Craig Jones Design

At the turn of the millennium, Craig Jones gathered together his years of product design experience to embark upon a new beginning – the launch of Craig Jones Design. 11 years later, with a strong team of designers on board, the business continues to evolve. Having worked on a plethora of commercial furniture products for international clients, the Craig Jones Design team are broadening their repertoire to include everything from solar-powered bike chargers to LED harps. With their ‘cradle-to-grave’ method, the team ensure that their products are intelligently thought-through and nurtured from conception through to production – a rare feat amongst contemporary design houses. We wandered down to their new office in London’s Lavender Hill – rich with the smell of freshly painted walls – to discuss clients, CADs and creative freedom, over a cup of tea.

You’ve gained a lot of recognition recently for your Eclipse furniture. Are most of your designs for office use?
Mainly at the moment, yes. The business started in 2000 and we’ve worked for large and medium-scale furniture companies in the UK, Europe and the States. I suppose we started off doing office furniture because that’s where I came from – I’d designed for other furniture companies internally and then I left to start up my own practice, and we’ve just progressed through various products in all market sectors. We’ve got quite a broad perspective of the furniture market.

Has your background always been in product design then?
Yes, I studied Product and Furniture Design at the University of Leicester. Doing what we do, we must be qualified with a design degree, so whether it’s in furniture or product it doesn’t really matter.

When you’re presented with a new project, what’s the first thing you do when you sit down to start?
It depends on the nature of the project. We’ve just moved into this bigger studio to encourage more collaboration, so we’ve got more space to do that. But it’s quite a personal job, developing products – it’s sometimes very difficult because you do get so involved in and attached to the product, but managing team work is crucial to the success of our projects.

Do you always start with a drawing?
Yes, usually. But we’re not a flamboyant sketching company, we don’t come up with these wonderful, elaborate, beautiful drawings; we tend to draw things which we know we want and then we’ll visualise that on a computer pretty quickly. But research would probably be the first thing we do anyway. Sometimes if we’re getting a brief from a client and we’re not in agreement, we’ll have to go back to them and clarify, because if at that point it’s not briefed properly then the end result won’t be a success.

How do you think it has differed running your own company as opposed to working for others – has it been more enjoyable?
Well, I suppose it never stops – there’s always something to do. It gets more difficult I think, particularly with the economic climate in the last two or three years. We’ve had to change the way we operate as a business, becoming more proactive by going to companies with ideas and saying to people look, this is what we think is a good product for you.

So a lot more pressure – but do you feel you have more creative freedom?
Definitely, yes. If we go historically back through the years of the company and look at some of the newer things that we’re doing, I think the influence of the new people we have working here and the freedom we have on self-initiated projects - as opposed to set design briefs – are definitely improving the aesthetic quality of our products. There’s no question that we have the technical ability to do anything – we’re very strong in that area. We do what’s called a ‘cradle-to-grave’ sort of solution-providing system, so we’ll do everything in that process. We take care of all the research, concept work, 3D modelling, production tooling, or anything else that the design project requires.

What would you say is the most exciting project that you’ve worked on since you started the company? The one that’s inspired you the most, perhaps?
I think I’d probably say the Eclipse bench for Connection, because that made us stretch the boundaries of the technologies we were using, so it put us into a completely different area. We hadn’t done any seating products up until that point, so I suppose because it got awards and prestige and credibility, that makes you happy because you’re then sort of getting a reward for the hard work you’ve put in to the product. We all work equally hard to make things happen for the business. I think York University took the first installation of that product; sixteen of them are sprawled out in the atrium of their building, so it’s quite nice to see the fruits of labour coming to life! I’d like us to be a bit more inventive and creative in the things that we’re doing, which is in itself a different challenge because we’re faced with huge competition. It’s trying to be a little bit different I guess, but also designing products that can go into mass manufacture.

Quite a delicate balance to keep.
It is. Because at the end of the day, the client specifies a price for the product that they want to sell it for, and we then have to design that product within that price range… so for us I suppose it’s not just about the design, we have to understand all the commercial points as well, which we’re pretty good at as a company. It’s not about whether we like walnut veneer or green plastic – that’s irrelevant in a sense, to some of the things we’re doing, because we have to look at it from the broader picture.

So for you personally, do you have a particular period in design history that you find inspiring?
We don’t have a house style, and we don’t have a product style… and we don’t have a ‘period’; although some of the things we’ve just done are a bit sort of retro in terms of the tubular bends in the metal – maybe a bit Bauhaus in terms of style – but the reason we don’t is because of the diversity of the products we design.

But as a personal preference?
Not in particular... There are so many historical design influences – like Eileen Gray, Eames, Citterio - that are important, but one that sticks out is Robin Day, because of his clever use of materials and simplistic design solutions.

I suppose this question depends on the clients that you’re working for, but how important would you say environmental sustainability is to your work?
This is very much driven by our clients and we have to be mindful of it in some of the products we create, but in some of the products we haven’t – which is a terrible thing to say! But… it’s difficult if you’re developing products for mass market. We went to an interesting lecture last year that talked about the fact that it’s not the product at the end, it’s actually about getting the product from the ground to a piece of steel or a piece of plastic, that’s the real cost; so if we were all truly environmentally aware, I think, then we wouldn’t design products in the first place.

What are you working on right now?
Seating products, boardroom furniture, personal storage. We’re pitching for some lighting projects and we’re also doing some electrical products, an acoustic panel system and we’re doing some accessories like paper trays and partition designs… I think we’ve probably got about 14 projects on at the moment. We’ve also got a customer that wants to look at doing some work with solar-powered products, which we’re just starting up on. We’re doing it as a collective thing with a manufacturer and an electrical engineer. There’s an initiative in various northern English towns and centres to do electrical vehicles [like London’s ‘Boris bikes’], so we’re going to help develop the electrical power stations to power those. The engineer will do all the electrical work, we’ll just make it look pretty!

Amy Knight, Arts & Media Correspondent