After arriving at a warehouse on Hackney Road, east London, where the industrial design agency Layer has nestled itself within its converted office, I’m shown into the main breakout area and given the chance to take in the space that surrounds me.
At first instance, the 325sq m building’s entrance is confrontational. The black-stained door gives a ferocious nod to its industrial ancestors, yet when pulled open reveals a calm and neutral interior with new, modern inhabitants.
Inside, the walls are decorated with the agency’s recent work: colourful deep-set shelving units display deconstructed Axyl chairs made from recycled aluminium, as well as parts of Scale, the first modular acoustic system to be devised from recycled hemp. Samples, layers of materials and flip boards filled with notes and prototypes – this is a place where craft meets technology, and where innovation and research play their role in defining the next generation of design.
Layer’s founder, designer Benjamin Hubert warmly greets me en route to the meeting room. Tucked away, although rather indiscreetly, in a corner of the showroom, we take a seat. Hubert sits opposite me with a striking red glow reflecting on to his face – the colourful result of the vibrant crimson desk between us, which contrasts heavily with the dark painted walls. In this strong visual setting, we begin to catch up on the past seven years of his career.
When OnOffice last featured Hubert in 2011, he graced our cover as one of Britain’s most promising talents. Armed with a notebook, pen, black coffee, striped red and white t-shirt and a certain look of modest charm, you could tell that this designer was aboutto embark on a successful and ever-evolving journey. At that time, the then 27-year-old was preparing to launch ten new products at Salone del Mobile. Now, he holds the reins of his own design studio, Layer – and has partnered with brandssuch as Nike, Samsung, Braun, and not to mention Fritz Hansen and Moroso. He has received numerous awards, including the Red Dot Design Award and most recently The Design Guild Mark in 2018 for Axyl.
On reflection, the designer’s voyage began way before he even started his first role at DCA Design, the largest design consultancy in the UK, before moving to London in 2007 to work as a senior industrial designer for Seymour Powell – the internationally renowned design consultancy. In October 2010, it was time to take the plunge and he launched Benjamin Hubert Studio. Five years on, Hubert rebranded his studio as Layer – an agency that focuses on creating experiences through research and human behaviours.
During our wide-reaching discussion, which picked into every crevice of his career, it became clear that the rebrand represented asignificant shift in maturity – in both personal and professional development. “The name changed to Layer for a number of reasons,” Hubert begins. “Firstly, when it was under my name, or under anybody’s name, you get asked to do things that are very much based just on your taste. It’s flattering and can be good for the ego, but it’s a little bit un-dimensional and you get asked to do the same kind of things often. So, one of the reasons for changing, expanding and taking the name off the door was basically to do more, and to do different types of work for different types of brands.”
This led to a team expansion – from around eight employees to 23 – which Hubert describes as a “bit more democratic”. He has a fair point: not only do many minds make for great work, but this suits the type of work that comes out of Layer’s studio in both figurative and literal practice. “Layer essentially references the way we think about our work: we think about the world in layers; we think about products in layers. It’s the layers of value, and layers of how people do different things in their day,” he adds.
What’s interesting to note is that Hubert didn’t design any furniture before setting up his studio – he was more a researcher strategist and industrial designer, which ultimately allowed him to develop in certain explorative ways that perhaps a narrow career choice may not have enabled. He describes his work as “less style based and more problem-solving”, and directs the studio’s projects on “work that’s helped to change business, and sometimes helped to change lives”.
I can’t help but think that this universal attitude is a result of his past, partly due to an encouraging teacher at school who allowed him to “do pretty much whatever [he] wanted”, along with a creative mind filled with “crazy silly concepts like submarines”. At least, his attitude toward technology and relationship with it is certainly a driver: “It creates opportunities in its own right to do new things you maybe thought about doing before but couldn’t.”
Nolii – his sister company, which Hubert co-founded with tech and design entrepreneur Asad Hamir – is an offshoot of the technology-infused and smart, humanistic and sustainable design within Layer. With two new collections in the pipeline, it’s a brand that purely demonstrates the end-to-end journey, with the user placed at the core. Its products – which include Couple, Bundle, Keep, Set and Stack – form an eco-system of accessories, such as chargers, battery packs and plugs, that elevate the user’s relationship with technology.
Hubert has incorporated technology in other ways too: as seen with his most recent collaboration with Moroso, the Tape collection, which features a modular sofa and table using fabrics sourced from Kvadrat. As his eighth collaboration with the Italian furniture manufacturer launched at this year’s Salone del Mobilein the Fiera, Tape marks a six-year relationship that shows a pure passion for construction.
Inspired by the fashion industry – in particular, outdoor sportswear – its engineering draws on a long-lasting method of using polyurethane tape to bond together smaller pieces of textile – which would otherwise be discarded and thrown into the endless pit of waste circulating our planet. The technique, Hubert explains, was inspired by the sporting industry where heavy-duty and wet-weather garments are bonded together using heat-sealing tape.
“I got this idea from my jacket,” explains Hubert, after detailing how hardwearing overcoats use the tape as a structure to reinforce seams. “It’s quite an extreme idea, in a way, to cover textiles in tape. But I just thought it would be great to make an upholstery collection that can be based outside. And when you use the tape, it literally melts into the fabric and it’s no longer sitting on something that you can peelaway. It’s super strong, which is interesting because I could see people atthe fair picking at it and touching it.”
Upholstered seats fit for the outdoors usually mimic the construction methods of wetsuits: sometimes they are formed via a black glue on the inside – “ugly” and “not great for the environment”, says Hubert. “So the whole idea was to take this horrible construction on the inside, make it simpler, make it substantively more desirable and express it on the outside.”
Furthermore, if something can last longer, that makes it more sustainable. This encompasses the whole premise of the Tape collection, alongside the use of smaller parts of would-be waste, which takes a positive route towards an environmentally stable future. With the current state of our climate, Hubert believes every designer should be bringing sustainability into the conversation; it’s a topic not to be avoided and one that should be crossing into the mainstream. “A designer can influence a lot, but there are limits. Things that are recycled and are more responsible are often more expensive because the process around them means that there’s added cost. You can’t expect the consumer to suddenly trade-off, which means there’s an education piece that needs to be done.”
This is where his designs come in. “We’re trying to change that,” he continues. By only linking up clients and projects that adhere to a high level of sustainability, the company’s recent and upcoming projects seem encouraging. Launches include the aforementioned new wave of Nolii products, a bag collection, eyewear, some additional tables for the Allermuir Axyl collection as wellas some hi-tech wearable products.
All of which contribute towards a positive direction in terms of sustainability but, despite change through the work of designers such as Hubert, it’s a question of how much time we have. “I think the world is changing – legislation is changing, so products are becoming more rigorous and have to fill more criteria. So it’s an inevitable direction – it’s just a matter of how quickly it will happen.”