ISSUE 03 | ENTREPRENEUR
The Accidental Industrialist
Jennifer Newman designed her first table for her own garden. Now, her furniture sits in the offices of Nokia, Google and Amazon. Dominic Lutyens asks how this artist made the switch to manufacturer.
By Dominic Lutyens
Jennifer Newman’s seductively colourful tables and seats leapt out at me among a sea of brown furniture in a subterranean exhibition space during London’s Clerkenwell Design Week about five years ago. A regular exhibitor at this annual design jamboree, Newman had an equally striking presence. Friendly, effusive, eager to chat, the Londoner was impeccably turned out in tailored clothes that contrasted with her wayward bird’s-nest hair.
FROM PAINTING TO POWDER-COATING
Newman’s journey from artist to manufacturer started 12 years ago, because of a flimsy garden table, complete with rusting screws. At the time, she was in her mid- 50s and the table, which stood in the garden of her Wiltshire home, inspired her to design something better for herself. ‘I needed a big, robust table that suited the house’s architecture,’ she recalls when we meet in her studio-cum-showroom in Clerkenwell. ‘I also needed it for big family gatherings.’ The result was the aluminium Groove table and Cube stools, which are tucked under it in winter. ‘Together, they were designed to look like a visually pleasing sculpture.’
She was fast becoming disillusioned with art: ‘I found painting self-indulgent, my love for it was fading.’ Even so, there are overlaps between the two disciplines. Before ditching her art, she was splooshing industrial paint by Swedish firm Beckers over aluminium panels. ‘I wanted to continue experimenting with materials; designing furniture was a natural progression from that.’ Her paintings — minimalist yet in zingy pop hues — have influenced her furniture’s deliciously saturated colours — apple green, sulphur yellow, lime green as well as quieter dusty ochre and shell pink... She’s a fan of the vibrant work of artist Michael Craig-Martin, who happens to live above her studio.
To learn the nuts and bolts of the production process, ‘I drove round in a van to different fabricators. I started out with scribbles on paper, which probably drove them crazy but I learnt the basics of things like welding.’
Were these predominantly male environments alien to her? ‘No, I adore workshops, hardware shops, ironmongery. I enjoyed the interaction — fabricators often stamp the same metal every day, so asking them to make something different gave many of them a feeling of recognition. Skilled, seamless welding is a crucial part of my designs.’
Did she make mistakes early on? ‘Yes, I didn’t realise welding can be crude. I had to find good welders — ones who work well with aluminium, which is softer than steel and requires more skill.’ A major turning point came when she exhibited her Utility and Groove tables at a design show in east London’s Old Truman Brewery in 2007. ‘Architects loved the pieces because they were honest and simple and didn’t compete with their surroundings.’ That led to Newman’s first big commission: a batch of Utility tables for Nokia.
Other table designs followed thick and fast, including the ultrapractical Studio, one of whose steel legs (on castors) incorporates power sockets and conceals messy cables behind a detachable fascia. And what started as a cottage industry — ‘my first pieces sold through word of mouth’ — gradually blossomed. This year, she says, ‘orders have gone ballistic’. Her bestselling pieces are the A Frame — a contemporary take on the pub table and bench, which graces all Waitrose cafés in the UK — and the Edge table and bench with flared, fire-engine red aluminium legs. As well as Nokia, architects have specified her designs for the offices of such bluechip brands as Google, Amazon and ad behemoth Publicis, as well as for universities including Bath Spa.
She may not be a household name, but then Newman is deliberately niche, specifically targeting architects and their clients. Arguably, it’s the furniture’s neutral, functional quality that makes it suitable for countless environments, from canteens and offices to private homes. What’s more, it’s adaptable. So a table for a pharmaceutical firm can be given an anti-bacterial surface; one for a coastal environment has a toughened polyester finish.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Newman sees herself primarily as a creative person. ‘Figures aren’t foremost in my mind,’ she declares, claiming to have no idea how many units she sells per year; later, a colleague reveals an annual figure of around 1,500. But she adds that ‘I know how to run a business naturally,’ as if conscious of the possibility that some might doubt this, and describes herself as the ‘driving force’ behind the business. Her tight-knit team includes her husband, Bernard Rimmer, as technical director — fortuitously, his background is in structural engineering — and sons, Joe, ‘an expert in finance and spreadsheets’, and Kris, ‘who’s wonderful with clients and specifiers’.
Although she now uses CNC technology, she designs in a traditional way: ‘I sketch and make cardboard mock-ups. Bernard then draws my designs up on graph paper — he knows how I agonise over proportions.’
She works with several factories that specialise in different areas, but will only divulge the name of her metal workshop: M&L Sheet Metal in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire. ‘I feel if I mention more, I’d be putting other factories’ noses out of joint.’
Her latest range, Form (pictured), was created with start-ups in mind: ‘It’s a cost-cutting exercise. The materials are as pared-down as possible. It will still have castors and power sockets but I’m looking at creating them in large volumes, which makes them more affordable.’
Take-out: A strong design voice translates into a strong product line that strikes a chord with the target market