DesignMENA Summit

Benjamin Hubert on using design for change at designMENA Summit 2016

British industrial designer Benjamin Hubert gave a keynote speech at the 2016 designMENA Summit, which brought together over 150 design and architecture professionals.

Hubert’s talk provided an overview of the designer’s work since first starting out his studio under his personal name, and only 16 months ago re-branding to a more innovation-focused studio, Layer.

His work spans from charity and non-for-profit work to commercial projects and installations to, what he calls, “experience design”.

Benjamin Hubert at designMENA Summit

Since launching Layer, his two to three-man team expanded to 20 employees, all hailing from various areas of design, from animation to interior design.

READ MORE: Eight designs by Benjamin Hubert that challenge the way we experience life

During a previous talk at Design Indaba, Hubert cited the over-saturated furniture market as one of the reasons he decided to pull back from royalty-focused furniture design to work that solves problems and provides solutions.

“We designed 15 or so pieces of furniture per year for lots of nice brands but saw little impact and less investment in the design process than we would like. So we stopped doing that,” he explained during his talk.

He started his presentation by introducing one of his earlier projects, the Pair Chair for Danish mid-century furniture brand, Fritz Hansen, on which he worked for three years.

Pair Chair by Benjamin Hubert for Fritz Hansen.

He described the firm’s design philosophy as being deeply rooted in “hands-on language”, which he said the studio preferred to work with.

“It’s also one of the reasons we stopped working with other companies,” he explained, “because what usually happens is we would go to the Milan Furniture Fair each year, and 70 or 80 per cent of the work has been done a month before the fair. Which means that prototypes are unfinished and aren’t comfortable enough or useful enough, and as an industrial designer that puts me in an uncomfortable position.

“We were fortunate enough to work on this for three years which is a rarity,” he added.

The Pair Chair is a seating system with more than 8,000 possible combinations, giving architects and interior designers flexibility in specification.

“What we tried to do was to introduce something new to something old. What we talked to them about is making this into a system and not a standalone product. Where the architects and interior designers can put their stamp on it and their approach onto the piece of furniture,” Hubert said.

He also spoke about his collaboration with Materialise on an alternative wheelchair called GO.

It is a made-to-measure 3D-printed consumer wheelchair that has been designed to fit the individual needs of a wide range of disabilities and lifestyles.

GO in collaboration with Materialise.

The custom form of the seat and foot-bay is driven by 3D digital data derived from mapping each user’s biometric information. The resulting wheelchair accurately fits the individual’s body shape, weight and disability to reduce injury and increase comfort, flexibility, and support.

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

“For example what is happening in 3D printing at the moment is that one of the reasons it’s so cost prohibitive is because of the patents – the patents on a lot of the materials. But all the patents are starting to expire so what will happen is that the market will become much more competitive and the price will be driven down. How far down? We don’t know. We wanted to develop something now that in 5 to 7 years will become much more competitive.

Maggie’s change box by Layer.

“Our frustration was nobody was talking about an area where people needed design,” he added.

Hubert also spoke about his work with the Victoria & Albert Museum in London where he lit the mideval tapestry room with a kinetic steel installation as well as his redesign of the charity collection box for Maggie’s cancer charity.

Foil by Layer.

“What I am personally interested of doing more of is working finding opportunities in the developing world to work on products that are used every day to very readily improve the quality of somebody’s life. The biggest hurdle that we come up against is implementation, getting the products into people’s hand in a cost-effective and immediate fashion. But this idea of let’s use design as a powerful tool to change where it’s really necessary is what I am personally interested in,” he said.