Interview: Benjamin Hubert on designing for change

Aidan Imanova speaks to Benjamin Hubert about embracing change and designing for people’s needs.

Benjamin Hubert paced the stage as he introduced four of his key projects to a room-full of UAE-based designers and architects, some of whom have been following his work for years. The keynote speaker of the fourth annual designMENA Summit, Hubert quickly gained a captive audience.

Six years ago Hubert launched a practice in his own name, after having worked as an industrial designer for a number of corporate agencies in the UK. The studio ranged from a two-to-three man team located in East London. He did not bring clients from his previous companies on board as is commonly done, but started from scratch.

“I am a hardworking person,” says Hubert, somewhat modestly, “and I think that’s basically what it takes in the industry.”

He explains that while working for some of UK’s largest corporations, he was also learning a lot about design and business. The hunger to learn equipped him with a strong foundation, but Hubert cites a certain kind of attitude as the key to push forward.

“If there is one attribute that lends itself to being able to do something in the area of design, it is being tenacious and it’s always something I encourage other people to do and be. Just be a little bloody-minded, really.”

In a span of only six years, Hubert has managed to work with some of the world’s most well-known brands, including Nike, Braun, BMW, and Samsung, and among top names in the furniture business such as Fritz Hansen, Herman Miller and Moroso.

Less than 16 months ago, he relaunched his eponymous design brand as Layer. Still located in East London, now Hubert’s two-man team became a 20-man team, and in true Hubert fashion, the change was strategic and analytic and backed up by numbers.

Hubert says that previous to Layer, the team worked on a number of projects under his name, but soon enough that became repetitive and one-dimensional.

“People were coming to us for my sense of taste or style which is fine, but it’s not what I think design is. Design is the opposite question where you go to everybody who is going to be using that product and ask them what they want or how do they feel and what they need. And in order to flip that question I felt like we had to take my name off the business in order not to be asked for everything in the same way all the time,” he explains.

This approach was evident during Hubert’s keynote talk, where he spoke about Layer’s collaboration with 3D-printing company Materialise, with whom he developed a 3D-printed made-to-measure wheelchair that has been designed to fit the individual needs of a wide range of disabilities and lifestyles.

This was also the product that raised the most interest from the crowd of designers and architects who were quick to follow up on the various features it could include and its affordability and availability to the masses.

“In this present moment, it is not the most affordable chair you could buy. It is in the higher price segment so it isn’t for everyone,” Hubert answered. “But we believe that you need to raise these kinds of questions at the right time to then develop something that is for everybody.

“For example 3D printing at the moment is cost prohibitive because of the patents – the patents on a lot of the materials. But all the patents are starting to expire so the market will become much more competitive and the price will be driven down. How far down? We don’t know. But we wanted to develop something now that in five to seven years will become much more competitive.”

Designing for people’s needs appears to be a passion of Hubert’s and a field he wants to invest further in.

“Our frustration was that nobody was talking about an area where people needed design,” Hubert said during his speech, although he admits during our interview that this seems to be slightly changing in London.

“It feels like something is changing. It feels like there are more people starting to talk about this and doing these kinds of projects and maybe we are in a moment where people are questioning things more,” he says.

Layer’s work with Maggie’s cancer charity was also part of his presentation, having redesigned its collection box to an ergonomically-shaped contains with a bowed head signifying gratitude.

“There is a commitment both from me and the company to give back and to use that time where we do a lot of nonsensical things, to do things that are more pertinent and important,” he says.

“We choose to do a certain amount of work in the studio that isn’t directly commercial. It is my agenda in terms of the way the company works,” he explains, adding: “Without being grandiose about it or me thinking I know better than everybody else, it would be nice to see more initiatives around creatives doing more to help the world.”

He backtracks then and says that not all not-for-profit work is fee-free, and if one wants to view it from a commercial point of view, there is definitely money to be made. But he explains that that does not fit with his direction.

“My hierarchy is much more about solving the problem and using design to help things. Most of our projects in this area are either pro-bono or low-bono,” he explains.

We then move on to what Hubert calls the “sexy and beautiful products that almost try to emulate the fashion industry”. It is the area of design we have all been guilty of writing about and designing for, and Hubert is no different.

“I am guilty of that type of work as well,” he admits. But then he has another thought. “What if you took that cross-section of designers and said ‘you are not allowed to design a piece of furniture for the next two years, instead you have to solve some world issues’? I just wonder what we would get if we had that huge resource refocused.

“We all know that creating a beautiful chair will be easier to find a platform for. There is an infrastructure for that. But for the world-changing ideas there are not so many platforms. Hundreds of thousands of people don’t go to Milan Furniture Fair every year to see world-changing ideas,” he muses.

The conversation turns to the Middle East’s emerging design market, where a number of young designers are trying to gain traction regionally, while others have already broken into the global market.

Yet at times it feels harder here than in other parts of the world, where firms like Herman Miller and Fritz Hansen push you forward to global recognition. And although collaborations between Middle East-based designers and international firms are moving forward, European, Asian and American designers seem to make it first.

Hubert says that idea is dated, the model where you need other people’s companies to produce your ideas.

“You need a platform in order for people to see your ideas and buy your ideas and we have those platforms like Kickstarter or Indigogo. There are things out there that have democratised the ability to bring ideas to market. I don’t actually think location and local infrastructure is the only barometer for success.

“I think where you are living or where you are born has got absolutely nothing to do with the ability to get great ideas out there. It’s just about thinking about good ideas,” he says.

What Hubert does believe in is having a message: one that is consistent and ownable. Keep saying it even when you get tired of it, he says.

“It is very difficult to think about original ideas now, most things have been done in one way or another, but it’s about finding original combinations of thinking, and it’s about having a very strong message and trying to find things that resonate.”

Be true to your message, he says, and always stay on the path, even when everybody tells you it’s not possible.

Hubert clearly heeds his own advice, which has seemingly propelled him to where he is right now. He also credits luck and chance, but that is debateable. Even Layer is still on a path, he admits.

“There is still a place where we are going which is going to take a lot longer. We have a lot of ambitions about what we want to be doing and how we want to be doing it and with whom.”