Craftsmanship in stainless steel

Unilever London HQ

Executive offices, meeting rooms and boardroom

Business & Leisure

 

The search for a new design language

The British arm of Unilever, arguably Luke Hughes biggest corporate client and one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, occupies the recently refurbished Neoclassical Art Deco Unilever House at the north end of Blackfriars Bridge, London.

The curved façade and giant Ionic columns of this famous building, designed by a trio of architects and boasting panels designed by Eric Gill, have given that part of London’s Thames Embankment its imposing character since the early 1930s.

At the turn of the century, Luke Hughes had been developing two ranges of tables with stainless steel frames and tops in a variety of materials for some time. The Curzon system was originally conceived for the DTZ building in Curzon Street, and the Mercury for a Pearson fitout.

Working with stainless steel requires the same craft attitudes as with oak, maple or walnut, but the Unilever contract also demanded ‘smart’ design moves that ensured flexibility and value engineering for the client, and a radical approach to cable management, then a major office design headache. 

The design team at Luke Hughes worked hard to find a design language very different from anything on the commercial furniture market for Unilever, which was undergoing a top-to-bottom re-organisation and rebranding. The client needed our designs to reinforce its reputation for innovation and originality.

Crafting stainless steel

With stainless steel tables, just as with buildings such as Rogers and Piano’s Pompidou Centre in Paris and Rogers’ Lloyds of London, the uncompromising engineered steel and glass aesthetic depends on painstaking hand work, especially in the final finishing.

Working in stainless steel is very different from mild steel, not least because it distorts when heated, so any jointing must be executed in a way to minimise this effect. Polishing is crucial; it is done entirely by hand, especially on structures as complicated as the cross-braced and triangulated frame of the Mercury system. It seems ironic, but at the time a machine simply could not make the required finish.

Used in this context, steel was not being used as an industrial product, but more like wood, requiring a very high degree of craft skill.

Both Mercury and the simpler Curzon range, based on a twinned post-and-beam structure with a curved chassis-spring-like foot, were used for Unilever.

Our Mercury design had already developed from the initial concept into something more sophisticated and easier to make; it was the same refinement process as developing a chair.

Installation & site work

A high point of the Unilever project is the expanding round table in the executive dining area. The glass centre section makes the ‘main table’, but the timber veneered surround, added in sections, doubles it in size. In a highly unusual mechanical solution, the underframe leg assemblies swivel through 180 degrees to support the expanded top. 

The design team is also proud of the flip-top versions of the Curzon range, whose lever and sprung hinge mechanism locks the tops in place, open or closed.

Key to the development of both designs was the cable management capability, which had become a dominant element in all office desk or table design since the 1980s and which now, with better batteries and wireless internet, has become more or less obsolete.

Glass table and desk tops meant it was crucial to conceal or render the cable management invisible. But cabling kept having to be upgraded as CAT standards changed year-on-year. Each time ‘CAT 4’ became ‘CAT 5’, or ‘CAT 6’ changed to ‘6E’, all the cable had to be stripped out and replaced. If the furniture wasn’t structured to enable that, the client would have had to buy new tables or desks. We effectively future proofed the clients’ installation by factoring in the need for constant cabling upgrades.

With such projects, the key to success is designing out some of the on-site problems before the work actually arrives on site. People cost money, so the design makes for the absolute minimum of human input at the installation phase.

Fully cable-managed Curzon tables arrived as a kit of parts, assembled with an off-the-peg turnbuckle system that eliminated the need for any tools at all in assembly and radically reduced installation time on site. The work of the team at Luke Hughes is as much process design as it is product design. Installation and cable management costs would amount to about the same as the table itself, but are a ‘blind cost’ that the client has to meet, whatever the surrounding circumstances.

Cable management or no, both designs have stood the test of time.

Though the project has been in place for 10 years, it is still fresh, modern and clean. It hasn't dated. It’s looking like a real classic.

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