Benjamin Hubert, design ace, only 30, professional and poised, is having a moment. He’s just cycled to his Finsbury studio from his Shoreditch home – on his bright green, ultra-fashionable Tokyobike – and is sweating buckets.
Moments later, changed and at his desk, calm is resumed. And that is the only break in the composure of this design wunderkind for the whole of our interview. The tall, unblinking Hubert is the UK’s latest design hotshot and he has already gained quite an extraordinary list of clients since launching his own studio in 2010. He has produced some of the most elegant, simply profiled but materially complex furniture, lighting and accessories of the past four years, for clients as impressive as Cappellini, Moroso, Poltrona Frau, Ligne Roset and, from this year, Bitossi and B&B Italia.
And yet Hubert – who trained at Loughborough University in industrial design, then left to create various consumer goods and domestic products for brands such as Samsung, Nike and LG – is perfunctory, inscrutable, serious, polite, but clearly rather too busy and focused on his work in hand to take this opportunity to wax lyrical on his design philosophies.
The “poise” moniker comes via Hubert’s friend Max Fraser, a publisher and the deputy director of the London Design Festival, who first got to know Hubert on a trip to Tokyo for an exhibition by the British Council. During the visit they “giggled a lot”, and bonded. “His poise and confidence can be mistaken for arrogance,” explains Fraser. “But you can also credit him with an impressive roster of clients. He is just very clear about what he wants, and I think he will stop at nothing until he gets it.”
Indeed, what Hubert wants he seems to be getting. He already runs a successful studio, and is almost fierce when he declares that his six staff are “all full time, all paid”. He is the antithesis of the green young designer who, says Fraser, “might not thrash out the details of a project particularly well when they are pitching an idea, or might not negotiate commercially. He has always been very clear with the companies he works for about what’s what and how he operates.”
Hubert ticks all the boxes for today’s consummate modern designer. So says Olivier Roset, a Ligne Roset executive and company board member. He began working with Hubert two years ago on a ceramic-lamp project called Container (£540). It is a minimal, hooded table lamp consisting of two components of slip-cast matte ceramic, tied together with a silicone band at the neck; it has a cute, on-trend, coloured flex, and is, according to Roset, “very pure, very nice, a little bit Japanese, using raw materials – and just right for Ligne Roset”.
“He is certainly everything we look for in a designer,” he continues. “He is good at communication, good at marketing, has a very good sense of sales, produces really commercial products – and has a strong feeling for what the market is waiting for.”
Patrizia Moroso – art director of furniture brand Moroso and the company’s co-founder – is likewise full of admiration for the organised focus of the designer, to whom she was introduced by Patricia Urquiola. “His work is different,” says Moroso, “which is what I look for. I like to put lots of people with lots of differences together. What I’m asking for from the designers I work with is to have personality and to directly show that. His way of working is a challenge in the sense that his things are about new developments or materials. With the Talma chair [his first design for Moroso, around £1,246], we had to invest in a new fabric from Dutch company Innofa, which is ultra-padded to take on the form of the chair. So his work challenges us, too. With Benjamin, you’re not starting from scratch. He has a very well-developed concept when he comes to you, which for a company is a great help.”
For Hubert’s part, he had always wanted to work with the crème de la crème of European design, including Moroso, whom he sees as the absolute pinnacle in terms of textile research. For Hubert is a materials man and always has been – the Membrane chair for Classicon, for example (£1,200), is made with a 3D woven-textile mesh, while the Float lights (from £222) are made from Portuguese cork. His studio tag line, which Fraser teases him about, is: “Materials Driven, Process Led”. But, says Fraser, “He really sticks to it. It’s quite his mantra. He is fascinated by exploring what different materials can do and pushing them.” This is evident in his Amass installation (price on request), an immense plastic modular space divider that was shown at 100% Design in London last September.
Hubert says that his desire to rethink a material or a process comes naturally by “literally just questioning things. If you see a company upholster in a certain way, using two people over eight hours, and costing £2,000, we propose being able to do it in less time, costing less money, streamlining processes and making it more efficient. I think that’s how you get work today – we have a principle of reduction, of less is more.”
His economical approach can be seen in the relatively early Garment armchair for Cappellini (£2,400), in which a single piece of fabric is draped over the frame and becomes the upholstery by means of tucks and folds – eliminating the need for complicated stitching. On Juliet (£4,560), another armchair, this time for Poltrona Frau, the exterior is made of a single piece of densely pleated and padded leather, akin to a weighty bubble wrap. The plywood and solid-oak dining chair Maritime S (£1,320) for Casamania, meanwhile, features the structural supports on the outside as decoration, rather than hiding them within the frame of the body; the Pelt wooden dining chair for De La Espada (from £486) features a cutout “skin”-shaped seat, made from a single piece of ultra-skinny bent plywood, on top of a solid-ash frame. Other collaborations with the woodworking specialists include the Pelt XL stool (price on request) and Bow bench (from £1,182) and the Bow trestle table (from £1,938).
Then there are the experimentations with unusual materials: the thin-walled and much-copied concrete hanging Heavy light (£271) and the Heavy desk lamps (£420 each) that he made for Decode, as well as the mesh Loom lamp for Zero (from £1,200) that creates something beautiful from a rather prosaic-looking 3D polyester. Hubert believes in celebrating such components and revealing manufacturing processes where possible within his creations – hence the traces of slip-casting in Container, for example, or the Pots for the Danish company Menu (from £54) that feature a raw terracotta exterior contrasted with a gloss-glazed interior. “I like to think about how you can communicate making processes, so that our designs are about a kind of unique mass production. It’s not changing the world particularly, but it’s important to be transparent and to help people understand where things come from and what their values are.”
Such are Hubert’s diverse and regular projects, he is now in the enviable position of being able to select the work his team pursues. “And those we choose are because someone can really deliver an idea and has the willpower to do something difficult,” says Hubert. “We innovate a lot and not everybody is conducive to that. If a company just wants to make products in a fashion they’re familiar with, that is not so interesting for us. Every project has to be a step forwards.” He pauses. “And, yes, that is a rod for our own backs.” Hubert doesn’t know another way, however. “Ask my girlfriend,” he laughs. “I’m easily bored and frustrated. If something doesn’t capture my imagination, I’m not really interested.”
Hubert’s self-awareness came at a young age. After studying art and design at school in Kent – encouraged by his carpenter-turned-teacher father – he chose design as his degree subject for the reason that “I wasn’t sure how I would make money in art. Also, design is relatively easy. You identify a problem and you try to solve it. You have a reason for doing it; I didn’t want to be constantly searching for the reason to create a painting. Quite how I made such a sensible decision at that age, I don’t know.”
His university course was, he says, “very pragmatic. It trained you to efficiently fit into another person’s business; it never encouraged you to pursue your own direction”. However, perversely, that is exactly what Hubert did. Working post-university, he quickly grew tired of the “very short life span of things we were designing. There was always something else taking its place.” The plan to set up on his own came early.
Hubert is aware he is on a long career trajectory, searching for enduring designs – the opposite of his throwaway early work. But Fraser suspects that somewhere along that line he will tire of the pared-down, stylish, high-end works in favour of that Holy Grail of design: making an object that becomes greater than, and quite independent from, its maker – something that is such a successful part of life as to be almost invisible. “I think he may increasingly feel the burden of his name and reputation,” concedes Fraser. “We were having dinner the other week and he was saying he’d like to create something that would make a difference to the world. I think it’s quite easy to design for the luxury market. What’s harder is timeless design, and I don’t think he’s quite cracked that yet.”
For Fraser, Hubert’s most interesting work to date – and one that has the most potential for that timeless moniker – is a furniture piece that his studio is currently tussling with. The Ripple table (price on request), launched to audiences last year during an exhibition at Aram, is made from superlight corrugated timber laminate, and is being created in collaboration with a Canadian materials specialist with no furniture experience. The table is now available to commission and is an independent studio project under Hubert’s own label. His curiosity and desire for innovation, it seems, cannot necessarily be satiated by the various alliances that he has with manufacturing partners.
Some of his collaborators are aware of this impatience. Roset intimates that Hubert may be becoming a little too “big” for them to work with, particularly if he pursues own-brand work. “We want to work with him again, but, if he becomes a Tom Dixon, a real star designer, then that for us is competition.”
While the latter may bother the Roset family, for Patrizia Moroso, his ascending stardom is inevitable and not cause for concern, nor is his forceful personality. “Yes, he has a very strong delivery in terms of speaking about what he wants. And, yes, he wants it now. And he pushes a little bit, but I understand that. He is talented, he is in a hurry, and he doesn’t want to wait. He wants to do something that you can see immediately. But for me these things are a special quality in the person – for me it’s an approach. In Italian we call it volitivo [determined and strong-willed]. We would call a lot of the designers we work with volitivo. It’s not a point of conflict for us. I respect his way of being. I think he is going to be a very big star.”
Such balances of personality over product, or vice versa, or of wanting to be incredibly visible, yet yearning for the ultimate anonymous design, of balancing media requirements and design integrity, are, says Roset, a problem that all designers face today. “For me, Benjamin represents all the issues and challenges of being a young, contemporary designer. You have to be great at marketing, good with the press, win awards, be commercial, sell well. He knows this – he thinks about it a lot. He is a good example of someone succeeding very quickly, but you can’t just be fast, you have to last. I hope in a couple of years’ time he can renew himself – and then we will see if his work is more than just giving the market what it wants.”