Partners: Dick Powell and Richard Seymour
Wednesday 17 February 1999
Dick Powell: We didn't actually know each other at the Royal College of Art. I was doing industrial design and Richard was doing graphics. When I went back the following year to look at the degree shows, I saw his. It was more product than graphic. For example, he had a poster to warn people in factories about dust, printed as a sticky film. The more dust, the more the message became visible.
Meanwhile, I had set up in business and was lecturing part-time on a foundation course in St Albans. Richard did the same, and I got to know him as we both rode motorcycles. We used to travel up and down together.
Richard was in advertising. I was a product designer: he was a graphic designer. The skills you need are completely different, and graphic designers who have switched into industrial design are rare, because of the knowledge needed. But Richard obviously had that sort of interest.
Then I left my firm, so I was working on my own. Richard was getting fed up with advertising, saying: "All I am is a glorified Filofax. There's no sense of permanence to anything we do. It's all so ephemeral and transient. Who gives a stuff about this or that ad? If I ever get really fed-up, can I come and rent desk-space from you?"
I had a bit of spare space and I said "sure". One year, I think it was 1980, I came back from holiday and found Richard had moved in.
As you do when you are working with people in one room, you say: "What do you think of this?" He has an unbelievable drawing talent; a kind of on-board CAD system. Let me give you an example: my parents moved out of their house and I wanted to draw it, but just couldn't remember the details. Richard had been there once, for two hours. He said: "It's okay, I'll draw it." He could just pull it back out, because he has a photographic memory.
We were working together on projects, but because both of us had been burnt in previous businesses, we didn't want to have partners ever again. After three years of gradually growing together, though, we later formalised the arrangement as Seymour Powell Ltd. We were working together in the best way partners can. It was by osmosis; his thinking was penetrating mine, and vice versa. First we set up a holding company, a shell which allowed us both to run our own business without the complexities of getting together. It was only two years later that we incorporated it.
Richard learnt a lot about how to be a product designer from me. For the first few years, what I said tended to be what went. But that gradually disappeared as he very quickly learnt how everything worked.
We sit opposite each other at what used to be called a "partner's desk". We have our own entrances and we are both very messy. We hardly ever see each other socially outside of a design context. But there's an awful lot about Richard I admire. He's a polymath, a very smart guy with a huge intellect. He's brilliant at telling jokes. I was the guy who used to remember them and he was the guy who told them.
We laid down the rules at the beginning: for example, if something is bothering you because you think it's wrong, you have to say so and don't hold grudges. We also set ourselves something we wanted to achieve: when the managing director of Sony is thinking of using a design company, one of the first three names he'll think of will be us.
Our relationship is a bit like a marriage - you need a sort of open understanding. There's no room for any kind of Machiavellian intrigue. We don't disagree about much. Eventually we will hammer out a solution. I tend to do more of the running of the business, and I'm more product-focused. Richard is interested in the wider issues and tends to let go of the structure. There have been occasions when I have had to shout: "What's going on here? This can't go on."
Richard Seymour: The first time we consciously met was in the supplies cupboard at St Albans. We got chatting and it turned out we took a similar route. It was a transportational imperative that threw us together. We occasionally got together early on Sundays to drive our remote-controlled models in Battersea Park. I put the remote- control system into my motor bike; I hadn't realised it was massively illegal, but it used to amuse us outside pubs occasionally.
Dick has got an extremely good memory. We'd go to a client do and he would have in his mind the database of jokes and it would be my job to deliver them. When people say, "a 16-year partnership, wow, that's amazing", I think, "it is, actually". How has it hung together so long, especially as we are both so competitive? It's not destructive, though - it's in a sort of relay. We always have to come up with one better.
I have learnt professionalism from Dick, who has a very strict streak; a sense of how it should be. That was quite a strong matrix within which to work. He would produce five options, each completely worked through, whereas others would do one. I can't imagine a better business partner than Dick Powell. He is scrupulously honest.
Although I trained as a graphic designer, I went into advertising and then film production design. But I was fed up of working my nuts off to create something that evaporated. More often than not we were compensating for the inadequacies in the product itself. Dick had taken on a property probably a little bit large for him and said: "Any time you want to leave advertising..." He came back from a holiday one day to find me. That was the crucible where Seymour Powell formed. Dick came in one morning and said: "Look, I've got this idea. I think we should form a company together. I think we should call it Seymour Powell." I thought, here's how to win a man over, with my name at the beginning. When I am being brutally honest I describe myself as a hitchhiker. My thumb was out and off we went. Because of Dick's strictness, there were rules involved: we should concentrate on product design, and not entertain other disciplines. But product design is a very broad discipline. It's like a big playground.
Using phrases like "management style" to me is, like, "what the hell does that mean?". Dick is much better at formal management. He manages to keep his desk tidier. He goes to levels of great mathematical precision whereas I am much more of a wet-finger merchant. But we lead from the front.
The desk is a model for the company. We're like weathermen. The nice thing about having two of us is that a client can cleave to one or the other. I'm not the most conventional looking person in the world. But the wonderful thing for me is that I can just be exactly how I am and it doesn't seem to matter. I am not a Savile Row suit wearer. If I wasn't working with Dick, I would probably be in an entirely different discipline. For some reason, I had a three or four-year attention span. I did a book with Michael Palin, the world's first children's hologram book: it sold 300,000 in hardback and was translated into 11 languages. If the partnership with Dick hadn't been so strong, I would have said "Books! Career! Change again!"
Dick and I work in very different ways. He sets up a dialogue on paper. You can follow the genealogy and see his brain at work. My dialogue is internal. When Dick and I first worked together we would be sitting at the table, and he would be drawing, drawing, drawing and he would say: "For God's sake, draw something." I would say, "I am". Then the stuff would come out. I think he still finds it a curiosity. My sort of cathartic mechanism is great when it comes to putting down a believable concept, but it's absolutely hopeless for detail.
When we formed Seymour Powell, my knowledge of product design could be written on the back of a fag packet. Eric Cantona didn't say this, but he could have done: "A kite can only fly because it's attached to a string." One tends to think of restraint as a force that reduces effectiveness but in this particular case, restraint allows it to flow.
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