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Perspective: Simon Pengelly

We sit down with acclaimed multi-award winning designer/maker, Simon Pengelly, who tells us about his background, his eponymous studio, clients and much more.

24/03/2021 5 min read

Tell us about your career to date. What led you to become a furniture/product designer? 

My father was a furniture designer – he was chief designer at Ercol for a long time, and so I caught the bug from him after being shown how to cut a set of dovetails in his workshop at the age of eight, and I never stopped. By 15 I was an accomplished cabinet maker. His knowledge of materials and making was the best start to a career in design I could ever have asked for, even though I didn’t know it at the time!

Being dyslexic meant that seeing the world in 3D made sense in a way that little else did, and so the visual, functional and technical aspects of objects, man-made and in nature, held a fascination that has only ever increased.

Learning how to make at an early age meant that it became a part of me, a form of communication I felt more comfortable with, if you like. It became a way of seeing the world and understanding its occupants, in a way that continues to materially affect how I go about designing things for people. Making is fundamental to my approach and, even though I don’t make as much as I used to, I still make things in my head…the muscle memory of making, both mental and physical, imprints and is never forgotten, and so it enriches the process of designing to a point that the process has become natural, intuitive and, in fact, a kind of love affair.

After studying at Rycotewood and Kingston, professional life started at Conran Design Group in 1989 and, whilst there, I got to work on Habitat briefs and then jumped ship to their design team in the early nineties, contributing many designs to their range and travelling extensively to furniture factories all over the world to oversee the manufacturing process over the next nine years. It was a wonderful experience, culminating in the design of the Radius range in 1999, which is still one of Habitat’s best sellers after 21 years.

Whilst working for Habitat as a freelancer, I also developed my own range, which I made in a small shed in the garden of our one bedroom flat in south London – and launched my own collection at the second 100% Design in 1996. I was – and still am – green and naive to the world of self-promotion and marketing, and so failed miserably in being able to make a living from selling my own furniture. In fact, I would have given up in despondency had it not been for the encouragement and support of my wonderful wife, Teri, who recognised the love I have for the process and, despite us not having much to live on, insisted I persevere, giving me the space and time to take the different tack of licensing the designs to manufacturing clients – and that’s when things, to my eternal gratitude to Teri, slowly but surely started to click!

The first of those brave and willing manufacturing clients was Allermuir, who took on a bench that I had designed, and then commissioned me to design the Lara chair for them in 1999. I still design for them, as I do for many of the treasured UK furniture clients that have been (and still are) foolhardy enough to consider working with me – including Gordon Russell, Modus, Boss, Hitch Mylius, Isokon Plus, Ize, Martin Ryan and Chorus (the latter two now part of New Design Group), to name but a few.

In 2004 I was lucky enough to be approached by my first overseas client, Italian company Lapalma. This opened doors to other European clients, including Arper. I have since also been fortunate to work with Dutch company, Montis, for whom I’ve designed a good number of pieces over the years.

Other Europeans include Italian companies Alias and Foscarini, as well as Swedish company Johanson and the Spanish brand, Inclass.

Tell us about the make-up of the studio 

There are now five of us in total, including a part-time studio manager who, for the last couple of years, has taken on a lot of the admin duties, allowing me to continue to work incredibly closely with my team.

My trusted and extremely capable ‘right hand man’, Ed Parkinson-Bates, has been with me since he graduated from Ravensborne College 19 years ago. Ed is now a master at CAD modelling and works closely with me to develop my concepts. Combined with the practical knowledge of materials and production processes that I bring and he now shares, ours is a very fruitful working relationship. He, along with Francis Lofthouse, another extremely capable chap who joined us from Brunel university in 2011 and who works with us on communicating the concepts, plus Harry Level who joined us in 2019 and whom I am taking the time to train as I did with Ed when he joined, all make us a very productive and close-knit team.

Do you think there is a Pengelly house style? 

That’s a difficult one to answer, although I suppose that would depend on who you ask, as some say they know my work when they see it! I’d like to think that, when asked, they would find it hard to define why they know, except to hopefully say that it is attentive to the sensibilities and comfort of the user, well proportioned, beautifully detailed with craft credentials, is honest and pragmatic in its selection of appropriate materials and manufacturing processes and, above all, possessing a timelessness that means it does not shout, instead sitting quietly amongst other furniture and in any environment.

This might be a silly question, but how are you finding the market right now?

It’s not a silly question – and, actually, not bad at all! I think the initial knee-jerk reaction of the industry was that the office would disappear and workplace furniture would die a death unless it had a Perspex COVID screen attached somehow.

The reality is that any furniture that has been designed with the physical and emotional wellbeing of the user in mind, and with thoughtful consideration to its intended environment, enabling it to be used in a non-prescriptive way that best suits the people who use it, is always going to be fit for purpose and popular, whatever happens.

What do you think is the secret behind your longevity and success? 

I’d like to think it’s because I love what I do, collaborating with my team and our clients. The process gives back in spades and, if you’re in it for the long haul, there is no need to hurry; it becomes a quiet, considered process of evolving growth and experience that permeates the objects we create. I am sure this is felt by those who ultimately use the products and feel better for being considered and cared-for during the process. After all, it is about the people who will use the products rather than the designer!

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