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Inspirational Alumni: Dan The Designer

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Not every day begins with a trip to the OXO Tower on London’s South Bank, but that is where you have to go if you want to find the combined office and shop of Black + Blum. Dan Black (one half of the company’s founding duo) graduated from Northumbria University with a First-Class degree in Design for Industry, a course that he tells us, “gives you the training to design products, or design anything really: homeware, furniture, lighting.” So, what does he get up to in his little sanctuary in one of London’s most iconic landmarks and what, exactly, is Black + Blum?

 Black and Blum alumni

Dan and his friend from university, Martin Blum (who has since handed over his half of the company to Dan), were both working for other people after graduating and decided to give starting their own company a go. “We started as a consultancy,” he tells us, standing in his office in front of an array of products all bearing the Black + Blum logo. “We were designing for other people.”

Although it held some possibility, Dan admits that consultancy wasn’t for him; so, they began from scratch, creating a lighting project that had been an off-cut from a brief for a former client. They reached the end of the line after two years and, as the last hail Mary, they took the lamps to a trade show. They were an instant success. “We didn't know anything about selling,” says Dan, “Nothing about margins or how much to mark-up but the lights sold. We were making them every morning, putting them together ourselves – the two of us delivering them to shops around London.”

However, the real turning point came with James the Doorman. “No one had ever done an iconic doorstop before – everyone just had these grey wedges.” Dan gestures to a little red man propping open the glass door to the office. He tells the story of how they crafted James out of MDF for fun and that, when people kept asking about him, they took the hint and made him properly. He was then taken with them to a trade show where he caught the eye of a representative of the huge American chain, Target.

That is the history of Black + Blum, but what about its future? “We’ve made the decision to focus on one category and that is food and drink on the go.” Dan gestures to the water bottles and containers that are displayed behind him on a counter in the shop space of the office. “We’re going to be much tighter on what the aesthetic is, what the design is, everything about it.” When we ask why he has chosen this particular area, his answer shows his foresight and an eye for function.

“Food is a hugely growing area; both on social media and online, it’s one of the most talked about topics." Dan was inspired at first by Japanese bento boxes and went on from there. “With a lunchbox, you get four main advantages: health, environmental, financial, and social.” He talks us through each one, describing first how the partitions can help with portion control (health) and that the lunchbox actually lessens both food waste and packaging waste (environment). He points out that not going to Pret every day can save you a considerable amount of money (financial) and his last point – also the one he seems most passionate about – is the fact that having this lunchbox can give you a moment to disengage from work and maybe get outside, go for a walk, or talk to a friend while you eat (social).

When asked about his ultimate ambition for the company, he doesn’t hesitate. “So rarely nowadays do you get a product that ages well. We want to design an everyday object that you want to buy because it's going to last for 20 years. It's going to get scratched and it's going to get dented, but it doesn’t matter - it only makes it better.”

As we begin to discuss his overall ideology, Dan pulls out a book, ‘The Ethical Capitalist’ by Julian Richer. “It’s about being true to what you believe in,” he says, tapping the cover. “I genuinely love design, and for me, it has always been about not trying to be clever but about doing something well.”

Black and Blum

What is it about design that makes him happiest? “A new idea. Seeing a product that’s yours on the high street or walking into someone’s home and seeing something you designed. I don't think people want to own possessions,” he elaborates, “They want to own experiences and so if we’re going to design products that won’t end up as landfill, we have to design things that get better with age. Things that perform a function; things that aren’t just a gadget and you don’t get given, used once, and then put in a drawer and forgotten about.”

And how did studying at Northumbria University help him get to where he is today?

I had just got my A-Level results, I was all set to go to Exeter to do economics, and was also going on my gap year. Luckily, my parents sat me down and asked me what I was going to do after I graduated. I had no idea – get a job, I guess? But they made me question what I wanted to do. Design at the time wasn’t a well-known course, but I looked it up and Northumbria was by far the leading course – it still is the best course in the country to this day.

Going into a little more detail, he tells us "It's a four-year course and you get placements in the second and third year. I worked in America for a year for some good consultancies and when you come back, you learn from your peers who have all gone off and acquired different skills at the same time. As a result of that, Northumbria produces the best designers."

Before we head out of Black + Blum’s impressive space we have one final question for Dan – what advice would he give to current students? “Easy. Do what you enjoy. Always. Because if you enjoy something, there’s a much better chance of you becoming successful at it.”

 

 

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