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Sam Hecht has accumulated an extraordinary collection of things that cost “Under a Fiver”. Drawn from all over the world the items encompass everything from astonishing kitsch to a functionalism of serene purity.
Each object tells a story about contemporary culture, about the nature of manufacture and marketing, about the way we see and use things. The collection travelled the world, bringing sparks of recognition and delight in the world’s worthy design museums.
Hecht is one of contemporary design’s most quietly effective and thoughtful figures. At his London-based company Industrial Facility, Hecht and his partner Kim Collin are, as their collection suggests, not interested in the flashy, art-priced furniture clogging up the world’s auction houses as the boundaries between star designers and overhyped artists are eroded. Instead they are
passionate about everyday objects, things that “take
a certain pleasure in their anonymity”.
That explanation is key to understanding Industrial Facility’s work. Incisive yet self-effacing, they have a modest appreciation of the status of their work. These are not decorative stand-alone objects they are de-signing but parts of a larger ensemble, the background to ordinary life. It is a kind of realism. I ask Hecht if that understated approach is perhaps rather British?
“Perhaps it is,” he replies. “There is a kind of British modernism, a modernism without the slickness, a kind of make-and-mend version derived from limited resources.”
In the light of that, it is perhaps ironic to encounter Industrial Facility designs in that most un-British of shops, Muji. There is a coffee-maker that Hecht is very proud of, a simple cylindrical device that acknowledges its prime function in part-time employment only and is designed to sit unobtrusively in a corner. There is an extremely elegant fan, which sold out immediately the national temperature rose. There is the superb “second telephone”: a free-standing handset stripped of any superfluous detail, that rarest of thing, good-looking electronic kit.
And there are the cities in a bag, one of the most popular stocking fillers of recent times, a gift that says “urbane and witty” about the giver and confers hip on the receiver. The cities (London, New York, Paris) appear with instantly recognisable, flattened versions of their best-known landmarks. They have succeeded the farm-in-a-net bag that was a staple of earlier childhoods.
That was, according to Hecht, exactly the point. “The Muji stores are the epitome of urban,” he tells me. “They approached us with an idea for a kind of village-in-a-bag. But what would that mean to these city kids?” Suburbia-in-a-bag was born, a gently satirical collection of boxy houses, caravans, hedges and even (“and this was brave of them”, Hecht adds) an Ikea store. They sold out all over the world, while the big hit in stores last Christmas was “outer-space-in-a-bag”. Cute.
In Muji, for whom he is European creative adviser, Hecht seems to have found the perfect client, a company aware of the value of design in an international, mass-market context but also one in which the playing-down of the brand is the brand.
But Hecht is apprehensive about the future. “As designers we’re living on borrowed time,” he tells me. “At the moment over 90 per cent of what we design is manufactured in Asia. There’s a huge distance between where these things are conceived and where they’re made and the question is increasingly what exactly we can contribute beyond what a thing looks like.
“Our knowledge of how these things work will never be up to that of the manufacturers. At the moment we’re still attractive – but what happens when China gets designers?”
He leaves that one hanging in the air and begins to tell me about judging a competition for young designers in which he was deluged with thousands of awful designs. Does he think there are just too many products around, leading to a whole-scale devaluation of design?
“That’s a hard question to answer,” he replies. “Most of this stuff is disposable. The removal of the cost issue of production has meant two things. First is the possibility of the expression of a particular view – good design being made available at reasonable prices – which is what Muji has done. Second is the idea of masses of small individual companies capitalising on these low costs but producing worthless rubbish.
“What I’m most interested in is quality. Our processes are almost more architectural than product-oriented, we think about the context, about the room, about participation in the landscape.”
In a design world that attempts to ape the excess of the fashion industry, Industrial Facility stands firm. Their success is down to a focus that builds on the failures of the confusion, clutter and planned obsolescence of contemporary life.
“Much of our work,” Hecht tells me, “involves so many existing solutions, each shouting for attention, each different for the sake of being different. When you design something simple, it tends to stand out.”