INTERIORS+DESIGN for architects
Matthew Hilton

Designing furniture was not always the path that the WAN Furniture & Interior Accessories judge Matthew Hilton intended to take in life. But some thirty years after settling on this subject at Kingston University, with his own self-named brand, one iconic Balzac Chair and an honorary doctorate for his services to British design, it seems he made a good choice.

Now working in collaboration with De La Espada, a Portuguese company that manufactures, distributes and markets his brand, he continues to make elegantly understated furniture, whilst busying himself with a never-ending flow of other projects, from clothing to candlesticks.

On a brilliantly sunny day in London’s Kensington, Matthew talked to Amy Knight about his newfound freedom, the joys of Internet communication and his preoccupation with vintage bicycles, with a warmth and optimism that matched the weather.

Can you remember what initially sparked your interest in product design?
It was quite hard to decide what I really wanted to do, as I was interested in lots of things. I did a foundation course, which was a really good thing to do because I knew I had to decide by the end of the year, and also I had people to talk to who could help me. During that year I narrowed it down to furniture or fashion... I saw the product design workshops at Kingston and talked to the people who ran the courses there, and that just seemed like a great place to be, so I ended up doing that. But it was a bit haphazard at the beginning, I must say. I wasn't very sure!

Did you ever think that you might switch to fashion?
No, but I'd like to do some clothing. I'm going to work with a friend of mine on this, sometime. Just for men, and as a very personal thing really – just the sort of clothes I'd like to wear! I don't know what we'll do with it… I've started doing projects where I don't know how they're going to end up.

It's good to stay curious and keep experimenting. Yes, and it's good to just keep these things going, as something quite often develops out of these projects. At the moment, apart from furniture we're doing lighting, accessories, carpets, candlesticks, a project with bicycles and some interior design… so there's lots of other stuff going on.

What's the project with bicycles?
It’s a kind of renovating or re-modelling of old British bicycles. At the moment it’s racing bikes, although it won’t stay that way because I want to do a child’s bike too. And we might do a Chopper as well. It’s almost more like graphic design than product design – it’s a lot to do with colour on the frame... It’s quite interesting. I have two guys working for me – David Britton and Harry Hasson – and we all cycle so we have all the tools. I’m taking a space in the building where my office is and we’re setting up a workshop ourselves. There’s something very enjoyable about fiddling around with bikes.

It sounds like a fun project.
That’s what it should be – that’s what it’s about. I’ve got three bikes, five bike frames and lots of components in my studio at the moment... We were talking about bikes a lot and fiddling around with them, so I thought, let’s make something out of it.

When you decided to set up your own brand five years ago, what drove you to do that at that point?
Wanting freedom (laughs) – just that really. Just to be not working for another brand; however much freedom the people who run the company give you, there's always an influence in terms of the ethos of that company, the way they do things, where they are in the market… everything pushes things. It's fine, it's a good way to work, but I needed freedom as well, and that was the only way I could get it.

Do you feel like you have freedom now?
Oh yes, I have freedom now – it's fantastic! Definitely. It's brilliant. And it was the right thing for me to do because everything started to work better when I got that started. It's funny because I spent ages thinking and worrying and being nervous about it, and we did business plan after business plan... It is a lot to take on, but because the collaboration with De La Espada is so good, they do a lot of the running of the business, so I’m really left to design things.

Were you with De La Espada from the beginning? Very soon after I launched my own brand I started talking to De La Espada about licensing it to them. So I didn’t have to do all the administration of manufacturing, distribution, marketing and all those things – they do that. They approached me, and I was very hesitant about it because I'd set up my own thing and I thought I’d achieved freedom, but I quickly realised that I hadn't got myself freedom because I would have spent a lot of time doing those things that they were offering to take on.

It sounds like it's all fallen into place very serendipitously!

It has, it's a very good arrangement.

How does the production process work with De La Espada?
The whole process now is computerised: we design things on a computer using 3D modelling, then that model is sent to Portugal and they have software that translates our model into a cutting path. The CNC then holds a cutter in the right place to cut the shape we've drawn.

Is there still an element of handcrafting involved?
After the components have been cut, there's a lot of handcrafting. The craft has changed – the people who work out the travel of the tools and run the machines need to have a lot of knowledge about the characteristics and behaviour of timber, but they don't need hand skills for cutting anymore, so it's a different kind of skill. Also, the people who assemble the furniture have to have great skill at that, which is quite a tricky thing in itself. The machine has taken over from people in the cutting part, but we're using the same people who used to have a hammer and chisel and operate the saws and so on, who are now operating the CNC machine. You still need just as much skill… in fact more, probably, because things are faster nowadays.

In recent years, specifically since the recession, British design has slowly started to refamiliarise itself with British manufacture. Do you think this union will continue in the long-term? I think so. I think the foundation feels good, because I've seen this happen before in the late seventies or early eighties, but that floundered... I suppose it was the recession of the nineties that really knocked it. There was that short term-minded idea that we needed to make products cheaper and in higher volume, so everybody moved their manufacture abroad, and I think that people this time have realised that there's a market for higher quality. The Internet has helped with that because you can reach people around the world – you can get a small market in lots of different places, 'long-tail theory' I think it's called... Immediate communication with people makes a huge difference.

How did you feel about Kingston University giving you an honorary doctorate this year?
It was lovely – a real honour. They were embarrassingly flattering and very kind. I wrote my speech out word for word because I thought I was going to be too nervous! The most embarrassing bit was when Catherine McDermott – a professor there and a design historian, who was trying to get me to do my dissertation when I was twenty years old at college – read out all this glowing stuff that she’d written about me, and I had to stand at the front of the stage looking at the audience! It was very nice but... it was pretty emotional really. It’s a funny thing. I got my dad who’s 88 and my son who’s 8 to come with me, so they sat in the audience. It was very sweet, for me.

How do you see your work evolving in the future? I'm never really sure. I really want to make this collaboration with De La Espada grow, that's my main thing, but I’m also continuing to work with SCP and Case, and that's going very well too... So I don't know where it's going to go really. But I feel that's quite nice - it may not be the best in terms of business, but for me, to be unrestricted so that we can go wherever we want, is really great.

All photography (except portrait image) by Matthew Hilton

Amy Knight – Arts & Media Correspondent