Sowden: the new name in homeware
In 2011, fed up with an unspontaneous design process governed by marketing strategy and no longer resembling the close collaboration between designers and manufacturers or artisans that characterized the hey day of Italian design, legendary Milanese designer George Sowden decided very simply, to get on with it and to do so on his own terms, putting his name to a range of products for the first time in his 40 year career.
Liberated from these corporate structures and able to bring his broad range of experience to the extremely collaborative and high-energy manufacturing environment of China today, George Sowden was able to work quickly and daringly, to experiment with techniques usually out of bounds in homeware (such as stainless steel micro-engineering), to insist on the use of quality materials (beautiful Imperial Chinese porcelain of Chaozhou) and to develop more fully than ever before his personal vision of design.
The resulting products clearly bear the stamp of a mature designer with an extraordinary body of work behind him, working confidently without concessions or compromise. Look closely at Sowden’s products, his high-tech but primitive SoftBrew™ coffee maker or teapot invented to bring you into the most direct contact possible with the flavours and aromas of freshly roasted coffee and loose leaf tea, or his traditional weight pure porcelain plates and bowls, use them every day and, beyond the immediate value of their easy and intuitive functionality and high quality, you will begin to see the sober poetry of their forms; the visual communication of values which feel highly relevant in an age of extreme globalization.
Good quality means good factories
Some people when they travel, go visit churches, I go to factories. In China, where Sowden products are made because of the incredibly energy of manufacturers and because of the quality of their porcelain, it’s still pretty easy to have an appointment in a factory. You call up from your hotel, the secretary says:
“Wait a minute.
He’s busy now.
Can you come in 10 minutes?”
Before you know it you’re rushing to get over there.
Towards the end of your meeting the boss will always, always tell you “well you must visit my friend who has a factory just round the corner.”
I’m just there following my nose, so I ask a few questions and then I usually say yes and head over to the next factory. This is how I ended up meeting the people who manufacture the SoftBrew filter, they were a micro-engineering factory making the parts of toy helicopter engines, they’d never done any homeware or anything like what I asked them to do before. That’s how I was able to develop a filter that has perforations of only 150 microns, literally twice as small as the next finest filter for coffee and tea.
The first thing I look at when I go into a factory is how happy the people working there seem. Often in porcelain factories you work in little teams, in Chaozhou for example, where most of our products are made, it’s traditional for there to be husband and wife teams, so I watch them work together. Perhaps they’re not exactly enjoying themselves but they can’t look bored out of their brains. I’m the kind of designer who’s worried about getting the details just right, for that to happen you need the people making them to look at the thing in the right way. I also look at how tidy the factory is and whether the workers have stools to sit down on. I note the influence of the owner, who himself or herself is often working on the floor alongside his or her workers.
Porcelain factories are fantastic, they’re using materials people have been using for 2000 years and everything is still made by hand. There is no automation at all. Even if you are mass-producing, you have to keep your eye on things. It could start out round and finish up square. It’s not a question of control. It’s a question of collaboration.
A lot of companies go into negotiations with their manufacturers very aggressively. As far as I’m concerned talking about price with manufacturers is a question of attitude, if you say I want it cheap then that’s going to be their attitude as well. I don’t mention price, I just say I want a product that’s really well made. When you look at the quality of all the details and surfaces of Sowden products compared to other products you realize what a difference this makes; they’re using unadulterated local porcelain, they’re continuously refreshing the moulds…
- George Sowden -
Sophisticated and daring simplicity is the rare type of design intelligence found in the work of George Sowden.
Born and raised in Leeds in the immediate post-war years, Sowden went on to study architecture at Gloucestershire College of Art in Cheltenham in the 1960s. Determined to be a designer, and on the invitation of early mentor Ettore Sottsass, Sowden set off for Milan, Mecca of contemporary design, in the early 1970s.
His first important work was done at the renowned Olivetti where he participated in the design of early computer products, implementing many ergonomic innovations which are still today considered industry standards. This experience taught him the complexities involved in handling industrial processes and how exactly design fitted into it all. Milan has continued to be his and inspiration ever since.
In the 1980s he came to the attention of the wider world of design as a co-founder of the legendary Memphis group.
Following those heady years of intense and radical experimentation Sowden continued his work with some of the world’s leading homeware and design companies including Alessi, Bodum, Pyrex, Tefal, Moulinex and Guzzini as well as winning the Compasso d’Oro in 2001.
Many of the ‘tools’ he has designed over the last two decades, such as his series of chairs for Segis, have quietly become firm icons of new design.
2011 saw the 30th anniversary of SowdenDesign, the studio he set up in 1981 as well as the inauguration of Sowden, the first line to directly carry the designer’s name and the most comprehensive expression yet of his personal vision of design.