How I Got Where I Am: Matthew Long, Furniture Designer

Ever wondered how those people get to do their dream jobs? Maybe it’s something you covet yourself? Or maybe you’d just like to know a little about how the Habitat machine ticks along behind the scenes? This new series gets down to the nuts and bolts of some of the key players here at Team Habitat. More than just a quick Q&A, we want you to see that sometimes the route to that ‘dream’ career isn’t paved with gold, it may go round the houses a little, and throw up some totally unplanned opportunities but ultimately everyone has a story to tell in how they got their nose to the beautifully upholstered, Habitat-designed grindstone.

First up: meet Matt….

 

Name: Matthew Long

Job Title: Furniture Designer

Joined Habitat: February 2010

 

What did you want to be when you were young?

An astronaut, of course.

I always wanted to be in furniture design. My uncle runs some furniture factories and was an upholstery designer so I used to hang out with him quite a bit as a kid. I’ve always had making and doing stuff in my blood, I guess. It was quite inspiring to see things being created. He actually used to design upholstery fabrics for Habitat years ago.

What are the career stepping stones that lead to Habitat?

Seeing my uncle at work, I experienced very early on what a job was, that it was interesting compared to being in a classroom. I studied furniture and product design at Ravensbourne. It’s quite a small university and, similar to my working experience now, it was nice to feel part of a community rather than being within a huge place where it’s easy to get lost. We got exposed to a lot of interesting projects, one of which was in South Korea where I had to present to 100 delegates, none of whom spoke any English. I realised I enjoyed being out of my comfort zone, where you have to make things happen.

There aren’t that many furniture design jobs out there; it’s pretty tricky to get a role so I got a job running a warehouse for a high-end furniture company. Alongside that I managed to get a bit of freelance work through my university with a company who make furniture for prisons and old people’s homes. So, in the day I was looking after all this beautiful, Italian-made design and in the evenings I was designing furniture for prisons that couldn’t be used as a weapon. It was a great experience of working with constraints; that’s the thing with design: it’s the challenge, it’s not necessarily straight forward, it’s problem solving. That’s the fun. Even now, working for Habitat, you try to find a different slant on a sideboard, or a shelving unit that isn’t the same as everyone else’s.

I then started to work for a freelance furniture designer, alongside working in the warehouse, who worked with a lot of companies on the high street. That was great because it was just me and him, travelling around Europe and Malaysia on bonkers trips that lasted a day at a time; nights spent in Bosnia drinking schnapps at 3am wondering where I was. All of this started my love of travel and a real understanding of how things were made, of construction. If you work in design this is crucial so you can design with price points in mind – how you can still make something beautiful without a huge cost. He eventually took me on full-time and I worked with him for 7 years before being made redundant during the financial crisis. I then started at Habitat and have been here ever since.

Are you scared of making mistakes?

Only in the respect of being teased by Eleanor [Davies, furniture buyer at Habitat]. It depends on what making a mistake is. I think you have to challenge and push to make creative products. You have to make mistakes otherwise you don’t do anything interesting. Some mistakes are just human nature; you’re working on so many projects you can’t focus on everything, 100%, all of the time. We have processes to stop that…and then Eleanor teases me on trips when something looks a bit wrong.

Who’s been your greatest influence?

Different stages of your life are influenced by different people. I’ve always been lucky enough to have good bosses and I’ve got on well with people I’ve worked with. My old boss, Steve Armitage, was very encouraging and, in some ways, we were like a father and son duo. We’re still very close – we holiday together. He got me really into what I do – he taught me about design and manufacturing and how to be cheeky and get away with murder. I learnt worldly things with him, things you wouldn’t from a regular ‘boss’, as such.

What do you want to achieve in the rest of your career?

I just want to design products that have longevity. You can do ‘wow’ things, press things, that don’t stick around for long but I like to design ‘wow’ things that stay in the range, that stand the test of time. When something you’ve designed becomes a continuity product, it’s lovely. That’s what every designer wants. It’s really special when you develop something that’s a great price, that’s really affordable, that looks fantastic, that the press pick up on, it looks great in-store and then people can buy it. It’s not super over-the-top, it’s not super fancy; it’s interesting and people like it.

I like that my design is attainable. It would be nice to push material and processes a bit more, and challenge myself in that way but there’s always a limitation when you work for a retailer. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Every product that you do, you have to learn. You look back on reflection when a product launches in-store; it’s year later and you’ve learnt a lot in that year. You look at it in detail, you’re always analysing how you could have designed it differently. Not always – most things I’m happy with – but as someone who is focused on detail, you’re always looking to improve.

Is it hard to finish a design?

No, because I like to finish at 5.30! When you work somewhere like this, with lots of projects on the go, you need to go with your gut and believe in what you’ve done. I’m pretty good at moving on. It generally works better then; if you overthink things, it becomes too much.

What’s your idea of the perfect retirement?

I don’t know whether I’ll ever retire. I’d quite like to live in a forest, building boats.

Is the “career for life” a thing of the past?

I’ll tell you in about 40 years. You’ve got to do a job you enjoy, otherwise what’s the point? You’ve got to spend your 8 hours a day doing something you enjoy, not being stuck in meetings. Just doing. Some of my best ideas come whilst I’m looking out the window or dreaming, when I’m not actually at my desk. That’s quite a nice way to have a career: dreaming.

What’s your best career advice?

Ignore everybody; do what you want.

Is there a time in your career you miss?

No because I think I’m getting better. It’s nice to look forward. It’s exciting to have a new brief and think of what you’re going to ‘give birth’ to. It sounds dramatic but that’s sometimes the way it feels. It’s thrilling to get a that new brief, see the new sample, to be in the factory where you can be really hands-on in getting the angles right. People ‘live’ on their sofa, they ‘live’ on their bed and you’ve designed something that people spend their lives on. It might sound cheesy but there’s something special in that. A sofa is such an important piece in someone’s home; it’s so needed. If you’ve had a tough day at work, you come home from work and melt into it.

I still get the buzz; more so, in fact.

What’s your dream job, real or fantasy?

It’d be that spaceman again.

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