A week in the life of Furniture Designer Matthew Hilton

Born in Hastings, Furniture Designer Matthew Hilton has enjoyed a highly successful career, working for companies including SCP, Driade, Authentics and Habitat.

In 2007 he established his own company, with products manufactured and distributed under licence by De La Espada.

Usually I cycle to work, it only takes five minutes. I normally start early, between 6.30am and 8.30am.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a workaholic but there are times when I wake up and get to work really early. Often I’ll spend the first few hours fiddling about trying to learn something, such as Photoshop. Or I sit and look at finances, or sketch. It’s my quiet time when I can do stuff.

When other people arrive at the studio, I change what I’m doing.
I write emails, respond to requests for photos, do PR stuff.

About twice a week I head into London for meetings. I might see furniture companies like Habitat, SCP, Ercol and Case Furniture, or the people doing my graphics, PR or book-keeping.

There’s a lot of travel in my work. I go to trade fairs to look at stuff or exhibit. Or I get invited somewhere. I often travel to Portugal, typically every three weeks. I like all the travel, but it takes a lot of time.

I spend a lot of time on my own business, generating ideas and thinking about what the company should be doing. It’s kind of writing a brief. I also design for Case Furniture, which is more of a conversation than thinking by myself.

This front-end stuff is very enjoyable and necessary. It’s part of what makes a design successful or not, getting that stuff right at the beginning. How and where something is made, warehousing arrangements, distribution: it’s all part of the design.

Then I work on what a product might look like, how it might perform. I used to sketch a lot, but nowadays it’s far less. Most of it is just thinking.

It’s important to look at other products and materials. I’m looking at stuff all the time. I go to the trade fairs. Eventually you get to a place where you don’t have a lot of room left. It’s about trying to be creative within quite a tight space.

Compromise is at first very difficult to deal with. Once you get your head around it, you can make good things out of difficult situations, from a particular set of limitations.

I have a small team and they will create the design in CAD. Once the three-dimensional modelling has been done, we can get the technical drawings done very quickly.

It’s fantastic to see a prototype. It’s a thrill, but you have to be analytical. You look at it from an unemotional standpoint. I don’t get properly thrilled until it’s on show at a trade fair.

Furniture design has really changed. The big turning point was computers, which have made a huge difference. It took me a while to get my head around how to work on a computer properly. But it means you can do a lot more work, develop things in more depth, get things more right. Fewer prototypes are required.

It used to be me in the studio with a drawing board, polystyrene and cardboard. I don’t really make things any more. Instead I think things.

Marketing is a big part of my job. It’s part of having your own brand. I have a PR agency who I see once a month. I also have a graphic design company looking at my website, catalogues and so on. I enjoy that side of it. I have always wanted to get into the position where I’m involved right from the start, thinking of a product, to the end.

I always have to be creating something. I get depressed and cross otherwise. I can’t stand being in the position where something isn’t being made. I guess I’m a bit of an obsessive.

Matthew’s career path

At school I was quite good at art. It was easy for me, the thing I enjoyed the most.

There was a battle between me, the school and my parents about allowing me to do something arty. They wanted me to do something safe which would earn money.

I went to Portsmouth to do an art foundation course. During my first year, a tutor asked me to think about furniture. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but suddenly it was kind of obvious. After Portsmouth, I studied furniture design at Kingston Polytechnic, and then worked for one of my tutors for four years. It was dull but taught me a lot.

I then began making my own things, which were sold at Joseph and Paul Smith, and then in 1985 established the Matthew Hilton Design Studio and also met Sheridan Coakley of SCP, which was the beginning of my professional design career.

I spent four years as part-time head of furniture at Habitat. It was a good time, but was quite difficult. I don’t think I’m that great at working with lots of people. For the first six months I was reeling from the shock of working for a big company. Habitat was a very commercial place. You have to make compromises and make the best out of a situation. We had to work so fast.

I left Habitat in 2004, and went back to doing what I was doing before, full-time. I got myself a studio with a graphic design company, and starting thinking seriously about setting up my own business, manufacturing products under my own name.

I’m working really hard on developing new things. The most rewarding thing has been starting my own production. It’s a business that’s growing and it’s starting to succeed. I have a great partnership with wooden furniture manufacturer De La Espada. The furniture is made beautifully in Portugal, and they provide the sales people, distribution and retail outlets.

Useful links

Matthew Hilton’s website features his latest furniture designs and details of his inspiration.

www.designcouncil.org.uk