MEET MICHAEL SODEAU
From producing small office essentials to planning entire concepts for restaurants, resorts and hotels, designer Michael Sodeau is inarguably prolific.
Founded studio in 1997. Has work in the permanent collection at the V&A Museum.
One of the concepts I explored was how people related to objects in personal ways. How can an object can have a character?”
I tend to come in an hour or more before we open the studio, because I like to make models when no one else is around.
Browsing the pages of his portfolio, one will find everything from staplers to streamlined furniture, lighting fixtures to full-blown interiors, website design to complete brand identities.
This diversity is what Michael enjoys most about his practice. “One day, I’ll be designing an eraser and the next day, I’m designing an entire house. I never get bored,” he says. Whatever the project, however, his strategy remains fixed: in a nutshell, he aims to produce objects that encourage a true relationship between people and the items they own. He often places himself in the position of the consumer, asking, What would I want if I were using this myself?
The London native’s favorite projects are those that offer freedom to explore various avenues of creativity. When given the opportunity, he’s involved in every aspect of the process, approaching each with attentiveness and unshakable vision. From his Hoxton studio, the designer reflects on his vibrant career, what he loves most about working in London and why he’ll never leave the multifaceted city he’s always called home.
Tell us about your background and your earliest experiences with design. How did you first venture into the field?
My earliest experiences were really in college. I went to Central Saint Martins, and I started in the product design program. The best part for me was the physicality of the work. I used to do a lot of designing in the workshops in the evenings. I’d even work with the technicians, trying to access as much material as possible. We also took a trip to Milan at CSM, and we went to the studios of many amazing Italian designers. That’s when I realized the field of design was so free and much more diverse than I’d anticipated. I noticed that there weren’t any real limitations, and that you could, in fact, do as you pleased.
Did you start your studio as soon as you graduated?
I set up a company called Inflate when I was still at CMS. We made inflatable products. I finished college in 1994, and we launched the first collection in 1995. I did that for a couple of years, but decided that these types of materials that are really interesting are also quite limiting. I wanted to explore other things and venture into furniture. So I set up my own studio and launched a company.
During Inflate, I got caught in this trap of making and not having time to design. When I left, I decided to design as much as possible. I started subcontracting production for small-scale, small batch projects. We looked at various crafts and processes that could be effective and successful—like ceramics, rugs, cabinetry, furniture-making. We did a line of domestic products called Comfortable Living, and that was really the kickstart of the studio.
Initially, what was your attraction to the world of furniture design?
You tend to design things that you need. We started specifically with furniture because we thought, if we need it, other people must need it, as well. It starts there, and then you try to build stories around products. You think about how people are going interact with them, where they’re going to be seen, how other products will associate with them. That’s how it evolves.
One of the concepts I explored in school was how people related to objects in personal ways. How can an object can have a character? When I say character, think about how you might know a car is your car because of the strange noise it makes when it starts, or the fact that you have to press the gas twice before the engine turns. You get to know things by the ways in which they work, the sounds they make, et cetera. The ability of an object to take on a character is very interesting to me.
You were born in London, and you’ve spent your life here. What do you love about it, and how has it influenced your work as a designer?
London is a place full of very different cultures and various backgrounds. It’s a true melting pot. To that end, the city tends to be much more of an eclectic mix, even in terms of the design world. Having access to such a mix of cultures here in London, as well as traveling, has influenced me in different ways. Actually, I feel slightly less British and slightly more European in a way—experiencing such diversity in one city is incredible. And, obviously, there are always so many things to do here. The convenience of art is amazing, and makes it a great place to be as a designer. I’m not sure that I’d ever want to live anywhere else, really.
In your studio, you cover graphic design, interiors and even conceptual web design. How do you bring all of these things together?
It probably comes from the desire to control everything. If we’re on a project, we want to deliver everything that we feel could be relevant to the client. For example, on interior projects if we’re given the opportunity, we’ll design every piece of furniture. We just did one recently where we even designed the floor tiles. If we’d had more time, we’d do the door handles, as well. If it’s a restaurant, we’ll speak to the chef to work on graphics for the menus and wine lists. We’ll do cutlery, bowls, plates, glasses. It’s the idea of controlling the whole presentation.
Tell us about your collaboration with OTHR.
The idea of everything being made with 3-D printing is such an interesting concept. The technology part of that is only going to grow. The approach is also quite simple and pared back, which I like. We ended up creating a sort of breakfast set. It consists of a ceramic drip coffee maker, a small plate and a knife that can all be used for breakfast.
Are you a morning person? At what time of day do you most enjoy working?
I’m very much a morning person. I tend to come in an hour or more before we open the studio, because I like to make models when no one else is around. It’s nice to have small-scale models to get a sense of shape, feel and how things will actually exist in the real world.
When you’re not in the studio, what are you likely to be found doing?
I cycle a lot. Within the city, biking is a good way to find your bearings, but I tend to ride outside of London. The countryside is actually not that far out. If you head north five to ten kilometers, you’re there.
Lastly, bringing it back to design: what do you envision for the future of the industry?
I think you’ve almost got a split between technology and craft these days. On one hand, you’ve got this very detailed and designed thing that’s been manufactured and produced with technology. On the other, you’ve got this object that’s been made by hand. They’re very different approaches. I think it will be interesting to see how those two ideas develop in terms of craft-making and technological advances. In the end, technology drives things forward. But the combination of those two things is really what we'll keep seeing in the future.