Furniture and lighting design is "saturated" says Benjamin Hubert


Design Indaba 2016: industrial designer Benjamin Hubert has explained why he shifted his energy away from furniture design, saying "everyone seems to be designing the same thing" in the sector.

Hubert made the comments to Dezeen last week after giving a lecture at the Design Indaba conference in Cape Town, in which he explained the thinking behind the recent rebranding of his studio as Layer.

"I've been reflecting a lot," said the London-based designer. "Everyone involved in creating lighting, furniture and accessories… they're all talented people but everyone seems to be designing the same thing. It's so saturated."

Benjamin Hubert at Design Indaba 2016
Benjamin Hubert on stage at the Design Indaba 2016 conference in Cape Town. Image courtesy of Design Indaba

Hubert calculated that, prior to rebranding, his studio spent 40 per cent of its time working on free pitches for furniture and lighting brands. The studio spent a total of 4,500 working hours per year developing product ideas that it would then pitch to brands.

Only 37.5 percent of these pitches resulted in products that were put into production, meaning that 44 days of work per year were wasted.

"You get paid sometimes in furniture but more often you're working for a very low royalty on products that don't sell as well as before," Hubert told Dezeen.

Benjamin Hubert Design Indaba 2016
Since relaunching his design agency as Layer, Benjamin Hubert has taken on less furniture commissions. The brand redesigned the change box for UK cancer charity Maggie's

"You're expected to do a year or two's work on a product, then wait a year or two for it to be established in the market, and then eventually, unless you get very lucky and get a bestseller, you'll get a very average royalty from it."

He added: "We still do some work with furniture but we choose the companies very carefully. There are some good ones, but that's not the case with a lot of them.

"We work with the companies that really want to do something new and often beneficial, that supersedes its predecessors and have the business structure to actually get the product into lots of peoples hands at a competitive price"

Hubert estimated that over 6,500 new products are launched at the Milan furniture fair every year. "If you scale that up again over five years, that's 33,000 in an area where you start questioning why so many new things are being generated," he said.

"Technology isn't moving that quickly; things haven't really changed in the furniture industry since the mid century when people like the Eames were doing interesting things."

Hubert relaunched his studio last year, removing his name from the title and taking on more consultancy work and less furniture commissions. The studio has grown from five designers to about 15 since the rebrand.

Benjamin Hubert Design Indaba 2016
WorldBeing wristband is a wearable device for the Carbon Trust that tracks carbon footprints

"I wanted to take a step away from having an ego, having my name above the door," he said. "Why are there so many designers with their names above the door doing signature styles, that aren't looking at actually solving problems?"

Hubert also decided to dedicate the time previously spent on free pitches to charitable work. Projects in this sector include the collection box he designed for UK cancer charity Maggie's.

The box – designed to be more emotional and relevant to the charity than the generic collection boxes used by most charities – has already led to a significant growth in donations, Hubert said.

"My personal view is that designers have a responsibility to do something more interesting and more helpful," he said. "I thought I couldn't live with myself any more without making those changes now while I can."

Benjamin Hubert Design Indaba 2016
Scale is a screen system made up of triangular hemp tiles for textile company Woven Image

Hubert said that designers have long been reluctant to talk about the business side of their work but agreed with comments made by industrial designers Barber and Osgerby, who said they never settled for the paltry royalties offered by many furniture brands.

"You get the feeling people want you to be a starving artist," the designers told Dezeen last month. "If you're creative and commercially successful, it's often looked down upon."

"I've never talked about this and most designers have never talked about this," Hubert said. "I don't think enough designers do.

"I saw the interview you did with Barber and Osgerby, which said that designers aren't artists; why do people expect designers to do something that ultimately is designed to make money for the company without earning money themselves."

Born in 1984, Hubert studied industrial design at Loughborough University in the UK, graduating in 2006. He worked for industrial design studios DCA Design, Seymour Powell and Tangerine before setting up Benjamin Hubert Ltd in 2010.

  • TS

    The real, underlying problem is of course that way too many designers are graduating from design schools. Here in the Netherlands the amount of design school places has risen ten fold in the last ten years (not kidding).

    They overflow the market in big numbers so (furniture) companies can get away with ridiculous deals because there is always someone who will work for (almost) nothing.

    • Martin Lew

      Agreed. Universities need to consider how demand for education relates to industry. Generally they seem to be shifting focus to entrepreneurship and trying to empower students, which leads to a heap of failed Kickstarter campaigns.

    • George Worker

      I think the problem is not the numbers of design graduates but the positions they’re going to fulfil. If you look at designers as business consultants you can avoid the “starving artists” or the “Kickstarter kamikazes”.

  • Mallord

    Benjamin, buy a buttoned shirt and work harder. You can make it.

  • Roberto Sideris

    Is that why he designed a watch? Another over-saturated market full of Kickstarter project companies and established brands copying each other.

    I do agree but the interesting question is how to break through in such an overcrowded space. In 2008 people thought the phone market was at its peak, then came the iPhone.

  • Sue Stanley

    The studio has grown from “five designers to about 15 since the rebrand”. Firstly this is not true, it is more like seven in total. Secondly, the majority of this growth is due to employing interns.

    This studio is built on an egotistical individual’s thirst for fame and money. He is a perfect example of how the design industry exploits young designers trying to make their way in the world.

    • Truth

      This should have been the conclusion to the article. I 200% confirm the above information is correct as Stanley has mentioned.

  • Wadi

    I think BH and BO are making a good point with opening a discussion about the image, position and fees of designers in the market. It’s about time for students not to aim only for a glorified furniture industry, but finding new areas with potential.

    Don’t go to design fairs, visit tech fairs, listen to engineers, artists, doctors and other professionals who need good design solution in their field and not another chair. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know from Europe’s top 20 design companies what their bestseller is and the percentage this product contributes to the company’s total income?

  • RR

    It’s true that every year at Salone we see tons of new products, many just derivatives or near facsimiles of what has already come before, and a lot of it is just crap. I walk the show for hours; often with my head spinning in amazement at the amount of bad stuff that actually gets shown. Creating genuinely good new furniture design is exceptionally challenging for the very fact so much has already been done. That’s what makes it so interesting.

    And occasionally there are those exceptions that actually capture the imagination by doing or saying something new, that make you stop and admit they actually inch design forward. These are the surprises and winners that make the whole circus worthwhile and pleasurable.

    And usually these are the ones that actually prove themselves with commercial success too. That is ultimately the difference between bad, so-so, and great design. And there are not many great designers, so perhaps it’s better that the so-so ones do decide to opt for less challenging projects with a higher chance of making a commission on so-so or bad design.

    • Martin Lew

      Anyone with money can display at Salone, it’s not an achievement being there. When you’re being copied, that’s probably more of an achievement these days.

  • Yes!

    Great to see Benjamin talking so candidly and the success the studio is seeing. Keep going!!

  • Calvin

    Well, sounds like he just got the “middle-class guilt” syndrome.

  • spinning africa

    I saw Benjamin speak at Design Indaba and it was one of the best presentations during the event – if only the design industry as a whole could start to think like this!

    • guest

      Don’t believe everything you hear in a speech like this. You must work within the studio environment to know what is going on. Most designers present a facade that is very far from the truth. Hubert is no exception.

      • ex-employee?

        Out of interest, have you worked in this studio? Or are you taking a guess?

  • Oh so

    Benjamin is a mensch. Clearly successful and with talent… But most importantly with the perspective to see the big picture and do more than just furniture. Not so-so but oh-so great.

  • hiberform

    Points below aside, I think it’s a brave move and there are some provocative comments on the industry. The hardest questions are posed by the bravest people!