by Eugene Costello


When we were young, all this was fields… sorry, we mean, when we first attended CDW seven years ago, it was a fledgling affair. There was only a small handful of participating brands, designers and makers, and all of them were clustered around Clerkenwell Green like a whinge of teenagers with just one bottle of cider. (We think ‘whinge’ is the collective noun for teenagers…)

Nowadays, it has grown into a truly large-scale event, with participants from as afar afield as the other side of the Goswell Road! Imagine… Perhaps in seven years’ time, we’ll be trooping off to such unthinkable places as the Angel! (We mean the one in Islington, not Anthony Gormley’s steel structure on the A1, near Peterborough or Newcastle or Scotland or Reykjavik, or wherever the hell it is, no disrespect to Norsemen or Northerners… Get a Tube station and we’ll come and visit.)

As well as offering a great opportunity to wander through the streets of Clerkenwell dropping into showrooms and offices to check out the latest trends and prevailing views, CDW this year saw Clerkenwell being turned into a cornucopia of street food, with vans, caravans, stalls and stands every few hundred yards serving up free food from all corners of the globe or connoisseur coffees. Our get-a-beach-body good intentions went out the window to be replaced by a get-a-beached-whale-body, and we munched, crunched and lunched like we hadn’t been fed for weeks.

Our week kicked off with a trip to our clients USM, the Swiss firm who are at the vanguard of modular furniture design. For CDW, USM teamed up with exciting and innovative Brixton-based designers Marokka, who use cutting-edge 3D techniques to create startlingly arresting products. For this collaboration, Marokka was tasked with creating a menagerie of animals to inhabit USM’s eye-catching modular furniture – created by using chrome frames to connect bright and vivid powder-coated steel (or glass) panels. The collaboration was called Animal Print and featured a group of orang-utans, a trio of flamingos, a really rather sexy metre-long panther and a large pack of their trademark product, the iconic dog Frank. Some say he is a pug, some say a French bulldog… perhaps Frank is a post-modern dog, in that he is defined according to the viewer’s perception. Which is a posh way of saying, we don’t know…

The USM showroom is a large and welcoming place, on the Shoreditch side of Goswell Road. The Swiss company started making steel-framed modular furniture for its own head office in Münsingen, by accident as much as by design. In 1961, the third-generation incumbent as head of the family firm, Paul Schaerer decided it was time to invest in a new factory and head office. Tasked with expanding the office, the architect – Fritz Haller – sketched out a simple style of interlocking modular units with panelling in bright, primary colours. These caused such interest in visitors to the new office that the company gave up its core business making parts for industrial windows and locks to focus on the new product. And in 1963 they applied the same principles for modular building to office furniture, patenting the interlocking USM ball joint in 1965.

USM’s UK CEO Ian Weddell was in buoyant mood, jovially meeting and greeting visitors to CDW. He took a few minutes out to chat to us, before launching a Twitter caption competition based on a picture of Frank the dog and the hashtag #frankthinks. The winner would receive a 3d-printed vase that Marokka started off at 10am on Tuesday, when CDW officially kicked off. It was timed to be completed by 5pm on Thursday when USM’s showroom was packed to the rafters, punters drawn by the lure of the vase, yes, but also hearsay about Ian Weddell’s taste in fine wines… We caught up with Rob Kirkbride, editor-in-chief of Bellow Press, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan (the epicentre of the furniture-making business in the States), who publishes Business of Furniture magazine and newly launched in January of this year Workplaces Magazine. Over a glass of wine (us) and a beer (him), Rob told us that this was the biggest and best CDW yet (though staying at the Mondrian on the South Bank might have helped colour his view…) Also representing the Fifth Estate was Blueprint magazine Johnny Tucker, editor of Mix Interiors magazine Mick Jordan and Design Exchange’s founder and publisher David Morris who were all united in their view that CDW remains one of the foremost networking events for the industry.

Back to Tuesday, though, as we are getting a little ahead of ourselves… One of CDW’s most enthusiastic and committed supporters and participants has to be ergonomic office consultancy Humanscale, who hosted a number of brilliantly curated panel discussions. The presence of a Piaggio van serving up authentic Italian coffees on the doorstep might have helped, though Tuesday lunchtime’s chat was a big draw in itself, on the future of co-working.

Chaired by spokesperson George Roberts of Cushman & Wakefield, the panel included world-renowned ergonomics guru Alan Hedge, a professor at Cornell University’s Department of Design and Environmental Analysis, The Office Group’s co-CEO Charlie Green and BDG’s creative director Colin Macgadie. Colin was able to give firsthand experience of relocating Ogilvy and Mather to Sea Containers House – a project that Roberts described as “probably the most exciting relocation project of recent years and one that will leave its mark on London commercial design for many years to come.” High praise indeed.

For Charlie, the future of co-working was one that would be expansive but also challenging. He felt that the trend will be towards more and more companies co-working in a shared space, with the boundaries between work and leisure time becoming ever more blurred. For instance, said Charlie, efforts they were making in terms of shared leisure experience included sports and fitness evenings and film nights, which were seeing tremendous take-up.

And all of this took place under a ceiling installation, the superb Silver Thread. Designed and built by brothers Mustaf and Erhan Afsaroglu, this sculpture called to mind the human spine, which resonates with Humanscale’s core philosophy about movement for wellbeing in the workplace.

Still, time and tide wait for no man – it was off with us to the epicentre of Clerkenwell. We speak, of course, of St John’s Square, to see our friends at Bisley and Ultrafabrics. For this event, Bisley teamed up with another Informare client, Acrylicize, to make what must have been the standout installation at CDW – and probably the only one of its kind in the world. Bisley’s most iconic product, the Bisley Multidrawer. Bisley has been producing these, in one form or another, for more than half a century, and this was a fantastic opportunity to re-imagine a classic piece of office stationery in a new light.

We caught up with Bisley commercial director Ralph Hearnshaw, who explained that Acrylicize offered 16 different ideas for a Bisley-themed installation, but in the event, the team at Bisley felt that the design named ‘Workflow’ was the winner. A fusion of art, design and engineering, the piece features a cascade of Multidrawers that form a constantly recycling fountain. Given the location, St John’s Square, Acrylicize wanted to a fully illuminated water feature that would stand as a piece of public art and worked with The Fountain Company to achieve this. As Helen Thomas, director of business development at Bisley, said, “We’re incredibly excited about this collaboration with Acrylicize and the opportunity to do something unexpected and different. The Bisley brand is hugely respected and well known in the marketplace so it’s wonderful to be able to show another side to our character!”

James Burke, creative director at Acrylicize, was in full agreement: “Bisley’s a much-loved brand with a great heritage, and presented us with many facets to explore for this original and unique piece of public art.”

Also in St John’s Square, we caught sight of a super-cool Airsteam – the iconic chrome caravan that screams Americana – next to the ‘Workflow’ installation. In keeping with the US theme, there was a hot dog streetcart serving up hotdogs for free to all who came, and a pop-up bar serving chilled beers with which to wash down the dogs. The reason for this love of all things American? Why, Ultrafabrics was in town. While managing director Jonathan Hinton was – literally – swamped by visitors in the Airstream, we took some time out over a beer and a dog with marketing manager AR Swan, who had flown out from the good ole US of A…

AR told us it was a really exciting time for Ultrafabrics. The perfect textile for high-usage public furniture, Ultrafabrics is made of non-toxic polyurethane that is the perfect replacement for both PVC and leather, with a longer shelflife than both. The product lends itself to many markets, said AR, including automotive (car seating), corporate, dental, government, healthcare, hospitality and restaurants. He was especially excited about the work they are doing with carmakers and airlines, while the growing use of Ultrafabrics in what he called “loft-style living” – think funky warehouse studios inhabited by architects and interior designers – has introduced Ultrafabrics to the new market of residential. Which is swell…

The next panel discussion at Humanscale was on the subject of how technology will affect the workplace. Chaired by the irrepressible journalist, actor and general man about town Monty Munford (columnist for The Telegraph and Forbes magazine), Professor Alan Hedge and Josef Hargrave, global foresight manager at Arup. It was a lively and intriguing discussion that also contained a good few laughs thanks to Monty’s inimitable chairing style. One of the key things to emerge from the discussion was that the panel to a person felt that innovations in the field of virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality would ultimately make little difference to office design. The mood was summed up by panel member NEC’s Birgit Sommerer, who said that she spends one week working at home in the UK, then the following week at head office in Munich. “Of course I could stay in the UK and talk to the team by videoconferencing, but there is no substitute for networking with colleagues – often, the most important news comes from chatting to a colleague while making coffee in the kitchen area,” she points out.

By Thursday afternoon, the sheer number of people to talk to and exhibitors to visit was beginning to take its toll. The perfect time, then, to visit fun and innovative communications product designer IdeaPaint. Director of international sales Robin Bayliss was ebullient, almost messianic about the product. “It really is the most fantastic thing – one coating of the ‘paint’ on an office wall and you have a wipe-clean whiteboard forever. And as well as IdeaPaint, we now have another fantastic product called PULL that will turn any wall into a magnetic surface. What many companies do is to combine the two so you have both capabilities in one section.”

When we put it to Robin that the product doesn’t necessarily need to be a corporate accessory, that it would be fantastic in children’s bedrooms and play areas, he revealed that he is one step ahead, and that IdeaPaint will be announcing a collaboration with a major player in the children’s educational and recreational sector this autumn. We can’t wait…

All that remained for us to do was to swing by USM again for their closing drinks party. Then we hied ourselves to St Luke’s in Spitalfields where, thanks to the generosity of Humanscale, it was time to dance away to sounds from maestro DJ Stace, a superb lightshow and monstrously tasty rare beef with horseradish served in miniature Yorkshire puds.

We can scarcely wait for next year. Clerkenwell Design Week – the Glastonbury of the high-end office furniture and design sector: we salute you…