Photo by Tim Parsons

When it comes to designing “things”, there is much more than meets the casual eye. In the midst of a vastly changing world, designers are considering objects not just in terms of intrinsic value, but the inevitable physical environments and cultural narratives they will inhabit.

As co-founder of Parsons & Charlesworth, designer Tim Parsons pays careful attention to the role of objects and their extended implications. With an acute awareness of both form and function, his approach to design is simple: examine how people can find new contexts by pushing the boundaries of modern living, redefining what contemporary life looks and feels like. Through this lens, he believes design has the capacity to offer solutions to current societal problems and better connect communities.

In this profile, Tim shares his perspective of modern design, managing a design studio, and hopes for the next design iterations of the near future.

What is your background and how did you build your career in object design?

At school I always enjoyed the art and graphic design classes, and at first I thought I wanted to be a graphic designer. When I was 16 I went to study at a local technical college, thinking I would get a job soon after. Of course I discovered that it’s wise to go to university and get more knowledge of the subject first! During this course I discovered industrial design and felt drawn to the idea that I could design objects that would last and potentially be kept for a long time.

Tim Parsons runs the design studio Parsons & Charlesworth with his wife Jessica.

I did several courses in industrial design and ended up studying for a Masters degree at the Royal College of Art under some influential designers such as Ron Arad, Konstantin Grcic, Jasper Morrison and Michael Marriott. They all ran independent studios outside of teaching, and this became the model I wanted to follow.

I set up my own studio after graduating and began teaching part-time. I also began writing for magazines and I have kept these three activities going ever since.

Craft and industrial design are disciplines you refer to. How do these particular fields influence your interdisciplinary approach?

Industrial design uses craft in the prototyping process. We build models to test how things look and work. But there is also a great deal of pleasure in making a finished product yourself, and I will occasionally make one-off objects myself (you might say “craft” them) rather than designing something to be produced by industry.

For a piece of industrial design to be made to a high quality, the people in the factory, the technicians, have to have a high degree of skill and technical understanding. It’s not just a matter of setting a machine going, the two things are deeply intertwined. For what we do now, it is usually apparent early in a project, the volume of production and whether something will be made by us or by someone else but I do not have a preference — both have challenges and rewards.

What are some unexpected obstacles that you wish you knew about when you first began your practice?

By trying to be a designer, writer and teacher, instead of sticking to one, it became difficult to be well-known in all 3 fields. My wife and I have always been interested in the breadth of the design field and not just in doing one kind of work. The down side of this is that people find it difficult to describe exactly what we do — because it’s quite diverse. Having said all that, we have been able to follow our interests, and not had to take on a lot of projects we didn’t want to do.

A Form Of Happiness, wooden puzzle. Photo by Jonathan Allen.

What is your typical routine at the studio like?

As I chair the Designed Objects programs at SAIC I do not get to the studio as often as I would like.

I run a design practice — Parsons & Charlesworth — with my wife Jessica. We have just moved into a new studio so we haven’t established much of a routine yet. Our studio used to be in our home, but now it is separate so we have a commute. We cycle to the studio. It’s healthy to separate work and home life, but I’m still frustrated by the inconvenience of the travel! The studio is split between a clean space and a workshop space. We’re still getting set up but the great thing is we have room to make quite large things. We are sharing with our friend who is a graphic designer. It’s good to have company and someone to bounce ideas off.

What is the most challenging stage of the design process for you?

Many of the projects we do have a very open brief. In other words they are either self-initiated or come from an invitation to “do something about x” (for example we had one to respond to the climate change campaign). This makes the early part of the projects very challenging because we need to set ourselves constraints.

We need to be the ones who narrow the project down to say “We’re going to focus on these issues, this subject matter, this set of people and ideas.” Once you have found a logic to the structure of the project it gets a lot easier to make decisions.

Is there a particular object that was especially tricky for you to design?

Every project has its challenges, but the great thing is that usually there is room to learn from mistakes before they become serious problems. Many of our projects operate in a gallery context so we’re not being asked to engineer things to high tolerances or make things to be used in harsh conditions. That said, things have to work.

We designed a side table recently and the legs clipped together. I originally had the clip as a separate component, but when discussing the project with the fabricator they suggested welding the clip on. This simple suggestion made the whole piece so much better. It pays to listen to the experts!

You’ve spoken about looking at objects as a “mode of cultural production”. What kind of ideas do you want people to engage in when they examine your work?

First of all, the idea that designed objects can translate cultural ideas is still not very widely understood. That is thought to be the role of art, literature, theater or film. But gradually object design is being seen as more than the utilitarian things we surround ourselves with.

Splash pewter dish
Splash, pewter dish. Photo by Tim Parsons.

In our work we are interested in engaging people in considering what kind of objects they want to see in the future, and what the impacts of things like climate change will be. We use objects and short stories together to suggest alternate futures or scenarios. These allow the viewer to consider if these are things they would want to see come into being or not. We still make practical objects to be used, but we mix these with “speculative” projects that tackle wider issues.

You lead a lot of workshops for design students. What kind of exercises do you find the most helpful for new designers at the first step of conceptualization?

When I have taught introductory classes, I usually do 3 projects. One is about observation, one is about exploring materials and one is about signs and symbols. These three things seem to me to make up the most important aspects of a designer’s skill-set — being able to observe the world and learn from it; being able to understand and apply material properties; and being able to use design as a language of signs that is readable by others. If you can master these skills you will have a wealth of resources at your fingertips.

Do you have a favorite product or collection that you’ve made?

No. The next project is always the most interesting!

What do you think will be the next trending topic in the industry?

We are already seeing internet-connected objects in people’s homes, and this will continue to be a focus of development. Designers need to play a responsible role in shaping the experiences we have with these devices because they have not always necessarily been positive.

Design also needs to react to the changing political climate and take a role in promoting a more tolerant and peaceful society. We have seen a worrying trend towards insularity and corporate greed. Designers can be part of a counter- movement that promotes a more socially engaged and nuanced view of the future.

lander side table
Lander, side table. Photo by Tim Parsons.

What advice do you have for designers who are first starting out?

Design is a life skill and a life’s work. If you ever feel like you “know” how to design, you have stopped learning, because each project should teach you something new. Try to avoid getting stuck in repetitive work — look for new challenges and make sure what you are designing matches your ethics. Designing something is a choice. You can say “no”.

Any upcoming projects that you’re excited to work on?

There are a lot of things we need to bring to completion. My great-grandfather designed a device for making sandcastles and I am working on optimising this for production. It’s a great little object — very simple. A dowel that goes into a pile of sand and a plywood profile that shapes the pile. I’ll be working on how to make a version that kids and their parents can use together on the beach. You can see it here.

To see more of Tim’s work and get a deeper look into object design, enroll in the program Making Meaning offered by School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Join the first course for free below:

Making Meaning: An Introduction to Designing Objects, Part I

School of the Art Institute of Chicago