You’ll find the home of Noho in a former factory in a light-industrial area of Lower Hutt, its facade all brick and plaster pomp and its interior stripped-back and functional, black steel and glulam timber. There’s one big room for designers and a series of workshops behind, in a kind of commercial version of party out the front.
I visited on a quiet Friday afternoon. There were prototypes for new Noho products in the workshop. A Lightly chair (which had yet to be released at that point) was being tested for weight bearing using a machine that repeatedly pressed down on it – its progress and the chair’s eventual demise some time over the weekend captured by video link. (All chairs are tested for commercial standards – at Noho they do it in-house to make sure they pass.) I felt a little sorry for the chair, and that’s partly because of its slightly humanoid qualities – a kind of cheerfulness.
Noho is owned by Formway, a design studio that has existed in some incarnation since the 1950s; in the past 20 years – under the helm of co-chief executives Kent Parker and Paul Wilkinson – it has become known as one of the world’s leading designers of task chairs, including the Life chair, and the Generation (or Be) chair for Knoll. It’s something of a classic New Zealand story that the design happens here, in little old Lower Hutt, and it’s a story that has imbued this small studio with a deep knowledge of ergonomic design – of how we sit, or don’t sit, over the course of a day. “Seating is very personal – it’s a very human object,” says Wilkinson. “It interacts with your body and it moves with you.”
In 2020, after decades of working for other people, Formway launched Noho, its own brand, designing objects for domestic spaces that acknowledged how much our home lives had changed, and following an exhaustive process of research in which they put cameras into people’s houses and watched how they interacted with their furniture. “We’re designing solutions that deliver on an unmet need in a world where the way we live and work has changed and continues to change,” says Parker. “We’re working in the same place as we’re raising our kids. It’s more acceptable to be more casual.”
They started with Move, a chair designed for the home using commercial ergonomic principles and integrating a novel rocker into the frame. They followed that with Lightly, a 2.75kg stackable chair made from a low-carbon bio-plastic. “We’ve talked for a long time about designing furniture at home for how we live our lives,” says Wilkinson. “And we felt this was a direct way of delivering on that.”
But in those early days researching how our home lives had changed, they also saw how our use of another key piece of furniture had changed. So, in our spring they will launch Dine, an elegant flat-pack table with a timber top and recycled aluminium base. Unlike most large pieces of furniture, which are shipped made up, Dine is shipped to you in a large, flat box and goes together with a minimum of components. It has a similarly clean-lined feel to both the Lightly and Move chairs, and it’s designed to be hard-wearing, and to stay with you for a long time.
Noho came out of a desire to design both a brand and a series of products from one end to the other. “It gave us the ability to be involved in a deeper story – that’s what we all craved,” says Parker. “Everyone wanted to be involved in the bigger picture.”
As a design studio, the team responds to a brief, develops the design and hands over its manufacturing and distribution. With Noho, the team was able to take the design right through manufacturing to the sale and, ultimately, to its customers (the brand supplies directly to customers in Aotearoa and the United States) and to rethink how that was done at every stage. Each step of the process has required thought – and design, from the packaging to the website. “Being involved in the whole process creates other skills and focus, which has been really good,” says Wilkinson. “We knew we were going to have to manufacture them, then transport and deliver.”
From the outset, the DNA of the brand was fresh rather than stuffy; there are plenty of design companies out there making serious-minded luxury products, and the Noho team felt the world had changed enough to approach things differently. “We’re trying to deliver product that’s serious in its design, serious in its function, but has an element of fun and personality about it,” says Parker. “It’s reflective of where we think the world is going in terms of how we live and work.”
And, Noho is reflective of how our expectations as consumers have changed around supply-chain, carbon and the impact of the things we buy. It comes across as effortless, but the Noho brand was set up with a strongly environmental bent, exploring new and low-carbon material – including post-consumer plastic, recycled nylon fishing nets and a plastic derived from castor-bean oil. Then, they design pieces to use as few resources as possible.
They’ve focussed on flat-pack or stacking furniture with an express desire to increase the efficiency of shipping – because it’s a smart way to do things but also, you suspect, because it’s a fun design challenge to see how you can make it all fit together. “We’re on the other side of the world from our major market,” says Wilkinson. “We want to keep making product in this part of the world, but we don’t want to burn a whole pile of carbon by shipping empty containers.”
From here? The brand has new products in development – smaller pieces for the home – and they’re toying with fleshing out the existing collection into other versions – though that’s all under wraps for now. All will carry the signature sense of fun and optimism. “We’ve always been keen on making lives richer,” says Wilkinson. “It’s about making products people love to own, made of materials that create the environment they want but also not hurting the planet.” Adds Parker, “And not being too serious about ourselves, but serious about our products.”