In Conversation With: Damian Williamson

Damian Williamson doesn’t believe in chance. He grabs the opportunities that come his way and runs, fast. Born in London in 1974, he relocated to Europe shortly after his graduation and has since designed beautiful objects for every Italian brand that counts. But it’s his long-lasting relationship with super-brand, Zanotta, which has propelled him to his stardom today. In celebration of the launch of Chaplins’ new Zanotta studio, we caught up with the designer to talk Brexit, perfectionism and the pursuit of timeless design.

1) I’d like you to start by taking us back to the beginning of your career if possible. It’s 1998 and you’ve just graduated from Kingston University. What were some of the challenges and successes you experienced as a fledgling designer?

In 1998 I decided to relocate from London to Stockholm. Having just graduated I was unsure how long it would take to find a design job. Fortunately, within a few months of graduation, I was offered the first job I applied for — a position as a product designer at a leading Scandinavian architectural office. It was an exciting period with a wide range of challenging projects. What started with industrial design assignments for B&B Italia and Artemide soon progressed to bespoke outdoor benches made in Corian for the Roppongi Hills district in Tokyo. I was also fortunate enough to be involved in the office and workstation design for Ericsson’s new London headquarters in St James Square.

During this period I learned not only the importance of working collectively in a team but also how vital a diligent and thoroughly engaged approach to the practice is, in order to avoid the mistakes one is entitled to make as a student.

In 2005, roughly one year after I’d established my design practice I was invited to Milan by Maddalena De Padova who’d read an article about a research project that was already underway. Maddalena was interested in an experimental project that aimed to increase the comfort of a wooden chair by exploiting the natural elasticity of the wood fibers.

De Padova subsequently acquired the rights to produce the solid ash Spring chair and launched the design during the Salone del Mobile Milan in 2006. This project was the first of my designs to enter production and marked the beginning of my career as an independent designer.

2) Do you think your experience rings true for the young designers of today?

Even if my experience is different, I expect it’s just as much of a challenge for young designers to practice design professionally today as it was back then. To continuously design a good product is no easy task. In my view, there are perhaps only a handful of contemporary designers in the world today who have consistently mastered the art of design. Irrespective of age, this profession demands exceptional standards.

3) How did your collaboration with Zanotta first come about? And how has your relationship evolved over the nine years you’ve been working together?

Being familiar with the design icons in the Zanotta collection and impressed by the high quality and technical finesse that is synonymous with the Zanotta brand, I decided to send a new idea for a sofa collection to Zanotta. The positive response started a rich dialogue that culminated in two projects: Ella and William, both launched during Salone del Mobile Milano in 2010. Since then our relationship has gone from strength to strength thanks to a shared passion to create timeless designs. The projects we’ve realised together are the result of an intimate collaboration based on mutual trust.

4) The William Sofa is one of Zanotta’s bestselling sofas and a true icon of contemporary design. What’s one of your tips for creating a timeless design?

Once I have a strong idea, sufficient time is required to execute it, especially if one values simplicity, as I do. Time to evaluate then reevaluate the progress —to make minor refinements or improvements along the way.

During this period I’m never satisfied, so I continue to refine the project again and again. It’s really rather a repetitive process but never boring. I examine the progress, make the necessary corrections then reevaluate and so on. At some point, I’m unable to make any further improvements which is when I know that the design is near completion. This activity relies on intuition and the ability to envision a future with sensitivity. The quest for product longevity is the main reason why I ensure that each design assignment undergoes such a rigorous creative process. If someone is willing to purchase one of my current designs in say, thirty or forty years from now, then, for me, this would be the ultimate compliment.

5) Your most recent sofa, Hiro, was one of our favourites on show at this year’s Milan Design Week. What was the impulse behind this piece and how do you hope it’ll be received?

Thank you. Naturally, I would be delighted if Hiro is appreciated as much as William. Time will tell. Hiro is a sculptural object, detailed with extreme care. We chose to develop the optional open-ended modules to encourage a more fluid interaction with the sofa and create a dynamic rhythm within the interior. I had a vision of a sofa that floats like a hovercraft.

To emphasize a feeling of weightlessness we positioned the leg fixing points within the perimeter of the seat, which eliminates the need to fix legs to the seat edge. The leg is an important element and a defining feature of the collection. It took a significant amount of time to refine during the design development process. One that involved a meticulous examination of both proportion and surface in order to create the desired atmosphere.

6) With Brexit dominating the news in the UK, we seem to be facing a backlash against globalization, all of which feels very at odds with international design processes as we know it. As a Brit living and working in Sweden, what’s your perspective on Brexit? And will it have any impact on you and your firm?

I consider myself to be a global citizen despite the unavoidable borders we encounter. Freedom is a cherished cornerstone of my personal philosophy and paramount to a positive, creative vision of the future. Since I’ve spent much of my life constructing objects it’s no surprise that I believe in a world in which we come together and collaborate to build a better future. Even if the EU is far from perfect, I was disappointed with the referendum result — specifically the way in which the political establishment in the UK failed to act responsibly and honestly. In truth, it’s too early to predetermine how myself, my business or other UK citizens will be affected. There are still too many unanswered questions.

7) Have you ever received any design advice that’s served you particularly well over the course of your career? If so, would you mind sharing with us?

When Charles Eames was asked what is his definition of ‘design’ was he replied: “A plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.”

Strictly speaking, perhaps more insight than advice, this well-rounded definition of ‘design’ is by far the most accurate, humble and succinct I’ve come across. When designing useful, functional products that embody an emotive quality, it’s imperative not to forget what it is we are trying to achieve, why we are doing it and for whom. This knowledge has served me well over the years.


Recent Posts