While one school of modern furniture design is bold and oversized – epitomised by Moroso, B&B Italia, Ligne Roset et al – another strand is elegant and understated. In Britain, its proponents include Bethan Gray, Matthew Hilton and Ilse Crawford, and, much further down the ladder of influence, a raft of imitators selling “handcrafted” furniture via the internet. But its high priest is PINCH, the studio run by the product designer Russell Pinch and his wife and creative director, Oona Bannon.
Pinch and Bannon met when she joined his previous venture, a branding consultancy called The Nest. In 2004 they set up PINCH in one room of their home in Brixton, south London, and have since produced a portfolio of original, graceful, timeless furniture and lighting: stately sofas that nod to Georgian forebears (but are also deeply comfortable); glazed armoires inspired by Victorian shopfitting; sidetables and stools with exposed joins in the manner of a Windsor chair; a lampshade so sculptural it has to be made by a milliner. The shapes are pared-back but characterful, the materials natural and tactile: fine-grained timber, velvet, linen, leather, even banana fibre (for those lampshades). And the craftsmanship is superb, with all but three of the 50 lines handmade in English workshops. Pinch and Bannon control their own manufacturing, choosing the maker for each piece, rather than working to commissions from a major design brand, as most designers do. Several designs have won awards and it’s surely only a matter of time before a PINCH piece goes on display at the V&A.
Understated doesn’t shout, and PINCH may be too quiet for those who see only the historical references and miss the innovation. The bestselling Imo stool, for example, has a Shaker sensibility and can be hung on the wall, but its seat folds in half along its centre – the Shakers didn’t think of that. “Russell is a very, very good designer and one of his great talents is to have found a style that is modern and also classical,” says Sir Terence Conran, the designer behind Habitat and the Conran Shop. “He deserves to be better known.”
Pinch and Bannon have yet to open a shop in London, but already have two outlets in America. At the Future Perfect PINCH sofas start at $4,929, but at Crate & Barrel you can buy one for $899. That’s because they’re not PINCH, but a diffusion line by Russell Pinch. In 2012, Nicole Maile, Crate & Barrel’s director of creative resources, was sent to scout for foreign talent. “Russell was the first designer I thought of,” she tells me by e-mail from Chicago.
Every year at London Design Festival, Clerkenwell Design Week and Maison et Objet, PINCH sets out its stall with a thoughtful edit of pieces that are prone to start a conversation. Which is equally true of Pinch and Bannon. He brims with enthusiasm; she is warm and frank. They both talk with their hands, look you in the eye and speak openly about their work. The only place to see all that work – apart from the cow barn in western France where they spend the school holidays with their daughters, Ada and Floris, aged eight and six – is the PINCH studio in Clapham, south London. Once a railway shed, it’s a lofty space furnished with the entire collection. A spiral staircase leads to a mezzanine where Pinch and Bannon sit (on Eames chairs) with their team of five, at desks arrayed with scissors, tape, fabric swatches, images and Pantone references. The hum of creativity is overlaid by phone calls about commissions and logistics – these days, with 30% of their sales overseas, things have to be delivered as far as the Australian outback and the Arctic Circle.
Unusually for a design studio there is a proper workshop with benches, lathes and wood shavings. Here the team whittle visual models in balsa wood and knock up full-scale models in MDF to figure out ergonomics. “Whittling gets under the skin of the actual designs,” Pinch says. “It’s so much more interesting than CAD [computer-aided design] and you can’t hide anything.” While Pinch and Bannon do everything themselves, from art-directing the shoots and producing the (very beautiful) catalogue to quality-controlling every piece – “we are hilariously hands-on with all the elements and probably completely control-freaky of our whole brand” – Pinch is happiest in the workshop, a legacy of a childhood spent in his dad’s. John Pinch, his father, is a designer, sculptor and silversmith, and even taught him at school.
It’s December 2014 and I have come to see the first PINCH bed come off the drawing board. A leg is on the lathe, but Pinch is more fired up about a new coffee table. Unlike the bed, it won’t be wooden. “It’s going to be much more of a sculptural piece. We want to make it look like it’s made out of…the only way I can describe it is a ‘stormy-sky stone’.”
He shows me some 1:5 models, solid bowls and cylinders, potentially monolithic forms with his signature lightness of being. The previous week they took them to Rupert Lampard, a childhood friend who is an artist’s maker. “He thinks the way to do it is to cast it and so we’ll probably use Jesmonite.” This is a plaster resin, often used in set-building, that hardens like concrete but is lighter and is so versatile it can be finished to look like anything – wood, stone, plastic, metal, even fabric.
It’s a long way from traditional joinery and Pinch is thrilled. “It’s abstract, it’s completely different.” It’s also going to be expensive, as it may take Lampard a year to develop a mould. But one of the benefits of working for themselves is that they can write their own briefs and set their own deadlines. “There are no investors saying, ‘Where’s your profitability?’” That gives them the freedom, as Bannon puts it, of “going off-piste because stylistically we fancy it”. This coffee table will be an adventure in deep virgin snow.
Bannon e-mails in June with mixed news. “The bed is very asleep at the moment and shows no signs of waking. It’s just not working on a design and logistics level so we need to give it some air.” But the sculptural coffee table is nearly there. The tortoise has overtaken the hare.
I take a train and a taxi into the sticks of west Gloucestershire. At first sight Lampard’s place is a typical farm, but its main produce is art, for some of the biggest names in the art world. Inside a large shed I find heavy machinery, chemical smells, sandblasting sounds…and Pinch, Bannon and Lampard.
“Would you like to see it?” Lampard says, leading us to a capsule that Pinch tells me is an old Mercedes spray booth. Inside, sitting on a plinth like a font in a church, is the table, which Oona has christened Nim. It glints under the fluorescent light. This is the first time the Pinches have seen the piece with some colour on it and they’re delighted with the way the tone rises from inky blue-black at the base, through pale ochre to sparkling stone-white on the top. It reminds me of a Turner watercolour.
“This is such a cool thing,” Bannon says, almost doing a little dance. Pinch quizzes its painter, Holly Beck, about the bleeding and veining. “I let the texture inform the paint,” she replies. “We flipped it over so the water could move it in different ways.” Though flip isn’t quite the word for a thing that’s a metre wide and weighs 55kg.
The texture, crevicey at the bottom and flawless on the top, has been a key part of Nim’s character since Pinch made those first models. It’s so integral that it’s actually in the mould, which Lampard made from the master, a polystyrene base on which he sculpted clay. The mould is made from platinum-cure rubber because, he explains, “it has a massive library life – it should still be OK in ten years”. To cast a Nim, Lampard slops Jesmonite onto the inside of the mould, building it up to a thickness of 12-16mm. Then a perforated steel lid, with Jesmonite applied to its rubber underside, is bolted on. The suction is so strong, “I had to blast in talcum powder to get the lid off,” Lampard says. “I’ve never done it before.”
The finished Nim belies the trial and error it took to reach this point. “The first one Ru pulled out of the mould he didn’t even show us,” Pinch tells me. “He said it looked bloody awful. All the artistry is in trying to make it look irregular.”
“It demanded quite a lot of cunning to produce it,” Lampard admits. “Its simplistic shape was harder to produce than a complex one.”
As I leave, Bannon is musing on the possibilities a durable mould will bring. She wants to mix metals into the cold cast; one version could be “oxidey”, another “sulphury”. Each Nim will be different and the edition will be limited to 50.
In July, I pop into the studio to see Pinch. And Nim, which is looking luminous between a dove-grey Moreau sofa and a steel-blue Joyce sideboard. The previous week, he and Bannon were “taking it in turns to have no sleep” for worry that it wouldn’t fit with the existing collection but now it’s here “it feels like a natural addition to the family”. The Jesmonite creates a synergy with the other materials in their palette. “The irony is the bed should have been easier,” he says. “Furniture’s easy because we know how to make it, we know wood and we can make the prototypes here in the office. Nim should never have overtaken the bed, but the bed design wasn’t quite right.”
While we’re on the tortoise and the hare, he pulls some rabbits out of the hat. A new chaise that’s already with the upholsterers. A prototype for an executive desk “that’s going to be walnut and leather”. And yesterday the planning permission came through for the house they’re building in Devon.
I laugh, incredulous: how many more plates do they want to spin? “It’s mental, our to-do list is out of control,” he admits, laughing too. “But we’ve always wanted to do a modern house because it gives us another brief – to design all the joinery as well as the furniture.” It’ll be fascinating to see what Pinch and Bannon do with a blank canvas.
pinchdesign.com; thefutureperfect.com; crateandbarrel.com