Inside the studio of industrial designer Philippe Malouin

A man reclines on a light blue sofa in a studio.

The British-Canadian designer and member, who studied at the École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle in Paris and trained under Tom Dixon, opens his doors for an exclusive tour 

Words by Rosalind Jana     Photography by Phil Dunlop      Grooming by Marcia Lee      Set styling by Clare Piper       Tuesday 15 September, 2020.    Above image, from left: rubber chair for Salon 94 Design, 2019; 'Group' sofa for SCP, 2018

Lockdown fell at a fortuitous time for Philippe Malouin. Well, sort of. ‘Just before lockdown, we managed to move up all the stuff from downstairs,’ he says, describing his move into a new studio in Deborah House in London’s Hackney. ‘There was no organisation, no shelves… so I was in the middle of all these boxes on my own.’ 

The industrial designer, best known for his clean silhouettes and canny use of materials, was ready for the move. His previous studio – ‘very small, about half the size of this’ – was in the same building. There, he worked on many of the items he’s now best known for: lights, rugs, sofas, chairs, and art installations. Having trained at the Design Academy Eindhoven and the École Nationale Supérieure de Création Industrielle in Paris, Malouin went on to work for designer Tom Dixon before striking out on his own in 2008.
A bowl and some interior design artefacts on a plain wooden surface

Cardboard model of the 'Kuru' bowl for Iittala, 2020

A black and white portrait of a man in a studio

'Hardie' stools for Please Wait To Be Seated, 2020

Twelve years later and his new studio is testament to the very singular body of work he’s since produced. Packed full of prototypes, products and work in progress, it’s a space that reflects Malouin’s attentive approach to form, function, and experimental design. It’s seen plenty of activity already, too. ‘We strangely got really busy during the pandemic. Lots of companies called us asking for new designs,’ Malouin reflects, sounding almost bemused. ‘I didn’t understand how that was possible. But I think maybe because people were spending more time indoors, there’s still huge attention on furniture.’ 

With bright white floors and shelves up to the ceiling, this space has given him room to approach things afresh. ‘Sitting on my own for three months, everything got much more macro. Big ideas came from small details,’ he says. Here, Malouin offers us a glimpse of the new studio, complete with key works, early commissions, and pieces by his own design heroes. 
A table and chairs in a stylish house
Above: 'Kuru' vase for Iittala, 2020; 'Arca' light for Matter Made, 2020; 'Offset' table for Resident, 2018

‘I’ve had a studio for 11 years, and this is the first time we’ve had something custom made and I’ve had budget to create a nice working environment: plants, light, all those things. In the previous studio, everything was just packed up to the ceiling. It was very oppressive. Here, I wanted a work station that had a ton of storage. This is a fantastic thing for liberating the mind, without sounding too fancy about it, because now we have this clean studio that gives you space to think. 

‘This is the most important thing in the studio right now, because it literally houses everything we have. It’s also where we make most of the prototypes and samples we’re working on. We have a basic workshop. Our most trusted tools are a chop saw, a disc sander, and a bandsaw. I’ve had the bandsaw from the very beginning. It’s not the best but I refuse to let it go – it has sentimental value now.’ 
A black and white office setting

‘It’s all about form for me and how things are made. We’re definitely not like those old Italian masters who sketch these perfect things. Everything comes from some error or experiment’

Above image: 'Antenna' desk by Antenna for Knoll

All in the details 
‘A large part of the process is one little detail. Often, this comes out of making a small experiment, rather than a whole design. Once we find one thing that’s interesting, we find an application where it could exist or be. Afterwards, the design will come. The shape-making and prototype-making will start, then the full design incorporating radiuses and proportion. Then we go back to making. It’s all back and forth.  

‘Another really good way to do work is via photographic research. Most of the images we start projects from or get ideas from are a million miles away [from what it becomes].’
A stylish chair against the wall in a studio
Above: 'Scirocco' chair for Volkswagen, 2008

From prototype to finished product 
‘There’s a huge world of difference between what we start with and what we end up with. The idea for this SCP sofa came from this cardboard prototype here. The [original] inspiration came from London’s electric posts. You can see one from the building – the lamp post has an electric cover that’s slightly larger in diameter. That’s where the geometry came from. It’s basically a grouped component. You have the piece on the outside and a piece on the inside, and they huddle around each other. Then we just started making experiments with the Group cocktail chair. Eventually, we cut it and scaled it out into a sofa. A lot of things come from elsewhere. Design isn’t that interesting, but everything else is.’
A man stood in his studio in a dark t-shirt and trousers

'Hanger' chairs for Umbra Shift, 2008

A light blue fleece chair next to a simple wooden side table

'Group' sofa for SCP, 2018; 'Offset' stool for Resident, 2018

'Alvar Aalto is my favourite designer of all time, and the furniture he’s made for Artek is probably the most important to me, because it’s about economical use of materials’

Offset stool 
‘It’s all about form for me and how things are made. We’re definitely not like those old Italian masters who sketch these perfect things. Everything comes from some error or experiment. Here, we were trying to make a stool and we drilled it wrong. When we tried to attach the leg, it was literally offset and wasn’t screwing in properly. So then we thought we might as well exploit the laws of improbability. That became fun and playful, and also wildly successful.’ 

The first piece 
‘This chair is the first job I ever got when I graduated [from] school. It was for Volkswagen. They asked me to make a chair based on one of their cars: the Scirocco. It was the first paid work I ever got. That’s why I keep it, even though it’s huge and it makes no sense to have it. It’s really hard when you’re a furniture designer, because you have so much stuff. We’re probably going to need storage soon. We get rid of things all the time. It’s the biggest and most important exercise. I find it difficult, but unless it’s something we can use, we have to throw it out.’ 

Marble shelves 
‘This is for Marsotto Edizioni. It’s a shelving system where you can put in the hooks or shelves you need at whatever height you want. I’ve always loved Marsotto. James Irvine was the Creative Director when I was still at university. I remember going there and loving their approach, and hoping that one day I might work with them. Wallpaper* magazine, actually, paired us up for Wallpaper* Handmade. A lot of those things are really lucky because there are these clients who, when you’re a kid, you never think you’d ever work with. Now they know who we are and they’re calling us.’
Alvar Aalto stools 
‘Our visual language is always very simple. We don’t have compound curves or complicated things. Everything is very geometric and minimal. I hope it’s never too decorative. Alvar Aalto is my favourite designer of all time, and the furniture he’s made for Artek is probably the most important to me, because it’s about economical use of materials.’ 
A black wooden stylish stool in a studio
Above: 'Aalto' high chair K65 by Alvar Aalto for Artek, 1935

The kitchen
‘In the kitchen you can cook for clients. It can be very personal, rather than just being this official meeting room. The fact that you can cook for yourself changes the shape of the day, too. You can go out and get some ingredients, and decide to make something for the others. We’re still social distancing, so we’re not all in there at the same time, but when everything goes back to normal it’ll be a really nice space. 

‘I had some friends over on Friday and cooked them some fish and had some wine. The capacity for this other dimension – something personal in a workspace – I didn’t have that before, it was just work. Also [in our previous studio], all the sitting was formal and work-related, whereas now there’s this idea of leisure – of changing how you work, and sitting for eating, and sitting for lounging. I encourage everyone to come and spend 20 minutes on their phone lying on the sofa. It’s not so intense.’
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