Furniture designers honoured at Guildhall awards

Sebastian Conran and Olga Polizzi award designers of mass-produced furniture, says Annie Deakin
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The Independent Online

That guildhalls and liveries still ooze pomp can’t be denied. There are long-winded ceremonies, seven-course banquets and fancy robes. Yet, amidst the grandiosity of yesteryear lies cutting edge thinking. This April, a select group of eminent judges - among them Sebastian Conran and Olga Polizzi - gathered to give 11 Design Guild Marks to designers as a public recognition of excellence in mass-produced furniture.

This Design Guild Mark is not an award to be sniffed at; it allows designers and manufacturers to use the Design Guild Mark Logo and The Furniture Makers Company crest on their product and in their marketing. A little like the stamp of a Royal Crest, the Design Guild Mark Logo enables consumers to make better-informed purchasing decisions. ‘It is becoming the most valued award in the British Furnishing industry,’ says Hindle, Founding Chairman of Design Guild Mark, in an exclusive interview. ‘I aspire it to be considered the Red Dot awards of the UK.’

So, who were the lucky few? Eleven designers were awarded this year; it could have been more. There is no limit. In fact, it would be easier to give more awards because it is nice revenue (those awarded pay to receive one) but it isn’t about making a quick buck. The focus is to promote the excellence of British design on a global level. ‘We are fiercely independent with very high standards,’ says Hindle, a designer/ architect. ‘John Sorrell and Terence Conran advised me when we were setting up four years ago never to let standards fall, or to allow anything to undermine the quality.’

Meeting the criteria this year were Samuel Chan’s Gillespie Side Tables designed for Channels and David Fox's Poppy Lounge Chair designed for Italian manufacturer Tonon Italia. The latter is formed of steel PU foam and fabric and shaped like blooming flower petals. London-based designer Mark Gabbertas was awarded twice; for his contemporary modular Haven Seating System designed for Allermuir, and also for his stainless steel Cloud Dining Chair designed for South Boston-based Gloster Furniture.

Rare recognition was paid to the high street. John Lewis got a look-in thanks to Leonhard Pfeifer’s Farringdon Laptop Desk (manufactured by Woodman) and Marks & Spencer celebrated an award courtesy of Rachel Galbraith’s oak and mahogany Gainsborough desk. But it wasn't just the homely touches that appealed to the highbrow judges. Designed with hospitals in mind, Kinneir Dufort’s Easy Clean Bedside Cabinet made for Bristol Made met the Design Guild Mark criteria. As did Pearson Lloyd’s ergonomic Cobi Chair for Steelcase created for group collaborative meetings.

These Design Guild Marks are awards with a difference. For starters, it is one of very few award systems where each piece is physically inspected. ‘We judge each piece in the flesh,’ says Hindle. ‘The commitment is much higher than other awards because each selected entrant has to provide a full mockup.’ Secondly, this is not a competition with a winner. ‘There is no best of the best; it’s a question of whether a designer has achieved the very high standards set out in the criteria. It’s either worth a Design Guild Mark, or it’s not. It’s a sophisticated marking process so that no judge could push his opinion too aggressively. All our judges have strong opinions so we often have lovely long debates.’

Livery Companies remain a mystery to most of us. Is it a world of 'funny' handshakes, hushed meetings and elitist networking? Not really. Each company's main raison d’être is to support and encourage its industry. Hindle, (or if you can stomach his official title) Warden of the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers, explains how for all their pomp and pretentiousness, Livery Companies such as his do wonders for their industries.

'Our livery is made up of 300 active members of the furniture industry in its broadest sense,' says Hindle. Formed as a Guild in 1952, it became only the sixth Livery Company to be created since early in the 18th Century. Today, representatives from John Lewis, Furniture Village and Dreams are members. In addition to awards such as Design Guild Marks, the Livery Company offers bursaries, the scholarships, the training courses and the support network for all in the furniture industry.

The fancy dinners and showy ceremonies of the Guildhall amuse Hindle but they're far from his priority. ‘It's a very busy livery. The Lord Mayors are often pointing to us as an example of how an active livery works for their industry. I deliberately didn't want to mention the pompous ceremony; yes, I am a warden so I do parade about in my long coat and it is fun,' says Hindle with a laugh. 'But, we try very hard not to give that impression.’

Annie Deakin is interiors writer for sofa and interior design website