At home: A hands-on approach

By Claire McCall

Sam Haughton's recent award-winning designs are practical and good-looking. And he prides himself on being involved the whole way.

The living room of the Haughtons' inner-city apartment epitomises Sam's design aesthetic. Photo / Babiche Martens
The living room of the Haughtons' inner-city apartment epitomises Sam's design aesthetic. Photo / Babiche Martens

Well, you can take the boy out of Kaiwaka but when you scratch the surface of Sam Haughton's design philosophy, you realise there's still grit under his nails.

The founding director of IMO, an Auckland-based furniture-design company, is a pragmatist at heart. He has always had a desire to make things - from constructing trolley cars and bike ramps in the farm shed to producing award-winning tables and chairs.

In Home NZ magazine's 2011 Design Awards, announced this month, IMO's playful "A2" stool took top honours and, for good measure, the company's elegant outdoor "Fiord" table was commended as a finalist.

Viva spoke to Haughton to find out more about the values that drive his passion for furniture.

You studied history and social science at Victoria University. How has that affected the way you think about design?

History, philosophy and the arts are all things that help us understand the human condition and our cultural and social make-up.

Products that we use every day have an effect on us. Good design is not just about how it looks and feels but also how it works. Products have to satisfy aesthetic, psychological and functional criteria. A product is bought to be used, and I want people to enjoy using our products.

As a self-taught product designer, how did the journey begin?

I did jewellery-making in my final year at university, then a welding course. The first thing I made was a range of lights using old bits of steel and recycled materials. When my wife Hannah and I got married, one of these lights was revealed during the speeches to show everyone just how far I'd come - I buried it in a tomo the next day.

I opened my first workshop in 1992, designing and manufacturing one-off furniture commissions. Over time I developed a standard product range. I've always been interested in using materials in a way that they might be mass-produced. As the business grew I had to outsource the manufacturing, which is when I really started to understand how things were made. I built up some great relationships with manufacturers, some of whom I still work with today.

You say your design aesthetic is a result of the process, but it has a consistent style.

I guess it does have a recognisable aesthetic, perhaps more for the type of materials we use rather than an effort to make it look a certain way. While it would be fun to experiment with radical new forms and materials, we have to work within the manufacturing capabilities available in New Zealand - we can't just go off and design products that we can't actually make or assemble.

I believe that designs overly concerned with aesthetics don't survive long-term. I'm not interested in designing decorative objects or works of art. We design products for everyday use; they are tools and fulfil a purpose. Our products are quite neutral; I don't believe in loading them with non-essentials and it leaves room for the user's self-expression.

Affordability is one of the criteria you take into account when designing.

Working with a tight research and development budget is a challenge. It can be easy to over-engineer a product, however we have to find simple ways to detail things to make them cost effective. A bottomless budget would be great, but you might miss that simple solution that you may not otherwise look for. I guess I'm an idealist too, I like the notion of "good design for all".

Your "A2" stool has just won Home NZ magazine's Design Awards. How did this product come about?

We were approached by Fisher & Paykel to develop some furniture for their Social Kitchen exhibition - an exploration into the way the kitchen has evolved.

We opted for stools as the seat of choice to go with the refectory-style "Fiord" table. They had to be light, cost-effective, colourful and be able to stack into the container for transport. We chose a stool because it's more casual than a chair. You can perch on it, slide up into little groups - and you aren't locked in like you would be on a long bench seat. The leg arrangement on the table is quite architectural, with references to structural elements like staircases and bridge supports - so the stool had to be simple.

Colour was a good way to introduce playfulness, in contrast to the more serious nature of the table. It was great to work on.

Do you have a brand that people instantly recognise?

We're interested in creating a brand that will be around for generations to come which, of course, takes time and careful consideration. I don't believe furniture should be instantly recognisable; it's not what we aim for.

As [English product and furniture designer] Jasper Morrison says: "There are better ways to design than putting a lot of effort into making something look special. An object is just an object that depends on its long-term usefulness for survival".

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I've always been inspired by designers such as Jasper Morrison, Jean Prouve and Dieter Rams but I get inspiration from all sorts of people and things. From local architects such as Patrick Clifford and artists like Simon Ingram. You can see the intent, development and progression in their work. I have huge respect for that.

I don't design in isolation, it's not just me sitting in a room; everyone at IMO contributes to the design of a product, from the sales team to the installers.

Being hands-on is also a critical part of development - it's where so much of the learning happens. And it's the things you learn on site and in the day-to-day running of the business that inform your design process, too.

What is your stance on sustainability?

We are somewhat cynical because there is so much "green washing" that takes place. But there are many everyday choices we can make that can reduce the negative impact - we believe in small but genuine steps. Iconic Finnish brand Iittala capture this perfectly with their policy "Against Throwawayism". They aim for timeless objects that are "forever useful, adapting to all the moments, making them special".

We live in a culture of disposable, mass-consumerism, which is why it is essential that product can withstand daily wear and tear. We, too, aim to design a product that lasts a lifetime, things you can hand down to your kids or that can be disassembled and recycled. We don't believe in designing product that ends up in landfill.

* IMO, 87 Wellesley St, City, ph (09) 373 4081.

- NZ Herald

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