Q&A with Dan Black
What inspired you to become a designer?
As early as I can remember, I’ve always had a love of products. These could be anything from something new and shiny to an antique that was worn and used. But it wasn’t until I was studying design at university, that I really understood there would be a career that allowed me to make my own. My parents always encouraged me to pursue a career in a subject I was passionate about. I am lucky that there are lots of things I enjoy. I have ended up being a product designer who now specialises in water bottles and lunch boxes, although I have an ambition one day to become a landscape or still life painter.
How would you describe your approach to design?
Our early designs had no specific category. We designed lighting, fans, barbecues, basically anything that we thought was a good idea. There was no set price range, material or aesthetic style. It always started with an idea, but apart from that, it was pretty much a blank canvas. However, I felt a pull to design products which helped solve a growing problem in the world - the rise of single-use plastic bottles and take away containers. So, now we are focused entirely on this category. We’ve developed a strict design language, but each design still starts with a unique idea where the goal is to create something which functions better than what is currently on the market and does something different.
All our designs are unique to us and developed from scratch. They are based purely on function, but also form, we want the owner to take pleasure in using them. We would never launch a product which is similar to others on the market, or even a gadget (a product which is supposed to solve a problem, but doesn’t work and ends up not being used). There are already too many products being made in the world, so it is a designer’s responsibility to only produce items which function well and really justify being made.
Is there anything that you always try to incorporate into each design?
In the design department of Black+Blum we always talk about the word ‘soul’. A product develops ‘soul’ when it becomes a cherished item to the owner. This happens when the product is a pleasure to use on a regular basis.
Here are two examples of products at completely opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is my grandfather’s silver fountain pen that my father passed down to me. The engraving on the barrel is worn, dented and irregularly polished but this all adds to its charm. I can somehow tell that he would have written with this pen every day for many years and cherished it. Without sounding too whimsical, my handwriting almost feels as though it takes on his style when I write with it. Somehow my grandfather’s use of this pen has put ‘soul’ into it. At the opposite end, I have a wooden spatula that I bought when I was a student. I still use this wooden spatula today. It is burnt, stained, warped and marked, but again this only adds to its charm. Even though I have a brand new plastic spatula, the old wooden one is my favorite to use and it has become a product with ‘soul’. Our goal is to design products that have the chance to become products with ‘soul’.
Describe your design aesthetic?
In recent years we have adopted a modern utilitarian aesthetic that is minimal and timeless. It has a hint of vintage rugged honesty, but is exercised in a contemporary way that avoids superfluous details that will age badly. The design also takes into consideration the factor of product integrity and how it will age in use. We avoid short term fashion-led colours or patterns or even functions wherever possible. We want to create products that will hold their appeal for a lifetime and have the chance of becoming antiques of the future.
What materials do you work with and why?
Firstly, we always try to use materials that can either be recycled or are biodegradable. Where possible we try to use non-plastic materials like wood, glass or stainless steel. We look to use materials which have the ability to age well, even when dented, worn or scratched. If a product can function well and age well, then it has a better chance of being cherished and looked after, and this will give it a longer life which means less impact on the environment.
We love using natural materials like cork. It is renewable, biodegradable and 100% natural, and obtained through an environmentally-friendly harvesting process that ensures the tree’s continued life. Similarly bamboo, a fast-growing grass sustainable crop, requires no fertiliser and self-regenerates from its own roots (so it doesn't need to be replanted) and regrows to its adult size in 3 to 5 years.
There has been a recent backlash against using plastic, but this needs careful consideration and not a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to avoid using at all costs. Sometimes plastic is the best material for the application and even the most environmentally friendly option. We always try to use it responsibly, and when the design element is considered, then it can be used well. Sometimes it’s possible to increase the perceived value of plastics by combining it with natural elements. We use wood fibre polymer and this has the ability to age much better than standard pristine plastics.
For more information on the materials we use, click here.
What makes a great design?
There are lots of factors that go into making a great design, but if you combine all the factors listed above then you have a good chance of making a great design. If a product can have a timeless aesthetic and function, work perfectly for a lifetime, and age well, then it has the chance to develop ‘soul’. This will ultimately make it a great design. More than ever, we need to consider the environment. A great design will deserve to exist and will be enjoyed being used regularly by the owner for many years to come.