Dream team

Wallpaper*: A crack design squad tackle wish-list commissions at Benchmark…

Benchmark Legacy Project for LDF

As we arrive at Benchmark Furniture’s Berkshire HQ, we interrupt a breakaway meeting, called to discuss the issue of a troublesome hinge – part of an elegant design for a portable lectern drawn up by Raw Edges (aka Yael Mer and Shay Alkalay) forIwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

This is just one of ten pieces that form the Legacy project, the latest collaboration between Benchmark and the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), instigated by Sir John Sorrell, which sees leading London-based cultural figures commission an established design studio to produce a ‘legacy’ piece (either personal or for their respective institution). The final designs will be made from American red oakand shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in September during London Design Festival.

But first the issue of that hinge. As members of the Benchmark team – including co-founder SeanSutcliffe – discuss the problem with Raw Edges, another of the featured designers, Sebastian Cox, walks past. Putting secrecy and rivalry aside, he becomes swept up in the conversation, offering an enthusiastic sounding board. 

‘That was nice, how he became part of the scenario,’ Mer comments afterwards. ‘It’s very much a makers’ attitude here, which we can relate to,’ adds Alkalay.

Problem solved, each heads back to their separate section of the workshop, which is buzzing with afocused but convivial atmosphere.

‘It’s refreshing to have so many different points of view,’ says Sutcliffe. ‘We’ve got ten completely different projects all coming together in this completely fevered way. We’re trying to get our heads around a lectern here, a socking great treehouse there, a beehive, a sofa, chairs, desks… and all from very diverse ways of working.’

While Cox and his team busy themselves with their project – a writer’s desk with ‘embedded’ pencil casefor Amanda Nevill, CEO of the British Film Institute, Sutcliffe leads a whistlestop tour of the workshop, intermittently stopped by staff asking him about power outages and glue failures. In various states of readiness, we see Martino Gamper’s shelving unit for Tamara Rojo, artistic director of the English National Ballet; Tomoko Azumi’s boat-inspired seat forKwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic (‘We’re calling it the dinghy’); while Marlene Huissoudgrinds away at the aforementioned beehive – a ‘freeform, intuitive’ sculptural piece for Sir Ian Blatchford, director of the Science Museum Group. ‘Last night we had to start the whole thing again because we found the glue wasn’t working,’ explains Sutcliffe. ‘Just when everybody’s ready to go home you have to say, sorry guys we’ve got to load in a whole new load of timber and re-glue it all up.Marlene was lumping huge boards of oak that weight 200+ kilos herself, trying to get them cut – I was so impressed. It’s a good energy.’

The task of using American red oak – spearheaded by AHEC’s European director, David Venables – created its own challenges. ‘It’s interesting because we didn’t really know a lot about red oak previous to this,’ says Sutcliffe. ‘It’s not what you’d call fashionable in Europe, but forestry and fashion can’t be happy bedfellows because forestry has to have a hundred-year horizon, and fashion generally has a six-month horizon.’ With new tariffs creating a shortage of demand in their traditional market of China, Venables is disarmingly frank. ‘One response to this crisis is to look to Europe, where oak is widely used, appreciated, and valued,’ he says. ‘Europeans have heard of oak! But not red oak, which is why we created the Legacy project to help us inform, educate and inspire.’ 

After an intense week of stress-testing, the teams have had to learn on their feet. And the experimentation doesn’t end there. ‘It’s a different way of working for us,’ says Alkalay. ‘Usually when a client approaches us they know what we do and they’ll say, “Let’s just see what you come up with.” But Iwona was very clear about what she wanted.’

‘It felt like she had been waiting for this moment when someone would make this lectern that she had in her mind, and all of a sudden this opportunity came,’ adds Mer. Among the very specific demands were a folding mechanism that can lock so that it can support the weight of a heavy book – hence the hinge discussion. ‘We don’t really see ourselves as industrial designers as such,’ laughs Alkalay. ‘We see ourselves as creating more problems than solving them! But we like experimenting – and for this project, the method was the unknown part for us. It’s exciting. You have to get out of your own box and try new stuff.’