A conversation with Olivier Geoffroy, founder of Unto this Last, was a much anticipated treat. Unto this Last is a contemporary workshop in London that makes furniture using digitally-controlled cutting tools.
As you walk in you are struck by the manifesto suspended from the ceiling. The name, Unto this Last, comes from a book by John Ruskin (whose picture hangs on the adjacent wall), published in 1862, in which he advocated a return to local craftsmen and workshops in reaction to the monotony and conditions of the rapidly industrialised working class of his time. For recent generations, this would have been a nostalgic process affordable to the few. Mass produced furniture was for the many, just as today, Olivier observes, Ikea make good value furniture on a global scale. The efficiencies of repetition, high volumes and uniform products allow low industrial prices. The flat-pack design of the products is dictated by the need to package and transport them easily. Unto this Last is turning this economic model on its head with local craftsmen creating products that are made to measure, and hand-finished in a workshop, but at an affordable price. “Unto This Last’s purpose is to offer the convenience of the local craftsman’s workshop at mass-production prices.”
Digital technologies can change the economics of small-scale manufacturing. The Future is Here exhibition last year at the Design Museum, of which Unto this Last was a contributor, characterised the changing boundaries between designers, manufacturers and consumers and new distributed manufacturing techniques as a new industrial revolution. In fact, Unto this Last was launched in 2001, and CNC (computer numerical controlled) routing is not a new technology, but perhaps the wider interest in micro-manufacturing reflects a confluence of trends: revisiting making things in Britain; a focus on provenance and who is making things; a concern for materials and how things are made.
Our conversation began with Olivier’s definition of the environment. So often we are bombarded with global definitions, but at Unto this Last, the environment is the workshop, the immediate physical surroundings and conditions in which he and his team work. Every aspect of design, material choice, production, and delivery is examined through this lens. Perhaps because the enterprise is so closely connected to its environment, there is an imperative to tread lightly.
The workshop is characterised by 3 principles. The first is less mass generated by using more data. Starting from software designed to make aircrafts, it took 6 or 7 years to develop a special biometric format able to adjust to the variations of the wood, and clients’ needs. Tools that are easy to use, and flexible reduce waste. Nearly every square centimetre of a standard 2metre plywood board plywood is utilised (see picture). Small areas are used to make candlesticks, utensils or toys. The remainder is used for heating, or recycled.
The second principle is optimising logistics. Digital technology streamlines supply chain management and scheduling. The local, made to order production process means that there is no overproduction, warehousing or packaging costs (or materials). Everything is delivered wrapped in blankets within the range of the big electric-van. And when your clients are local, you take great pride in the quality of your work and care over your choice of materials. The Latvian birch plywood is from a man-planted forest, where plantation is growing at 10% a year, and certified FSC and PEFC. To simplify the supply chain products are made with the same material, even down to the hinges, so easily recyclable. The only metal parts are shelf-pins.
Underpinning both of these principles is a stringent focus on improving productivity and absolute precision. Influenced by production methods developed in the car industry, assemblies are timed and analysed to ask ‘can we do it better’. It is an iterative process with feedback revealing a more elegant and efficient dynamic. So the team at Unto this Last are selected not only for their skill as designers and makers but also for an enquiring mind. This spirit of enquiry and desire to do it better has relevance and merit far beyond this Brick Lane workshop.
The third principle is that the workshop is the brand. From the street, through the shop, the workshop is visible. Everything is on display, and this literal transparency is integral to Unto this Last’s approach to micro-manufacturing. Clients are buying the story, and involved in tailoring their piece with a wide choice of finishes. As the workshop, and process is open, no solvent-based paints are used anywhere in the process (pictured right is a TV stand and colour chart). The plywoods are laminated in the workshop with impregnated paper, cold-bonded with PVA glue. The surfaces and edges are finished with hard wax oil from OSMO, a food safe mix of sunflower, soya, linseed and thistle oil with wax.
The aesthetic is clean, contemporary and sensual. When I mention Unto this Last, without prompting people remark how they just wanted to touch the furniture. Servicing a local, loyal clientele necessitates a wide catalogue of products. The design is inspired by the production process, the environment, and Olivier’s requirement to furnish the needs of a young family (kids table and chair, pictured left). Every detail is considered.
Unto this Last does more than make joyful products, as they hope their “workshop contributes positively to the life of the city”. It is an enterprise with a tangible and transparent integrity. Olivier tells the story with a combination of passion and eloquence, I hope I hear it again in other cities and enterprises.
Photo credits: Unto this Last, except for photo of plywood board, which is mine!