I met Leonhard Pfeifer at the London Design Festival earlier this year and despite being at a party where gin was being served in teacups (the Mini Moderns Remix launch if you’re interested), we were quickly immersed in a deep conversation about the importance of following your passion and doing what you love. In 2003, Leon returned to his furniture roots establishing his own studio in East London. I was keen to find out more – we talked good days, bad days, nature in New Zealand versus London and how to overcome creative block….
What’s the most important thing to know about you?
Four words I read once from Don Juan by Casteneda – ‘a path with heart’ – had an instant resonance with me. I’ve always had singular focus and by following my passion for creating contemporary furniture, I’ve found my path.
What inspires you?
I find details captivating. I really appreciate the well considered and well resolved finer aspects of a solution and find a real ironic humour in aspects of life that are ill considered. For me design isn’t something I do for work, then switch off – it’s a way of looking at the world and as such, inspiration comes from everywhere.
I was in Estonia with my family over the summer and I found the traditional fence construction and basket weaving techniques completely intriguing. I’m working on ideas now for a piece that combines aspects from this traditional weaving.
Talk me through your design process – how do you get from initial inspiration to final product?
My process is quite flexible and directed by the nature of each individual project. I usually start off with understanding as much about the context of the product as possible – the use, the materials, the market, proportions etc.
Then I move on to sketching in my workbook. I take the best ideas into CAD where I continue developing the ideas. Once I have some concepts I’m happy with I create renderings of the individual pieces to present to my clients. The presentation creates a tangible starting point for discussions with the client about how they see the project developing.
How do you overcome creative block?
I find I do most of my creative ideation on my own – without distractions – so it is not so much overcoming creative block, but more overcoming barriers to having the head space and creative time to think.
I have a lot of sketchbooks and workbooks, in which I jot down ideas as they come to me, so I look at these when I’m stuck for inspiration. My books are full of notes and sketches about thoughts and details that I have come across in my day-to-day travels. Whether naturally occurring or man-made, these can trigger a spark that then leads to an idea.
Describe a really good day and a really bad day in the life of Leonhard Pfeifer.
I love being active, so a good day would need to be warm – we’re talking 30 degrees is just about right. I’d be up early and start off with a roller blade around Victoria Park before breakfast. At 9am I’d drop my daughter off to school and stay to read for half an hour, before biking through the sun to the studio. It’s always busy with various projects going on, so some brain-storming early in the day might help to focus the team, then a good solid day of productive uninterrupted design work. I’d bike home through London Fields in the sun and perhaps cook a BBQ on the balcony for dinner.
A bad day would be almost the opposite – it would be grey, probably raining. I’d have been up working until 3am the night before, then woken early and had to do the dishes, make lunches and iron before running late to school. Then bus and walking through the rain to the studio, where my VAT would be waiting for me, along with a mountain of emails that would absorb my entire day, so I’d have to work late that night to get through at least some of my workload.
What influence has growing up in New Zealand had on your work?
The natural world is much more accessible in New Zealand than here in London – honestly, it’s everywhere, over there! The natural landscape formed my universe as I was growing up and has left a lasting impression. Some of my earliest memories are walking through the native bush, sun filtering between the intense green of the fern leaves. Now I find myself instinctively drawn more to natural textures and the warmth of wood grain than to artificial high gloss surfaces or painted panels. Early on I had access to my father’s workshop – he was an antique restorer – and so wood was the obvious material for my early experiments in furniture. That being said, with a background in Industrial Design I do incorporate a lot of other materials into my designs at times, but I’m always drawn back to the texture and warmth of natural timber – perhaps that’s the legacy of my childhood.
What are you most proud of?
It’s hard to pick out a single product that stands above all the others – I think the answer is the body of work as a whole that I am starting to assemble. I love visiting the showroom of my Estonian manufacturer – it’s amazing to see the entire collection of my designs as a single concept, together under one roof. I find it completely inspiring and satisfying at the same time.
What advice would you give to an aspiring designer?
When I was younger I was a distance runner – mainly cross country and steeplechase on the track. I think this was good training for design because it’s a long road and your resolve will be tested along the way. If design is your passion, stick with it – keep focused and stick with it – and did I mention to stick with it?! Another tip is to develop some good technical skills – early on I freelanced as a CAD operator for a day job and worked on my designs at night – you’ve got to find a way to make a living while you get the work under your belt.
What defines good design?
Design has to be doing something to be of relevance in people’s lives; you’ve got be solving some problem, so there is inherently a functional aspect – the design must “work”. However form is also integral – design is considered, it’s part of a self-conscious process, and for the final solution to be coherent, the form needs to be thoroughly resolved – this leads into both materials and processes, which are central to function and form, but also inform the context of a design, positioning it within a market, with direct effect over things like production and the accessibility of the article. Ultimately, any design is judged as an integrated whole, and this is where the final solution should show elegance – a fine balance where form and function, materials and processes bear a lightness of touch and grace.
And finally, what’s your favourite colour?!
Orange! But it’s best used sparingly.
Further reading for the especially geeky:
Having established confessions of a design geek in 2010, Katie Treggiden has gone on to a career in design journalism, writing for titles such as The Guardian, The Telegraph, Elle Decoration, Stylist, Design Milk and Ideal Home. In 2014, she launched Fiera, an independent magazine dedicated to discovering new talent at the world’s design fairs. Her second book, Makers of East London, was published in 2015.
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