“It really is living the dream. Cornwall is a fantastically inspirational place to be,” says John Miller, co-founder of furniture designers and manufacturers MARK. Any notions of corniness this statement may conjure are swiftly crushed the conviction underpinning it. Although neither can claim Cornish blood, both have strong feelings for the place, amply demonstrated by their commitment to developing the local design scene and using local manufacturers. Miller, a designer in his own right, spent two years as Director of Design at University College Falmouth and has recently set up the University’s Academy for Innovation & Research. Not to be outdone, Hart is a committee member of the Cornwall Design Forum, a voluntary body that promotes a myriad of different design disciplines. Plus she digs surfing. The pair met in 2007 after Hart, formerly an interior designer for DEGW London and later Falmouth-based Absolute Design, tracked down Miller with a mind to forming a design company that manufactured locally. At the time, Miller was immersed in the academic world, but hankered to re-enter the commercial sphere. “I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do that and Anna was coming from a different, more commercial world.”
Following a brief and agreeable comparison of notes, the pair formed MARK in 2008, debuting with a bang at 100% Design the same year. Starting a new company in the teeth of the worst recession in decades takes balls of steel. But as Miller admits with a laugh, they were already too far in by then. “Also remember, when we approached people we hadn’t even started MARK yet. The designers had to really grasp what we were trying to do. It was all very new so they all had to take a risk and be up for it,” he says. Thankfully they were and, despite the prevailing economic meltdown, MARK got off to a flyer, scooping an award for Sam Johnson’s Net chair, a design inspired by fishing nets. A peculiarly Cornish idiom, the Net chair embodies MARK’s ideals. Miller again: “We want the MARK collection to reflect the place in some way. To have something to do with the more relaxed way of life down here.” Also apparent is the collection’s genre-bending nature. Tapping into the ever more blurred lines between home and workplace, many of MARK’s products look equally comfortable in the home or slotting into breakout spaces in a jazzy start-up company. It’s a niche that MARK continues to exploit and the company is currently preparing to launch the Nest side chair in two new guises at Clerkenwell Design Week. “We’ve had some really interesting conversations with workplace designers and developing Nest further is a direct result of that,” says Hart. Attuned to the danger of purely ego-driven designs, MARK is keen to encourage dialogue between manufacturers and the A&D community. “We don’t want to be prima donna types and say that what the world needs is another chair from me or Anna,” explains Miller.
“Sustainability” seems to have usurped the word “iconic” in the lexicon of worn-out buzz words. Tossed about with gay abandon, it’s attached to projects often with scant appreciation for meaning. For MARK, sustainability is partly achieved by the physical proximity of their manufacturers. But it also takes on a deeper nuance, tying in with their desire for longevity. “I guess that the reason most furniture is thrown away is because people get fed up with it,” says Miller. “We are trying to do stuff that you are not going to get tired of.”
Sustainability may be MARK’s watchword, but it could just have easily been communication. Building strong relationships is knitted into MARK’s DNA and from the outset the pair scrutinised which designers would fit the mould. “A wish list,” as Hart puts it. Through a series of one-to-one conversations, Miller and Hart determined if potential designers were compatible with their manufacturers, even bringing them down to Cornwall to meet the next link in the chain. “There has been that three-way conversation from the beginning,” Hart explains. The company counts 12 designers (including one partnership) as part of its cadre. The determination to use local craftsmen (about 80 percent of their products are made in Cornwall) makes good on MARK’s commitment to the environment. But it’s also a demonstration of their hands-on working practises. According to Miller, finding innovative and skilful manufacturers is all good, but equally important is a willingness to work with MARK. “It is essential they get it,” he sums up.
Next up for the company is Clerkenwell Design Week, where, apart from relaunching Nest with led and pedestal bases, they will also introduce Flow, a new table they describe as “lovely for lolling about on but also very good for work purposes.” For MARK, the show is an opportunity to present their wares to a more diverse audience. “London is a worldwide shop window, but our aim is to concentrate on the UK market for the first couple of years,” Miller continues. “It will probably be another 18 months before we start doing international trade shows.” The conversation swings back to Cornwall’s design scene, which is due to get its own festival later this year, and will be modelled on the London Design Festival. It will be interesting to see how it pans out, but as Miller says, the Cornish are experts at making things happen. “The people here are a resourceful lot and to make things work you have to be adaptable.”