“When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” Nietzsche famously said. In this case, the abyss also looks into your wallet for at least £9800 if you are as stunned as the rest of the world by this example of elite furniture designs,The Abyss Table. Created by Chris Duffy, owner of the leading luxury furniture design house, Duffy has been previously featured for our readers to dream in the impossible. ROOMS has since been privileged to interview the genius mind behind these fantastical and imaginative creatures, Chris Duffy who turns out to be as fantastical as his creations. Here you get to go into the abyss with a tour guide where Duffy talks humour, designs and people.
It has been over a decade since your physics-defying designs emerged into the luxury goods market. They are nothing short of stream-lined, sleek and coherent spectacles that inspires curiosity if not gasps. How has your market evolved and where is the brand’s current position now?
We have evolved into a high-end design company, as the luxury product market was conducive to us being able to see our concepts through to their logical conclusions, which sometimes requires them to be quite grand affairs that are expensive to develop and produce. Also, when it comes to it we could not compete on price with the large furniture companies and big brands, unless we sacrificed the values our company stood for. However, when it comes to competing on quality, originality and sustainability we cannot only hold our own in the global market but also come out on top.
The illusive aspects of the designs are playful and quite tongue-in-cheek, is that something that’s born out of your personality or the team’s dynamics? In our ROOMS 15 Issue there is a lovely double-truck photo of the talents behind the designs including yourself. I was surprised to see how young everyone looked. Could you tell me how the team was put together and how it’s like to be working in that environment?
It is born from my personality and the need to be as original as possible. There is more room for originality at the playful end of the scale than at the sensible end, which is overcrowded.
Playful, and maybe slightly silly briefs give a little more room and breathing space in which to approach designs and furniture in a new and more interesting way, and sometimes even provide quite novel and practical solutions to old problems.
My team has slowly evolved over the years and is still constantly evolving. I am lucky enough to have great many talented people apply to me for internships. From these I pick the very best. My team have all applied to me for internships to begin with and the ones who are exceptional get the choice to stay on as full time employees. The environment of the studio is a mix of a quiet science laboratory mixed with the occasional havoc, stress and shouting of a Gordon Ramsey kitchen.
The humour seems to come through in the mismatch of functionalities, such as the balloons or the swings. Taking objects and contouring them in the way that they aren’t commonly intended for could be argued as subversive and I particularly like how your designing process has been called performances of wizardry. Would you mind giving me a bit of insight into your life and personality or some experiences that might have shaped the way you approach a new idea?
Being a little nuts helps, as well as being a bit of an anarchist who hits back when they are told that they can't do something, or that what they are thinking of designing is impossible.
With the pieces you are talking about, I approached each of them in very different ways. For example, the Shadow Chaircame about because I had misinterpreted something I had seen in my mind's eye, and held that misinterpretation and its effect, and then used this on the piece of furniture I felt would have the greatest impact.
With the Balloon Table, I simply wanted to make a piece of glass appear to float; a balloon is the perfect visual for something that is buoyant in the air; the hard part is getting the structure perfect while maintaining the visual effect. If the structure is weak, the table fails. If the effect doesn't work, then the whole exercise becomes pointless. The Balloon Table only works when both are perfectly balanced and executed.
The swing table was just a simple exercise in designing something that gave no thought to practicality. The only thing it had to succeed at was fun, originality, structure and creating a wow factor. But after the years of development it is, ironically, one of our most practical pieces and extremely comfortable.
My editor has picked up on the Nietzsche and Voltaire reference in her introduction of the feature on Duffy. I had been tremendously excited to see those names especially Nietzsche mentioned. A lot of intertextual-cultural studies seem to play a big part in the design world but only fragments of it get to be brought over to the foreground. How do you stay true to your designs and philosophy and how important do you think that is?
It is very easy to veer off course and lose your way in design. To stay true to what I find interesting or what I find exciting, I have to regularly, and very deliberately, stand back, take stock of everything, and think all the way back to the very beginning when I first started making things in my childhood. Then I look at what I'm presently doing and re-position the company direction to what I believe is the true direction. Without that excitement and obsession, this job would be impossible. It can be an immensely taxing, stressful and time consuming occupation, as well as being all consuming mentally and physically. Without that constant passion, and the occasional small victory and piece of success, you could not do this job for very long.
The Nietzsche quote was just something that was buzzing around in my head while I was designing the Abyss Table. It's not that I use him for inspiration, although I do find some of his work very helpful in validating and confirming the reasons why it is I do what I do.
The Voltaire quote just sounded apt, although in truth it isn't, he is speaking about quite a different subject than the one I'm using it for, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I'd like to thank my team and all my amazing customers that have purchased pieces from me over the many years we have been in business. I started this business with £50 and never took a single loan from anywhere. Without my customers and my dedicated and long suffering team, there would be no Duffy London, and these objects that we are creating today would never have existed.