We’re delighted to welcome Hitch Mylius to Interiors UK for the first time this year. Since 1971 this British manufacturer, founded by Tristram and Hazel Mylius, has been creating quality contemporary locally-made furniture for the British market. They’ve collaborated with some of the biggest names in the biz, and their now-iconic pieces can be seen in retail, commercial, hospitality and public spaces around the UK and Europe.
Last year, Ola Bednarczuk caught up with Tristram Mylius to find out about 40 years of the company’s success. Here’s what he said...
What was the design industry and furniture market like when you first started out 40 years ago?
When I was studying furniture design at art college in the 1960s, British furniture design was pretty dire – especially upholstered furniture. Of course there were notable exceptions – designers Ernest Race, Robin Day and Geoffrey Harcourt spring to mind, and there were a few forward-looking manufacturers, but generally if you wanted cutting-edge modernity, you would look to the Italians or Scandinavians. I was fortunate to be living and studying in London so there were a number of very design-conscious retailers where I could keep up to date with the latest in European design, but hardly any manufacturers in the UK were making these sorts of products. In particular, while a few furniture companies may have ‘used’ and valued design, I don’t think there were any truly design-led manufacturers. I suppose that was one of the main spurs to starting Hitch Mylius.
What was the first product you made and how did it reflect the Hitch Mylius brand at the time?
Our very first design was called ‘hm11’. I have always been a bit wary of names (maybe because of my own), so throughout our 40 year history all our product ranges have had code numbers. Hm11 was a very simple range of sofas and armchairs based on a rectilinear planform. At a time when sofas were typically overstuffed, with scroll arms and wiggly details, and my design education had inspired me with the (then) radicalism of the Bauhaus, my ambition was to create a design that was simpler and cleaner than le Corbusier’s LC2, at that time about the simplest armchair available. Hm11 reflected my interest in paring design down to essentials, eliminating unnecessary detail and concentrating on proportion and perfect craftsmanship – characteristics that have run throughout the history of the company and are still vitally important to me. In fact, hm11 has been through a number of refinements since 1971 but essentially still exists today in one of our currently most popular designs, hm18.
Is there a particular design or collaboration that was a turning point in Hitch Mylius' history?
We have had a number of immensely successful relationships with designers, but one in particular has radically influenced the course of the company’s recent success, and that is our work with Simon Pengelly. I have known Simon for a long time, and he, along with many other designers, has approached me regularly over the years to present potential new designs. Of course it’s only very occasionally that the chemistry and the timing work their magic connection. About 10 years ago, Simon sent me some sketches of a ‘molecular’ system of bench seating for public areas – a completely fresh approach and a unique concept. We developed this into the very successful hm83 range that has since been used in airports and atria worldwide.
Following hm83’s success, I thought it would be interesting to commission Simon Pengelly to design a chair collection to aspire to the description ‘modern classic’, to challenge the Swan, the Egg, LC2 and the Barcelona. While I enormously admire these milestones of modern furniture design, I am always a bit saddened that the default choice for smart city reception areas should be so predictable. Simon was excited by the challenge, and the result was the hm85 and its little sister hm86. It is these two chair designs that have pushed Hitch Mylius’ production to explore new manufacturing methods and taken the company into new territories. They have become top-selling products for us, and hm86 in particular is one of my favourite chair designs of all time.
What did collaborations with other designers bring to the company?
Without doubt, our collaborations with outside designers have greatly enhanced and broadened the scope and interest of our product range. I have been tremendously privileged to have worked on furniture designs with architects as diverse in style as David Chipperfield and Nigel Coates, product design guru Kenneth Grange and the late Fred Scott. I think that my own ‘editorship’ of the repertoire has ensured that there is a distinct Hitch Mylius look to every design within our range (since it has to be, more or less, to my taste), but it is the very diverse creativity of our stable of outside designers that provides the excitement and interest within the collection.
Has the company had to reinvent itself over the years to respond to a shifting business climate and changing customer needs?
No, our history has been one of evolution, gradual change and organic growth. Of course one responds to changing demands through adaptability, proactively facing challenges and making strategic choices, but we have not had to do any reinventing. Through the skills and dedication of our wonderful workforce, we are very good at, and respected for, what we do. I think it is important to stick to those activities that we do best, developing and reinforcing the product range and the brand.
What has been Hitch Mylius’ biggest achievement to date?
Not wanting to sound boastful, Hitch Mylius has a very enviable reputation among our client-base of architects and designers for our consistently high standards of design, production quality, value and service that has been earned through hard work and attention to detail over four decades. In the 1970s there were very few UK companies doing what we did; now there are lots of them and competition is tough. I think our greatest achievement has been to maintain that reputation for ground-breaking design and top-quality manufacturing, holding our position as leaders in our field in a highly competitive market environment over such a long time.
Are there any key projects that, for you, best demonstrate the potential of Hitch Mylius furniture?
We have been very lucky to be involved with a great number of exciting projects. One that stands out for a number of reasons is the Eurostar terminal at London’s St Pancras International, completed in 2007. For Hitch Mylius the project comprised a very large quantity of our hm18 seating and two long ribbons of hm83, Pengelly’s modular bench system. These were to weave their way in and out of the cast iron columns of the beautifully restored Victorian departure lounge, and one of our challenges was to make an adaptation to the standard product so that the seating dimensions matched exactly the column grid of the existing building. It was a great privilege to have provided the furniture at rail travel’s gateway to Europe, and of course we were delighted to be asked recently to top out the project with a further supply of the same seating at Eurostar’s French terminal at the Gare du Nord in Paris.
As a British designer/manufacturer, do you think British brands are sufficiently creative/forward-thinking/independent? Are there any obstacles facing British brands at the moment, or any opportunities afforded them that may not be found elsewhere?
There is a wealth of entrepreneurship in the UK, and British companies and individuals in a wide variety of creative fields are doing some really exciting work. But these are tough times; there are enormous pressures facing British industry at the moment, as a result of local and global economic difficulties as well as stiff competition from eastern Europe and Asia. This has not been helped by government policy towards industry over the last few decades. Clearly the challenge now is to ride through this period of austerity, adapt our working patterns to suit current market conditions, and to show our customers that British-made quality products are a viable option competing confidently against the best from overseas.
Do you think there is enough quality British design available today, or are we still in the shadow of Italy and Scandinavia?
Britain produces a vast amount of design talent, and has done for decades. Our design education is among the best in the world, and British designers are respected and sought-after by industry all around the globe, so the UK design world is definitely not in anyone’s shadow. What is really sad is that British industry has been allowed to dwindle away over the last half-century, so that our home-brewed design talent cannot be channelled through UK-based manufacturing but is instead exploited by companies abroad who then export their British-designed but foreign-made products to Britain. While I do not believe that economic growth can possibly be a blueprint for a sustainable world, I am still keen to see Britain hold its own in a competitive global market-place. We need industry, we need to be making things – useful things, things that last for ages, things that we Brits should perhaps be able to make better than anyone else.
Register for INTERIORS UK 2014 to see Hitch Mylius at the show!