For more than a decade, London-based design company Black+Blum has been cranking out beautiful, sometimes quirky or humorous, and always functional products for the home. From its elegant tabletop accessories to its innovative lighting designs (like one light that can be either table lamp or floor lamp) to its playful bookends and ski pole-shape potato masher, each Black+Blum product comes with character. We caught up with Martin Blum while he was in stateside for the New York International Gift Fair to find out what prompted him and Daniel Black to launch the company, what it takes to bring a design to market, and what they've got coming down the pipelines.
What prompted you and Dan to launch Black+Blum?
We studied together [at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, England] and realized during our group projects that we worked exceptionally well together, which is rare for designers, who tend to like to work individually. Dan and I did good work alone but when we worked together, the results were that much more special. We kept in contact after university and flirted with the idea of starting a company together. A year and a half after graduation we said, Let's do it, and founded Black+Blum in 1998.
What did you think you could bring to the market that wasn't already there?
When we started, we worked as a design consultancy and quickly realized that we had a quirky take on product design, which was not always well received by our industry clients. We were confident that this would be something great for the consumer market and that our quirky approach would bring different products than those already out there.
A lot of your products have an element of humor to them. Why is that important?
It's true that some of them come across with humor but most important to us is that every product start out with a focus on function so that we have a solution that really works. Then we try to bring that product to life, to take it from something static to something with personality. Sometimes that is with humor, sometimes it's a twist in another form. We want to give products a bit of personality and let them have some kind of character.
How does a product go from the idea stage to being in consumers' hands?
Normally Dan or I will spark off an idea and then we'll flesh it out when we're on a plane or train or at a trade fair when we have time away from the office and can discuss whether it has any legs to it. If it does, we go into the research phase to see if there's anything like it already on the market. Next we do legislation research to see what the rules, norms, and safety regulations for this type of product are. Once we've got that, we're able to create a fuller brief and start sketching. We spend a long time with our sketchbooks, drawing and working together to find out what form the idea should take. Next we make models out of paper and card stock and then we do rapid-prototyping so we have something physical that we can start to interact with. We make final prototypes we can road test, use, and live with for a while before we contact a manufacturer about getting it into production.
Is it just you and Dan working on the products or do you have additional designers on staff as well?
There are four of us. Dan and I direct all product development from start to finish but we have very good help. One designer is great at digitalizing ideas and the other is a design engineer who knows about injection molding and other processes we need to help us fully flesh out an idea that can be presented to the manufacturer.
A number of products are designed for the kitchen. What attracts you to this area of the home?
The kitchen has become a room in the house in which you're no longer just cooking but you're socializing and living. Traditionally kitchen tools were functional but weren't ergonomic and didn't look particularly attractive. We felt that as designers we could make things more friendly. The kitchen is a place where you're living, not just a place for working, so you should surround yourself with beautiful products, not just functional products. You don't always need to put your tools away when friends come over; you can leave them out because they're sculptural pieces that make the house look even more attractive.
What new products can we look forward to?
We've been working for three years on a longterm project to create a personal shopping trolley. We're in the final stages are are hoping to launch it somewhere in the first half of 2012. The idea is that if you go out on a Saturday morning to the farmers' market, you don't just have to carry bags but you can have something with wheels. We're trying to change the association of a shopping trolley as something older people carry around to support themselves with; we want to make it more rock and roll and young, something you don't feel you need to hide. We're also busy doing more in the lunchbox range with a thermopot [thermos] to keep your food warm when you take your lunch to school or work with you as well as a water bottle that integrates a very traditional Japanese filtration system using binchotan, a charcoal stick, to filter and mineralize the water. We're trying to get away from filter capsules and get to something much more natural. It'll be a new thing for the Western market.