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a note from george j sowden
SowdenDesign consists of eight people in 300 sq.mt. of industrial space, a former warehouse of a glassware supplier to pharmaceutical companies. From a rational point of view we have much more space than we need, but a lot of it is used to keep models, prototypes or drawings and things from exhibitions, so the interior design of the studio is really an accumulation of studio work and research. There is a well defined computer space but the rest is general spaces for meetings and social life.
The Studio has always researched and paid particular attention to the nature of the object, the language of design, the way products are identified. I try to avoid the inevitable worrying created by uncertainty and a lack of communication. I like to think that above all we make an effort to be poetic.
We now work almost exclusively on the design and engineering of electronic or electro-technical products for industrial production.
SowdenDesign was founded in 1981, in Milan, by George J. Sowden and has grown over the years with important partnership relationships: Simon Morgan, Hiroshi Ono, Davy Kho and Franco Mele, and great collaborators: Christian Hartmann, Stephen England, Cynthia Viale, Giovanni Amenduni, Christopher Coombes, Guillaume Delvigne and Tomas Ortiz Ferrer. So the history of the office covers a period of the last 25 or so years and is made up of many different strata: my own radical years of the 70's design research, parallel with early work for Olivetti and the design of their first electro-mechanical and later electronic products. Followed, in the 80's, with the Memphis years together with my increasing curiosity about the evolving identity of electronic consumer products. The Studio laid down layers of experience with various kinds of industrially manufactured products as well as artisan products such as textiles, glass and ceramics.
I studied architecture at Gloucester College of Art in the 60's. I came to Milan looking for work as an architect and I went to see Sottsass. He offered me a job and sent me to Olivetti where I became a designer working with all those wonderful engineers who had made Olivetti into an internationally recognised company. I remember my first experience at Olivetti, walking into a huge drawing office and seeing maybe 50 to 100 drawing boards: on each one a different drawing. It was a place which controlled information in a way which I later defined as the manual management of information and it was there that I learnt the complexity involved in handling industrial processes and where design fits into all that. But there, in the 70's and 80's, I learnt the old system (2D) involving hundreds of people, drawing boards, sheets of paper passed from hand to hand, corrections, infinite revisions of part-codes and the constant effort to avoid mistakes. But it was that experience which helped me to discover the creative possibilities and the quality advantages made available to us as the studio moved into electronic management of information at the beginning of the 90's. We learnt how to model and engineer electronically, moving enormous amounts of information (3D) with the means of just a few people.
We took part in a revolution in Industrial Design which of course was a consequence of a De-Industrial Revolution which was happening anyway in industrial organisation. And, as we moved through the 90's, the whole world restructured its industrial attitude: smaller companies taking the lead over mastodontic multinationals. Products started appearing in continuous, almost organic, production cycles and not as the result at the end of a long linear process, like it was until very recently.
SowdenDesign recognised this change very early on and by now we are capable of handling very complex industrial processes using advance electronic systems. At the same time brainstorming is used all the time in the office. We work on bits of paper, sketches and soft models before working up computer information. We have become very good at selecting and rejecting quickly… I like to think our process is more organic than linear. Individual talent, quietness and being alone and thinking about things is of the utmost importance. But in the end, what comes out of the office, is the result of group working. There is a constant synthesis in which the client plays a big part.
The way the office works would be impossible without the electronic management - the speed at which we process information creates energy around the project, conveys the idea of pleasure in creating and makes space to involve other people in the development. It is important to be as dynamic as possible and never stop pushing until the product is very well defined. I believe that this is felt in the finished product.
The nature of the studio's work is determined by the fact that we do the design and the engineering at the same time, to divide them would be artificial. The way that things are assembled is so important, as in fashion or music. The engineering in products is like the quality of the cut in clothes or the sensitivity of the touch in music. Engineering is the execution.
Manufacturing needs to be done carefully. Modern aesthetics, like modern life styles, are very fragile. I do not mean this in a weak sense, I mean are fast, they disregard monumentality, they depend on diversity. But, they rely on quality as we build a collage of unrelated objects which become the world in which we live. Quality, in the end, is the skill and ability to manage all the information to come up with the finished product.
Society lives fast. We consume simultaneously as we turn the page in the magazine and glance across the street, our attention caught as the taxi turns the corner in a hurry as the lights are changing. All that surrounds us is artificial, each time different, exceptional, sometimes surprising, but always communicative. (There is always a sentiment). It is the quality of communication that has become the driving force of the world, a driving force that pushes in at all levels, organisational and cultural, changing our behavioural patterns. I believe it is unrealistic to want to put order into our environment. It is the complexity and the instability of the present that gives it its strength, and the constantly changing undergrowth through the transfusion of ideas that gives it its vitality. Do we ever see the same thing twice?
George J. Sowden