The evolution of Benjamin Hubert from a hot new talent on the world furniture and lighting stage to creating his own global creative agency has been a meteoric one. At just 31 he has already worked for the cream of international interior brands, won a host of awards and re-invented many approaches to furniture and lighting. It is unusual for someone as successful as Hubert within one strand of design to turn away from that area to embrace something far more complex and undefined. Obviously Hubert is not particularly motivated to become the next Philippe Starck or Marcel Wanders and more interested in being creatively challenged.
I interviewed Hubert during Salone del Mobile in 2014 where he was presenting a new sofa and armchair concept for Moroso called 'Prop'. It has to be said that he seemed underwhelmed by the furniture design treadmill which is a natural consequence of the cycle of large fairs like IMM Cologne, Milan’s Salone del Mobile and the London Design Festival. The need for companies to present a wealth of new products each year if they want to enjoy media attention doesn’t tend to allow for Hubert’s more considered, material driven approach where exploration and experimentation are key. By contrast, in an interview recorded this September at London Design Festival, Hubert was effusive on his new direction and on his hopes that Layer would make a real difference to the way people lived - if only in small, incremental ways.
"Most people perceived us (Benjamin Hubert Ltd) as furniture makers which is far from the truth. We make a little bit here in the studio but we aren’t makers as such and we definitely do a lot more than just design furniture. I guess for the last eighteen months we have been working in a much more strategic manner with the likes of Nike, Braun, and Proctor & Gamble. By strategic I mean about how people are living. We have been running workshops on how people are living their lives, what they want, what they need……….in many different parts of the world. This is a much more evidence based design process – it's much more democratic, it's much more relevant and in a small way we hope that what we do will stimulate a level of change".
Hubert has always shown extraordinary talent - right from his graduation in Industrial Design and Technology at Loughborough University in England’s midlands. He began his career at DCA Design (the largest design consultancy in the UK) before moving to London and a stint at the internationally acclaimed Seymour Powell as a senior industrial designer where he was involved in plenty of large scale projects including the interiors of Eurostar trains. He then joined Tangerine, the London design studio where Jonathan Ilve worked before moving to Apple.
Benjamin Hubert Ltd started in what Hubert terms a ‘style centred’ format back in 2010. His first products appeared in 2010 / 2011 through brands such as Decode London, &tradition and Casamania but by 2012 / 2013 he was designing for the likes of De la Espada, Cappellini, Poltrona Frau and Moroso. In the five years since founding his studio, he has won the RedDot Design Award, the iF Design Award and London Museum’s Designs of the Year Award, exhibited at London Design Festival, Tokyo Design Week, ICFF and Milan’s Salone del Mobile. The world of design for interiors seemed to be Hubert’s for the taking. He was the poster boy of process. Magazines loved his nervous energy, boyish good looks, heartfelt sincerity and of course the fact that he delivered innovative and interesting products.
"We’ve always tried to behave responsibly whether it's through using less materials or by ensuring our designs are easier to use but recently we have moved the balance to things which perhaps are more important. After all there is only so much you can do with a chair design that will change a person’s life - except maybe if its an office chair that they spend 8 hours a day in".
The transition to Layer, (more correctly defined as a creative agency rather than a design studio) from Benjamin Hubert Ltd has meant a shift in focus from interior products to items of a more diverse nature and with a bigger emphasis on industrial and digital design. His rollcall of clients now includes Aesop, Braun, BMW, Nike, Panasonic and Samsung along with larger, bigger picture furniture brands such as Herman Miller and Fritz Hansen. The work ranges from mechanical and electrical engineering through to industrial, product and user interaction design. The main emphasis for Layer is on creating meaningful experiences for people using extensive research and the study of human behaviours.
One of the first projects to be made public from Layer is a charity collection box - a mass produced product designed specifically for the UK-based cancer charity Maggie’s. The organisation provides free emotional and social support to people with cancer, their friends and family. Like the charity's high profile collaborations with architects such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers, the collection box offers a strong individual identity by which the charity can be recognised .
“We saw a big opportunity to evolve he charity box into a device that more readily represents the values of a great charity like Maggie’s and through its design raise increased funds for those living with cancer”.
In the past collection boxes have been generic affairs with little or no consideration of the potential effect of the receptacle itself. In general charities just place a sticker identifying their cause on an OEM product. With the re-think by Layer, everything from the shape, colour and materials have been carefully considered to provide a low cost, friendly and aesthetically pleasing result that is in tune with the charity's core values. The body of the collection box leans forward, presenting an open face to the potential donor and the shape is easy to hold.
'Scale', another newly launched design by the studio, is a modular acoustic screen and room divider designed for Australian fabric house, Woven Image. Launched at LDF in September 2015 the product has been three years in development and has undergone 15 prototyping stages to enable it to be assembled and disassemble intuitively while providing straight and curved walls.
Designed as a flexible solution for offices and commercial spaces of all sizes, the freestanding piece is made entirely from recyclable materials – ABS plastic, aluminium and hemp. The large hemp panels provide a high level of sound absorption and can be installed in such a way as to offer a partially open or solid solution.
One final example of Layers' new work shows just how far Hubert has moved from a purely object based form of design. 'WorldBeing' was designed by Layer in collaboration with the Carbon Trust. It is a wearable carbon tracking device linked to an app that enables the user to monitor personal carbon use but also to integrate this with other existing apps that monitor nutritional intake and the like.
The idea goes well beyond a personal device as it enables sharing of data in an attempt to raise awareness of the carbon issue and reinforce the fact that millions of personal carbon reductions make a substantial difference to global emissions. Awareness of this type also prevents people looking at the situation as purely a problem for large companies and governments.
"Carbon Trust are a business who go in and talk to other businesses about their environmental impact" says Hubert. "They talk to them about their raw materials, shipping, energy usage and things like that. We worked with them on a consumer project where we are educating consumers on what carbon is and how individually we can all play a part in its reduction. The WorldBeing app and wearable band is not designed for anti-carbon fanatics, its a simple tool to spread the word and to make wins where you can".
"Designers have a responsibility to do things that help, to discover a need and provide a solution. At Layer we are interested in the big challenges and whether we can meet them. Currently we are working on a really exciting project for Transport for London and when we see millions of people using something we have designed - hopefully successfully - then we will really be proud and happy with what we have achieved. When this happens this change of direction will have been totally worthwhile".
For more on Benjamin Hubert's Layer studio go to the new website here