How are product design and architecture related? A one-to-one chat with Mike Holland

Noken ha tenido la oportunidad de tener una conversación cara a cara con Mike Holland sobre la estrecha relación entre arquitectura y diseño de productos.

Mike Holland leads the team of industrial designers at Foster + Partners, an internationally acclaimed studio for architecture and design led by Norman Foster.

Often working closely with the architectural studios, the Industrial Design team’s projects include the interiors and bespoke furniture for the Cathay Pacific lounges at Hong Kong International Airport, the design of airport seating for Vitra, and furniture for Walter Knoll, Molteni and Alessi.

Mainly based in London and with a global network of studios, Foster + Partners has received 675 awards for excellence and won 120 national and international competitions. The Studio is currently in charge of the project of renovating the iconic Porcelanosa Group showroom in Manhattan.

Noken has had the chance to have a one-to-one talk with Mike Holland about the close relation between architecture and product design.

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How are architecture and product design related?

The studio has an integrated approach to design that draws on the expertise of many specialist teams, from engineering to interiors, and industrial design is an important part of this. Products can be designed in response to a particular project, where new solutions are required to meet demanding specifications – in some cases these solutions have developed beyond the project into commercially available products. Our industrial designers also work independently, whether commissioned directly by manufacturers or developing self-initiated products that emerge from internal research and development.

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Is architecture is about achieving building performance and product design about product performance? How would you compare both performance requirements?

The design process is a continuous process of refinement, which synthesises performance and aesthetics. It is a little like a potter at a wheel, shaping the pot as they go. Obviously, that pot has got to look good, but it has to perform a function – and whether it is a building or a product, it has to ‘do more with less’.

Would you say that the search of the relation between container and content is the drive for architectural studios to become product designers?

Our work has always been guided by the idea that the quality of architecture can be improved by designing the many separate pieces which together make up the whole. However, our first forays into product design in 1978 were really by necessity. At that time, the studio was rapidly expanding, but it was impossible to find any furniture on the market that could respond to its needs, for example tables that could be adjustable for meetings, drafting or display. The studio solved the problem by designing its own system. This was subsequently developed for Renault and provided the basis for the Nomos table, manufactured by Tecno, which went back to the basics of how a table is used. Subsequent commissions for street furniture, door handles and even a wind turbine have helped us to establish a team of industrial designers working on everything from building components to consumer goods.

How would you describe product architecture?

Good product design comes from extensive research and observation – asking questions and understanding the issues driving a brief. In this sense, our approach to products is like architecture in miniature. Our work involves a great deal of experimentation – this experimentation is particularly valuable in testing new materials, techniques and sharing knowledge within the wider practice. Because we have a large, dedicated industrial design team, we are able to develop entirely bespoke solutions for our clients, where every detail is tailored exactly to their needs.

What goals do you have?

While there are many new opportunities to explore, in terms of new projects and commissions, one of our primary aims is to deepen our collaborations within the studio. As Foster + Partners is a fully integrated practice, our team works closely with interior designers, engineers, materials researchers and many other disciplines. This gives us a great deal of flexibility and unrivalled depth of resources – for example, we can collaborate with our workplace consultancy to apply their understanding of the future of the office. We can work with our sustainability engineers and materials researchers to develop furniture with a low environmental impact; or we can consult experienced airport architects to create a new airline seat or the interior of a private jet. In the future, we plan to strengthen these collaborations, to grow and apply the team’s expertise and to continue to innovate.

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How would you describe the underlying philosophy of Foster + Partners product designs?

Holistic – and comprehensive. The thinking behind a design is not restricted to how it will perform or look, we analyze how a product will be specified, manufactured, transported, installed and managed. Just as architects are concerned with every stage of the process, from the initial concepts to seeing a building through to completion on site, so too are product designers – we work throughout the cycle of design, making models and prototypes, visiting the workshops where our products are made, looking at how they are used to see if we can develop a concept further.

Does product design allow more inventive creativity?

There are ideas that we can test at a small scale that wouldn’t be practical for a building – although the Foster studio is renowned for innovation, and for pioneering new ways of designing and constructing buildings on a large scale as well. Good design is always a challenge. Architecture inspires products – and products are an intrinsic part of architecture. The smallest details of daily life, from the shape of a door handle to the ergonomic qualities of a desk lamp, are often taken for granted, but it is with these small elements that we have the most direct contact.

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What inspires you?

I enjoy observing how people interact with objects and the spaces around them, and seeing what needs a particular product or piece of furniture can meet – how we can improve people’s lives, even in the smallest details. This idea was central to the Solus Chair, which we designed for the Cathay Pacific airline lounges in Hong Kong – we saw the way that people were balancing laptops on their knees, or on the arm of a chair, and for the new lounge furniture we incorporated a small desk, seat and coat hook in a single semi-private enclosure. I am equally inspired by intuitive design – when an object is simple to use and can be quickly understood, such as our FLO light for Lumina, which has a very pared back, streamlined form with no extraneous controls or cables.

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