Modern offices are peppered with quirky-looking meeting spaces. High-backed felt pods, decommissioned vintage ambulances — such novelties barely raise an eyebrow these days. It’s therefore no great surprise to find the mock-up of an Airbus fuselage decked out with a table and seating at PriestmanGoode’s London HQ. The difference here is, the company actually designs aircraft interiors with Airbus and the fuselage doubles as a test space for future cabin concepts.
The industrial design firm specialises in transportation, with a particular focus on airline interiors and seats. From Virgin Atlantic, LatAm, United, Lufthansa, Boeing, Thai, Qatar, Air France and Turkish Airlines to South African Airways and beyond, its aviation client list is so extensive that air passengers worldwide will most likely have been transported by PriestmanGoode at some point in their travels.
Yet such is the low-profile nature of industrial design, the 65-strong firm is largely unknown outside its sector. If, however, aircraft and train interiors garnered as much attention as chairs or buildings, PriestmanGoode might be a household name on a par with Tom Dixon or David Chipperfield.
Industrial designers can get frustrated with the attention given to styling and the mere look of a product. That, they believe, belittles its true strengths. “Design is a problem-solving tool and a commercial tool,” says Paul Priestman, the co-founder and chairman of PriestmanGoode. “It’s a strategic tool for business and that’s not detracting at all from the beautiful nature of things.”
Design is a problem-solving tool and a commercial tool
It would seem that Priestman has always seen design in that way and he was clearly always cut out to be a designer. Although dyslexic, leaving school at 16 with just one O-level in ceramics, he got into the famed Central Saint Martins to study industrial design, the college waiving the usual prerequisite for maths or physics A-level. Rather than write his final degree dissertation, he was allowed to deliver it as a lecture.
Priestman followed his stint at Central Saint Martins with more study at the Royal College of Art, gaining an MA. He set up PriestmanGoode with fellow Central Saint Martins graduate Nigel Goode in 1989. The partnership has lasted, seemingly, because of their different strengths. Goode is very good at the detail and managing long-term clients, while Priestman likes developing big ideas. These have ranged from a recovery lounge concept for hospitals and a wheelchair for transporting passengers on and off planes, to their latest: a new configuration of train seats to increase capacity on crowded commuter trains. “These concepts have proved an effective way of controlling the firm’s destiny,” says Priestman. “We began to steer the company more and it opened more vistas, so we grew quite rapidly.”
As well as entering new sectors by creating such concepts, PriestmanGoode also realised, like many design agencies, that learning from one field can inform another. One of its key clients also picked up on this approach. Following the duo’s design for Virgin Atlantic’s first fully-flat bed in the late 1990s, Richard Branson asked them to work on Virgin Trains’ Pendolinos, or tilting trains, which entered service in 2003. “Branson didn’t want a designer who’d designed a train before. He thought the on-board experience was as important as the mechanics,” says Priestman, describing it as “the first branded environment for trains”.
Further rolling stock clients have since come their way, including OBB in Austria and China’s CRRC Sifang, one of the world’s biggest carriage manufacturers. Since 2013, Priestman has been CRRC Sifang’s global creative director, one of the first Westerners to hold such a senior position in a government-run company in China. And in London, the next generation of Tube that PriestmanGoode designed in partnership with TfL is due to be rolled out on four Underground lines in the early 2020s.
In general, though, Priestman believes train design lags some way behind the airlines. “We are constantly pushing [train] clients to improve seats, storage and baggage,” he says. As well as trying to improve comfort in cramped spaces, train operators should borrow from the whole air travel experience, he believes. “The rail industry is lagging behind on the entire home to destination experience of airlines.” That starts with booking a ticket online and downloading it on to a mobile device, which allows passengers to walk through security and into an allocated seat. “For long-distance train travel that seems to be the way forward,” he says. With these factors in mind, the company produced its Mercury train concept, designed to champion British design and engineering as the High Speed 2 was given the go-ahead by the UK government.
Clever concepts and cross-pollinated learnings aside, Priestman acknowledges that the company’s big break was down to exposure. In 2000, it worked with Airbus on an early cabin concept, which later became the A380, a mock-up of which was built at the manufacturer’s site. “Every airline in the world went through that mock-up,” says Priestman, and contracts with five-star airlines started coming in. The firm still collaborates with Airbus, most recently on the Airspace cabin launched earlier this year.
While some designers daren’t work formore than one client in a sector at a time, PriestmanGoode manages to juggle multiple airlines concurrently. “We have different teams that work with different clients. And because we know so much about the industry, we can make sure the products we’re designing for them are completely different.” Hence the office’s workshop, where full-size seat configurations are mocked up.
The task of creating decent or even luxurious environments in the tight confines of an aircraft cabin has also informed the company’s design of budget hotel rooms for Accor and Yotel. But as well as allowing one project to inform another (where relevant), the company looks beyond its comfort zone to find out what other people are doing — particularly at the luxury end.
The company looks beyond its comfort zone to see what others are doing
For example, PriestmanGoode’s ability to design durable luxury has caught the eye of the automotive industry, but, says Priestman, “car companies talk to us, saying ‘We’d like to learn how you do it’, and we say ‘that’s funny, because we’re looking at the car companies’.” He believes the car industry fully understands the importance of design to improve function. “If a beautiful car doesn’t perform, then that’s bad design. That’s about marrying engineering and performance.” Business partner Goode clearly appreciates this every day from behind the wheel of his Aston Martin V8 Vantage S as he travels from his home in Highgate to their West End office.
To better understand how car manufacturers marry design with function, Priestman regularly rents the latest top-of-the-range cars as part of the work his teams do for airline companies. “We get them here [at the office] and all our designers pile into them and have a good look.” He notes that the best automotive manufacturers combine leather stitching, with a smart interface, fit and finish and clever lighting to create a feeling of space.
Of course, creating a premium experience several thousand feet into the air has its own challenges, not least the 16g crash test. This puts seats through a very sudden deceleration, during which nothing must come detached. So a sense of luxury must be instilled while using the most durable materials. At the same time, designers are attempting to conjure up a sense of privacy in a public space. “One of the interesting psychological things is that if people don’t make eye contact with others, they feel private,” Priestman explains. Seat and door heights in first and business class are part of the designer’s armoury here and seats are often curved or staggered.
For the airline industry, creating a luxurious experience is a way of maintaining loyalty from people who travel a lot, he explains. “It’s all money driven. A lot of first class seats are used as upgrades, like the jackpot in gambling — it’s the top table. From a design point of view, we’re competing with the car companies, so the quality and finish [of cabin interiors] has to be as good as the car they have just climbed out of.”
Yet another challenge for airlines is that, unlike the automotive manufacturers, they are building a piece of public transport. “If something is broken or scratched, passengers will complain.” This makes it a difficult area to design in, as it must look beautiful, but it must also be lightweight and scratch-proof. That issue of weight is never far from aircraft designers’ minds — the heavier an aircraft, the more fuel it will burn. “For example, airlines would love in-flight entertainment systems to disappear as they work out so expensive [in terms of weight],” says Priestman. He predicts that airlines will eventually give up on screens in the back of seats and instead just provide power for personal tablets. He cites other parts of the plane that could do with losing some weight: magazines and catalogues in the seat pockets and wine in “antiquated glass” bottles. “They are all being held up by fuel. Hopefully we’ll look back and think: wasn’t that irresponsible. Wouldn’t it be great to design a piece of plastic bottle packaging for first class?”
When it comes to conventional product design, though, Priestman says: “From a business point of view, I think product design in its true form of ‘Will you design a telephone, please’ is dead. Some major brands like Samsung and Apple have strong internal design teams, so they’re not likely to call on PriestmanGoode or its peers. Meanwhile, other brands are now able to skirt around the issue of design altogether, by getting a Chinese manufacturer to redesign an existing product at no cost and put a logo on it.”
At the same time, the value of products themselves has diminished. “Nobody saves up for a TV or telephone any more. There’s a disposable attitude and these things have become almost worthless,” he says, despondently. Meanwhile, he points out that there are fewer things to design because a lot of products have declined, such as wrist watches — “things you would have bought and perhaps coveted”.
For these reasons, he is convinced that “if we had stuck at product design, we would be a tiny company”. Some of the smaller projects from the firm’s early days are on show in its ground floor reception. A museum-style glass cabinet holds a pirouetting Sindy doll, designed for Hasbro in 1995. This rubs shoulders — rather incongruously — with the Waterpebble, Priestman’s water-saving device for the shower (it flashes at you when you’ve been in long enough), demonstrating that not all his big ideas are big in the literal sense. “You have to enjoy life to be a designer — you have to be optimistic, believe that something can be made better and you can improve things.”
Such an optimistic outlook can only have added to PriestmanGoode’s success. With a turnover of £7m, he describes it as “incredibly profitable”. But instead of looking for a buyer as many others would, in April 2016, PriestmanGoode became employee-owned. “Nigel, Luke [Hawes, who has been a director since 2000] and I strongly believed we needed to give something back to all the people who had worked so hard over the years,” he says, pointing out that employees tend to join from college and stay with the company. “And we wanted to empower everybody and to make sure that the company would continue.”
He took this route after sounding out other business owners. “I started meeting up with people who had sold their companies and came to realise that small business owners and designers are bad about thinking about the future; they go into a slow decline, then the whole thing closes.” Now the decision has been made, he says, “it’s a very good feeling. For most business owners, it’s a thing that’s nagging at the back of the mind. Once the decision’s done, you can move on.”
For Priestman, moving on means tackling the next big idea. His concerns for the planet means that travel is never far from his mind. He is currently mulling over air freight and the global transportation alternatives to long-distance air travel. Watch this space.