Fact 1: ARCO is a successful manufacturer of contemporary furniture in Winterswijk in the East of the Netherlands.
Fact 2: OKAY studio is a London designer collective, consisting of former RCA students.
For a company like ARCO the biggest challenge is to main- tain exactly the right pace of development and innovation. If you’re too fast you loose customers because they get out of touch with your company culture, and when you’re too slow competitors with a more up to date identity take over and you loose grip on development strategy yourself. Therefore you have to proactively and continuously explore ways to continue. An important method to probe the future is to propose new designs and observe reactions. London based OKAY studio developed ideas for new ARCO products in an extensive workshop to discover opportunities for renewal within the company’s tradition.
The first time ARCO undertook such a project was in 2005 at the occasion of the celebration of the company’s 100th birthday. At that time ARCO had developed from a small firm that produced picture frames, into a modern company that produces and markets contemporary, rather minimalist furniture, having gone through an episode of producing classic European preindustrial furnishings: small cabinets, hat racks, newspaper boxes, side tables, and the like, products in a bygone style that now have to be made in low wage countries in order to be competitive. The switch from classic mass products to modern high-end furniture, designed by Wim van Ast and also designers from outside the company, happened rather suddenly. As a matter of fact it happened right in the middle of one catalogue in the mid ‘70’s of the previous century and its success was due to the luck of getting a very large order from Saudi Arabia, which paid for considerable investments.
As a Dutch modern furniture producer ARCO in 2005 not only had firmly established its own product niche, but the company had also become accustomed to the use of up to date machinery and a logistic system, that allows it to sell high quality furniture, which is custom made to size and appearance for each individual customer. Flexibility in current times of emerging ideas about consumer influence is quite an important asset. ARCO is an early adopter by nature. It was even one of the first companies with a telephone and in the mid-70’s it was the first in the Netherlands to incorporate the use of numerically controlled milling machines, which could partly be paid for by working for other furniture companies such as UMS Pastoe.
So in the important celebration year 2005 director Wim van Ast, trained as a designer and cabinetmaker himself, decided to challenge twelve young and renowned Dutch colleagues to individually respond to ARCO’s products and manufacturing methods. They worked on the commission separately in their own studios and the range of different ideas they presented in an exhibition in Arnhem was quite astonishing. It reached from an embroidered rice filled overwhelming chair cover that was meant to look like a fat woman, by Frank Tjepkema, to Dick van Hoff’s chest with a visible handcrafted drawer opening and closing mechanism and Jurgen Bey’s idea to turn milling dust into chairs, to a beautiful tiny chair cast in bronze designed by Studio Job. A book named ARCO 12, published by 010 publishers, told the story of ARCO and the different designer viewpoints.
Three prototypes were found sufficiently promising to be developed further and they ended up in the ARCO catalogue, which is not a bad result at all, considering that on average in industry only one out of ten products that are initiated actually appear on the market. Ineke Hans designed a wooden chair with leaves cleverly decorating the seat and backrest in 3D with numerically controlled machinery. Barcodes, as used in production for product identification (every piece is handled individually), inspired Miriam van der Lubbe to design a bench with an enlarged through and through dark and light wooden barcode. It emphatically illustrates the phenomenon of logistic identity. Bertjan Pot designed the ‘Slim Table’. Made out of steel and honeycomb material and entirely covered in veneer, it looks nigh impossible, because the ‘wooden’ tabletop seems too thin to be true. Yet it is stiff enough to carry the weight of a fat painter. Pot got the idea when he noticed ARCO already used veneer on steel to cover a small welding seam. He simply concluded that covering steel with veneer opened up new opportunities.
It was not simple for ARCO to deal with all new ideas the twelve designers presented. Up until then the company identity had been characterized by simplicity, lightness, and slender geometrics. A more contemporary narrative approach of expression had simply never been considered, confronting the company with the fact that its catalogue tended to become a bit too predictable. A whole new direction of design thinking for ARCO had revealed itself. At the same time the impulse on the whole appeared too far ahead of customer expectations. The development strategy had to be amended, but quite carefully, one step at a time, to maintain balance.
The ARCO 12 project came as a bit of a shock, but also made quite a positive contribution to strategic thinking. Cooperation with young designers such as Bertjan Pot and Ineke Hans has become standard policy. In addition a new generation is making its entry into the company. That is why artistic director Jorre van Ast, who took over part of his father Wim’s work in 2008, decided to do a similar project, on a more modest scale, a kind of activity that may eventually become a normal way to stay in the front line of furniture development.
For this occasion there has been a cooperative workshop with ten designers belonging to London based OKAY studio. This choice seems strangely arbitrary at first sight, but there is a very simple explanation: OKAY was initiated in 2006 in London by a group of former students of the Royal College of Art and Jorre van Ast himself was one of them. His role is rather exceptional in the sense that he both commissioned the workshop and took part in it. The collective consists of a core group of about six designers form varied backgrounds around which other designers join and leave.
Naturally Jorre van Ast’s position in this workshop project was somewhat ambiguous. In the practice of working on the assignment, however, this caused no friction at all. The brief left plenty of space to the designers to follow their own intuition. Van Ast had no intention to interfere with that. All he did was provide support to his colleagues and answer their questions concerning production facilities. It must have been heaven for them to work in such a well-equipped workshop environment, with someone who really knows the facilities.
The name ‘OKAY studio’ does have a rather established ring to it, but the main relationship between the designers that take part in it is that they share a space. They influence and inspire each other obviously, and they may work together occasionally, but they are not one company. The differences between the OKAY designers may be more interesting in the ARCO workshop project than what they share. They are from six different nationalities, have different educational backgrounds, apart from the RCA, and different professional experiences. They all developed into people with different mentalities, reaching from dreamy to mechanical and from pragmatic to playful. Returning to what they share as designers, none of them feels the need to comment the way their predecessors did back in 2005. They mean business. The challenge is quite suitable for that. Their assignment was to explore new opportunities for furnishings, small furniture pieces that can serve as extra requisites to make life more comfortable. One could also say: no chairs, nor tables. There was more than enough space for new developments here, since this kind of products seems to be in a somewhat orphaned state. For some reason the convention among furniture designers is to do tables and lamps and particularly chairs. By focusing on the fringes of interior product design OKAY can return ARCO back to an earlier stage in its history, which may present an opportunity to enrich the product list with objects to read between the lines.
During the project there were of course discussions and doubts. The commission was to design new products that could be produced by Arco, but they were to be presented in a design gallery. It did rapidly become clear that inspiration had to come from within the factory and that the presentation context was secondary.
The outcome is nice and balanced. One can observe individual designers presenting completely personal viewpoints and solutions, the kind of things they would normally do, which at the same time all are designed to become Arco products. They all have this typical smooth quality. Partly this may also be the consequence of a shared RCA background, where industrial quality is a standard requirement. But the main cause is that they work with all the Arco machinery. The factory presented itself
as a crucial part of all the concepts.
All members of OKAY studio, everyone at Arco,
Walter, Herman, Sjonnie, Robert, Lyon,
Roelof, Edwin, Ed van Hinte, Lucas Hardonk,
Damien Poulain, Shoot me now, Floor van Ast,
Rik at Lecturis, Saskia Copper and Aad Krol at
Galerie Vivid, Rotterdam, Wim, Trix, Mechteld,
Objects by Okay Studio and Arco
Text by Ed van Hinte
Photographs by Lucas Hardonk
Website by Cemal Okten