Photography / Editorial / Print

"There is a fascination with light and what it can bring to an environment," says young designer Samuel Wilkinson in describing the driving force behind some of his award winning designs. The Plumen 001, which the designer worked on for almost two years with manufacturer Hulger was, he says "a fantastic project which explored the idea of an aesthetic lightbulb." It was a challenging brief, to give form to something new and redesign the energy-saving CFL light bulb. "You didn't know what was right or wrong and we were pretty much going back and forth for some time to finalise it." The end result of twisting the bulb's glass tubes is a shape he describes as 'organised complexity,' complemented by a soulful yellow tint when lit. The Plumen 001 led to Wilkinson collecting the grand prize from the London Design Museum of ‘2011 Design of the Year’ and the highly coveted ‘Black pencil’ from the D&AD, but he says his career has only just begun...

Wilkinson learned his craft at Ravensboure College of Art & Design in 2002, graduating in furniture and related product design. "It was a great college and I chose it because it had great workshops. It's nice to make, get your hands into the material." At the time, "Ravensbourne was in Chislehurst near London, set in a purpose built modernist campus in parkland." It has now moved next to the O2 centre but Wilkinson fondly remembers the workshops, "which is not always the case these days, where lots of universities are cutting down on workshop availability and making it more digital. It is good to have a balance of those things."

Six months after college, Wilkinson got an internship at Fitch:London, a big branding agency, followed by a few other leading consultancies such as Tangerine, PearsonLloyd, and Conran "working on projects like transport and furniture. More of the industrial design I really wanted to get into." Gravitating towards design came naturally, "Art wasn't my best subject at school, I was more maths and physics. I suppose it is more a technical outlook, that's why I like to find order in my design. I found as I got older, I could however bring my artistic side into that. I was quite visual as a child and am dyslexic as lots of designers are, you kind of gravitate towards making things, patterns, visuals, design based types of work."

It is very important for design to have life and energy, "the ideal is to create character and soul in the object, while also have functionality, sustainability in terms of durability and quality, so that it holds interest." It helps that his training in furniture design has given him solid grounding in ergonomics and visual balance, "There are so many subtle facets. You can design two objects in a very similar way, but one may just have that something special that can push it that little bit further."

The studio in hackney has shelves littered with designs, lights and intricate little paper and 3d printed furniture mock-ups. Picking up a piece of wood, "this was the initial stage of the Hoof table for Danish company &tradition. We were playing around with the bandsaw and making different patterns, realising when you cut it in three or four ways you get this pencil type reference." The table is less pencil orientated however, "we took the reference of that and formulised it a little bit more, different from a usual manufacturing process, in that you would paint it first and then cut the ends afterwards." It produces a beautiful craft aesthetic.

His work has led to an inclusion in Design week's UK top 50 consultancies, which he says "was a massive honour. Its nice to get professional accolades like that, but even as a student, winning the D&AD New Blood Award and the RSA award which gave me a travel bursary to go to Japan, was very special." There is a sense that greater projects are ahead of him and what could be a dream project we ask "it changes all the time, maybe a hotel, where you can design everything, from the cutlery and  furniture to the interior. Because then you can really cultivate that environment, whenever you design a product you imagine the perfect context for it, its not often you get to facilitate that product into a space."

There is somewhat of a cultivating of an environment in his work, jointly designing L’arbre de Flonville in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was he says, an "interesting project, with an ex-Ravensbourne colleague of mine, Olivier Rambert who lives in Switzerland and heard about it. Working with a simple contemporary town square, we thought there was an opportunity to pitch something a bit more crazy. It was quite a boxed off square, so we wanted to oppose the regularity and linearity of these cubic buildings and propose something a lot more anarchic." The 16 metre tall metal trees reference the shelter of an old oak tree, "somewhere you feel comfortable to sit, the root benches permeating outwards from the square have a function of leading people in to the space," when coupled with "little visions from outside the square," It brings people into the middle and through the space.

What first drew me to the work of Wilkinson was the Biome. I have a Biorb with several energetic goldfish, just watching them swim in the aquatic world in amongst the Elodea and Java fern is a great stress reliever. The digital to physical interface, in controlling the environment of the Biome, almost like a Tamagochi can have the same stress relieving benefits, "everybody is so submerged in their iPads or iPhones, trying to connect that through an app to a real physical thing, nature," albeit a micro environment "can be a thing of joy." The Pendola Clock project is in a similar theme to Biome, in that it is centred around ‘Digital downtime’. Proposed with an engineer friend Joe Wenworth, the brief was to make it look like it was free swinging and not powered, and is hopefully going into production at some time soon. "The internals give a really fluid movement, but the main idea was to create an aesthetic clock that can have a second function, something you can turn off and on as desired, creating a soft or relaxing mood for say a Sunday afternoon or when hosting a dinner party." 

Speaking of the approach to design and aesthetic over the years, "I don't think it has changed that much, obviously the more technical you get, the more refined you become and your eye gets more balanced. You know what works or doesn't much quicker. When you are doing a project which is more market driven, you get to know parameters and workflows better. That's what has mainly changed." The Vessel lamp for Decode, an enclosed glass shell that accompanies Plumen 001 is something that also works very well, in that they complement each other. The reflections you get off the Plumen 001 create an almost holographic effect, "lighting is very different to furniture, which is sculpture in space, light can illuminate an entire room." The vessel is hand-blown by a master craftsman, "a lot thicker glass and I'm still amazed they can be hand-crafted to a very specific shape, without requiring any mould." Other recent works include a modular chair designed for Decode and an compact affordable desk for Case.

The studio’s work diversifies across various disciplines from furniture to consumer products to public realm and future endeavours will see a new light coming out in September for a Danish company &tradition. Called the Flux, the diffraction patterns are beautiful to behold. Wilkinson is "also working on some stationery, furniture, lighting and a table to go with the Hatcham chair launched with Decode London." With enthusiasm to designing interesting objects and spaces very apparent in his work, there are exciting times ahead.

Interview, studio portrait and imagery
Nardip Singh

Product images provided by designer 
Copyright © Samuel Wilkinson
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