Sofa Chat: Interview with Theo Williams - post image background.

Sofa Chat: Interview with Theo Williams

Top Designer Theo Williams in conversation with Anke Summerhill about his first steps as a designer, how the design industry in the UK has changed and sustainability in design.

Theo Williams’s career has seen him progress from designing products for Alessi, Lexon, Technogym, Prada and founder and creator of Another Brand ltd, to Head of Design for John Lewis Home via five years as Creative Director of Habitat following on from Sir Terence Conran and Tom Dixon.

He was recently appointed Design Director at Kingfisher plc, the largest home improvement retailer in Europe. It’s a path that’s seen him demolish the boundaries between design disciplines, variously tackling product and furniture alongside print, packaging, retail, and brand development.

Hit the play button below to watch the full conversation, or read the full transcript below:

Anke Summerhill: Hi, I’m Anke Summerhill for Minotti London and today for our Minotti sofa chat, we have Theo Williams. Welcome Theo, thank you for coming.

Theo Williams: Thank you, Anke. Thank you for having me.

Anke: How would you like to describe yourself?

Theo: That’s a good question. I’m a designer. Historically, I’m a designer. And then over the years I’ve become more of a creative director or design director.

Anke: And what would you say is the difference between a designer and a creative and design director?

Theo: Well, that’s another good question. Well, basically when I studied industrial design, I designed products. I was focused just on designing products and then along the way the clients I had or the opportunities I had, I suddenly started to think, like every designer…

Because we’re all nitpicking and entrepreneurial and the rest of it, I suddenly started thinking, well, I don’t like the packaging. You can imagine for any client… The window display and then, well, actually the graphics aren’t quite right.

And so one thing led to another and the next thing I was offered positions to be creative director in a number of companies and design director, which kept me involved in the product, but it led me away and it just took me back a little bit where I could then intervene with other designers and create the direction and strategy for brands.

Anke: And did you like that?

Theo: I love it. It is really something that I enjoy. I’m a real process person. I love the context of everything and how it fits together and designing the product is just one of those things.

Anke: Yes. It’s just part of it.

Theo: Which a lot of designers get fixated on the product and sometimes can’t see the bigger picture. And that could be commercially as well as creatively.

Anke: Yeah. So you’re obviously very creative because when I went to your website, what I really liked about your website when you click on my journey, it’s very visual rather than have a boring print with …

And then this and then that, you have everything in pictures, which for me was perfect because I could just see at a glance your whole journey.


Now for people who haven’t seen that lovely journey on your website, do you want to tell us about your first journey, really, when you graduated and you decided to go to Italy to find fame and fortune and great design.

Theo: Thank you for the comment on the web page. It is something that I do even now with the clients I have, I tend to have always a wall where I scribble and draw in front of everyone rather than present in a classic way. But-

Anke: Do you think that’s a designer thing because it’s very visual.

Theo: I think so, yeah. I think ultimately, drawing circles and arrows and joining the dots and it’s, yeah, it’s a much more expressive way of describing what you want and that’s what I did on the webpage and that journey. That journey started back in Manchester.

I was an industrial designer. I was studying, I switched from graphics, industrial design, fine arts, et cetera. And I was walking down Albert Square and I’ll never forget it because there was an old picture of Alberto Alessi, Alessandro Mendini, Branzi and Aldo Rossi, I think.

And they were all dressed up in workman clothes. Lined up in the factory with the lathes and the machinery and in front of it was this Philippe Starck lemon squeeze. And I didn’t know … There was no Google then, you didn’t know anything. I –

Anke: Yeah, first time you saw it.

Theo: First time I saw the logo Alessi and it’s my favourite worst product in a way because I looked at it, I thought that’s not what they’re teaching me at college. And it doesn’t work.

It’s too expensive, but I loved it. And that was it. I waited a few months, bought one. Sat there in the kitchen. I just looked at it and I thought I want to go there. So I researched where that was. It was Milan. And that’s literally what took me there.

Anke: That’s gosh … That really was not … Well I guess a little random.

Theo: Yeah. It was random considering that the work I was doing at college. But so I flew to Milan, I went to stay for a couple of weeks with some friend of a friend. And I ended up going through the alphabet of all the architects I’d read up in the library about. So I knocked on Castiglioni’s office. He was fantastic. So I was there for a while.

Anke: It’s really nice, the days before Google. Because you would’ve Googled them and emailed them and probably not gone anywhere, but you physically went and made an effort.

Theo: Well, that made a massive difference. And of course the Italians being Italians, they opened the door and they were really receptive. I had this big portfolio with a big, huge zip. No iPad. Walking around and they were fantastic, the Italians, they really took me in. And that was 1990.

Anke: So you stayed in Italy for quite a while, right?

Theo: Well, yeah, actually I was there for two weeks and I ended up staying 16 years.

Anke: 16 years. Yes.

Theo: And I feel like I grew up in Italy. Yeah. I was made in England, but I grew up in-

Anke: You grew up in Italy.

Theo: -in Italy. No, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity because they gave me … Apart from the opportunities to design and work closely in collaboration, the factories were there as well. So you had a wide spectrum of learning room.

Anke: Yeah. And do you find England had changed in the design world, in your absence? Did you notice a difference from when you left, when you came back?

Theo: Yes, definitely. I think when I left, I was taught that you would finish college, you take your portfolio around, you wait for agencies and you get a job and then you do what you’re told sort of thing.

By the time I came back, there’s independent designers everywhere. And I’ve noticed it already in Milan because during the salone, you’d see all people coming over, so my whole living room was full of bodies staying at my place because no one could afford to stay anywhere.

And so you’d start to notice all the shows, those pop up shows by English designers here and there. And you’d notice this huge independence and resurgence.

Anke: Okay. So do you feel having lived abroad broadened your design horizons?

Theo: Yeah, I think so.

Anke: Definitely.

Theo: I think, not just because of the industrial design or product design or the design industry, but it’s given me a real creative and commercial balance since I’ve moved back to … Well, I’ve certainly moved into the more commercial side and I’ve managed to marry the two.

But I think also because of the culture. You learn a language. I used to come back in the early nineties with a bag of rukola to say to my friends, taste this.

I’d never heard of it before. So you get involved. You can go skiing from Milan in half an hour. It’s not … Or an hour, at least. It’s not something you do once a year. So-

Anke: You can go for a day or the weekend-

Theo: -the lifestyle all shifts as well. So everything wrapped up.

Anke: So talking, because obviously you’ve been doing this for a while, do you feel that it’s harder being a designer these days because there’s so many things you have to take into consideration with global warming and sustainability?

Whereas before you’d think, oh, I want to design or you get asked to design something and you didn’t have to think … Or well maybe you had to, but people didn’t really think about it so much.

Theo: Yeah. It’s definitely harder. But the opportunities, perhaps … It’s definitely harder, but it’s also suddenly started to open up because of course the opportunities and the technology.

I think the designers have a lot of empathy for a lot of things such as customers or sustainability and so on. So I think the added value of design is probably more important now. It feels like we’re going through a fourth or fifth industrial revolution with everything, with the technology and so on.

So I think the industry understand the importance of designers, good design, good business, as much as bad designers, bad business in a way. I think the value proposition might have to change a bit how we approach that.

And certainly my past job, we introduced quite a lot behavioural changes within the structure and the design strategy where we tried to avoid the very fact of in my day, just design it because we loved it. To be honest, we didn’t really think about anything. We just thought we’d make it and that was it.

So now you have design values, a number of them. We talk less about seasonality and more about longevity. We talk less about a linear approach to a circular approach.

That I own this, we could share this. So these kinds of things in these big companies, once that starts to get embedded, you start to see that the designers opportunities also come in from the insights of research and technology and material and the sustainability and not just because it’s a great idea they thought of.

Although that is important as well because they need to generate those great ideas. So it’s a meeting in the middle. We’ve left it a bit late, but we are fixing things but it has not quite tipped the point of a positive impact yet, but we’ve been close. So for designers, I think it’s a bright future in that sense.

Anke: Is there a design that you wish was yours? That you would’ve loved to have been the designer of?

Theo: Well, there is one in particular that I don’t even know and that … I often look at Konstantin Grcic’s lamp for FLOS. And it’s the working man lamp. And I can’t remember the name of it. It’s got a funny little handle and it’s got a cone.

Anke: Yeah. I know.

Theo: I particularly like that. I’ve never bought one.

Anke: We have to Google it.

Theo: Yeah. And I love that one.

Anke: To show a picture of it.

Theo: There are a number of designs I’ve got at home that I particularly like, but they are odd, old, maybe Italian or from a secondhand shop. There are old traditional designs that I quite like as well.

Anke: Did you try to make changes when you were working, you worked with John Lewis [crosstalk 00:09:47]?

Theo: Yeah. Changes were made. Habitat, there was quite a big change made there.

Anke: Yeah, so that was your first experience in England.

Theo: That was my first big experience in big retail. And then I jumped to John Lewis and we made several changes there simply because they wanted to grow their own brand.

So although John Lewis has its own brand, a lot of that might be supplier based and be exclusive through wholesalers and traders and so on, apart from their textiles and pattern work.

So they wanted to go on their own brand that’s not manufacturing there more and more. And not just for margins, but for IP, for et cetera, et cetera. All sorts of things. And for customer offer and so on. So that was a big influence had there. We launched a brand called House.

Anke: Yes. I know. And I think it’s very noticeable, I think. I can tell, I didn’t know if you personally then, but I could see … I lived obviously here in England and I said, oh, there’s a change. It’s getting better. There are nice affordable design pieces in John Lewis.

Theo: That’s great. I’m glad you noticed, because they had a very clear goal. And affordability was one of them. And I love that.

Anke: The nice thing about John Lewis is that it’s affordability, but it’s also quality. It’s not rubbish. Anything you would’ve changed at all in your journey?

Theo: That’s a good question. Yeah. And that might be some advice for some. I think what happened in the early days was the opportunities and the jumping around in Milan and I wish I had cultivated the relationship with some of the people I worked with a little bit longer.

And that’s maybe a personal thing. I don’t know that other designers have found the same, but I designed some products with them and thought, oh, I’ll jump onto that. And I wish I had stayed a bit longer and worked harder. And I did eventually with some clients, but-

Anke: It’s probably a youthful impatience.

Theo Williams: Yeah.

Anke: Wanting to move on.

Theo: What a lovely way to put it.

Anke: Hindsight is a great thing. Lovely. It’s been a pleasure having you here. Love talking to you and finding out more about you and thank you very much.

Theo: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

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