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Cristina Esposito When was the product design group at Foster and Partners formed?

John Small The Foster Studio has always been involved with the design and development of products. We have never seen a separation between the disciplines, as the approach the office adopts is a holistic one. In that sense, a 'group' doesn't exist. We are a specialist team within the design groups.

Cristina Esposito How do you decide which projects to take on?

John Small It's about whether we find them interesting and challenging. We could be approached by a manufacturer to respond to research, or it might be research from the practice. This is where there is a great difference between us as designers and an independent product-design studio. There is a much greater synergy between the products we design and the environments they are designed for. This is a unique relationship.

Cristina Esposito How does the relationship with the client differ between architecture and product design?

John Small For product design, perhaps the most significant difference is the development of a long-term working relationship with the client.

A good example is the working relationship we've developed with Walter Knoll. Since we began working for Walter Knoll on seating for the Reichstag in 1999, we've developed the 500, 501, 503 and 505 sofa ranges for them. And we're now developing a new product together.

Cristina Esposito What other projects are you working on at the moment?

John Small A range of executive airport seating we designed with Poltrona Frau, launched at this year's Milan Furniture Fair. They are currently sourcing manufacturing from China and we're having ongoing discussions about its development. But the Forward office module system for Steelcase is our biggest project right now. It involves hundreds of parts - we've never known anything like it, and we're still only in phase two out of four.

Cristina Esposito How do you work with clients?

John Small The projects are really about collaboration. Poltrona Frau came to us with the idea of developing an airport-seating product. Norman proposed the idea of 'an airport seat without a beam', and this led us to develop this piece where all the structural strength is taken by the seat. The relationship was very different with Steelcase, who wanted a more 'hands-on' approach.

We'd have monthly and bi-monthly meetings with their own research and design teams. Constant conversations are vital.

Cristina Esposito Where do you get your inspiration?

John Small We are inspired by the environment in which we work. A good example is the light that we developed with Fontana Arte. It was all about balance, and this idea came from discussions we had been involved with in the studio.

As the design progressed, we were having some difficulty with the movement, and Norman, in one of the design reviews, looked out of the window at the shape of a crane attached to a barge and said: 'Maybe we should try that.' From there we developed the 'swan neck' on which the light balances.

NAME: John Small COMPANY: Foster and Partners BORN: 15 September 1950, Liverpool EDUCATION:

Ravensbourne College of Art; Royal College of Art EMPLOYMENT HISTORY:

Haigh Space, New York.

Freelance designer, Milan KEY DESIGNS:

? Walter Knoll Foster 500 Series - Steelcase Forward - Dada Place Kitchen - Fontana Arte Three-Sixty Light MOST ADMIRED DESIGNER:

Living: Michele De Lucchi Dead: Jean Prouvé MOST DISLIKED DESIGN:

Litter bins

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