Peter Cornish gets into furniture, adventurous design, and the ups and downs of starting your own business with British multi-talent, John Reeves. Photo by Vinh Dao.
There’s something curious, yet reassuringly comfortable about the designs of John Reeves. They are as well placed in a modern penthouse as they are next to Granny’s coffee table. Each piece with its own identity and voice, covering multi-layered generations of design and innovation.
Once known simply as the ‘24-year-old award winning British designer’, John Reeves was jettisoned into furniture design prominence at a young age. Graduating from Northumbria University with a degree in 3D design, he took his inspirational interpretations of furniture to exhibitions around Europe, where he received acclaim from the press, but struggled to turn his designs into a viable business proposition.
Early attempts at turning design concepts into saleable products met with frustrations. Despite no shortage of interest in his work, to start manufacturing required a minimum order of 100 pieces. Undaunted, and with the remains of a student loan and a small inheritance, Reeves made a run of tables which caught the eyes of buyers at Habitat, Conran’s and Heal’s of London.
After initial success, a chance encounter with the PA of Julian Chichester was then to shape Reeves’ future direction. Impressed by his creativity and drive, Chichester’s personal assistant encouraged Reeves to meet with the London based designer, known and respected for his classically inspired contemporary furniture.
Seizing the opportunity to showcase his talent, Reeves hoped to be offered some work experience in London but instead was presented with a job opportunity in Vietnam. Encouraged to explore his own creativity, and excited to learn new manufacturing and production techniques, Reeves accepted the job on the spot.
Based in Vietnam he continued to work on his own designs and captured the attention of Andrea Warden, who asked to include his work in Heal’s Discovery, a collection that promotes the innovative work of new designers. Heal’s Discovery changes annually, but Reeves’ designs remained a fixture for a number of years. He was then asked to develop further collections for Heal’s and his furniture captured the zeitgeist of the publics’ mood.
Following Reeves’ success at Heal’s, his work was entered for 3 prestigious design awards. He won two, came runner up in the third, and his iconic ‘turned leg split simply into quarters’ was placed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London as recognition of the design’s importance. Inspired by a request from his Aunt to create a coffee table that sat comfortably with the traditional furniture of her eclectic house, the split leg remains symbolic of Reeves’ design identity.
Playing with the traditional and blending shades of contemporary design won him yet more acclaim and continued interest in his work. But there remained doubts about the production quality achievable in local factories in Vietnam. To solve this concern, Reeves stepped up to manage production driectly, strengthening his ties with local craftsmen, building relationships with manufacturers and developing new designs in-house.
Despite having little experience in international business, his designs proved increasingly popular and led to continued requests for innovative furniture produced exclusively for clients. As few designers were working with similar mediums, and having control over the design conversation from concept to delivery, his furniture moved from simple design statements to an established brand – Reeves Design.
Reeves’ approach to design flows from aesthetics to product, putting the identity back in to contemporary furniture with an ever present eye on longevity over trend. Whatever the process, from design, to factory floor, to end user, Reeves creates a story behind what is being done.
Each story he tells helps bring his furniture to life, triggering a sense of emotion he believes prioritises form over functionality. By adding a sense of soul or poetry to his furniture, he takes his creations beyond the simple use for which they are created. Designing with a nod to the past, whilst understanding the importance of creativity and innovation, he develops designs that are modern yet sit comfortably alongside traditional pieces.
Every design he produces goes through a process of value assessment – is this a design that buyers will purchase – and asks whether you can truly be responsible for a design unless you have played a role in every aspect of its production. Investing in the complete design process, from concept to production, allows him to act fast and understand the little decisions that can affect whether a design is ready for this season or next.
Reeves’ latest collection is an all-weather range of outside furniture. Known as the Cast Collection, it melds aluminum with zinc plating to provide an organic, bare bone structure that keeps the memory of molten liquid in its finished form. Initially just comprised of a stool and chair, the collection now offers a complete range of iconic, instantly recognisable outdoor furniture.
By constantly re-investing in his business, Reeves constantly exposes himself to risk. He has worked hard to build a viable micro community of local craftsmen, taking him from design, to workshop, to production, and surrounded himself with people who commit their lives to bringing his designs to life.
Through carefully considering every aspect of the design, materials and production process, and by understanding that the choices you make at the beginning influence every aspect of the finished product, Reeves has conquered the risk he faces and established himself as contemporary designer.
Remaining passionate and curious about everything he does, and doing it to the best of his ability, Reeves has shown the world that he is much more than the Brit who once won an award.