As Modus launches Hem, the latest chair by PearsonLloyd, they talk about their approach to sustainability

“We’ve never been ones to shout from the rooftops about our sustainable credentials. We just believe in doing things properly,” says Tom Lloyd, one half of celebrated British design duo PearsonLloyd.

The launch of Hem, their latest design for Modus, exemplifies this green approach. He continues, “In the past eco design was all about recycled materials and had a particular aesthetic but in our view, sustainability doesn’t have to be that explicit.”

Indeed looking at this soft shell chair, one would hardly guess its eco background because its appearance is as refined and contemporary as the rest of the Modus collection for Milan 2013. The inspirational trigger for the design came from trying to avoid the cold cured polyurethane moulding process. Though the world of modern furniture manufacturing would be lost without this particular method, it has become increasingly difficult to justify on environmental grounds. PearsonLloyd’s starting point was to find a viable, alternative means of production to the moulding process, which in any case they felt had the tendency to produce too many products that were all too similar.

Like a musician downing ProTools for analogue recording equipment or a photographer swapping digital wizardry for the old fashioned feel of film. PearsonLloyd wanted to get back to basics in terms of their creative output and really challenge themselves. The product design process for the pair was very hands on, “We didn’t do any drawings in CAD. Instead, pretty much straight away, we started working with scale models in substrate, foam and fabric.”

The end result has a simple steel outer frame that supports a lightweight and non-structural upholstered seating element. The name Hem references PearsonLloyd’s approach to the upholstery, “It’s almost been like tailoring: pattern cutting the panels together, which gives it a real tactile quality,” says Lloyd. As well as an economic approach to using materials, this technique of construction affords the end result a real softness to the upholstery, in contrast to the trend in the marketplace for quite tight, stiffl  y drawn stitching. It feels more like a garment than a piece of furniture and it is warm and expressive in nature. “There’s a real craft quality to it, you can feel that in the seam, it’s forgiving and has a sort of looseness to it.” This gives the especially lightweight design added liveability and comfort: It doesn’t just belong in a furniture showroom but is easy to handle and ready for use in hotels and restaurants as well as classic workplace settings. “You can place it around a table for a meal or a conversation, or any occasion really.”

Hem’s sustainability isn’t just concerned with its construction but in the way it is delivered to the customer too. “We tried to have an alternative to the traditional way of transporting furniture, which is always a trial.” The upholstery is flat packed, reducing the embedded energy of the product. To assemble it, one simply clips the upholstery onto the frame. This also means Hem minimises the environmental impact as, unlike moulded chairs, it’s far easier to separate its constituent parts when it comes to recycling. Against a backdrop of serious environmental impact of furniture design, Hem is also contrasting fun, light and easy to handle, and affordable for the end user as well. 

This isn’t the first time that sustainability has driven a design of PearsonLloyd’s. For the PLC chair, which launched in 2010, they eschewed man-made materials and instead the design was realised in oak or beech with a satin painted finish. There was real attention to detail in its construction whereby traditional joinery techniques connect the seat to the backrest. PLC was PearsonLloyd’s first timber chair and marks something of a turning point in their thinking. “Timber really is the future of sustainability,” says Lloyd Finally: “It’s very flexible and favoured by a lot of designers right now. I think there’s this whole idea of stripping something down to its basic principles. If you always try to optimise materials and if it’s a good design, then it’s sustainable.”