At Established & Sons, Sebastian Wrong Nurtures Passion and Ingenuity.

Read the full interview with Sebastian Wrong by Surface Magazine.

Surface Magazine

With an artistic perspective and collaborative spirit, the Established & Sons co-founder empowers designers to create furniture and lighting with style, innovation, and personality.

Sebastian Wrong has always stayed true to his visions. After studying sculpture at the Norwich School of Art and Camberwell School of Art, Wrong branched into industrial design. As one of today’s foremost product designers, he’s known for effortlessly balancing function, aesthetics, and technical innovation to create memorable pieces that feel at once timeless and of-the-moment. (The Spun Light for Flos, which he designed in 2003, remains one of the brand’s most recognizable pieces.) He brought that approach to Established & Sons, the contemporary design brand he co-founded with Mark Holmes, Alasdhair Willis, Tamara Caspersz, and the late Angad Paul in 2005, and where he serves as creative director.

Under Wrong’s leadership, Established & Sons has cemented itself as a steadfast champion of forward-thinking design, having long elevated luminaries like Philippe Malouin, Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec, and Sabine Marcelis. Many pieces by Established & Sons have been acquired by leading museums, galleries, institutions, and private collections; they’re also indisputable hallmarks of 21st-century design and have set the tone for the global design conversation. Credit Wrong’s deep passion and ingenuity, which he nurtures within the brand on every level. Here, he shares how brief hiatuses can be healthy, how the brand responded to Covid-19, and how the industry can sustain itself in today’s digital culture of immediacy.

SURFACE: What does a day in the life of a creative director look like?
Wrong: No two days are the same. There are two parts to this job: on one hand, you talk to designers and work with product developers and other collaborators to realize something special. On the other, you have to constantly look at the market, understand what’s changing and where the gaps are, and follow what the competition is doing. So it’s constantly changing.

SURFACE: You’ve been involved in Established & Sons since launching 15 years ago (except for a five-year hiatus in which you founded your own brand). What was the company’s original vision, and has it evolved at all over that time period?
The company has evolved, but we’ve remained true to the imaginative vision that was there at the start: creating space for designers to make extraordinary objects. Established & Sons was never like other furniture companies and we had a lot of fun. But we also had a lot to learn.

We’ve become more practical, and with that, we’ve also become more sophisticated in our approach. The focus is more long-term than project-by-project. We purposely work with fewer designers, but our relationship with them is much stronger. We’re still pushing the boundaries of what can be done with modern manufacturing, and we’ve built connections with traditional manufacturers and crafts—it’s a unique combination of approaches. The ambition and playful freedom that made Established & Sons different when it started is still there.

SURFACE: What did you learn while you were away?
I set up another brand that was very sales-driven, focusing on high product volumes. That was different from what we do in terms of sourcing and supply chain management at Established & Sons. I learned about the commercial side of design and the realities of mass production. But Established & Sons is special. The industry was rooting for it to succeed, and there’s something magic in what we do that I haven’t found anywhere else.

SURFACE: What are your favourite designers and pieces in the collection, and how do they embody the brand’s design ethos?
It’s interesting to see which designs have stood the test of time. Some of our early products are still relevant today. For me, that’s proof that these designs are timeless, and iconic design should be timeless. The Zero-In table by Barber Osgerby and the Lighthouse Lamp by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec are great examples. The Mauro chair will be another one—it’s a wonderful piece of design. 

SURFACE: How do you know when you’ve found the perfect piece to expand the collection?
The truth is you never know—it’s always a risk. I rely on instinct, on experience and opinions, on understanding and being aware of wider trends, and my own interests and knowing the gaps within the collection that need to be filled.

But sometimes I can see a clear gap in the market that fits with a particular designer’s thinking in that moment. The Grid system by the Bouroullecs is a recent example of that. It’s an extremely flexible, modular system that can bring home into the workplace and vice versa, with a very strong design identity that’s often missing in solutions by big contract manufacturers and a level of pure functionality that’s not often seen in furniture for the home. 

SURFACE: You studied art and sculpture before finding your footing in industrial design, and many pieces in the collection are sculptural in nature. How does this aspect of your background influence your design sensibilities and which pieces the brand acquires?
I came into design from an artistic perspective, so the way I approach an object has always been about the form rather than its industrial design attributes. This gave me a bit of freedom, which is partly why Established & Sons has always explored a broad spectrum of projects, shapes, and opportunities. That boldness of character we established early on has remained with us, even as we’ve grown up and become a bit more practical-minded. 

SURFACE: How is the brand responding to new circumstances brought about by Covid-19?
It’s been challenging on many levels. In a way, we’ve been lucky. It has shown us how strong our team is and reminded us that design plays an important part in our quality of life, especially when we’re stuck at home for long periods.

Covid-19 has accelerated the trend for flexible, remote working. Businesses had been dragging their feet on this, even though the technology has been there to enable it for a long time. But now it’s clear that the idea of the workplace needs a radical rethink and employees won’t want to go back to the way things were.

We’ve been working around the idea of remaking the office as a modern Agora—a common space for employees to connect and meet (with appropriate social distancing). The days of long banks of desks are probably over. Designs like Grid—this “room within a room” idea that can be used to change the function and layout of a space quickly—will be key. We’re currently putting this into practice in our own studio space in London.

We also think ergonomics will become more of a concern within the home as it becomes the new workplace long-term. There’s a genuine need for characterful furniture pieces that can also respond to real life’s varying demands.

SURFACE: How do you think design needs to evolve to sustain itself and stay relevant?
By supporting and nurturing the next generation of designers and focusing on sustainability, longevity and good working practices. Our decisions can’t be solely driven by price—they have to also be about who your supply chain is, where you are getting your products made, and creating products designed to last.

There are reasons for optimism. We have a generation of young designers who are extremely resourceful and passionate, who have found their own ways to reach and shape the market through social media, and who we can learn a lot from.

Companies like Established & Sons and older designers who are successful in their own right now have a responsibility to keep the passion of design alive. The industry has become very corporate and risk-averse, which has crushed a lot of creative energy and squeezed the vitality out of design. Design education has also suffered massively from heavy cuts and a lack of vision. Passion and creativity need to be encouraged, nurtured and celebrated. And young designers need to be given more opportunities.

SURFACE: You’ve said that slow furniture production isn’t affordable anymore — brands need to be ready to sell designs immediately after revealing them if they want to stay afloat in today’s market. Do you think Covid-19 is ushering the industry in this direction?
I meant that when you present a product in the public domain, it needs to be ready for immediate production. No more presenting prototypes that are ready years later. The immediacy of the market—which is driven by social media, this instant never-ending activity—means that products need to be ready straight away or they’re at risk of losing momentum and interest.

I still believe less is more, but launches need to be thought of differently. Especially now. Lockdown has forced us all to think about how you launch something physical in a purely digital way. It’s a different route to market than the industry has been used to. But it’s much more feasible budget-wise, and that has a knock-on effect of levelling the playing field for smaller brands like us. We’re not competing against the budgets of huge brands, who can afford these lavish exhibition booths at trade shows and invest in big print advertising campaigns. Instead, the focus is really on the uniqueness and quality of the product, on the story it tells, which is where Established & Sons really shines.

SURFACE: What differentiates Established & Sons from other design brands? What do you find that clients keep coming back to the brand for?
Our independence, our character, our unique products, the quality of our production. And the relationship we have with our designers and with design.

Our collaborators and collaborations are our DNA. In general, the design industry has become very brand-dominated, and individual designers have less visibility. The Established & Sons model is almost the opposite of this approach. It’s about creating and sharing a platform for designers and for design, not subsuming their vision into a monolithic brand identity. We are an ideas-based brand, always open and ready to explore new ideas with new people.

SURFACE: What can we expect from Established & Sons in the near future?
Products that are relevant, versatile, smart, and strong, and that demonstrate a true passion for design. In a way, the market has caught up with what we’ve always been doing—making remarkable, characterful objects thoughtfully and sustainably. It’s only taken 15 years! But we’ve stuck with that vision because it’s what we believe in. Our pieces are investments, but they’re not too precious to actually use. They are objects that can change and define a space.

We are also becoming much better at identifying specific areas in daily life where design plays an important role, exploring them in our own way, without the preconceptions or concerns that bog down many big brands, and coming up with products that no other company could create. Grid and the other products in our recent At Work collections are just the beginning of this.

Words by Ryan Waddoups.
Originally published by Surface Magazine on January 19, 2021.

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