Designed by long time collaborator Farrow Design.
The 2009 SCP Boxed Collection.

However, much to my surprise (despite the fact I was very much present and working with SCP at the time), when I looked into the SCP archive, the truth was the Agnes was actually designed two years previous in 2007, as part of a collection that also featured Donna Wilson’s first every furniture design (the Motley Ottoman), and a number of designs by SCP debutant, Russell Pinch. One of which, the Avery chair, is also still in production today, but now under the Pinch brand. What I realised, was that Agnes (the tall stand alone shelf) and what was originally called Edith (the smaller version), were actually the first pieces to use the new manufacturers, and it was in fact their popularity that emboldened Sheridan to create the Boxed Collection (at a time when a number of design companies and retailers were going to the wall). To quote the American novelist and essayist Joan Didion, “we are the stories we tell ourselves”. In this case, I had told myself, and anyone else that asked, a totally incorrect story about Agnes, one that wrapped the design up as part of a successful collection, rather than the truth that it was the success of the design individually, that prompted the creation of the Boxed Collection itself.

In 2015, to celebrate 30 years of the company, SCP created a sub-brand of products called SCP Classics. This was essentially a home for a number of early SCP designs (more or less the first ten years), by designers such as Jasper Morrison, Matthew Hilton, Konstantin Grcic and Terence Woodgate. SCP asked the designers to revisit the designs, and some made minor changes to materials, finishes or dimensions, but some remained the same. All the designs had stood the test of time. In the introduction to the SCP Classics catalogue, I wrote this. “There is a little poetry in how an object becomes a “design classic”. It comes into existence through an organic and almost democratic process. There is no judging panel, no vested interest and no elitism, just the success of a design over time. The fact that certain objects rise to the top makes the discipline of industrial design a joyous, unexpected, inspirational and human thing. We have long lived in a world where politics, culture, economics and communications all have an influence on the creation of objects. What is delightful is that, within this, or perhaps in spite of this, good design has the power to transcend all.”

“We are the stories we tell ourselves.”

Joan Didion
Diminutive and unassuming, the bedside table version of Agnes.

This sentiment could indeed apply to the Agnes shelving (the most successful of all the iterations of the design). It has become a design classic for SCP by virtue of the fact that customers keep on buying it. Something about how it looks and how it functions rings true with people. It’s almost an antidote to flat pack furniture, it’s something you bring into your home, put in place, and then fill it with whatever books, objects or ephemera you so choose. It’s a quiet design, that lets the objects placed on it look good.

This was the very first photoshoot featuring Agnes in 2007, where SCP also experimented with semi-grey backgrounds.

The final word on the design should probably go to Sarah Kay and Andrea Stemmer. When they first began working with SCP in 2007, we asked them to fill in a questionnaire about their design process and ethos, the final question was: How would you define your design principles or what you are always trying to achieve in a design? They answered this: “Our task as designers is about getting the balance right between form, function, craftsmanship and price.” In the case of Agnes, they were spot on.

"Our task as designers is about getting the balance right between form, function, craftsmanship and price."

Sarah Kay and Andrea Stemmer

Agnes Collection at SCP