Duffy London | Footpatrol Discussions

24.12.21 Footpatrol Discussions

Here at Footpatrol, we’ve always had a fascination with all things design. Whether that’s from sneakers and paintings through to architecture and furniture design we’re always looking for new and compelling stories to share with you, the community. 

Combining the dimensions of modern art and function, Duffy London is an East London design studio that produces bespoke and authentic pieces of furniture that plays on invigorating concepts of gravity, geography and optical illusion.  

The studio was first founded in 2002, led by designer Christopher Duffy, and since then has been synonymous for its outstanding quality and unique craftsmanship that is perfectly suited to residential, commercial and public spaces. A few weeks back, we paid Duffy London a visit to sit down with Chris and the team whilst they set about creating their latest project, the ‘Stalagmite Table’.

Working with highly skilled artisans and craftspeople in the UK using sustainable wood and other eco-friendly materials and mediums. Duffy London has also featured in some of their most proclaimed pieces such as ‘The Abyss table’ in the Musée des Décoratifs exhibition in Paris, further solidifying its international and authentic presence. 

Take a look below at some of their collection whilst also seeing the design process of the ‘Stalagmite Table’.

Footpatrol: Chris first of all, thank you for having us. It has been a pleasure to meet you guys and see what you do. But before we get into anything, we like to ask everybody that we interview just to set the tone, how are you? 

Chris: I am very, very good, I’m excellent, this is very good, very busy. I had a little baby during lockdown, so he kept me busy, so that’s all good. Now you caught me in a very happy place and time in my life.

FP: So, to give us a bit of an overview, could you give an insight into Footpatrol consumer as to what you do? How would you describe Duffy London?

Chris: Duffy London is an ideas-based company, we come up with ideas and concepts same as you would for art pieces, but instead of making them into completely impractical art pieces, we focus them onto practical pieces of furniture. So yeah, we just come up with ideas, concepts and once we have perfected that, we turn it into furniture and that’s what I love doing. I have an idea and look at it as an art piece, as an art piece is much more valuable, but my brain just goes on, it will make a perfect table, I make it practical. By making it practical I de-value it by 90 percent, but I just can’t help it.

FP: What would you say was the signifying point for you to create such an individualistic brand?

Chris: When I started out, I was almost trying to compete with Ikea and make pieces that are practical for the manufacturer, shipping, and price point. But you simply on this scale can’t compete at all and it is very constraining in the brief. So, if you open that brief and say use any kind of manufacturing technique, use any idea, concept and materials if it fits then you can be far more creative. You then get a far better reaction, that then puts the price point up but the people you can sell it to is far less. When you are running a small studio, you don’t have to have a hundreds and thousands of customers, you only need 50 to 100 customers a year and you can run a successful studio. Then you can fulfil your creative aspirations! 

From the abyss to the balloons what would you say was the driving influence for these works of art and on top of that, would you say you had these inspirations from college or something that came later after and something you got into more after studying? 

I have always made stuff, ever since I was a kid I was always making stuff. Whilst everyone else was playing football, I was down the dump dragging stuff out of tips and old bikes out of skips. Building three wheeled bikes or go karts or anything, so my drive has always been to build and I’ve always been pretty good at art at school. Then I went to art college around the corner from here in Newham and did an art foundation. Then I went to university of Brighton and did product and furniture design down there, so it’s been constant. It’s not really a concept of starting in my 20s, it started from 7 all the way through till now. I can give you the inspiration for certain pieces like the balloon table: it wasn’t that I wanted a table full of balloons, I was simply trying to make a piece of glass levitate, so if I had just a piece of glass floating in the air that what the design would have been, but you can’t do that, not in this world! How do you make it levitate? If you put balloons underneath it, it looks like they are pushing the glass up and therefore it is levitating. The inspiration for this table was simply trying to make the glass float in the air and how you would go about that. I had lots of different ideas of things holding it up and I won’t give away too much because I might still use it later! The balloons were just one solution to the problem.

The abyss concept had nothing to do with an ocean! We based the typography on a place in the Caribbean, we did sort of use an artistic licence to move it around but that is all about representing depth using layers of glass. I went to my glass manufacturers and there is glass piled up 20 and 30 deep, they all had white labels on them saying what it is, they were all in similar positions, but some are slightly off. When you look at them the labels between the glass showed depth and changed colour, the same piece of glass and the same colour but layered up as less light gets through it shows depth. I was fascinated with that representation of depth and with what they taught me at Brighton, it was all about coming up with original concepts. If you see something, locking it into your brain! I thought yes, that’s a thing, I’ve seen these things, it is an original thing, now lock it into your brain – what do we do it with? So, mix that thought process with what I saw. I was working on another table based on the Antarctic at the time working with typography, so I put those two things together and got that was a perfect representation of depth. The first one we designed was white, with the blue layers which were nice and very crisp and very cold. Then we took away the finish of the white and left the wood underneath it which had a slight yellow tinge. When you mix the blue with the yellow tinge, you get the depth and all these tropical turquoise layers, and it basically came together like that. I just put it those components together and it half designed itself. I got those turquoise mixed tropical colours and at the time we didn’t think much of it really, we just launched it like any other table, we had nothing else to launch, we called it the arctic table at the time, and we thought that looks good. As soon as we sent that one out, that was back in 2014 or something – a time where there weren’t so many blogs doing design things – it was much easier to get featured onto blog pages. The second it was out there, a blog picked it up and posted it, then another blog, then another one and they all took it from each other. Before you knew it was on millions of blogs and we were getting like a million hits! I think it was over day or a week, we were thinking are we really getting that many hits! Things you can’t really dream off now. We got that by just selling out one image, one take that’s all we had to send out. You kind of hand that huge advantage 8 years ago , yeah trying to get that kind of coverage now will but quite impossible but 8 years ago, it was all fresh and open. 

FP: How many collections do you guys see yourselves doing? Do you see it being an unlimited round until you guys run out of ideas? Which I can imagine won’t happen anytime soon.

Chris: Yeah, I think that everyone’s worried, thinking you are going to run out of ideas. I’ve got the last 20 years of sketchbooks to go through, which is a hundred sketches in each sketchbook. I must live several lifetimes before I get through half of the ideas. Also, we are a design studio, we are here to design, we are here to create the most amazing things we can and then we sell some of them in order to fund us creating more in the future and it is basically reciprocal, it goes round in circles. We design more, people will hopefully love it, we sell them and that gives us money to get the studio running to design more!  The bigger we get, the bigger the idea can get, the greater the concept can be.

FP: Would you be able to build on why functionality is so important in your design? 

I know you said initially you wanted to create an art piece but in your head it’s also saying that I want it to do something at the same time. 

That is an exceptionally good question, that was kind of one of the fundamental things when I first started out. All my art teachers or art college they wanted me to go purely the art route, but I found art so subjective, there is literally no right or wrong, so is it good? That’s correct, is it bad? That is also correct, every answer is correct in art, whereas in design that’s not the case. Does it work as a chair? Can you sit on it? That’s not subjective, you can, or you can’t. Even with a table, does it work as a table and on top of that you have the ideas, concepts and the images that can be subjective. Do you like it? Yes, do you not like it? Yes, that’s also correct. So instead of it being 100% subjective, it’s 50% subjective. It is more challenging, especially as a designer or an artist as well but as a designer you’re there for the challenge you’re not there to make it easy for yourself. I find in design, it doubles the challenge, so it is not purely an aesthetic thing, I just always feel like I am just cheating people on something just to make it pretty. Same with trainers you got to make them beautiful, but they got to work, if they don’t work no one’s going to want them, that doubles the challenge and fascinates people.

FP: I wanted to talk a little bit about the latest project that we haven’t yet seen the final product. Could you give us a little insight into what it is and how the idea came about? 

The stalagmite table is more than it seems, I think we were in Spain not far from Ayamonte, about an hour’s drive there is this little town that’s got these underground caves. I was down there quite a while ago, maybe 5-6 years ago. Just seeing all those and with the abyss table we were working on having layers, it created a new way of using layers with glass. When you go through these kinds of caves, something fundamentally inside you recognises them, something prehistoric as beautiful things. I took in that historic feeling inside and again used it into making it into a practical table. 

FP: It creates a functional art piece; it is an experience itself. It is one thing sitting at a table, but it is another thing visually looking at it and almost getting taken back by it. 

Exactly! With that table, all you need to do is take a piece of glass off and put those pieces into any art gallery and I think they would hold their own in any art gallery around the world. We even have pieces in galleries around the world such as Paris, they are attached to the Louvre and pieces that are a part of the national collection already, so we are in galleries, we are that kind of level. But, yes so again, the stalagmites when they are finished, I am certain they will be amazing within the whole art collection, fill the Tate with them! That’s the thing I do miss with design, it keeps things to a human scale, whereas if it was purely art pieces we could scale up, we could fill the turbine room with these giant layered stalagmites and we can really push these concepts to as far as it can go. 

FP: By the sound of things, your design process and the way you approach your designs is very free-flowing, you don’t sort of sit at a desk and think, I’ve got an idea. How would you describe your design process as a brand? And as an individual.

Chris: The concepts all come from me, obviously I got great guys that I work with, for me it is 1% inspiration and 99% preservation, the old quote. For me it is 10 minutes to design, 5 years to refine. I never come up with the concept sitting at my desk, they always come when I’m cycling, when I have seen something or I’m in a factory, that’s where the concepts come to be, then they will be sketched out on my desk into my diaries. I always keep a few pages per week, those diaries are full of notes on what do, but also any sketch ideas, I find if you have really nice books to sketch you really hold back, because don’t want to ruin the book, so I like having a book I don’t care about that is usually destroyed or if the idea I sketch is a terrible one I don’t mind messing up the book itself. I don’t want a book that you can’t free yourself from. That idea will come from somewhere outside, I’ll sketch in my diary and then develop it for a few months and then I will go and sit in the design studio with Joe, the design team and Will, develop it and develop it, might take it 3-6 month to get the first prototype and it usually takes 1-2 years to get something that we are happy to send off to customers and then it is usually around 5 years when we have the final, perfect one and we have completely mastered it. The thing that ties it together really is that the designs are really varied, what ties them together is that it all really comes from the same place, same brain and that really is the only kind of thread that you can see through. Again, I don’t want to be tied to one type of design, one concept or one manufacturing process. I never compromise on getting the idea as perfect as it can be by saying ok, I am going to stick with this. We outsource a lot like specialised metal work and woodwork. It’s the really completed bits we outsource to specialists to get them perfect. We always bring them back to the studio to do a very final assembly and quality controls, so when it goes to the customer it leaves here perfect and arrives perfect. 

FP: Would you say that you have a brand philosophy as such with what you do? 

Chris: Yeah, the brand philosophy would be, it has to be new and be as original as humanly possible. There are always people doing things from the millennia, it may be other things that may be occasionally similar. But we try and find our own individual space as much as possible we are always trying to cross the boundaries, it is a really great way to work because you kind of have ownership over it, it’s yours, you have real passion for it because it was difficult, nothing comes in this world that’s original without of a lot of kicking and screaming, blood and tears. I think a lot of people respond to it well. That’s when you want to really see your work. It is very easy now to see so many things and if you can show someone something they haven’t seen before, they instantly lock onto it. The brain is constantly looking for something new. It also means we can select the very best people, because it is the very best people that see these things and think I want to work for that company, I want to be part of people doing these new things. It is all an upwards cycle, always a positive cycle. If we were doing something a bit like something else, not that original or sort of been done before, we wouldn’t have quality applicants that work here. People wouldn’t be as interested in what we do. 

FP: To sign everything off like I said at the start, thanks for having us! One because it is a pleasure to hear what you guys do, two it is an experience to witness what you do behind the scenes. Before we let you go, we like to ask our interviewees if they would like to share anything with the Footpatrol community? 

Chris: Well, I suppose if the people are into Footpatrol and obviously you guys are coming in, it is a showing that people are interested in the new, the exciting and the original! You only get one life, so you go to live in a new, exciting and original way, don’t spend your life chasing and doing this for money or doing this for a tick box, to get the wife, get a house or get anything. You’ll just look back and think oh my gosh I only had that tiny bit of time and I spent it ticking boxes. I have been very grateful for the way that I used time, I am very grateful to my younger self for basically saying screw it, I’m going to start my own company, I am going to do what I want to do and that’s the brief. I do what excites me for that short amount of time. Time just passes and that time will just pass no matter what happens, you might be doing something that is yours, something that you own and that your passionate about and the world will respond positively. There is always people on the internet to play devil’s advocate but that’s there issue and if they are talking about you I think it’s great, when I get really negative reviews, I love it I don’t know who they are but they know who I am and they really care, they care so much that they hate it you know. I have roused somebody up that I’ve never met and never going to meet, so by doing your own thing you get to be known to lots of people, you’ll never will know, and this firms you have made the right choices and are going in the right direction. 

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