Leo Scarff has been a product designer for over 20 years, studying and working in Scandinavia before setting up his own design studio in Dublin in 1997. He has been fascinated by natural and man-made structures for many years, and developed the new Hiberform collection from his research in this area.

The idea for his Hiberform collection originated more than two years ago, when Leo began developing a series of sculptural structures from his research in natural form and Geodesics – the interaction of straight lines and curved spaces.

The nature of these structures required computer-navigated router- and laser-cutting processes to produce the components. However, having recently relocated to the creative hub of north-west Ireland, Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, it was necessary to locate several hi-tech local manufacturers with capabilities in these areas.

“Forms generally follow functions – however, we find that certain production processes push the creative process down certain roads”

A new production network was established in 2009, and Leo began prototyping his ideas in 2010, culminating in a residency at the Leitrim Sculpture Centre, followed by the Futurescapes exhibition at the centre in May last year. Many of the ideas for the Hiberform collection arose from these sculptural works.

Hiberform is a new collection of screens, sculptural structures and furniture products designed for use in offices, hospitality, retail and domestic spaces. The designs have been created for contemporary spaces, where clean lines, functional and colourful structures are required to lend vibrancy to the interior. The room dividers are available in a range of sizes and colours to suit any interior scheme, and can be configured in dramatic yet practical layouts.

What propelled you to create Hiberform?

Hiberform is the result of a number of areas of research I carried out over the last three years. I have always been interested in structure as a result of a thesis years ago, and the subject surfaced again when I began branching out into sculptural fine art pieces some years ago.

More recently I have examined modular structures as a means to develop new furniture products, and this has resulted in what is now the Hiberform collection. Screens and sculptural structures in my view is an under-developed area within the interior product area, so it was interesting to look at how we could market certain products to different niche markets.

Who do you envision as the end-user? Do you envision the products being used for the events sector?

The potential within the events area is really exciting. Obviously, the screen products can be used for exhibition stand backdrops and to section off areas within stands – however, there is potential to create fully-3D overhead installations with products such as Grid, Prism or Geodome. Also, the fact that each product is available in a wide range of colours and materials means that a company can request their own corporate colour to give complete brand recognition.

How is it made, and how much outsourcing did you have to do to make it viable?

We are delighted to have developed a truly contemporary collection of furniture products in Ireland with the assistance of several organisations including the Enterprise Board, Ceim, The Arts Council and the Crafts Council of Ireland. Hiberform’s primary aim is to create and sustain design and manufacturing jobs in Ireland, and we intend to employ several designers and assembly technicians in years to come.

Most of the components for the collection are sourced from hi-tech local companies who are specialists in a particular material or process, so we get the best quality and competitive pricing. This is how furniture is made in many parts of the world so we feel this is the future, as opposed to producing everything in-house. It has become more and more expensive to import furniture due to higher transportation costs, so making furniture in Ireland has become more competitive in recent years.

What is the secret of your longevity within the Irish furniture design and manufacturing business?

I have been working in this field for 20 years now, and seen some ups and downs. For me, it’s more like a vocation than a job or career. Design gets into your blood and it can result in a wonderful, creative life – however, like any profession, there are low points, and recent times have been extremely challenging.

At the studio we have used the last few years to take a step back from our regular project work and research new product areas. Make a positive from a negative, is our new motto. Like so many we relied very much on the bespoke furniture and lighting market in Ireland through the boom years, and although it was good while it lasted we now realise that establishing long-term export product ranges is the wiser route if we want to sustain employment.

Is there a specific design philosophy that guides you?

Our work is very process driven, so we produce many models and mock-ups in studio before prototyping and final production runs. Forms generally follow functions – however, we find that certain production processes push the creative process down certain roads, so we very often jump on for the ride and arrive at unusual destinations.

How do you think furniture designer/makers in Ireland need to adjust to market themselves effectively in this new economic landscape?

Almost every business needs to stay light on its feet now and adjust its offering continually. Innovation is key – and not just in design or production, but in the way the products are packaged, sold and used. It seems as though emigration is becoming necessary again for many professions – however, I have always felt that designers should always travel and see the world.

I travelled extensively after college and also studied in Scandinavia, and it was incredibly important for me in all my work since. Education does not stop when college ends. It is life-long, and designers should continually update their skills and engage in research, whether formally or informally. In terms of doing anything differently and not wanting to be too philosophical, I think we could all experiment more, collaborate more and be conscious of junctions in that road I mentioned. Sometimes opportunities are right under your nose and we pass them by.

What is the future of the Irish furniture manufacturer?

There is always a future for manufacturing in Ireland and I have been campaigning for change in this area within the furniture industry for some time. I have always felt that so many Irish companies have followed instead of leading the way, so this still needs to change if we are to have a future. Innovation also takes time, and questions must be asked at every stage of the process, from idea, to use by the client, and indeed after use.

We have incredible furniture designers in Ireland. All that is required is a mindset change and the establishment of collaborations between the necessary groups, and much can be done without large capital investment.

Ideas and knowledge are the future, and in Ireland we are world leaders in certain areas. We need to focus on getting our skills and products to the emerging markets and continually innovate. Craft production will always have a major role in the cultural and economic life of Ireland. For industrially-produced design goods I feel cross-profession/industry collaboration is the way forward to truly compete on an international stage.

Leo Scarff has exhibited regularly at the Dublin Furniture & Home Accessories Fair. He has acted as a consultant and curator on the show, and has organised several events including Source Ireland. Hiberform, which Leo launched in December 2011, is a new brand of Irish spatial division and furniture products. This story was originally published in Furniture News, March 2012.