Where I Work: black+blum

Dan Black and Martin Blum founded black+blum in 1998 and are based in London, where they work out of an historic building with tons of character, but it wasn’t always like that (think: working out of a caravan). They design, source and market their own range of products, which are now sold in leading design stores all over the world, like the recently-featured Eau Good Water Bottle. We popped into their digs to check out where they come up with their best-selling designs. When we arrived, Martin was not present because he and his wife recently welcomed twins! So, Dan thought it would be fun to create a life-sized cutout of Martin to pose for pictures — these are my kind of guys!

What’s your work style?

We don’t have a formal work style per se and it changes from project to project. Normally one if us comes in one morning and says, “how about designing a ‘water bottle?’ …and this is how a project is kicked off.” It’s that off the cuff and we are keen to keep that way. Sometimes we will have been living with the idea for months and sometimes it’s inspired by a recent trip to an antique market or museum. Don’t get me wrong – the idea is scrutinized and passionately debated! We believe that new ideas should only be put into production if they can really be justified and when we say justified, we mean by improving on the functionality of what is already out there. Being strict with these criteria often makes it hard to find products to work on, but we definitely believe it is our responsibility to do this as designers and that a product will have a better chance of succeeding if it is truly justified. Many ideas fall by the way side, but we have now been working together designing products for over 15 years and the process is always getting better and more refined.

Do you have a daily routine?

Dan: I live a one hour train journey north of London in the open countryside, so my day starts pretty early catching the train. The commute is long, but I love the contrast of living in the countryside and working in London, plus the train gives me a great chance to design and read. I also work one a day week from home which I love as it allows me to do things like taking my son to school and walking my dogs at lunchtime.

Martin: I live near the office, so have a leisurely cycle ride to get to work.

We both get to the office about an hour before everyone else and this gives us a chance to discuss new designs, have a coffee and plan the day ahead.

This is about as much of a daily routine as we have. We do have a weekly routine where we have one day a week out of the office. It is a bit of a discipline to organize this as it is too easy to get locked into the email inbox and routine non design admin, but getting out of the office to take advantage of all of the influences that London has to offer is so useful…and enjoyable. Typically we spend the day visiting small niche shops, cool areas, and new museum exhibitions or even just sitting in a coffee shop sketching. Other routines include everyone in the company going to a Le Pain Quotidian coffee shop for breakfast once a month. They have great big bowls of latte and delicious breads. It is a great way to find out what people you don’t sit next to in the office do outside of office hours and not discuss work things. We also have Konditor & Cook near us, which have amazing cakes, so whenever it is someone’s birthday, it is a great excuse to have tea and cake.

You’re the first team we’ve featured on “Where I Work” – what are some of the pros and cons of working as a design team?

We have been doing group projects together since we studied together at Northumbria University back in 1994 (a staggering 18 years ago!). There may not be a telepathic link between us, but it is pretty close and the advantage of working together this long is that we can communicate new ideas to each other very quickly and with very simple sketches. This definitely makes the process quick and efficient. Hopefully the advantage of the “team” aspect of black+blum is that our designs are always a joint input of both of us and a product will be a culmination of all the good bits …and hopefully none of the bad! The disadvantage might be for outside designers working with us, who might find it initially hard to keep up with the pace of the communication between us.

What is your favorite design tool?

An obvious answer is the notebook and pen, but it really is the perfect initial tool to start quickly communicating and exploring a new design (I think most designers have an unfair advantage when playing Pictionary). We do make a lot of foam board models and also rapid prototypes. For software, we use Solid Works, which is an amazing 3D modeling tool. It has a history facility built in, which allows you to almost go back in time and change the design at an early stage of the building process.

Do you have a favorite item that you’ve designed? What’s your bestseller?

I think we are always a bit in love with the latest design we are working on and different designs will have varying likes for different reasons. Climbing Light was our first design, so obviously this has a great importance for us…especially as it is still being sold today. James the Doorman was the first design that required injection molding tooling, so as “product designers,” this was a big step. It was also the first product to sell in higher volumes and this in turn, gave us the exposure and capital to work on other projects. The Loop Candelabra was an exciting design due to the fact that it was very hard to find a skilled manufacturer who could hand make them. Although the design is minimal and simple in its appeal, it shouldn’t be under appreciated. The lunchbox range and water bottle have all been exciting as they are products that we both actively use on a daily basis, which gives them their own unique appeal. They have also been the best sellers.

Tell me about your current office space, when you moved there and where you were before.

We are now based in the Oxo Tower, which is situated in the heart of London next to the River Thames between the Tate Modern and London Eye. The building was originally constructed in the 19th century as a power station. Today, it has restaurants, flats and two floors of small creative studios for different disciplines such as fashion, graphic, jewelry, furniture and product design. We have been based in the Oxo Tower for twelve years now and it is a fantastic place to have a studio. It is an amazing launch pad for creative companies as everyone knows each other and is happy to share their skills and experiences. You can be a small company, but feel part of a larger group. It is a big change from where we first started in a caravan owned by Martin’s uncle in the middle of a forest. When we first started black+blum, we didn’t have an office space, so the offer of a free caravan was greatly appreciated. There were two small bedrooms and we did have an Internet connection, so it wasn’t completely spartan. But spending a few months in a small old cold caravan up a muddy track in the middle of winter is a good long-term survival test for any business relationship!

The original b+b office!

From the looks of your original office and your current one, it’s clear that your business has significantly grown. Did you experience growing pains? When did you know it was the right time to move to a new space?

We have been steadily growing since we first started. We are now a team of 12 permanent staff and four of these are on the design side (the other eight are involved in the business/administration roles). Unlike designer-makers or design consultants, we are not actually making the products ourselves or designing for other people. We design products, find skilled people to make them and then handle the stocking and selling of these items. However, we outsource as much as possible, especially where there are clear advantages. With warehousing for example, we use third party warehousing, which allows us not to have to worry about growing. For PR, we use experts who have much better experience and resources than anyone we could employ internally (in the US, we use BDE who do an amazing job). Outsourcing allows us to have a small team and stay flexible to design the products we want to, rather than the products our structure allows. It also hopefully allows us to grow without experiencing the growing pains that we might have if we were looking after every aspect of our business. Like the process of design, we are continually looking at the company organization and systems and challenging the structure to see how we can make it better. It is definitely not about size or money, but more about what is the best structure that will give us the freedom to design what we want and be able to enjoy the process along the way. The hope is that we both personally continue to develop the products we really want to and in twenty (or thirty) year’s time, look back on a portfolio of products and be proud of every single one.

At this point, we actually need more space as the current office space is far too cramped. There is a chance that in the very near future the Oxo Tower will be developing a new onsite extension and we will be able to get a much larger space. At the moment, we are holding out for this.

What can you tell us about a current project you’re working on?

Without giving away the actual products, we are working on two products that aim to take advantage of manufacturing skills that still exist in the UK. More and more products are being made overseas and we have set ourselves the brief of finding ideas that can and should be still made in the UK. The UK has an amazing manufacturing heritage that in many sectors have been over looked and certainly not valued. The car industry is a good example where this was realized too late. Most (I think all?) premium UK car brands are now owned by foreign companies. Dan will be speaking about this at the Product Design and Innovation conference in May.

What amazes you about what your technology can do that you would have thought impossible just a few years ago?

3D software and rapid prototyping are now definitely part of our design process and are so much easier to use and more accessible in terms of price. With certain algorithm software, it is possible to experiment with forms and pattern that have never been seen before. With rapid prototyping, it might not be that long (30 years?) before everyone has a rapid prototype machine in their home and designers are just selling the 3D files rather than actual physical products.

It appears that you have lots of tools and things in your office and you mention that you make a lot of foam board models and rapid prototypes. How has the process changed in the 15 years you’ve been designing products together. When do you most often find yourself going to the analog tools?

The design process has changed massively in the last 15 years. 3D design software is so much more intuitive and accessible in terms of price and this has meant that combined with rapid prototyping, it is much quicker to develop new designs. The only negative is that sometimes, designs can look great in the computer and the temptation is to sidestep/shortcut the refining or development time and this can lead to products being produced that are not as good as they should be. You have to be strict with yourself and not rush the development process. Analog tools such as pen and paper are great, but there is no substitute for a physical rig / test model that really gives you a true indication of size, ergonomics, scale and character (things that can be falsified on a computer or sketch).

What is on your computer desktop?

We are currently working on a new tape dispenser and this is a simple 3D computer file for it.

What are these drawings all about?

I am not very disciplined with my sketching and they probably don’t mean much to anyone (including myself sometimes). They are possible shapes for a new fridge water carafe that would use the same binchotan charcoal filter as our water bottle.

Whatcha doing here?

Sawing some copper wire — it’s a prototype for a wire coat hook design that we’re working on.

Do you have a brand of pen or pencil that you favor?

I would love to be disciplined and say that I always use the same pen, but I have a tendency to lose any good quality pens that I have and always end up steeling pens from other people. Maybe not very designer to admit, but I seem to end up consistently using cheap hotel give-away pens. It is particularly strange as I love pens and even once tried to launch a range of silver pens. I approached designers such as Terence Conran and Shin Azumi and had them design a silver pen that they would want to use as their everyday pen to design with. I even had a prototype made up of my own design and do sometimes use it (but am careful not lose it!). Sadly the price of silver went through the roof and I wasn’t able to find a good enough quality factory to make the pens and the venture never made it past the drawing board.

What is this?

This is an early rapid prototype and production version of the new Thermo pot (vacuum food flask) that we are launching later this year. It has a stainless steel spoon which magnetizes to the side of the body and a cork lid. It is great way to carry hot food and we have all been using them in the office.

Is there anything you’re really itching to design or redesign?

Dan: I can’t answer for Martin…he loves cars and is a keen kite surfer, so it might be anything related to these (or maybe a baby product with the arrival of his twin boys). For me, I would love to one day design a watch. We have worked on a watch design, but never took the concept through to production. It would be lovely to work with an established brand that has amazing mechanisms and really push the boundaries. I think Marc Newson has done some amazing watch designs for Ikepod.

Photographs by Bruce Hemming Photography for Design Milk.

Jaime Derringer, Founder + Executive Editor of Design Milk, is a Jersey girl living in SoCal. She dreams about funky, artistic jewelry + having enough free time to enjoy some of her favorite things—running, reading, making music, and drawing.