Benjamin Hubert Would Rather Design for Everyone

The prolific founder of LAYER, a London-based agency known for devising unconventional solutions to everyday problems, explains his secret affinity for bright colors, why galleries are elitist, and getting his foot in the door.

The following interview appears in Conversations About Work, a new publication by the Spanish furniture mainstay Andreu World. Through a series of illuminating interviews with the likes of Patricia Urquiola, Philippe Starck, and Jasper Morrison, the title offers insight into the near-infinite ways of working through the eyes of the industry’s foremost creative talents. The interview, which took place in 2019, has been edited and condensed for clarity.   

Where do you come from, and why did you decide to locate your studio in London?

I studied at Loughborough University in the Midlands—a technical university that produces a very solid and “employable” type of designer. Those who leave there usually work for large agencies and companies like Dyson. They’re different from those who come out of Saint-Martins or the Royal College of Arts, which have a more “artistic” aspect. It gave me the tools to do a wide range of things, but didn’t give me the “ego” associated with other schools where you can do whatever you want without restrictions.

Perhaps that’s why you’ve focused on an industrial type of work and away from the production of unique pieces designed for collectors?

I like to solve problems. I like to design for people and I’m convinced that good design helps people be happier and healthier. That can be translated into a service or an object, a piece of furniture, or an electronic product. The world of design and creativity have all kinds of variations, but it’s difficult for me to rationalize why designers create these pieces or why that’s not called art—like when it could be a seat but weighs too much or is inaccessible. Design should be for as many people as possible. By their nature, galleries are elitist.

Have you never felt the need to find a niche to feel freer when it’s time to create?

Well, it depends on what’s classified as creative. Solving problems or finding a way to make a project economical is also very intrinsically related to creativity.

When you remove the barriers that design imposes on you, it becomes something that has much less to do with creativity—it’s about expression. For example, in Milan, we did a great architectural installation for Cosentino that’s an artistic work. If I make a chair, I want many people to use it and sit on it, for it to last a long time, and to be transported easily. I don’t want to make a chair for a gallery. To me, it’s pointless. If I were to do something for a gallery, I’d do the entire experience because that reaches people’s emotions. It should be a visceral experience. The better way is through space rather than through an object. We’ve developed some of these experiences, but it’s something I use to bring a brand or material to life.

What happened after finishing your studies?

I worked for a few years in a large agency, and then I moved to London, where I founded my own studio in 2010. It was perfect training for me. I always tell those who ask me for advice in starting a career that first, you have to work for others for four or five years. When you leave, you’re a machine that knows how to do everything, from a conversation with a client, thinking about a concept, developing it, solving its manufacturing, marketing… whatever it takes.

What did you want when you started working on your own? What were your goals?

At first, I wanted to explore personal expression and my ideas about design: forms, materials, function. I wanted to reflect on whether I felt more constrained when working for others and at the same time discovering my own voice. Leaving the company and working alone has been the most incredible feeling of fear and, at the same time, the best I have ever felt.

As happens to many young people, I suppose you didn’t have the means to have a studio space.

I only had £2,000 saved, so my guest room became my studio. Eventually, I found a tiny place to work outside my home. From there, I moved another four or five times, always to a slightly bigger place until we got to where we are now.

There seem to be many studios in Hackney. Is that why you chose it?

There are still specialized workshops for electronics and other trades. It’s affordable and I live very close. It’s only a 15-minute bike ride along the canal to my house. So my life is very well-organized around this triangle of home, studio, and friends.

How many people work here?

At this moment, we are 30 people. And the space is 3,500 square feet.

How are decisions made? Do you value the opinion of others as much as your own?

Yes, of course! Everything revolves around the competencies of every person. Anyone who joins the studio brings abilities that I do not have, and are the best in their field…

What kind of people are you looking for?

I look for very determined and highly motivated people because that’s something you can’t teach. You can teach someone to do things, but motivation is personal, and when you’re motivated, you learn faster, and you also achieve things quickly. Of course, you’re more prepared to put all your energy into a project and apply yourself thoroughly. So this attitude is critical to me. Don’t think that because I’m orderly, I need orderly people around me. It’s more a question of people who thoroughly apply themselves and put all their energy into that challenge until they achieve it in the required time. 

The other thing is passion. When I find a very interesting project, I’m extremely passionate. In fact, it’s something that distinguishes us when speaking with a client or when giving a talk—the degree of motivation and commitment is very evident.

Do you function like the boss?

I’m the creative director, so I’m always involved in the projects—sometimes more, sometimes less. It depends. I still consider myself a designer. I still draw, even though I’m supervising other jobs and even if I have to do all the boring parts that come with being “the boss”—things like administration, management, human resources, and all that.

But are you the boss in labor relations?

It depends. I have different relationships with different people. With more “senior” people, we have a balanced and “conversational” relationship. I encourage people to say what they think. I myself have strong opinions about things and hope others have them too. With the young people who are starting and learning, it’s more a relationship of giving them instructions.

I saw that there’s a kitchen. Where there’s a kitchen, there are relationships.

People are very close here, they are friends, they see each other outside the studio, and sometimes even go on vacation together. It also happens because the studio is so international that people often move to London to join us and need some support when they arrive here. Another thing that I like about people who work with us is that they are open. People of all kinds come together and I like that they become friends. They don’t divide and separate work from the rest of their lives—they enjoy what they do and have a good time.

I’ve heard that 20 percent of the studio’s work is dedicated to non-profit projects.

As designers, we have a responsibility to address problems that are necessities. It’s important to contribute something to society, and use our time for projects that improve the world. For example, we designed a charity box to collect funds for Maggie’s Centres dedicated to cancer patients with the subtle shape of a body that bows its head, as if in a gesture of gratitude.

What do you think explains the success of your projects?

Most often, successful projects occur when the client comes to us—they’re the ones who demand a change. For example, we’re working on a project for a new wheelchair, and it’s not a company that has any relationship with design. That’s precisely why they approach us because they want a functional and affordable product that’s also beautiful. And they never would have done it if they hadn’t seen our other mobility jobs. We already made another wheelchair that included a 3D-printed seat, and that was just a prototype, but from there, we started doing other things in the field of medicine and hospital equipment. It’s a type of work that makes me feel that I apply my knowledge so that the world benefits. 

The Milan Fair, for example, is obviously fantastic, but at the same time I think there are so many talented designers there and it’s a shame that they’re exclusively dedicated to making beautiful products when they can apply their talent to other things less superfluous. Most designers are brilliant, so I’m sure they know they are needed elsewhere, but you have to be very brave and motivated to do other things as well. In a way, design is a bubble, and every now and then it has to be broken to see things in perspective.

Do all your projects depend on there being a client?

No, we also do projects on our own on topics that interest us. Right now we’re doing a project related to transportation. It’s a type of research that sometimes leads directly to a project, and does so indirectly at other times. In any case, it enriches our work.

The wheelchair with the 3D printed seat was a way to not only solve the “made to measure” problem but also a way of approaching customization of products in the context of industrial production. Have you done other projects with this idea?

We just did a job for Kite, a company that produces glasses frames that are practically bespoke, with your head’s measurements to fit your face perfectly, also using the 3-D printing method. Apart from that you can also choose the model, color, and finish.

To what extent is technology important in your projects?

We frequently use new tech, but what’s important is what’s appropriate in each case. It’s not about using tech for no specific reason. If it’s pertinent to use an analog solution, we do it.

What happened to the Airbus seating project?

We’ve been working on it for many years and it’s being tested at the moment. We developed a smart fabric with sensors for economy class seats that would allow passengers to monitor the conditions of their seat using a mobile app—temperature, tension in different zones, pressure, and movement so that each person can have a tailor-made and personal experience. The seat becomes something that takes up very little space, and there would be much more legroom unless the company adds more seats! This is an excellent example that combines much of what we do into one project. It’s a piece of furniture, it is smart, it is material technology, and at the same time, it is solving a problem, including health issues.

What’s your vision on the changes in the workplace as a result of COVID-19?

Work and life must be balanced in the coming years. Therefore, creating a durable piece of furniture is vital. The world continues to work through an unprecedented period of adaptation and working from new environments. We’re focused on constantly aligning our values and approach to the world’s changing times and development needs. We’re in a period never known before, and we believe that a generous dose of creativity and design is a route to establish a more positive future. In these times, we must continue to innovate in order to explore and develop spaces adapted to our lives from now on.

Among the prototypes, several small technological objects have the same soft shades of green and blue that you have used in the stool that you designed for Andreu World.

I’d actually say it’s the other way around. Tech products always borrow colors used in furniture or other elements of everyday life. Anyway, it’s true that I tend to gravitate towards certain colors. I’m a big believer in pastel or powder tones. I like monochrome, tone-on-tone, related tones, very neutral, and from time to time, I add a pop of color like orange. Actually, I have to control myself not to go overboard with bright colors.

And yet you always wear black!

Don’t be so sure! When I was younger I wore yellow pants and colored, striped things. I was immersed in colors. But as I’ve gotten older, my wardrobe has become “desaturated” and darkened. For me it’s a uniform and makes things simpler. I have to make so many decisions every day that having a black wardrobe that I don’t have to think about simplifies my life.

If you had the power to change the perception that ordinary people have of design, what would it be?

The fundamental challenge is that the public doesn’t understand what design is. They judge it in basic terms of shape and color. Art, graphic design, and architecture is spoken about a lot. Inexplicably there’s little interest or attractive exhibitions on industrial design, which is unfathomable since it’s about the objects that we use every day. I would provide more interesting platforms to communicate the value of everyday objects better. Because more time, teams, energy, thought, and money are used in the design and manufacturing of these objects than in many other things that are put on a pedestal. Anyway, it’s okay for people to appreciate the beauty of things. Things should be beautiful, but they should also understand everything that comes before they end up being beautiful.

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