‘We didn’t receive one complaint’ says Ian Ferguson with a smile on his face. ‘Not one angry mum on the phone.’ Ferguson is one half of design company PostlerFerguson. He is referring to the work that the duo are most famous for in the UK, a series of build-it-yourself replica cardboard weapons. The first product to reach the market from the company was a kit to create your own model AK47 for German publisher and design house Die Gestalten Verlag.
The AK47 was designed by Ian Ferguson while on the Design Products course at the RCA. Martin Postler had also designed a gun that filmed while it fired. The pair had been briefed to design a weapon but the mutual admiration for each other’s response resulted in a friendship and ultimately the formation of PostlerFerguson. Since that first cardboard weapon, their arsenal has expanded to include an Uzi 9mm; an MP-5, an M4 and a hand grenade. Ferguson presented the model to his brother, who serves in the US Marines. ‘He said, “I like it, but what’s the point?” My Mum was just confused.’ Ferguson, from North Carolina, is the voice of the company: he bubbles with ideas and questions about the world and the role that design plays within it. German Martin Postler is quieter and more measured in his responses, but the pair share a quirky enthusiasm for design that is backed with an understated confidence in the long-term consequences of their actions.
Ferguson trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an architect, while Postler studied industrial design at Kiel University in northern Germany. The pair graduated from the RCA in 2007. The cardboard guns were their earliest creation, followed by a commission for Designers Block in the window of Selfridges department store in London. The original plan was to use the robotic arms, similar to the ones used as part of Kram/Weisshaar Outrace project in Trafalgar Square this year, to mill out furniture in the window. ‘Then they called and said we had no budget left and we had to do something different,’ says Postler. The pair found a maintenance manual for a Concorde engine on eBay and bought it, then requisitioned the RCA model workshop over four weeks to produce a 1:1 replica of the engine in cardboard and Styrofoam.
PostlerFerguson operates out of a studio in East London, they share the space with graphic designers Oscar and Ewan, The Green Soccer Journal, a gallery and photographic studio. The modest workplace is crammed with paper models of rockets, planes, fish, shapes – anything that takes their fancy. They cite the network of friends and colleagues they have in London as one of the reasons they feel comfortable approaching work as they do.
Their latest products, Wooden Giants, is a series of toy boats that they will be marketing this year. The models are hand carved out of mahogany and birch, and fit together simply. The Emma Maersk, Arctic Princess and TI Asia, the three largest cargo ships in the world, are abstracted into beautiful toys. They are both object and idea – and an indulgence. Martin Postler has a passion for superliners and spends some of his spare time modelling them on a computer. ‘We do this stuff to get noticed,’ says Ian Ferguson, ‘but consumer products are only interesting up to a point.’ The number of designers, architects and creatives that pour out of the RCA, Central St Martins and like-minded colleges creates a design community in London like no other in the world: it generates healthy competition with limited opportunities for success. PostlerFerguson, although part of this community, is working towards a goal that allows it to operate outside of the congested market.
‘I couldn’t design a chair, it would be very hard, I’m like: Eames chair. Fine. Done. I don’t just want to make it a bit different,’ says Ferguson. ‘It’s more interesting to make a difference in the way design works. It’s a bunch of constraints – what do people want, how much does it cost to make this, where can it be made, where does it get shipped to? You are always juggling all these different elements. It’s about how you can connect things that are really disconnected.’ Postler adds: ‘It feels at the moment that there is saturation in the case of products and the way they are designed. The only constant seems to be an economic one.’
The profile of the company in the UK and Europe belies PostlerFerguson’s ambition. The two of them believe that the notion of a designer as an auteur producing signature pieces is as limiting as it is alluring. Postler has been establishing a relationship with manufacturers in China for the last 10 years – before PostlerFerguson existed. He spent time doing an internship in Hong Kong in 2000 and since the formation of the company, the pair have spent one month a year in the country.
China is undergoing a second manufacturing revolution. Young entrepreneurs are finding that overseas clients are demanding costs to be cut massively at the same time as labour laws in China are putting them under more pressure to pay better wages. The margins for Chinese manufacturers are being squeezed from both sides. These companies are keen to exploit their expertise in manufacturing by investing the time and capital to make the foray into retail.
PostlerFerguson has established a strong working relationship with Puzhen. To date the design duo has designed four items for the company, including two air humidifiers – of which around 20,000 have been made. The Chinese company is now concentrating its efforts on making the transition to become retailers as well as manufacturers. ‘We are working on different products and are branding them. It’s not necessarily our own design,’ says Ferguson. ‘It’s not just us European-ising their brand. We’re building something worldwide that is very much Puzhen. We are guiding them.’
The dogma that PostlerFerguson is implementing is one of total design. It’s a relationship between design and retail that George Nelson pioneered for Herman Miller in the 1950s. Nelson once stated: ‘Total design is nothing more or less than a process of relating everything to everything.’ Finding that Puzhen has the capacity to produce high quality products as well as an aggressive strategy to buy up kilns and potteries in China, Postler and Ferguson were shocked to find such naivety in the company when it came to bringing their products to market.
In Guangdong province, PostlerFerguson has been exploring the possibilities of a working relationship with SESO, again, the same problems were apparent.‘They took us to a showroom with hundreds of products that no one wanted,’ says Ferguson. ‘They will open 300 retail stores over the next three years, but they have an assortment of items in random materials and no unifying aesthetic.’ PostlerFerguson will spend the coming months providing their client with a design philosophy that will build quality and innovation across all facets of the business. The deadline for the stores is set and the factories are waiting to produce the items. The process is running out of sequence, but the opportunity is massive. It intends to be a brand that brings quality products to a market of 1.3 billion people. ‘They want to be the Chinese equivalent of Muji,’ says Postler.
Despite the nostalgia and geeky fascination, the company has a distinct ambition that goes beyond aesthetics or functionality. The gun project, the Concorde engine, the toy boats and their recent lights inspired by nautical buoys all make use of information that is readily available to anyone interested in looking for it.
It’s this fascination with discovering information and then using it that is the driving force for PostlerFerguson. ‘The trajectory [for us] isn’t harder, faster and lighter, but transformation,’ says Postler. Engineers and designers need no longer look for ways to refine production processes he argues, but instead find entirely new ways of using resources and techniques. He cites German company Tui Ag as an example. ‘They had money in transportation and industry and transferred that money and expertise to travel and logistics,’ he says
‘We do the goofy stuff, because we are goofy and it pays our bills. But really we want to consult and make a difference to the process of design,’ adds Ian Ferguson. The duo’s ambition culminates in a return to the project that brought the designers together in the first place. Ferguson says: ‘We would love to work with a munitions factory to apply what the technology and processes are used for to create new materials and products. That would be pretty cool.’