Tom Lloyd, Luke Pearson and Duncan Riches enjoy a conversation around their Peggy table for SCP.

Pearson Lloyd

Studio Visit

SCP's Editor visits Luke Pearson and Tom Lloyd at their new studio, to talk about their working practice and approach to design, around a new iteration of Peggy, their solid wood table system for SCP.

Designers Tom Lloyd and Luke Pearson have worked in partnership for 23 years. Their work spans the gap between the culture of furniture making and the growing complexities of a globalised world.We sat down to discuss how they have developed their working methodology and what they are thinking about now.

The new Pearson Lloyd studio just off Hackney Road.

How did it all start?

TL:

We met at the Royal College in 1991, Luke was doing a furniture Masters and I was doing an industrial design Masters. I had done a furniture design undergraduate and Luke had done a product design undergraduate, so we sort of flipped. I suppose in a way, that is the root to what we have done ever since. We were interested in this hybrid between the industrial, the commercial and the craft. As I was sort of missing the furniture, I used to pop up to the furniture workshops. Luke and Micheal Marriott were kind of fettling away and I would go and have a beer at the end of the day and snoop about.

When did you make the decision to get together?  

TL:

Well, Luke went off to work for Ross Lovegrove, and I went off to work at Pentagram for Daniel Weil, who was my Professor. So, we had three years or so of that, and we just slowly chatted along the way. Literally, I used to walk past Powis Mews to get to Pentagram and we used to meet on the way to work. We slowly plotted something in a wonderfully naive way.

The best way. So you started in 1997, where were you first based?

TL:

We had a studio in Spitalfields, on Folgate Street. There was a 50s cardboard box warehouse, and we were on the first floor, which we shared with my brother, who is an architect. It was a classic, rock bottom price, unheated, and cold place.

How did you initially get clients?

LP:

There was a recommendation for two of our first clients, we did quite a bit of work for The Body Shop, interior concept work. They were trying to recalibrate who they were. In a way we were brought in to kind of disrupt what they were doing internally, and that was a recommendation from my partner at the time, who was one of the design directors. The second recommendation was to Knoll, by Ross (Lovegrove) on a project that he didn’t want. When we went to visit Knoll in Graffignana in Italy, in fact it was a funny moment, as Tom and I had only been working together for a few weeks. I took one look at the project that they had embarked on and thought I don’t want to be a part of this project either, it was an absolute mess. So, we went outside into the car park, and I said I don’t think I want to do this project, Tom sort of went quiet, and then said I don’t want to either. So, we decided to go back inside and tell the Managing Director, who went a little bit red, and then you could see him thinking – I don’t want to do this project either. So, he then said, I kind of agree and appreciate what you are saying, why not go back to London and on Monday give me a proposal for a new project. Which was pretty amazing. So what started out as a mend and improve project, became a totally new project. Which we did at an insane pace. We designed this desking system and a few other elements within about nine months, and then had a crazy party at the end of the year. Furniture companies still did crazy parties then. From that point, we had our own independent portfolio starting. Then we went to visit Classicon and did a whole bunch of lighting for them. Then we won a competition to do a street light for Westminster, in the Millennium, when people were doing things for the Millennium. We also got work with Walter Knoll and things just got rolling. It was a lucky process where we took some gambles, on things that didn’t look like they had any fruit there, and turned them around, which was quite an interesting lesson early on.

Also saying no. Which is important too.

The two sides of the building are joined with a central area which features an outdoor terrace.

LP:

We have always had a tendency to tell the clients what we think about the briefs. Quite early on we started saying, okay we will go back and re-write your brief to see if we both agree. That has developed into a much more strategic approach, where often we will write the briefs from the get-go. I think we have always been direct with people, which pays dividends.

Maybe that also reflects a slight change in the balance of power between the manufactures and the designers in that period. A move towards a time when designers had more say and it was becoming less top down.

TL:

It was a funny mix, because we were delighted to have work. And if someone said, please design a chair, we tended to design a chair. But at the same time, Luke is right, we were always honest when we didn’t agree or appreciate something. Weirdly, we had to go and find work outside the UK. Sheridan and then Modus were some of the only companies that were commissioning at the time. We were not in Sheridan’s camp at that point, and we spent our time hunting work in foreign countries.

It’s interesting that there are still so few British companies commissioning design.

TL:

There was no outsourcing at that point. Eastern Europe was just opening up, China was emerging. So, actually if you didn’t make it, it was very difficult to get stuff made and sold. It was just at the beginning of that process. We had to figure out how to work. We have this blend between consultancy and royalty, those two sectors. Everyone will tell you, you can’t earn a living on the royalty game alone. So we have always had to try to balance. How do you send someone an invoice? How do you actually get paid? That’s a really interesting process. One of the things we decided not to do very early, I think it was conscious, is that we really like working with a brief. So, we have never really produced speculative work, that we would try to sell either to a client or the public. We never got into that small batch production thing, or producing something that you tout around. We have always been much more interested in the relationship. What is the need of the client? What is their market and culture?

Perhaps the industry has caught up with that approach. Getting designers more involved in their whole ecosystem and culture.

"We really like working with a brief. We have always been interested in the relationship. What is the need of the client? What is their market and culture?"

Tom Lloyd

LP:

I think another strange thing about us in those early days was that because we were essentially also product designers, we found ourselves doing projects which were actually very complex. Which a lot of furniture designers would not feel comfortable doing. A lot of furniture designers are stripping things down to three materials, or two materials, four screws and a few poetic shapes, and that is very difficult to do, but it is very different from designing an aviation seat. So, by the very nature of those projects being huge, two people can’t design them alone, you need a team. Clients then realise they need to pay you to do it. Whereas when you are designing a chair with four legs, they think it is simple, yet it still takes you weeks to get it right. So I think quite quickly we were employing people, which I certainly didn’t intend to do, but then we realised when we employ people it enables us to do projects we would never do on our own. Then the consultancy side started to develop alongside our ambition to create furniture, and it became a dual thing. I think it is quite common now, whereas before you seemed to have furniture designers doing furniture and product designers doing products, then you had medical designers doing medical things. We were sort of, a bit naively, and we are still quite naive, saying well we are interested in it all, and if we have some point of view and we can see some opportunity, then why not? I think having two wise design parents I always knew creativity wasn’t just a youthful thing. In fact, wisdom allows you to synthesise things in a different way. As I get older I realise how experience is very valuable in the process of synthesis. How many books you have read, what you can dredge up from your mental archives, how you know how to put things together, which only experience tells you. There was a naivety about trying to do it all, and we were very lucky to make it all work. Now it feels more common, the information is out there now to help you enable that process. We didn’t have the internet, it was this embryonic thing, there were a few pages on peoples websites saying, we exist, phone this number. Now, we really do have an interactive relationship with the web and searching it for information.

"As I get older I realise how experience is very valuable in the process of synthesis. How many books you have read, what you can dredge up from your mental archives, how you know how to put things together, which only experience tells you."

Luke Pearson

Is there a place within the practice to play? Or is this something you do when working on a project?

TL:

It tends to be within the relationships. We have ended up with very long term relationships, and as a result we can literally talk to the clients and say, this is a space we should be playing in. Whether that is with materials, or an idea, or a market. We are often very instrumental in the portfolio management and the development of the narrative of the brand. We are not always the only designer within a manufacturer, but sometimes we are leading that process. The world as we know is changing at such a rapid rate. We are figuring out how the world responds to any particular thing, then clearly and collaboratively figuring out what that response physically looks like.

Did you intentionally create long term relationships, or did it happen organically?

TL:

I personally had a good piece of advice from John McConnell, a founding partner at Pentagram. He said if you get on with people, you will have them forever as a client. I think where we have got on with our clients, they last a long time. You end up having a short cut. It’s like bringing in a new member of staff. You spend a year figuring each other out. If you have to start that every time in a design relationship, there is an awful lot of energy that is wasted on that.

LP:

I would completely agree with Tom, we have been in partnership for twenty-three years, that is a long-term relationship. When I did product design at Central St. Martins, I took a year out and thought I can’t be involved in this industry, because it was just full of designers doing hit and run projects. People doing projects for clients that were more about their own ego – I want to get this on the front cover of X magazine, I don’t care if it is right for the company or not, is it right for me and my egotistical career? I thought, I don’t want to be a part of that. I really believed that if you got things right, you would get on the front cover anyway, and get it right for everybody. I think the hit and run mentality also meant that you didn’t understand the company. As a designer you are part of the process. Hopefully you can bring some talent that no-one else has to the problem. My Professor at the Royal College of Art said this to me (when we were talking about a particular designer), that unfortunately, that designer would be a whole lot more successful if the clients could have controlled them. I thought this was very interesting. Actually, you need to be in a relationship, we need the best engineers, the best client, we need a client that pushes us, but we also need to dig deep. I don’t think you can do that so easily in a one time process. Generally, the second, third and fourth projects are way better than the first one.

Models, tests and ephemera can be found throughout the studio.

TL:

I think designers have actually got a very strong hand. Sometimes companies just want a bit of that hand, and they are happy not to go any further than that. We’ve never particularly played that card. We don’t have a very strong hand, people can probably recognise our work, but it’s not like – that’s a Marc Newson piece.

I think it all reflects the cultural shifts that have happened. That kind of celebrity culture, which fed into our industry, particularly from the 80s onwards, with designers like Philippe Starck, also fed into other sectors too. Yet now when I talk to younger designers, they are perhaps behaving more like you. The ego is seen as slightly crude, the work and the process has more currency. Perhaps some of your success is due to you not going that way. It’s interesting how these things shift around.

LP:

I think it might be a little bit. I think the other shift that has happened is just the sheer amount of design out there. When I was at Central, in 87 or 88, I had one magazine that told me what was going on in Japan, which was Axis. Now if I want to look up Japanese design, the world is literally endless. I think that change might mean less strong characters will appear, because the influences are massive, and quite often very strong characters arrive because they have had a rather peculiar isolated upbringing. Which means they have a narrow focus that produces something extraordinary. Now it is more homogeneous, meaning those characters don’t shine in quite the same way. Although there are still some great characters out there.

TL:

It’s interesting that Alessi would make a Michael Graves kettle, but would actually make their money making trays for hotels. We are probably playing a different game where we want to design the tray. So, there is branding design, and there is sales. They are very separate.

A relaxed mix of typologies and styles is seen throughout the space.

We are in such an interesting moment, I wondered what you are looking at right now?

TL:

We don’t do primary research in a sense, so we are always harvesting everything that is out there. We had a great strategy designer in the studio for some time, she has left now, but she built up this culture with us where we are looking at these big macro themes. Sometimes they would feel way away from designing a table, you know geopolitical, environmental, technological, social, demographic, but when you actually start to bring them down, they are all incredibly relevant. So there are some big issues that have a direct impact on our work, and having that conversation with our clients is incredibly powerful. Sometimes we ask our clients to commission us to do three or four months’ work around a particular subject, where we say, you need to allow us to do some looking before we get anywhere near design. Other times, we just use that overall sense of looking to inform our work all the time. We are just beginning to look at the education sector, because it is such a mirror to contemporary workplace, and with Covid on top. You really need to understand those big issues to see where things are going. It has become a really powerful part of what we do. Yet we are still obsessive about how you make something. The micro and macro is a nice mix.

LP:

The ecological damage that humans do is at the forefront of every design project we do, but it has been for quite a long time intrinsic to how we design. Trying to make things efficient, reduce the amount of material, be smart about structure, but at the end of the day all products require energy, you just can’t get round it. We are lucky we don’t do fast moving consumer goods, but I think going forward we have made decisions about not working in certain industries again. Which we just don’t want to be a part of. They are not good, human beings don’t need it. So I think hopefully we are all becoming a bit more conscious, although I think there are almost two worlds out there. One world where people are really trying to do things, and there is another one which is rather nihilistic, where people are saying we actually can’t do anything, so I am just going to carry on and enjoy myself. The hope is that the changes due to Covid will make more people rethink.

The front door.

A big thank you to Tom and Luke for inviting us over and spending the time to talk.

Peggy Table System by Pearson Lloyd

View More
Click to Chat