Designs on a better future . . .

. . . just don’t call it craft. Industrial designers Marcel Twohig and Ian Walton creatively combine art and science – with fun – to make life-enhancing products

 Designers Ian Walton and Marcel Twohig of Notion in their workshop. Photograph: David Sleator

Designers Ian Walton and Marcel Twohig of Notion in their workshop. Photograph: David Sleator

 

It’s the little things that make life more special, just as it can be the little things that drive us to distraction. A kettle that doesn’t pour properly, those buttons placed too close together, the ungraspable scissors . . . “industrial design” is the far from sexy name for a craft that makes life better.

But immediately you run into problems, because industrial design (ID) consultants Marcel Twohig and Ian Walton, of Notion, aren’t so keen on the idea of craft.

“What exactly are ID consultants?” asks Twohig. “That could take all day.”

“No one really knows what we do,” jokes Walton. We’re having tea and biscuits in their rather cool studios, just off Mount Street in Dublin. Next door are the design rooms, with the inevitable models and computers, and below a grungier and oh-so-fascinating workshop where the team make the prototypes for their projects.

A surf board leans against a wall. It’s one which Walton, a keen surfer, has been designing and building, “purely as a hobby. I guess I’m a bit addicted to making things.”

A workshop like this is pretty rare in central Dublin. Most of the making, these days, takes place on the industrial edges of our cities, but Twohig and Walton are keen to design and make at the heart of the capital.

“It doesn’t really exist in Dublin,” says Walton. “If you want it, you have to make it.” That attitude characterises the pair, who have an impressive pedigree when it comes to the particular blend of engineering, physics, art and design that it takes to make it in their chosen field.

Walton’s grandfather was Nobel laureate Ernest Walton, who split the atom; while Twohig grew up helping his sculptor father, DB Twohig, on public sculptures in Ennis, near where the family lived – an experience he describes as being “like an apprenticeship”.

Transitioning from physics to art isn’t always so easy; Walton remembers being asked at school to paint with a bit of wood, to “loosen” him up. The pair met in NCAD (National College of Art and Design) and worked together at the successful Design Partners studios in Bray, Co Wicklow, which has products in the design collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In many ways you could call ID the Cinderella of applied arts. Twohig and Walton point to its huge potential to generate industry and jobs, while its particular blend of practicality and dreaming seems to suit the Irish temperament. For an example of this, see Walton’s college project, the Glo Pillow (designed with fellow student Eoin McNally): an alarm-clock pillow that gently wakes you up by glowing at your cheek, which was a Time magazine invention of the year in 2007.

Setting up Notion two years later, Twohig and Walton picked up clients including a leading mobile phone manufacturer (who they decline to name, such is the secrecy that surrounds cutting-edge design and innovation), a number of medical supplies companies, and Vodafone. They describe ID as sitting between business, marketing and the end user.

“We’re always pushing to be more design-led; we’re the people who think about how people are actually going to use the thing,” Twohig says. Some of their work also involves imagining future solutions – creating products to solve problems we may not even realise we have.

Thinking of this, I wonder if it’s true that Hollywood movies are used for “future” product placements, softening us up for what’s to come. Twohig looks sceptical. “Think of Total Recall,” I suggest, remembering the FaceTime phone, that turned off at a swipe in the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger film.

“A lot happens in Total Recall,” say Twohig drily, although given the recent news about the Mars One Project (mars-one.com) for which The Science Gallery’s Joseph Roche has been shortlisted, a colony on Mars may not be so far-fetched after all. The conversation dives off down another tangent and I come to the conclusion that Twohig and Walton are very good company indeed.

Edging towards a definition over another round of biscuits, I get the sense that ID is the art of making things better, nicer, easier, more rewarding to use; potentially adding magic to something as mundane as putting the kettle on, opening a drawer or pressing a button. In the realm of design for the elderly or mobility impaired, good ID can be more than life enhancing, it can be life changing.

Twohig and Walton agree, though they also add that you do end up “doing an awful lot of plastic boxes for electronics”. With that in mind, the pair have recently been taking time out from client work to design and launch their own range of products under the banner NTN. These include tasty wooden-framed glasses, a watch, a natty light fitting, a bleached wood chair and a table with a little hammock slung below to put your newspapers on. All are sleek, elegant and yet with a gentle edge – cool without being violently trendy.

Why these items? “To be brutally honest,” says Walton, “like most industrial designers, we are a little obsessed with chairs, glasses and watches.”

You can see their work at ntn.ie and, while the collection has yet to hit the shops, you can register your interest on the site. The chair, the table, the glasses – they all make a loving use of natural wood, so why are the pair so anti the label of “craft”?

“Craft puts value on the means of production, the maker,” says Twohig. “Production takes that away again – it’s not in the hands that made it, it’s in the piece.”

Bring in the notion of art, however, where you also value the idea, and branding, where you identify yourself through the look of the products of a particular company, and you start to get a sense of why the future of ID in Ireland is in hands that are not only seriously good, but seriously good fun too.
See designbynotion.com and ntn.ie

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