We had the exciting opportunity to speak with young designer Benjamin Hubert, whose newly formed Layer Design is responsible for such innovative work as “Ripple,” an incredibly lightweight table made entirely from corrugated plywood, an insightful Change Box for Maggie’s charity, or “Worldbeing,” a concept for a wearable and app to promote sustainable living. Every piece demonstrates a deep understanding of user and usability, form and function, and a drive to create designs that make a difference. From Benjamin Hubert Ltd. to Layer, the turnover promises more of Hubert’s signature: forward-thinking, meaningful, simple, and well-considered concepts that have the ability to truly affect the way we live. Here’s what the genius maker had to tell us about design, Layer, and life:
Your practice seems to be experiencing a massive paradigm shift, a transition from making aesthetically-motivated consumer goods to socially active designs. Can you explain the source of this change – and do you hope that others will follow suit? What is the key difference between Benjamin Hubert Ltd and your new brand, “Layer Design?”
“Under Layer we are still going to be continuing to do different types of work, so, some of it is the more socially conscious approach, some of the projects you’ve seen recently, and some of the work is driven towards growing and expanding businesses, whether they’re very big businesses like Nike and Samsung, or whether they’re a very small business…And some of the work will still be in the lifestyle and home interior space as well. But the platform really represents the multilayered approach here and the sort of value system that we go through… and that value system is about something being aesthetically beautiful but also something that functionally works really hard and something that works really hard for the lives that we live now and next…and layer really represents a kind of human-centered research approach and some of the projects that lends itself to are the socially-minded or engaged projects and some of the projects are more commercially-minded… but it’s really working hard for the people that we work with and the problems that we’re trying to solve, and that approach was trickier to communicate and perform under a business with my name which indicates my personal point of view, whereas Layer represents a value system which is a about, hopefully, great design, solving difficult problems, and driving revenue, and you know, making life easier. Whereas under my name it was really a story of materials and language and personal taste.”
To what extent do you make a conscious effort to take risks in your work, and was this one of them?
“I think everything’s about pushing yourself or pushing a project and we’re very driven around that idea and we’re always trying to push things here whether it’s the construction or form or cost or problem…you know, whatever it might be, we’re kind of very hard-working from that point of view and I think the step into layer is as much a risk as you want to perceive it as one, really. For us, it’s not a risk, it’s an opportunity. And we’ve been working under the direction that is now communicated through Layer for last 18 months to 2 years, so for us it’s not really a big step change internally, it’s much more of an external communication about what we can do, what we are doing…and it’s really a structure and a platform for a lot of the projects and a lot of the partners that we’re working on now and will be launched in the next 24 months.”
Do you feel that you have a responsibility as a designer to create products that have a respect for the finite natural world?
“Sure. I think creativity with a conscience and putting anything new into the world…you, know, in whatever walk of life you are, you have a responsibility for that object to work really hard or that thing to work really hard and I think, you know, having respect for the natural world and resources around us….that product being really light and having a lightness of touch on the world, I think, is incredibly important. But for it’s a holistic approach. So it’s not about sustainability, we would never really have the buzzword “sustainability,” it’s a much more integrated, holistic approach to a project having longevity and having meaningful benefits and superceding it’s predecessors.”
In what ways can you exploit the demand for mass-produced design to end the wasteful cycle of consumerism?
“ [laughs] Well, ending consumerism isn’t in our reigns…people still need things, they need things whether those things are digital or whether they’re hardware or whatever. There are a lot of problems in the world that haven’t been solved or have only been partly solved, and it’s our job as designers to introduce new things that do better. In terms of wasteful consumerism, that’s a very difficult subject area…it’s all about context and your point of view, what is waste and what isn’t waste. I think, for us, having a responsibility towards how are things recycled or upcycled or second life or you know, whatever it might be, and that real cradle to grave approach, where it can work and where applicable, we try to integrate. So when things do become waste, they don’t become so impactful on the world…or things that have smart upgrades and are easily customized, are modular, things that can live with your life or somebody else’s life afterwards I think are really important as well. For us it’s about timelessness in lots of respects to tackle that problem of over-consumption.”
What, to you, makes the distinction between what we want and what we need in a design context?
To find that kind of distinction is really part of the research we do here…so we do a lot of contextual research, whether it’s immersive research, or focus groups, or interviews, but really what we’re trying to glean is we’re trying to translate the wants of the people that we speak to into needs. And that’s an emotional thing, it’s a pragmatic thing, it’s a functional thing – how people live their lives – and you know, that’s part of our jobs, to channel that desire into.
How do you maintain your artistic vision through your socially motivated projects? Which aspect of this process offers you the greatest sense of fulfillment?
Well, everything should be beautiful, everything should be desirable, you should want to own it….you know, whether it’s a collection box or a piece of consumer electronics or a chair. It doesn’t matter what it is, everything should be beautiful. And I think that aesthetics are extremely subjective…we try and make things as desirable for the target market that they’re intended for as possible. It’s much less about my personal artistic vision and it’s more about people that will be using the things that we design enjoying them.