When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did their famous deal over the leadership of the Labour Party, they enjoyed the support of one of Britain's best designers of contemporary furniture. Literally, that is: they sat in Islington's Granita restaurant on Romany chairs designed by Martin Ryan. If you've eaten at a Cafe Flo or a score of other restaurants, or had coffee at the Seattle Coffee Company, shopped at Etam, or waited in a Whitecross dentist's waiting room, then you too have probably sat on Martin Ryan's furniture.
During the 1980s, a number of young furniture designers rose to prominence with extravagant and expensive art objects laboriously made by craft processes which ultimately made little impact beyond a small coterie. A decade on, a few of these enfants terribles have moved on in ways that promise they will exert a broader influence. One of the most flamboy- ant of them, Tom Dixon, was last month appointed head of design at Habitat. It is an exciting development for the modern but hardly avant garde housewares retailer.
Ryan was always out of a different mould. "Everything I design has got to be manufacturable," he told me when I first visited his studio in 1990. "I'm not interested in doing something that just looks nice." Rivals looked at his work at this time and pronounced it boring - and then looked again and saw how Ryan had worked at the details to bring down his prices.
This approach has been crucial to his transition from designer to manufacturer, and for our seeing his work no longer solely in the pages of magazines. When designers become managers or business people, they are often frustrated at the amount of their time spent away from the drawing-board. But not Ryan. "If you are absorbed, spending less time 'designing' isn't such a problem," he says. "It's down to personality. To be only a designer for me would be utterly boring. I want the variety of different problems of manufacturing."
However, Ryan did not make the jump into manufacturing entirely voluntarily. He was pushed into it to some extent by the difficulties he experienced in trying to get his designs made to a satisfactory standard by subcontractors more accustomed to working for customers for whom cost - not added value through design - is the driving force. "Subcontracting is a nightmare in this industry," says Ryan. "They won't improve quality because the chap on the factory floor can't switch between making something of one quality one minute and a higher quality the next. It's extremely difficult to co-ordinate this subcontracting, especially with design products which are priced at a premium."
It can work. In Italy, France and Spain, where a design-led furniture industry thrives, there is a larger network of subcontractors who understand the requirements of the manufacturers whom they supply. This infrastructure isn't present in the British furniture industry. (It is, however, present in the automotive industry. Here, ironically, the situation is reversed - highly competitive component manufacturers supply to companies that have over the years shown themselves incapable of making desirable cars.)
Ryan's experience exactly parallels that of James Dyson, the designer of the wildly successful bagless vacuum cleaner that bears his name. Dyson found a satisfactory manufacturer for his product in Japan. But when he set up to make his machines in Britain, he found he was unable to obtain the necessary level of quality from contracted suppliers, before switching the work in-house and building and rapidly expanding-his own factory.
In the early days, Ryan worked in artisanal fashion, not like some his contemporaries in London studios, but from the outbuildings of a country house a few miles outside Gainsborough in Lincolnshire. When his operation outgrew these surroundings he rented space on an industrial estate in the town. Last April, Ryan too bought enough land to build his own factory. Since then, he has added another unit, and there is room for further expansion. "I hadn't got a masterplan to be a manufacturer. I hadn't decided to go into it until I realised it would be a solution to those problems," he says.
The assembly process, formerly limited to batches of a couple of dozen by space for holding stock, now handles batches of several hundred. Ryan sells several thousand units a year of his most popular designs. His 12- strong company expects soon to realise a turnover of pounds 1m.
Taking control of the manufacturing process has been gradual. "We began with processes where we experienced the most difficulty. Metalwork was the greatest need and the most intensive manual process." Ryan's Romany chair was sufficiently more complex than previous designs to prompt this first step. "I spent a year developing it so that it would solve a lot of manufacturing problems. But that solution meant that all the effort would have to go into the tooling and jigging."
The frame that joins the legs and supports the seat requires precise forming and welding of its component parts. The legs, based on elegantly tapered steel tube, are swaged to shape by an external metalworker. But the tasks of bending the tubes, finishing the ends, cleanly welding them and the seat base parts, and finally coating the complete frame, are all now done under Ryan's eye.
Ryan is still bringing additional processes in-house, and finds it a spur to his creativity. Selling metal table bases without tops (restaurants typically specify tops separately to match their interiors), he realised that a woodworking facility would enable him to increase his profits. Ryan is now in the relatively unusual position of designing in both metal and wood. "It will add a flavour to our products," he says.
Simply bringing outside skills in-house does not automatically guarantee higher quality production, of course. Training is the key, not so much in practical methods as in design ethos. It is hard for anyone to get excited about any product when it is wrapped in polythene awaiting shipment on the concrete floor of a windswept Lincolnshire industrial estate. Ryan ensures that his staff get to see well-designed products in their "natural" setting, for example at a trade show such as Spectrum, the leading contract design event at the Royal College of Art in April, or in a stylish retail environment such as the Conran Shop. "People aren't generally exposed to design round here, but when they are, they tend to like it," says Ryan.
His new 1960s-looking Lulu chair is Ryan's first upholstered product, and brings another opportunity to master new materials and techniques. Ryan has so far held off employing experts in his new materials, preferring to experiment first without someone telling him all the standard dos and don'ts. "It will have the effect of pushing us towards introducing all sorts of new products. We want to find our own way."
Designing for manufacturers abroad, Ryan found not only a good understanding between manufacturer and supplier, but also between manufacturer and design consultant. "On the continent, they won't choose anything they can't sell; but once they've done that, they are more interested in the design than the marketing."
Here, it seems a designer must run his own company to win such freedom. Ryan has gone a stage further, constructing a virtuous circle in which the wish to realise new designs prompts the acquisition of new skills, and then that new capability stimulates ideas in its turn. "In order to feel stimulated as a designer, you've got to change. And as a manufacturer, you have to feed your technology," says Ryan. "I'm confident it will have a good effect simply because I find it inspirational."