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An Introduction to Product and Furniture Design with Jason Cleverly

Close up of metal parts, screws and a doorknob.
Close up of metal parts, screws and a doorknob.
James Mann, Detail of test maquette for the Enlightened Eye by Jason Cleverly.
, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: James Mann, Jason Cleverly
Written by
Sarah McLean
Published date
28 November 2019

Course leader for BA Product and Furniture Design, Jason Cleverly, is an artist and designer whose own practice has seen him design, develop and make site-specific, interpretive artefacts and displays for museums and art galleries using a range of materials and embedded technologies. Designed to inspire collaboration and participation, these objects enhance visitor experiences and explore the ways in which people collaborate with each other to interpret and understand creative tasks. 

He joined UAL in 2017 from Falmouth University and BA Product and Furniture Design students joined Chelsea for the first time this autumn.  

We spoke to him as he settled into his first term of teaching the course here, to ask him about how the overlaps between his own practice and his teaching and what students joining us can expect from his course’s work with materials and partner organisations.

Chelsea College of Arts BA product and furniture design with Jason Cleverley
Photo by Mica Lawrence, Chelsea College of Arts BA product and furniture design with Jason Cleverley
BA (Hons) Product and Furniture Design, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL

What is your background? Can you please tell us about your own practice?

To put it simply, I used to make stuff. I made automata and small domestic artefacts using wood and found materials. I love working with found objects because I feel there is a bit of DNA already there that you can start working from to create something new. Mostly I made things which invited engagement from the viewer. I have always had a big interest in interaction and the ways people work with objects, particularly the ones I designed.

This led to a relationship with social scientists from King’s College London, with whom I still work today on their research into the ways that audiences engage with museum collections. One of the things they were particularly interested in at the start is how, if you have more than one person engaged in a creative task with an artefact, usually that enhances interpretation of and engagement with that piece, even if the people don't know each other.

To investigate this further, I started making things and they started filming people working with what I made. That ethnographic process was great to be a part of and sparked my own research which led to my practice-based PhD investigating creative interaction and interpretation in the museum. It’s also an approach to objects and making that is now finding its way into the course and how we invite our students to think about the design process.

A mechanical contraption under a glass dome, sits on a set of four metal legs which are raised off a table surface by pearls.
Photo by James Mann, Test maquette for the Enlightened Eye by Jason Cleverly.
, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: James Mann

How did you get into teaching? Please do tell us more about how your own practice feeds into your work as course leader.

I started teaching after about 10 years of developing my practice, and as the research work with the Work Interaction and Technology Research at King’s College London was taking off. Teaching opened up a whole world for me of new ways of working and collaborating.

One of the joys of working with students was, vicariously, when you're not practicing as much as you used to, giving students ideas and seeing what they do with them is really exciting.

In my practice I often did site-specific work, creating things for public spaces and often specially commissioned for a museum or a public body. This situational aspect of my work has also transferred into my teaching work.

Over the years, I've worked on projects with my students in a number of museums and institutions, often developing ideas for strategies and interventions which will help to inspire people further. Both in my own practice and on these projects, we have found that what curators want is for people to spend longer in front of the exhibits they've carefully put together, to spend more quality time with the objects on display.

This is something we’re addressing in a current project our students are working on with the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell, east London. With the theme of ‘the slow museum’ at the centre of the project, we’re focussing on single objects in their displays and how to invite people to stay with each object for longer. This includes thinking about the way the artworks are labelled, referring back to the object itself as well as giving contextual information.

A woman and two children work at a high table in a room with wooden floorboards, while a young man in a hat reads a noticed pinned to a wooden cabinet behind them.
Jason Cleverly, A family egnaging with the Interactive  Worktable and Escritoire for Dr Johnson’s House designed by Jason Cleverly.
, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Jason Cleverly

What can students expect from the course?

To begin with, we introduce students to different processes and materials including introductions to our workshops in wood, metal and ceramics as well as digital processes like 3D printing. We don't try to teach everything up front. Rather, we aim to be diagnostic - to see where student aptitudes, preferences and affinities for different materials and processes already exist and build on that. We also take students through preparing tests, drawings, and design development strategies.

We feel that it’s essential for students to start to understand the ways that different materials behave early on because it will be such a big influence on the outcome of a design. Also, we spend a lot more time these days designing things digitally so I think it can be really useful to also return to the reality of the materials and the physical processes involved.

But that materials are only part of the story. One of the other projects we set in the first year of the course is called the Anthropology of the Object. Instead of the classic user-centred design approach of asking people what they want, this unit is about studying people's behaviours and designing in response to them.

We invite the students to look at everyday moments - someone using a spoon, swiping their oyster card or handing out newspapers, for example. In studying these small movements, we have found that there is a lot of detail to be discovered, which is also really useful information, data, about how people are interacting with the world and the objects they use daily.

Three people gathered round a wooden cart in a garden.
Frances Sandover, Student project at the Museum of the Order of St John.
, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Frances Sandover

The following project is about how you might apply that data and communicate it to others to help them to understand your design decisions. Capturing it, analysing it and representing it - developing a set of information that can inform the design process which follows.

It’s a really interesting and useful process because it reveals underlying conventions about how people interact with objects and each other, verbally and non-verbally, particularly in social spaces where people help each other and collaborate and especially where there is an open-ended creative task to complete.

In second and third years, work becomes more project-based and the materials follow the project. We try to keep it broad and the possibilities for those projects open.

Where other courses may be more about commercial design and individuals working in design practices, we like to have different approaches and introduce options like getting into design in different ways. This includes more civic and socially-responsible projects which I think open up new possibilities in the professional world.

For me, design is about not focussing on the end product or outcome but thinking about working through the process to get there. Working with live projects is another great way to access a wealth of information, and we encourage students to take the story of a project or organisation as a starting point for any analysis or research.

Three people drink through long white straws from a small, hand-made ceramic object.
Frances Sandover, Student project at the Museum of the Order of St John.
, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Frances Sandover

Can you tell us about some of the other projects you’re working on with students and organisations outside of the college? What, for you, is the importance of working on live briefs for real environments?

Live briefs for me are all about experimentation and innovation, whatever the location or environment.

When we have a live project at a museum, for example, students will have the opportunity  to present their ideas and receive live feedback from professionals. And the kinds of ideas the students might come up with can be really invigorating for the institution, too. When curators have to plan their exhibitions years in advance, they often find that student involvement at a later stage of the process generates brand new possibilities and results in design innovation.

We’re currently working with several different organisations besides museums, too. One is with Stave Hill Eco Park in Surrey Quays, south London, has invited the students in to help the public understand the work that they do. The park is a post-industrial landscape that's being re-wilded, and they're really committed with a host of volunteers. Our students have bought in lots of new ideas, from signage to insect hotels to seating to interactive pieces which will help visitors engage with the site and its history.

Another project which we have returned to for a few years now is in partnership with the Stockwell Park Community Centre which opened a couple of years ago and is a brand new building for local residents. Students then work in groups to design items of furniture for the centre’s users.

All of the furniture designed for this project is based on Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione system. This was a manual created by the Italian designer in 1974 as a design guide to a collection of furniture that could be assembled from using just sheet materials. Once you have the basic principles of the technique you can augment it, give your own values and materials to it.

This is a fun project because as well as designing for a group of real people, once they've made the product our students go back to the centre to interview the users and see what they think of the product.  It’s almost reverse user-centred design, and a brilliant learning opportunity - the community at the centre are very enthusiastic and happy to give their opinion.

Users of the Stockwell Park Estate Community Centre give feedback on tables designed for the centre in 2018 by BA Product and Furniture design students.

Group projects like this are important to me, because we have such a multicultural community of students on our course, with people coming from all over the world to study here. I feel that it’s essential to encourage the students to work together and can be really invigorating for the design process.

Likewise, the professional practice of engaging with people in the real world is really valuable – not just for the student who builds on their own experience, but for the partner organisation too, who benefit from new ways of thinking.  Overall these projects are at their best when they are fruitful collaborations for both partners.

Find out more about Jason Cleverly’s work on his website