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Award-winning lead designer talks furniture, the future and fun

  • Keystone
  • Chris M
Chris Metcalfe is lead designer at PLN Group, a family of furniture brands whose research, design and innovation create seating and working solutions designed to enhance life.  A Unitec graduate, Chris completed a Bachelor of Product Design in 2006.
PLN Group recently won the Unitec-sponsored Excellence in Innovation award at the Westpac Auckland Business Awards (Western region).  See here for more on their win.
We talked with Chris about the skills he gained at Unitec, how he puts these into practice every day and what it’s like to work for an award-winning company:


What were the key skills you gained from your time at Unitec?

I have always had an inquisitive mind but studying at Unitec opened up my eyes to how the world and industry works.  The key skill set was understanding how to leverage 3D CAD as a tool in combination with a practical understanding of materials and processes that I gained from time in the workshops. This combination of 'what is possible' and 'what is pragmatic' put me in a good place to start my career.

How have they helped you in your career path to date, and at PLN in particular?

I use these skills each and every day. Whether it is conveying a concept to clients or production drawings to the factory, it’s about communication and ensuring the concept has been interpreted correctly.

How does the Excellence in Innovation award reflect the company culture at PLN?

I think it is a great reflection of what we are trying to do here. It’s not just about making another piece of furniture. It’s about understanding our clients’ desires and the challenges they face to come up with solutions that meet their needs. We are a small team but we have a network of suppliers and partners that we work with which makes our ability to innovate that much stronger. One of our most successful innovations is the use of acoustic nano-fibre within our products that help reduce noise issues, especially in open plan commercial environments. We have a number of other innovations in the pipeline that we hope to show off soon.

What do you think are the key, unique features of your company?

(in terms of design, products, ethos)

The fact that we are vertically integrated in one location is a benefit that can’t be understated. Our showroom, design lab, and factory are all on the same site so we can go from concept to prototype very quickly.  We can then get feedback on new designs from our clients in the showroom and can incorporate feedback into our designs. We also have growing distribution channels in the offshore markets that give us access to larger volume projects and orders.

Is there one particular product that you think is most deserving of the Excellence in Innovation award?

Yes, we are particularly proud of a product called Keystone. Think of it like a lego set of office furniture - a uniquely reconfigurable modular system which supports the latest work practices. This kit of parts of interchangeable components or “ingredients” can be combined and reconfigured into various “recipes” in a near infinite number of ways. Adapting to changing needs, a focus pod or workstation can be reconfigured to be a sofa or collaborative setting. It has been described by one of the world’s largest commercial furniture companies as creating a whole new category in Activity Based Workplace (ABW) furniture design. It also recently won a Silver Award for Product Design in the DINZ Best Awards, which we’re really excited about.

As lead designer, do you have a hand in all designs or do you allow your team to be quite autonomous?

I lead a small design team and until recently I was very involved in all aspects, from concept design (what it looks like) to production design (how does it go together) and even programming the CNC to cut the parts out. There are now four of us and we share the load which allows me to focus on designing new pieces and looking at what comes next.

What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in 20 years’ time?

I can still see myself working and applying my skills as a designer, but given the rapid rate of technological change who knows what field it will be in? I believe that to remain relevant you need to have an understanding of the issues affecting society and industry at large. However, in saying that, I have a passion for furniture and people will always need somewhere to sit and work.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? (if you have any…)

I have a wonderful wife and two young sons that keep me busy at home, so spare time is a rare luxury. When the stars do align and the kids are in bed and I still have energy, I do enjoy tinkering with my own design projects. It seems ironic that after a long work day of figuring out how to put things together that I spend my downtime doing the exact same thing, but it works for me.

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