Luminary spotlight – Penelope Forlano

To grasp the essence of just what makes a designer the very best, we spoke with Penelope Forlano to uncover the thoughts and processes behind her work.

In the INDE.Awards 2021 there are three nominations for a most prestigious accolade – that of The Luminary. This category pays tribute to the talent, breadth of experience and contribution to the architecture and design community by an exemplar practitioner.

This year Andre Fu, Jean-Michel Gathy and Penelope Forlano have been nominated for this singular honour and on Thursday 5th August the winner of The Luminary category will be announced at our digital gala. However, throughout their stellar careers, each of the architects and designers is an outstanding advocate of fine design and has made an indelible imprint in their sphere of excellence, country within the Indo-Pacific and indeed on the global stage.

Wilkhahn, as supporter of The Luminary, understands what it takes to be the best. As a manufacturer and supplier of furniture to the architecture and design community, Wilkhahn has set the benchmark for superior product design that has helped to define today’s workplace on a local, regional and global stage. Being the best takes experience and extraordinary skill, and Wilkhahn, along with The Luminary nominees certainly recognise this.

To grasp the essence of just what makes a designer the very best, we spoke with Penelope Forlano to uncover the thoughts and processes behind her work.

INDESIGN: How can product and product design help to create spaces that people want to be in?

PENELOPE FORLANO: Products play a vital role in the mood of a space and its functionality. What is exciting about products, are the way they engage all our senses, combined with affecting how we behave in a space albeit at times subconsciously. The visual form and colour may at first dominant our impression of products, but products also elicit feelings or a mood and can also completely transform the space. Qualities such as the way surfaces may reflect or absorb light, or how the materials and surfaces reflect or absorb sounds can affect the acoustics we experience as well. The sensory aspect of the whole architectural space is affected by products and can shift our mood and behaviour. Furniture is an extension of the architectural experience and being mindful of not only the function of furniture, but also the varied sensory and movement implications is critical to the success of any space.

What role do products have in improving a user’s ability to interact, engage and collaborate? How can product design ensure people are kept healthy and productive?

Products are often an extension of the self, in the sense that they affect the way we behave or create our sense of identity. For example, the way a chair may affect our posture is not only that it is designed for ergonomics, but also influences how we feel, engage with others and can hinder or help in our ability to collaborate. Without realising, it can also affect our body language and thus how we are perceived by others. Products that we engage with in everyday rituals like work can also prepare us for a change in mindset to doing a task.

The shift to more relaxed collaborative work settings with informal seating is an example of how the furniture selection can support a relaxed and open mindset where employees feel more comfortable in discussing loose, potential ideas without feeling the pressure that may be implied in a formal conference room setting. The degree of formality is just one example of how furniture impacts people’s thinking and interaction.

To what extent can a business identity or purpose be conveyed with product? How does approach to a product change depending on the country and/or industry?

In a domestic situation, products can symbolise our cultural and personal identity and make us feel at home and relax. The best products are not just functionally or aesthetically fulfilling but are also considerate of our other senses, how the products impact upon space, it’s symbolism and any memory or narrative that it may elicit. Likewise, a business personality is tied to many aspects – the way a business is run and presents itself to the world.

With the wide range of products and furniture available, businesses can easily demonstrate if they walk the talk on broad issues from sustainability, think global/act local, adhere to ethical employment conditions, down to their individual business personality.

Large scale manufacturing also offers many benefits around testing and economies of scale that are just not financially feasible for many small-scale manufacturers. But what we are now seeing, I think, is a bit of the best of both worlds. Consumers have access to highly considered, engineered and tested furniture from producers that are creating an extremely high-quality product for a reasonable cost.

More finishes and customisation are becoming available due to manufacturing shifts. At the same time, consumers can engage a small-scale manufacturer or designer to create something that is highly bespoke and personalised while being well-crafted and fabricated.

Products also have something special that architecture doesn’t. Our products can travel with us to new destinations. When the product becomes a receptacle of positive or meaningful memory, the products are more likely to travel with the owner to the next destination and encourage owners to repair and restore if required. Ensuring that the story behind the object or that objects are customisable and co-created with the owners are just some ways that this personal connection to products can be elicited.

How important is the value of “craftmanship” to your work?

Obviously the craftmanship, whether by the maker’s hand or largely machine driven is paramount to creating a product worthy of investment, enjoyment and to become something that lasts.

Testing and prototyping are key in ensuring the final product is delivered as expected. Even with CAD/CAM manufacturing, quality control and accuracy in documentation is still crucial. It is also not just the details, or the wear and tear on the surface or structural strength of the work that is important. I also believe that the design should be something that engages the owner in a way that they love, enough to keep it for a long period of time and deem it worthy of restoration or repair when needed. Everything ages, but how it ages, both materially and aesthetically or in relation to identity, is important to the design of a well ‘crafted’ product.

For a designer, the craftsmanship extends to the careful consideration of every element and detail. As designers we craft the idea, how the product functions, how it feels to touch, its weight, its tactility and the like. Even where we source our materials from and how to respect the environment and the makers in that process of making is part of the crafting of a work. It extends to understanding how it makes people feel, how it works in a space, how it evokes identity or place and how it come into being. Crafting a work is about the process to reach the final outcome and carefully considering each stage from conception to end-user.

As Forlano expresses the thinking behind the how and why a product is created, these ideas also help to inform us on a deeper level, that quality and thoughtfulness are implicit to the best design, much as Wilkhahn has demonstrated for more than 60 years working with the global architecture and design community.

The INDE.Awards gala is nearly here and we invite you to join our Luminaries and Wilkhahn, to celebrate on the 5th August when all winners will be announced at our digital gala. Come together, connect and communicate with the architecture and design community throughout the Indo-Pacific region for a night to remember. Register here for the INDE.Awards gala.