Founders of British furniture design company MARK, John Miller and Anna Hart began working together early in 2007. Having studied on the same course in Leeds at different times, the two designers had similar aspirations of starting a furniture company in the seaside region of Cornwall, England - "we decided more or less upon first meeting to join forces," John explains.
At the time they met, John was working full time as the Director of the School of Design at University College Falmouth and Anna had just begun her interior design practice, Collective Studio. While Anna has a particularly strong background in commercial interiors, having previously designed for Coexistence, DEGW and Absolute Design, John's experience has ranged from retail to in-home healthcare design to teaching; he ran the Furniture Design BA course at London Metropolitan University before setting up the renowned Furniture Works Centre.
With the much-needed objective of reconnecting the remits of design and manufacture in the UK, John and Anna launched MARK in 2008 with an emphasis on localised production, from the outset attempting to root every aspect of the company 'as close to home as possible'.
"I suppose, as so often, you set things up because you think you can do better. We wanted our product to be more sustainable - this is not just about material choice but about avoiding short-term trendiness in favour of products that are definitely of their time but will not age and look out of date quickly." A growing consciousness of the ethical and environmental implications of international manufacturing processes and the subsequent trend for locally sourced material means that this approach is gradually becoming less of a rarity amongst designers, but it is small, independent companies such as MARK that are leading the way in this slow revolution. "We are doing this because we want to invest in the UK economy long-term. This is about nurturing skills and abilities locally. Once we lose the ability to make things here it will be very difficult to bring that back."
As John observes, the provenance movement in food is the precursor to an ethical shift in the mind of the consumer that is beginning to channel its way through clothing before naturally - hopefully - progressing to the purchase of furniture. "Furniture is a rarer purchase than food or clothing, and for that reason I would expect buyers to look hard at the ethics behind its production. Has the timber come from tropical rainforests? Is it recyclable at end of use? What are the conditions it is produced in?"
This sense of responsibility and attention to detail permeates their company to the extent that each product on the website is accompanied by a percentage breakdown of whereabouts within the UK or abroad it has been made or sourced, which often predominates in Cornwall itself. The accessibility of this information is important to John and Anna: "We want to be as transparent as possible about where and how our products are made. Then consumers can make up their own minds about what to buy. We do get mildly irritated by 'British' brands that in fact manufacture everything overseas."
In a lecture entitled 'What's Wrong with Design and Technology?' for the RSA, John expounded his concerns about the 'underachievement' of Design Technology education in the UK ‘through being marginalised and not taken seriously enough in secondary schools'. So as a forerunner of the localised production movement and an experienced teacher, what does he think are the most important things that the new generation of up-and-coming designers should be focusing on? "Before I do a wish list of 'extras', it is most important that they concentrate on the core skills of design. There is a danger that by putting a lot of extra content into the curriculum, things like being able to do a competent working drawing are being lost. Think about what it is to be a designer and concentrate on that. Knowing how things are made and how to communicate how things should be is fundamental - deas are two a penny... I think that designers should have a 'hinterland' - something else that they do that connects them with the world in another way so they are not lost in a design bubble."
Despite current discourse on the diminishment of national design identity, John's outlook on the future of British design is positive. "Partly through the design schools; partly through an entrepreneurial spirit that has founded a number of small design-led companies like ours; partly through the pre-eminence of London as a design capital. By manufacturing locally it means we really know the answers to all these things - our business is based on very strong relationships. We expect high standards from our suppliers and are on hand to keep a close eye on quality on a daily basis."
A new addition to MARK's formidable collection is the Verso chair, designed by Tomoko Azumi, the East London-based leader of t.n.a. design studio. Her irresistible selection of boiled sweet-coloured chairs is currently being used for a canteen project in Mile End with Ab Rogers design. The chair was commissioned by MARK as a versatile piece that could have indoor and outdoor versions, its colour options used in different ways to adopt a fun or corporate feel. But as John points out, its versatility is another factor in their great sustainability plan: "It means we can serve a variety of markets with a single design and optimise the production of that design, thus building in efficiency and reducing waste." And his resourcefulness extends to his own home interior "I live on an old farm and we've just converted some cowsheds into holiday cottages," he says. "It's quite a mixture! Maple floors, quite a bit of MARK furniture, a bit of a chair collection, quite a few early prototypes of designs that either did or didn't make it." His description calls to mind the fundamental principles of 'sustainability, practicality and liveability' that seep through every aspect of the MARK design approach, and it is only a matter of time before this degree of social and environmental consciousness becomes the norm rather than the exception in the design world. Let's just hope it is sooner rather than later.
Amy Knight – Arts & Media Correspondent