Furniture Designer Leo Scarff talks about his motivation, methodology and secrets to surviving in an industry that has been hit hardest by the Recent property crash and economic recession.
If you are in the Property, Architecture, Construction and Furniture sectors – all of which have suffered the most fallout from our recent Recession here in Ireland, you would be forgiven for thinking a new product launch was inviting trouble. You would be consolidating your resources and trying hard to keep afloat. I was therefore intrigued and compelled to investigate the motivation behind launching a new brand of architectural furniture by Leo Scarff design. We discuss his journey as a Designer, explore his secrets for survival in such a tough market and the critical business lessons he has learnt along the way.
Who and what is Leo Scarff Design
Leo Scarff has been a product designer for over 20 years, initially studying and working in Scandinavia before setting up his own design studio in Dublin in 1997. He is now located in the creative hub of northwest Ireland – Manorhamilton, Co.Leitrim. A new production network was established in 2009 and Leo began prototyping his ideas last year which culminated in a residency at the Leitrim Sculpture Centre, followed by the ‘Futurescapes’ exhibition at the centre in May of this year. Many of the ideas for his new Hiberform collection came from the sculptural works in this show and pick up on global design trends like Customisation and modular design
What propelled you to create Hiberform i.e. What gap in the market did you spot? How different is this product from what is already out there in the market?
Hiberform is the result of a number of areas of research I carried out over the last 3 years through my fascination with by natural and man made structures for many years I have always been interested in structure as a result of a thesis years ago and it surfaced again when I began branching out into sculptural fine art pieces some years ago. More recently I have examined modular structures as a means to develop new furniture products .
The Gap in the Market: Screens and sculptural structures in my view is an under developed area within the interior product area so it was interesting to look at how we could market certain products to different niche markets.
Who do you envision as its end user? Do you envision the products being used for the Events Sector for example? And what kind of application would it have in this context?
The potential within the events area is really exciting. Multifunctionality has its benefits.
- It can primarily be positioned as Contract furniture for corporate environments
- Obviously, the screen products can be used for exhibition stand backdrops and to section off areas within stands however, there is potential to create fully 3D overhead installations with products such as ‘Grid’, ‘Prism’ or ‘Geodome’.
- Also, the fact that each product is available in a wide range of colours and materials means that a company can request their own corporate colour to give complete brand recognition.
It’s great to see a new product imagined and designed by an indigenous Irish company – did you get much support getting it off the ground?
We are delighted to have developed a truly contemporary collection of furniture products in Ireland with the assistance of several organisations including
- The Enterprise Board,
- The Arts Council and
- The Crafts Council of Ireland
How is it made and how much outsourcing did you have to do to make it viable? Do the facilities exist in locally or did you have to go abroad?
Hiberform’s primary aim is to create and sustain, design and manufacturing jobs in Ireland and we intend to employ several designers and assembly technicians in years to come.
- The nature of these structures required computer navigated router and laser cutting processes to produce the components. However, having recently relocated to the creative hub of northwest Ireland – Manorhamilton, Co.Leitrim it was necessary to locate several high tech local manufacturers with the capabilities in these area
- Most of the components for the collection are sourced from high tech local companies who are specialists in a particular material or process so we get the best quality and competitive pricing. This is how furniture is made in many parts of the world so we feel this is the future as opposed to producing everything in house.
- It has become more and more expensive to import furniture due to higher transportation costs so making production furniture in Ireland has become more competitive in recent years.
You appear to be a long term survivor and professional in the Irish Furniture Design & Manufacture business and have engaged with the industry in many ways – I know this from your work in the Irish Furniture & Home Accessories Fair over the years. You must have taken a lot of hits and faced the challenges facing the sector given its association with the Property market. What is the secret of your longevity?
Yes, I have been working in this field for 20 years now and seen some ups and downs. Design gets into your blood and it can result in a wonderful, creative life. However, like any profession there are low points and recent times have been extremely challenging. For me it’s more like a vocation than a ‘job’ or ‘career’.
The biggest lessons I have learnt in the process:
- At the studio we have used the last few years to take a step back from our regular project work and research new product areas.
- ‘Make a positive from a negative’ is the new motto.
- Like so many we relied very much on the bespoke furniture and lighting market in Ireland through the boom years and although it was good while it lasted. We now realize that establishing long term export product ranges is the wiser route if we want to sustain employment.
Is there a philosophy or specific design process to your work that guides you?
- Our work is very process driven so we produce many models and mock-ups in studio before prototyping and final production run.
- Forms generally follow functions however we find that certain production processes push the create process down certain roads so we very often jump on for the ride and arrive at usual destinations.
How do you think Furniture Designers/makers in Ireland need to adjust to market themselves effectively in this new economic landscape?
- Almost every business needs to stay light on its feet now and adjust their offering continually.
- Innovation is key and not just in design or production but in the way the products are packaged, sold and used.
What advice would you give to new up and coming Furniture, Product design and home-wares designers?
- It seems as though emigration is becoming necessary again for many professions however I have always felt that designers should always travel and see the world. I travelled extensively after college and also studied in Scandinavia and it was incredibly important for me in all my work since.
- Education does not stop when college ends. It is life long and designers should continually update their skills and engage in research, whether formally or informally.
Would you have done anything differently yourself if you could roll back to when you first began Creating and Designing furniture?
In terms of ‘doing anything differently’ and not wanting to be too philosophical, I think we could all
- Experiment more,
- Collaborate more
- Be conscious of junctions in that ‘road’ I mentioned. Sometimes opportunities are right under your nose and we pass them by.
Is there a future for the Irish manufacturer?
There is always a future for manufacturing in Ireland and I have been campaigning for change in this area within the furniture industry for some time. I have always felt that so many Irish companies have followed instead of leading the way so this still needs to change if we are to have a future.
Innovation also takes time and questions must be asked at every stage of the process from idea to use by the client and indeed after use.We have incredible furniture designers in Ireland. All that is required is a mindset change and the establishment of collaborations between the necessary groups and much can be done without large capital investment.
What are your predictions for the sector?
- Ideas and knowledge are the future and in Ireland we are world leaders in certain areas.
- We need to focus on getting our skills and products to the emerging markets and continually innovate.
- Craft production will always have a major role in the cultural and economic life of Ireland. For industrially produced design goods.
- I feel cross profession/ industry collaboration is the way forward to truly compete on an international stage.
Following this interview Leo went on to relaunch his Lighting design services as well and true to his philosophy: emphasized the Bespoke and customisation element of his work.
What strategies do you think are necessary for launching a new product in a difficult economic in environment? Do You agree with Leo’s emphasis on experimentation , lifelong learning and collaboration as essential processes to live by? Do share your take on surviving the challenging times we live in and your secrets for staying the course.