Designing to last a lifetime - Luke Hughes

by Margie T Logarta

Portrait of Luke Hughes © Luke Hughes

Luke Hughes, architect and proprietor of his eponymous UK-based Luke Hughes design company, firmly believes in the three-word mantra “furniture in architecture”.

He explains: “Buildings have little function until you put a chair to sit on or a table to sit at, but if you put the wrong piece of furniture into a great building interior, you can destroy both the visual or functional aspect. The trick lies in harmonising the furniture to the architecture.

“So, as a designer, my starting point is always to look at the architecture (or interior landscape) and come up with something that enhances it, rather than embarrasses it.”

Focused on conceptualising and manufacturing furniture for site specific locations has become Hughes’ indelible trademark. “Almost all of what we do is for public spaces, rather domestic or residential, so we are invariably responding to the building – how it is used, how is it is serviced, the messages it is intended to convey and how it can be made to be more efficient.”

A graduate of Cambridge, majoring in architectural history, Hughes established his first studio in Bloomsbury in Camden, London to turn out carpentry work. It was intense market competition that made him realize the need to carve out a niche. In an interview with the British Chamber of Commerce in China newsletter, he recalls: “It struck me that architecturally sensitive buildings can’t be pulled down but have to be proved relevant.

“If you concentrated on getting the building to work better – and look better – you could make these buildings more useful and relevant.” He made a beeline for the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, spending much of the 1990s presenting plans to their administrators to reinvent spaces on these hallowed grounds for contemporary purposes. Buildings, some of which dated back to the 13th century, eventually came to host conferences and corporate activities, allowing their monitisation during the holidays. The company moved on to include American educational institutions such as Harvard and Yale, before adding to its client list law courts, including the UK and Scottish Supreme Courts, synagogues and libraries and five royal palaces in the UK, refurbishing the chairs in Westminister Abbey where Prince William and Kate Middleton wed in 2011.

Workshop © Luke Hughes
Workshop © Luke Hughes

Workshop © Luke Hughes
Then along came a most unusual project: a library for the Keystone Academy, an international school in Beijing that began operating in 2014. This was his first project in booming China.

The project, which ordinarily would be completed in 12 months, had a time frame of four months. Hughes, who received the commission in 2016, approached the design of the facility with several aims. Conveying some of the values of European and American libraries, evolved over their centuries-old existence, was one, and projecting the ethos of Keystone Academy that blended both Chinese and international flavours was another.

Hughes added: “From the start, we wanted to make the library a place the students want to go, where it’s cool to be seen; conducive to work, easy to gain on-line access, but also somewhere to browse, ponder, graze, stumble on the unexpected.”

According to Keystone executives, the design of the new high school library, with an equal mix of Chinese and English books, was seen as critical in extending the cultural identity of the school, enabling inquiry-based learning and playing a key role in attracting prospective students.

The 24 tonnes of furniture, 85 percent made in the UK, duly arrived on time, on budget and ready for installation in the 820-square-metre library at the end of August 2016. The finishing touches were done onsite.

Apart from the practical matters of providing shelves for books and readers spaces, the new library included provision for temporary exhibitions, specialist teaching rooms, a rarebooks section among other features. Some of the space retained some flexibility for rearrangement and presentations by visiting academics, poets and musicians.

Hughes says: “Although the appetite for books is enormous, especially among 16-year-olds, it is strange to think that before the 20th century, apart from private scholars and the Imperial collections of books, the concept of a library is quite a modern one in China and very different indeed from the European tradition of university libraries, some of which date back almost 1,000 years. “It is easy to forget that although the principles of printing and movable type originated in China, until digital printing was developed over the last 30 years, it was extremely difficult and expensive to type and print anything in Chinese.

General chair detail © Luke Hughes
Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, London © Luke Hughes

“Anyway, my agreeable task was to give them something that reflects the best of both disciplines and somewhere to work and study which imbues them with the essence of western university libraries whilst also respecting their own traditions. This has been less about imitating the past but more about proving the past’s relevance to the future.”

Form or function in his works? What does Hughes subscribe to?

“Form is largely superficial and surface-deep,” he declares. “No one thanks you for designing an uncomfortable seat, however striking it may look in a magazine photograph. Nor does anyone thank you for furniture that falls apart after 10 years because it can’t stand up to the rigours of what was required of it. Manufacturing techniques, budgets, material selection… these are just equally important design criteria.”

Hughes refuses to be locked into any one design phase.” “I respond to the buildings and the clients’ needs. I am just as comfortable designing for a 12th- century medieval cathedral as for a modernist university laboratory building (and we’ve done a lot of both).”

As for the challenge coming up with a design that combines aesthetics, practicality and commercial viability, the way is clear to him. “It’s just a matter of hard work, assiduously applied. The crucial thing is to really understand your materials and how to work them. And not to accept the answer ‘no’ from a reluctant production director, who sees production techniques merely as a series of procedures, rather than a creative opportunity.”

Due to the nature of their clients’ buildings, Hughes and his team work 60 percent with timber, and at least 40 percent in steel, stone, glass, resins and other materials. They also use a lot of oak (from Europe and the US) since it takes bumps and scrapes really well. “That’s important if you’re designing for a 50 to 100-year life expectancy,” Hughes observes.

Advances in technology in the last 20 years have “liberated opportunities for designers,” says Hughes. “3D printing has liberated product development; the smart-phone has liberated international communication; digital photography has liberated the transfer of complex ideas across the world. Technology has enabled a surge in the application of craftsman techniques on an industrial scale.

The services of Luke Hughes are marketed through representations in New York and Boston, and in Singapore through Vanguard. For now, the designer is content with their single studio in London’s Covent Garden, their base for the past 37 years. But further opportunities in Hong Kong and China are being seriously considered. “We don’t distribute ‘product lines’ as such, since everything we design and make is projectspecific,” he elucidates. Enquiries usually stream through their webite www.lukehughes.co.uk

Overlapping, inter-locking roles between designers and the production team. Hughes remains “dreamer-in-chief”.

Any collaboration with partner-designers? To which, Hughes ripostes: “No, we struggle even to keep up with our own bubbling cauldron of ideas! Ideas are cheap; making them happen is more challenging.”

Hughes says trends do not play a significant role when running a project. “I can afford to ignore them since we’re not interested in the residential market. In any case, the trouble about ‘fashion’ is that it is so quickly out of fashion. We’re interested in ‘a sense of permanence’ which, in the words of Kenneth Clark, the famous art historian, ‘is the essence of civilisation’.”

Awards are another facet of the business, Hughes could do without. Having been a judge many times on such exercises, he confesses to “have become both dubious and cynical about their value.”

“As far as I can make out, most award ceremonies exist for the organisers to sell dinner-tickets!

“The best recognition I could ask for is that 75 percent of our work over the last 35 years or so has been repeat business. The list of projects in some of the world’s greatest buildings and quality of our client list speaks for itself. No camouflage.”

If Hughes had his way, he would like his works not only to last lifetime, but hopefully, several more lifetimes beyond that.

Churchill College, University of Cambridge, England © Luke Hughes
Bespoke bench at Edward P. Evans Hall, Yale School of Management, Yale University © Nigel Young/Foster + Partners
Winton Chapel, University of Winchester, England © Peter Blundy/Design Engine
Benjamin Franklin College, Yale University, USA ©
EvensonBest/Luke Hughes