Design duo Pearson Lloyd discuss transforming a former Victorian workshop into a new studio space.
Words: Jane Audas,
writer, curator and digital producer
The design partnership of Pearson Lloyd is enduring; their back catalogue quietly impressive. Tom Lloyd and Luke Pearson have been designing together for 24 years. They are satisfyingly yin and yang as a duo. Tom is the more laid-back half. Luke is the lean-forward half. It’s a good combination and has done them well. The practice has recently moved into a new studio space in Shoreditch, Yorkton Workshops, slap in the middle of London’s old furniture-making district, which seems very appropriate. The building has its own history of making. It was once stables, then Victorian workshops housing furniture and musical-instrument makers, wood turners and the like. There was undoubtedly sawdust on the streets back then. Tom and Luke scouted around the area for a while but closed on this building quickly, sensing its potential.
They gracefully re-modelled the whole Yorkton space with Cassion Castle Architects. Initially they’d thought to build new on the site. But with their sustainability hats on, decided to preserve instead. The conversion is light-touch, retaining wherever possible the original structure, features and materials. Yorkton is now an incredibly welcoming space, redolent of things being made. They have expanded to fit their new space, with a nice sky-lit main studio for the team to work in. A bigger workshop R&D space. An outside area. New meeting rooms. And a nice fat red staircase as the heart of the conversion. There is an impressive Pearson Lloyd archive in the back, nicely boxed and as tidily labelled as you could wish. They employ about 10–12 members of staff and, except for a few temporary expansions for bigger projects, that number has remained steady for many years. The inevitable emphasis of management duties over design duties has meant they like to keep the studio size, well, manageable.
This move to a bigger space (some 5000 square foot) is less to do with expanding the practice and more to do with bringing everything Pearson Lloyd together, literally and figuratively. Here they are presenting themselves to the world in a manner quite new to this quiet practice; with an additional public-facing space, at ground level, to play with. In it they will hold exhibitions, readings, events with a design bent. Tom: “We’re always delighted to be invited to do talks. But it occurred to us - why aren’t we instigating that as well?” It will be interesting to watch these designer’s designers (who are, it could be said, a little publicity shy) open things up. Tom again: “It’s just nice to have things coming and going.”
Pearson Lloyd’s design work encompasses interiors, furniture, airline seats, waste bins and hearing aids. They are quite slow (perhaps ‘thoughtful’ is a better word) in their approach: circling around to a design solution, testing it, throwing it out, bringing it back in, until it has proven itself. They have come to trust their process is about testing the process. They are about editing out superfluities. Their designs are almost sparse in appearance but never uncomfortable. “We’re not typical designers. We’re a bit in-between. We do lots of things because we’re interested in them, when it might not be the sensible route to go for business.”
The hub of Yorkton is the workshop where they make things. They need all the space they can get, prototyping projects. The new workshop allows them to leave things out, to live with things a bit, to sit on things a bit, and to see how their designs work in the real world. Luke explains: “People naturally position furniture where they want it to be, to do the thing they want it to do for them.” Tom continues: “A thing that connects all our work is the human body, human scale. How do you understand how people use space, first. And then let that become the thing that drives the response.” They have been thinking, in particular with the Yorkton project, about intelligent spaces and are interested in how people use a space, physically and emotionally. Luke: “Emotion is a function. We’ve been talking about emotional ergonomics for years, how you feel emotionally might be every bit as important as how you feel physically.”
Design for the ‘third age’ is not particularly sexy; not usually high on a designer’s dream project list. Until you find yourself, at whatever age, in need of an NHS aid and can’t find anything you would remotely like to own, wear or use. The stairlift that Pearson Lloyd have just designed for ThyssenKrupp is an example of slowly, surely, and thoughtful. They were approached to re-design the lift because customers were buying stairlifts as a retrograde step, after they’d had an accident; rather than fitting one to prevent accidents. And, as Luke says: “They were just such ugly things.’ The project has been going on, off and on, for 10 years, the longest single project they’ve worked on. The social repercussions of design, particularly heath aid design, are fascinating. And facilitating people to remain where they want to live, as long as possible, benefits us all. Luke continues: “It’s about removing stigma. So many people could be saved from a bad fall, or remain with their loved ones. Why, when my body gives up, and my mind is still like a sixteen-year-old’s, do I have to go into an old people’s home? We thought it was such an interesting and difficult challenge: why are they so badly designed?”
Over the decades Pearson Lloyd have been designing, workplace needs have changed. Luke thinks workplaces, spurred on by the pandemic and a need for home-working solutions, will soon change fundamentally. Home-working is now much more the new norm: “We’re not all going to be going back. We’ve got cultural shifts occurring because of technology. And then on top of it, we’ve had COVID as another sort of input into that dialogue. Before it was the most trusted people that would be at home. But now, I think it might actually be the most important people that come back into the office. Because office space is going to be ultra-valuable. We’re in a very interesting time, I think, for recalibrating how work cultures can interface.” But he doesn’t think the office is ever going to be completely obsolete because weighing in against the convenience of video calls is that things still get lost in communication: “The physicality of being in the same space with people is, I think, a concrete, immovable, reality. We just don’t quite know how much of it we’ll need.”
As furniture designers themselves, what they chose to furnish Yorkton with is interesting. They have populated it throughout with their own designs and some few antique pieces, including an arts and crafts cabinet by a relative of Tom’s. The only other furniture ‘by a named designer’ that has passed muster are some Bouroullec pieces in the outdoor space and their reused 606. Tom: “We don’t just want Tom and Luke furniture in here, that would be really tiring for us.” Their 606 has travelled with them since it was installed in their (former) Drysdale Street studio in 2006 and they both have ‘miles of it’ in their own homes. As Luke says: “It’s just clever.”
Tom and Luke are the first to admit it’s taken them a long time to be able to articulate what they do as a design practice. But really Yorkton tells us all we need to know about Pearson Lloyd - their work and how they work - with nary a word spoken. It is a space that re-articulates how we all might work in the future. How the line between work and home might become less demarcated and more fluid. And how we might all be the better for less insistence on modes of working that are no longer fit for our purposes.