Innovating Design – Interview with Black+Blum Founder
Not long after graduating from Northumbria University, Dan Black and Martin Blum brought their innovative ideas for design to life by starting their own company, black+blum. Since then, they have won 25 international design awards and many of their designs are now featured in internationally renowned design museums. In 2014, Dan Black took over the reins of the business. Here he tells the story behind the company and reveals the passion that lies beneath every great design.
Q: What is the driving passion or motive behind black+blum?
From an early age, I have been fascinated with products. Not just their form, but how they work and perform. I was lucky that this interest led me to study product design at college. After leaving college, I worked for different design consultancies, but always had a desire to start my own company and work on my own projects. Founding black+blum with my friend and fellow college graduate, Martin Blum, gave us the opportunity to work on our own designs. Having the freedom to be passionate about every design we work on and set our own briefs, is the driving force and motivation behind black+blum and we hope it shows through in the products we bring to market.
Q: Tell us about the early days of black+blum, what has your journey been like since you got started?
When we first started black+blum (back in 1998), for the first two years we worked as a consultancy. This meant we designed products for other companies. One of these projects was a lighting project. Some of the designs we came up with were not relevant to the client brief, but we still felt there was a market for them. We took the gamble of deciding to bring them to market ourselves. They were simple designs, but this allowed us to manufacture and assemble them ourselves and sell them directly to stores. We launched four designs at a trade fair in London and had an amazing reaction. We didn’t have any experience of selling, but learnt quickly the business side and have never looked back. We still learn and make mistakes. The fact that even after 15 years of bringing designs to market, we still don’t know whether a design will sell well, maintains a level of excitement and uncertainty, which keeps us going. Obviously we have old classic favorites, but are always super excited by the latest designs we are working on.
Q: From where do you draw the inspiration for your designs?
Inspiration can come from everywhere. I think designers have to train their brain to be sensitive to the world around them and always see products with fresh eyes. Inspiration can come from a new material or production method and a designers brain can make the link to a product where it has not been used before. Alternatively, inspiration can come from antiques, where you see how something was done a hundred years ago and realize that it still has merits and can be adapted to the modern age.
Q: How did you create the design for the Eau Good bottles?
As designers, it is our responsibility to be conscious of the environmental impact we have. We knew the impact that bottled water had on the environment and wanted to create a filter bottle that would make tap water taste great and encourage people to stop buying bottled water. The design went through many iterations and form studies. Once we had chosen the binchotan charcoal as a filter method, we were looking for the most minimal way for the bottle to hold the charcoal in place. Sometimes inspiration comes, just from perseverance and hard work of challenging an idea until you find a solution. The final design is shaped by its function and it is lovely when this allows for a minimal shape which shows off the water inside for all its beauty.
Q: How does the charcoal in these bottles purify the water?
Martin Blum’s wife is Japanese and she introduced us to binchotan charcoal. The Japanese have been using binchotan charcoal for hundreds of years to filter their water, we just designed a way to incorporate it into a water bottle. Binchotan charcoal has an incredibly porous surface with tiny cavities oriented in many directions. Just 1 gram has a surface area in excess of 500 m2 (about one tenth the size of a football field). It is also known as active carbon as the ions of contaminants are attracted to the surface of the carbon, where they will be held. It is also able to release minerals such as calcium, iron and magnesium back into the water which enhances its taste and health benefits.
Q: What are your thoughts on the plastic water bottle industry? Do you believe substituting plastic bottles with reusable bottles can help preserve the environment?
Obviously our plastic bottles have a lifespan and an environmental impact, but as long as they encourage users to stop buying bottled water, then it is a positive step. We will soon be introducing a glass version and although it has disadvantages with weight and fragility, it will be more durable and have a longer life span.
Q: What impact do you hope your products have on people’s lives and on society and the environment?
Whenever we design a new product, we always want to make sure they are truly functional. We shy away from what we call ‘gimmicks’….products which might be funny or appear useful, but in truth get used once and then put in a draw and never used again until they end up as landfill. As long as a product has true functionality, the owner will enjoy using it and cherish it. When I was young, I inherited my grandfathers silver fountain pen. This was something that he had used every day for more than fifty years. The knurled surface pattern had a worn patina and when I wrote with it, I almost felt that my handwriting was being shaped by my grandfather. He had loved this item and his soul was in it. This is romanticizing what good design can do and it isn’t always possible to get this into every design, but it is always something we aim for. We want to our designs to last and to be enjoyed by the people who use them.
Q: What do you believe has helped you find success?
Passion for what we do.
Q: What do you hope the future holds for black+blum?
We are still a very small company and this does limit some of the items that we are able to work on. I hope black+blum becomes better known and people like what we do and this ultimately gives us even more freedom to tackle larger more complex products that are crying out to be improved.
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