What do Miley Cyrus, Sly Stallone, Larry Page and the Louvre have in common? They’re all collectors of Duffy London – the design studio where concept is king. Effect speaks to their visionary founder, Christopher Duffy.
Christopher Duffy is one of London’s leading collectible designers, with a signature style that blends high-concept art with functional furniture to striking effect. From glass table-tops seemingly suspended atop helium balloons or an arrangement of immense blocks that appear on the verge of tumbling, to a meeting table with swings instead of seats, Duffy’s idiosyncratic vision is as thought-provoking as it is playful.
Duffy has always had a passion for design and making. As a child, he would spend his days drawing, building box carts, and rescuing old bikes and prams to transform into new inventions. With the help of his engineer father, he even invented several water-sports prototypes – including an early version of a wakeboard. He excelled at art in school and was convinced by an art teacher to do an art foundation course at Newham Art College.
“It was a revelation,” he recalls. “All the people who, like me, didn’t like football but liked making things were there. I didn’t like the subjectiveness of art, though – so I decided to study Product Design at the University of Brighton. You have the same creativity but it’s combined with engineering, which adds a new dimension that keeps me focused and engaged.”
My practice is all about exploration…. I always have to find exciting and fascinating new ideas to develop – that’s what keeps me going.Christopher Duffy, founder of Duffy London
Following brief stints working as a cabinet maker and a buyer for a high-end furniture store, Duffy decided he wanted to design his own pieces. Unable to secure a job with his limited experience, he instead founded his own company, Duffy London, from his kitchen in 2002.
One of his biggest successes in those early years was his “Glo Canvas” – canvas artworks with LED lights integrated into them. The witty subjects – ornate chandeliers, trees silhouetted against the sunset, and clouds with rays of light bursting through them – were the beginnings of the designer’s signature expression, which puts concept first and foremost.
Another early example of this playfulness is the Shadow Chair collection, a series of chairs seemingly balanced on two front legs, each with a base that appears to be an impossible shadow – a timber chair casts the faux-shadow of a towering tree, while another casts the shadow of a howling wolf. Crafted from wool felt or faux fur, the “shadow” doubles as a rug and can be playfully positioned creeping up a wall.
With such an iconic expression, it’s no surprise that Duffy London has developed something of a cult following around the world. In the two decades since founding Duffy London, Duffy has amassed clients ranging from celebrities to the world’s leading tech companies and hotels – think Prince, Miley Cyrus, Google, and Four Seasons Hotels.
In 2019, a limited edition of the Abyss Table – which Duffy describes as “a visual exploration of the depth of the ocean” – was even acquired by the Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Louvre in Paris to become part of the permanent National Collection. And he has collaborated with plenty of globally recognised brands, including transforming the Abyss Table into a marketing campaign for Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
While Duffy pours himself into every project, his most personal project would have to be the engagement ring he designed for his wife-to-be, Georgie, in 2015. Crafted from a strikingly geometric, 50-carat lab-grown diamond that is wrapped around a simple gold band, the ring is a clever and contemporary interpretation of a traditional diamond ring.
The biggest challenge for me is allowing the concepts to grow as large as possible…. It’s about getting myself out of the way and letting the concepts become as expressive and grand as they want to be.Christopher Duffy
“The biggest challenge for me is allowing the concepts to grow as large as possible,” says Duffy. “I instinctively try to keep things small and manageable but it’s about getting myself out of the way and letting the concepts become as expressive and grand as they want to be.”
It’s an approach that has proven successful – and one of Duffy London’s most popular pieces is also one of his most ambitious concepts. The Swing Table, a table within a frame on which swing seats are attached, was initially developed as a concept to attract attention.
When the renders were posted online, however, a Swiss art dealer fell instantly in love with it and flew to London to insist the idea be brought to life. A few weeks after the first Swing Table was publicised, IBM placed an order for their offices, and then Larry Page, founder of Google, ordered one for his home as well as every Google office worldwide. “It went from a piece I couldn’t envision ever being made to being in every tech start-up in San Francisco and even the TV series Silicon Valley,” says Duffy.
Of course, producing such high-concept, high-quality work is an expensive and time-consuming exercise. Each piece begins with a sketch by Duffy that is then translated into a CAD model. Prototypes are 3D printed and manufacturing partners are sought – the layered marble base of the Solo tables, for example, take three months to produce at specialist workshops in Italy and Portugal, while the balloons that support the UP Balloon tables are hand-spun in Hackney. Components are then assembled and finished in the Duffy London studio in London’s Victoria Docks. So intensive is this process that only 35 to 50 pieces are produced each year.
While Duffy’s impactful work is understandably often used as individual statement pieces in an interior, he hopes to begin collaborating with interior designers on a larger scale to design all the pieces for a space – think hotel receptions and workplace break-out areas.
So, what else does the future hold for a designer who is constantly trying to push the boundaries of expression to develop completely new ideas? Duffy’s next collection will be based on an exploration of the potential of AI design. As with all his work, the concept will be elevated through the use of dramatic contrast: in this case the output of a machine versus human output.
“My practice is all about exploration and I’m very excited by the new AI programs that can show your idea through the eyes of a non-human intelligence,” says Duffy. “But after that collection launches, we will go in a different direction. I always have to find exciting and fascinating new ideas to develop – that’s what keeps me going.”
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