We often talk about routes to market. We don’t, however, talk so much about routes to market when it comes to product designers.
As obvious as it may sound, when choosing features for this fine magazine, we always look – first and foremost – for the story within. This, we think, is a great story.
We’ve come to the Clerkenwell home of leading British furniture manufacturer Ocee Design, where we’re sat with the company’s latest product designer, Henry Gurney. Henry’s route to the product design market hasn’t been what you’d call normal.
‘I’m from Northampton and went to university in Loughborough,’ he tells us. ‘I studied industrial design, but I’m also an amateur jockey, so when I left Uni I started doing that – and did so for two years part-time – whilst also putting up marquees!
‘It got to the stage where I decided I needed to get a regular job. I started working for Ocee, originally answering the phones, filing and helping out the sales teams in general.
‘Without having that knowledge of the office furniture industry I was quite taken aback by how ‘out there’ some of the products were.’
‘The creativity had always been there – I really did want to be a jockey at the time but quickly realised that I was too tall and that it would take a massive amount of commitment. It really is full-on and it just didn’t take off for me.’
‘I didn’t really see Ocee as a route back into design. To be honest I didn’t know anything about the furniture industry. I went in and saw the products and realised there was something really interesting and exciting here.
‘Without having that knowledge of the office furniture industry I was quite taken aback by how ‘out there’ some of the products were. I looked at a number of competitor products and some of the older Ocee products and thought I could come up with some new and interesting ideas.’
So what was the next step? Were Henry’s colleagues at Ocee aware of his design credentials at the time? ‘No, I’m not sure they knew what industrial design was at the time – I think they thought it was designing warehouses,’ Henry smiles, ‘rather than product design together with some engineering. I think I managed to sneak my way into the company! The conversation didn’t really happen to start with.’
When that all-important conversation did happen it was with Ocee’s Product Development Manager Ray Hills, who encouraged Henry to ‘have a go’. ‘He told me to put some ideas together and, if they were no good, then we’ve lost nothing.’
Those ideas were, of course, extremely good (we wouldn’t be sat here now if they weren’t, of course) and the result was HenRay – a sharp and stylish range of soft seating. A high back unit offers comfort and privacy and suites perfectly with a two-seater low back and bench unit. The curved units also offer high and low back options and a glass-topped table completes the collection. HenRay’s modular system can be used to form large landscape configurations that are ideal for meeting and public spaces.
As Henry points out, even after all those hard yards, the ‘sell’ into the Ocee sales team was also a little different. ‘Alistair (Gough, Ocee MD) decided to put the collection forward to the sales team without letting them know who the designer was,’ he recalls. ‘In fact, Ray threw everybody by telling them that this had come from a new female designer! Thankfully they were blown away by it. I don’t think any of them knew I had a design background.’
We ask Henry to tell us more about the design process. ‘I saw that we had a gap in the product portfolio – that we were missing a high-back range. I came up with some ideas and then worked with Ray before coming up with a final concept.
‘Once Alistair told us that he liked the basic concept idea, we started to take it forward.’
We ask Henry about his greatest challenges throughout the process. ‘I think the greatest challenge for me was probably not knowing how things were made,’ he concedes. ‘I found it relatively easy to come up with a nice looking piece, but it was when it came to how we would manufacture the piece that Ray’s knowledge of the furniture industry really came to the fore.
‘It was quite a sharp learning curve. There is an awful lot of furniture out there for a start! I had a basic knowledge of what the end user was buying and where the market was, but I think because I had also started doing office lay-outs, I was able to identify the areas where we were missing out.’
‘I looked at how the proportions and layers of Greek classical buildings worked together in harmony. They look so solid.’
HenRay has already proved incredibly successful since its launch at last year’s Clerkenwell Design Week, with universities quickly being drawn to not only the look and feel, but also the excellent acoustic properties it offers. ‘It was so great seeing it here, complete, for Clerkenwell Design Week,’ Henry recalls. ‘It was really interesting to see people go across and sit in it – and to hear what they were saying about it, not knowing that I was the designer. There might have been a couple of tiny tweaks after Clerkenwell Design Week!
‘My main focus was always on the proportions,’ Henry tells us as we take a seat in HenRay itself. ‘I looked at how the proportions and layers of Greek classical buildings worked together in harmony. They look so solid, even after thousands of years, and yet so elegant with incredible detail. That’s where the detail on the edges comes from – that elegance. More than anything though, I wanted to make it work proportionally. It did amaze me just how long it took and how many times I reworked the design until I reached the result I was looking for.
‘I love drawing and sketching – I don’t think I could work any other way. I’m not one of these people who can simply draw something and it’s done. I need to keep working on it, to keep refining – I don’t think there’s any other creative process that would work in the same way for me.’
Henry tells us that he’s still doing a bit of horse riding when not sketching his latest furniture creations. ‘I still ride point-to-point racing, but I think I’ve definitely made the right career choice. I can just enjoy the horse riding now – it’s great to be able to do it as a hobby and I really do love what I’m doing right now.’
So what’s next for Henry? ‘I’m working on a few ideas,’ he cagily admits. ‘Fingers crossed, there should be something later this year – again seating products, and we’re also working on some extensions to HenRay. I think there’s still a lot of scope there – because it’s built in blocks, as it were, and is so adaptable. Of course, there’s no element of surprise now – only expectations!’