Upstart Design Studio Heirloom Cuts Through The Noise

A team of global design leaders have opened the doors to the interdisciplinary studio of their wildest dreams. Take a peek inside their London studio, and get to know one of their founders, Jack Godfrey Wood.

Heirloom’s integrated workshop and modeling area. Credit (all photos): Studio Rochowski

Somewhere along the way, the bureaucracy of hierarchical design studios began to sabotage creativity. Not to mention the constant tension between industrial and digital design, which has long since focused on “friction-reduction, speed, and simplicity,” to the detriment of art and joy, says Heirloom founder Jack Godfrey Wood. Knowing he couldn’t simply find the utopic creative environment he was looking for, he built his own with co-founders Harc Lee, Tate Sager, and Andrew Furner.

Godfrey Wood is the uncommon talent whose skills extend across the physical-digital divide he so takes umbrage with—he knows firsthand it doesn’t have to be that way. In addition to contributing to the next frontier of bio-science by designing systems for genome and exome sequencing, his solar LED lantern sits in the permanent collection of the British Museum, and his Build modular shelves, which are made from recycled polypropylene with a 95 percent air content (designed with Tom Ballhatchet with Movisi) line the United Nations Headquarters. A new woven colostomy bag he created was exhibited in the V&A Dundee’s Plastic: Remaking Our World. Following the show, a mammoth undertaking between the V&A Dundee and South Kensington, as well as the Vitra Design Museum, the bag was acquired for the V&A’s permanent collection. Godfrey Wood, along with his cohort of interdisciplinary co-founders and team at Heirloom, is making a design studio in the image of what the industry’s potential can be.

An expansive upstairs studio space.

“Our goal is to treat all design challenges as an opportunity to create objects and experiences of heirloom quality—enduring, esoteric design deeply worthy of love,” says Godfrey Wood. “Now that we’re more aware than ever of the future environmental impact of what we do, it’s essential to create work good enough to be handed from generation to generation.” On the occasion of Heirloom’s launch to the outside world, Godfrey Wood spoke with Surface about what the tech world gets wrong with design, imbuing unexpected disciplines with beauty and empathy, and why Heirloom wants clients interacting directly with the talent working on their projects.

At Surface, we can playfully ask each other “does the world need another design studio?” Tell us about what Heirloom has to offer.

Heirloom was born out of a shared ideal between the founders and our team to create a working mindset that was different from what we’d seen out there. We didn’t feel the current model of design studios was serving our clients, or our work, and sought to build a different type of community, team, and partnership model. This is a studio really built around the joy, passion, and adaptability of specialists with a limitless curiosity and a constant desire for innovation.  We are building a team that can bring sublime quality to challenges as diverse as brain retractors, headphones, future offices, and digital futures with the same rigorous, optimistic approach to craft. 

It’s also important to mention that there’s at least one smaller-scale reason the world needed another studio: a key need we’re meeting is our own! We all produce our best work when we have strong, collaborative, direct relationships with our clients, and we found that difficult in bigger, more hierarchical studios.

A sound-insulated CNC and 3D printing studio.

It seems like even today, design within tech is still seen as “less than” physical disciplines like architecture, interior design, graphic design, and fashion. Do you observe that too?

I agree, but we don’t think there’s a difference! This is an area that has a tremendous amount of potential for positive impact, both in terms of moving the field forward, and in designing for a better world for all of us. 

 There is a prevailing discourse around design for the tech or medical spaces that it needs to be inherently simpler and less human. In a lot of our physical design work here, pragmatic technicalities are often introduced as greater problems than emotional, user-centric ones. That feels wrong. For us, it is clear that a medical device or tech product deserves at least the same amount of empathy, beauty, and design attention as a chair, graphic layout, or interior, if not more, because of the pervasive and unavoidable ways they affect our quality of life. 

We find it deeply thrilling and rewarding to mix disciplines to unlock vital emotional qualities that a sector may have forgotten: to apply the sculptural thinking of a furniture designer to help a dialysis machine fit better into a home, or to bring a toy design approach to improving the open office. To us, there’s no difference in mindset or approach. We’re bringing a human touch to areas where humanity is vital, and design is our way of doing that.

L: Heirloom’s ‘Ocean Beach’ stool and RoundRound storage system prototypes in use in the workshop. R: The studio dog, Bear, under one of Heirloom’s ‘Bubble’ table prototypes

On that note, do you think the importance and impact of digital design—interaction design, user experience, user interface—is well-understood?

It is not. It has become rationalized into mundanity. For too long, digital design has been solely focused on friction-reduction, speed, and simplicity. Somewhere along the way, the art was lost. The tech industry forgot to create interactions that were artful, joyful, and memorably beautiful. In the digital work we do, this is what we’re challenging.

Tell us about how your fellow co-founders complement your strengths and weaknesses.

Of the founders, Harc Lee has the rigor of a craftsman and the flair of an artist. He has an uncanny knack for finding memorably elegant design solutions that people want to touch, caress, and play with. Tate Sager creates interaction design that unites digital and physical worlds. He has a gift for transforming the mundane tendencies of digital design into beautifully connected experiences. Andy Furner connects technical, creative, and strategic design. He is our bridge between human and machine, responsible for ensuring the ideas we design will be manufactured exquisitely.

But it’s not just the partners, the rest of the team members are each magic in their own right: Ben Moore, formerly of Marc Newson; Deborah Kim from Google; Jan Rose from Toogood; Gaby Ravassa and Yemima Lorberbaum from Pentagram; and Mireia Gordi-Vila, Andrew Guscott, and Neil Kirkpatrick, formerly of Fantasy.

The studio entrance and veranda.
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