People Watching

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Having been around a while, we tend not to get nervous when meeting people for the first time. Friends often wonder if we don’t feel at least a few jitters before meeting ‘important’ industry folk. ‘How do you judge if someone is important?’ we ask.

We assume what they mean by this is when we meet senior people from revered firms or superstar designers. Well, today we’re meeting with two gentlemen who could certainly put the fear into our friends, but we know will once again prove our old adage that, it’s these very people who are happy and confident to talk passionately about what they do. And that is just about all any design journalist could
wish for.

We’ve headed out to south London’s Kennington to meet with forpeople – described by the firm’s founder Richard Stevens as ‘Maybe the biggest design firm in London you’ve never heard of!’ Interestingly, and in keeping with our introduction, Richard’s email also states that he is the Creative Director at British Airways – so maybe we should be a little nervous on this particular occasion.

Not that Richard or Associate Director Joohee Lee would want or expect that. Instead we’re immediately made to feel at ease, with our hosts more than happy to relax over a coffee and chat. We should say that our chief reason for meeting with Richard and Joohee is to discuss the new chair the firm has developed and designed with Herman Miller. Anyone who knows their workplace furniture will be only too aware that any Miller chair launch comes with a huge amount of industry anticipation.

Before we move on to that, we ask our hosts to tell us more about forpeople, whose client roster includes leading automotive companies (it even has its own automotive department) and an enviable list of blue chip companies across an incredibly diverse number of sectors. ‘We’re currently split across four studios in and around Kennington,’ Richard tells us, ‘and we’re waiting to go into our new studio just around the corner. It’s 13,000 sq ft and it’s taken us five years to find and develop it. We’re coming up to 100 people now – over 70 of which are creatives.

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‘We were originally hoping that the studio launch would coincide with the chair launch. We’ve worked extremely closely with Herman Miller to develop the space. It won’t be a showroom for them but it will be a real testament to the understanding that we’ve gained from working with them about how you develop a space for people to work in.’

‘I joined around four and a half years ago and at that time there were just 22 people,’ Joohee recalls. ‘It feels as though we’ve been hiring new people every week since!’

‘We’re only 13 years old so we’re still making mistakes and learning,’ Richard continues. “It’s never been our intention to grow and to build a massive design firm. What amazes me is the diversity and the quality of work. We’re very discreet – we never wanted to be in Shoreditch. We really liked the idea that we were on a residential street in Kennington and anyone walking past wouldn’t know what it is we did.

There were four founding members – which is partly the reason for the name. We work as one team, exploring lots of different complicated problems for lots of different clients in lots of different sectors. We pull all this talent and these different viewpoints together and the output is always exciting because of that.

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A lot of design agencies will specialize in a particular area – so when they are asked to design an airline interior, for example, all these airline interior designers, who’ve just done an airline interior for someone else, coming in and doing another! We pull from all these different areas and people offer their expertise to the problem. And that has kept our staff turnover really low. If someone’s had enough of working on one kind of project, they can move across to another. This really benefits us.

“We’re very discreet – we never wanted to be in Shoreditch…”

‘We said, right from the start of forpeople, that we would not use the projects that we work on with clients to promote ourselves – we’d invest everything back into the relationship, because the relationship with each person that we work with is the most important thing. I think the Herman Miller project is an amazing example of that. Culturally, they’ve always been like that – it’s all about the people.’

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Richard shows us some of that impressive body of work – dating back from before the formation of forpeople. ‘We were working with Boeing and Teague, who were designing the Dreamliner at the time. We were asked to find what they should be designing based on insights around people’s anxieties and needs when they travel on airplanes – it was an amazing opportunity and we called the project ‘Airplanes for People’. That name stuck with me – it said everything – so that’s where the name really came from and that’s why this project with Herman Miller is ‘Chairs for People’. It speaks of Herman Miller and it also speaks of us. You don’t need to see our logo everywhere!

‘For the last three years I was seconded to British Airways as Creative Director. We’ve been their retained creative agency for 12 years. That’s been an amazing experience – we’ve done kind of everything for them.

‘We started by developing a new First Class interior with them, working with a lot of people we’d worked with previously from different sectors – such as the leading automotive production trim specialist. That’s also the level of craft and expertise we’ve brought in to the project with Herman Miller.

‘Herman Miller has traditionally worked with high profile names. We’re not about that and I think they struggled with that to start with. We’ve been working together since 2009 and certainly at the beginning they weren’t sure how to communicate this considering they were working with an agency that didn’t really want to talk about itself. There’s been quite a lot of soul-searching on both sides.

“It’s completely collaborative. We insist on working with everyone we possibly can within our clients’ businesses.”

‘I think that resonated with them immediately is that we don’t have any process and a series of diagrams that we use to sell ourselves. As people, we feel emotion about something and we then try to work that out in our heads and then we realise it in whatever way is most appropriate – that’s what we do. We have a lot of people with a lot of emotional engagement and the ability to emotionally engage with problems and a lot of commercial understanding – the understanding of the needs of people.

‘If you ask people what they think we are they certainly wouldn’t say we’re a design agency.

‘I believe that’s allowed us to grow – because people don’t see the limits to what we can do. We are this creative company, but we’re also a sort of private members club, where people feel a part of and once you’re ‘in the club’ there’s a whole world of knowledge that can be gained which isn’t conflicting with confidentiality. I think our clients really respect that. We’re not about entering awards; we’re about putting all our efforts back into the relationship. It’s completely collaborative. We insist on working with  everyone we possibly can within our clients’ businesses.’

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To prove the point our hosts tell us that they worked closely not only with Herman Miller’s sales and marketing people, but also with the engineers in the UK and Michigan and even with key dealers in both the US and London.

‘This is the first group of Herman Miller chairs conceived and developed outside the US,’ Richard proudly tells us. ‘The level of expertise in that company is amazing. I don’t think anyone else has that kind of knowledge. Once you are in through the doors at Miller they just start chucking knowledge at you – and that’s truly inspirational for us. They’re so great to work with. They don’t see a limit to where we can bring our creativity.’

The result of forpeople’s first foray into designing for the workplace is the innovative Keyn Chair Group. The new and unique group provides a solution for both meeting and side chairs, offering responsive movement and immediate comfort, with an unprecedented number of specification options.

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‘I think we were able to work – and are always able to work – with a freedom,’ Joohee considers. ‘We don’t limit ourselves to one sector and our designers understand that you have to design with the user in mind. You should never design anything in isolation – you should always look at where does what you’re asked to do fit within the overall experience.’

‘Our relationship with Herman Miller started because of this approach,’ Richard takes over. ‘They liked the way we approached a problem, approached a brief – how we sought to observe and understand people first. I think this is under-recognised skill amongst designers.

“The key to this product is the quality of thinking and craft we’ve been able to produce – not just as one-off beautiful pieces.”

‘The key to this product is the quality of thinking and craft we’ve been able to produce – not just as one-off beautiful pieces, but as mass-produced products that Herman Miller can make anywhere in the world.’

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Such is Richard and Joohee’s generosity when it comes to time and sharing of knowledge and expertise, that we quickly realise we’ve got two stories in one here. We’re afraid you’ll have to wait for the full focus on the development of the Keyn Chair Group – but we promise it’s well worth that wait.

Excitingly, the Keyn Chair Group will be launched next month right here in London. ‘It means a hell of a lot to us that the chairs are going to be launched in Clerkenwell,’ Richard grins. It means a hell of a lot to us too, Richard.