At 39 Parnie Street in Glasgow, across the road from the Tron Theatre, a white-fronted shop with no name stands out. In contrast with some of its garish neighbours, the minimalist aesthetic seems out of place, much like the notion of its core product; an analogue watch, that has been designed on the Clyde – not in La Chaux-de-Fonds, London or Paris. It tells the time and the date. In the era of Apple, starting a business based on this premise would seem like a hard sell. But the watch is now, indeed, sold – in more than 80 countries.
It was launched in 2014 by two design graduates of Glasgow Caledonian University, Ross Baynham, who studied graphic design, and Pete Sunderland (product design). Born out of a love of watches, but a dislike of certain aspects of those that already existed, their proposal perplexed some of their university mentors. But the pair went on to raise more than £90,000 on Kickstarter and founded their design studio, Instrmnt, to put the watch into production.
“We didn’t think about the historical aspect, that ‘nobody makes anything in Glasgow anymore’; we just wanted to design something and settled on a watch,” said Baynham. “It was without thinking: ‘Wait a minute, nobody in Glasgow makes watches.’ We did originally think it would be great to actually make it here, but after going through a million different options we realised we had to choose from manufacturing around the world.”
At least they do have that in common with Apple, most of whose products are “designed in California”. The first version, Instrmnt 01, is a unisex timepiece in three colours. It takes its inspiration from the industrial design of the mid-20th century; the functional, utilitarian products and tools produced then, “from the simple, readable dials of analog ammeters and voltmeters to the revolutionary minimalism of Dieter Rams.”
The watch, comprising a Swiss quartz movement and a German-made leather strap, comes ‘exploded’ in a box; its elements separated, with a tool allowing the user to experience a certain degree of craft in piecing it together (and to be able to vary the straps). A new version, slightly smaller to provide a more ‘dressy’ option, and increase the brand’s already androgynous appeal among women, launches in November.
Instrmnt are one of nine designers chosen to take part in V&A Dundee’s show at the London Design Festival during September, held in the V&A, the world’s leading museum of art and design. First staged in 2003, the Festival is one of the world’s most important annual events in its field. The programme is made up of more than 400 events and exhibitions, staged by hundreds of organisations from around the world.
Northern Lights is showcasing the work of designers who have chosen to stay in Scotland to build their careers. It is a partnership between V&A Dundee, Scottish Enterprise and Creative Dundee as part of the Scottish Government’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design. “Scotland has a great history of design and today there are many, many designers and manufacturers creating impeccably crafted new products, services and life-changing innovations across the country,” said Philip Long, director of V&A Dundee.
Opening a shop in Parnie Street provided the watch designers with a “Glasgow anchor,” said Sunderland. As well as being a physical showcase for their work – the watch range, a bike (Instrmnt 02, retailing at £1,000), one-offs such as a day bed on which we sit during the interview, and the work of fellow designers – converting the basement has created an events space.
“It’s become a bit of a hub,” said Baynham. Informal, monthly get-togethers are interspersed with launches, the first of which was for publishers Phaidon and their book This Brutal World, as well as other events. The success of their watch has given them the creative freedom on which they thrive. “Over the past 18 months, we have had to become experts in e-commerce,” said Sunderland. “It’s not easy to answer emails all morning and then just break off to design something.”
“It’s been hard,” added Baynham, “but it’s one of those things that you just have to get through. And actually it’s useful, because we now understand the ‘business’ side of the business and as we bring on people we’re able to work with them from a knowledgeable standpoint, but can step back to work on designs that aren’t necessarily driven by the market, to think outside the box a bit.”
“The watches are the bread and butter that give us the freedom to dabble in other projects,” added Sunderland. For the Merchant City Festival this year the team created The Way To, a map celebrating the diverse community bounded by four streets – The Trongate, Saltmarket, Glassford Street and Clyde Street – and its collection of Glasgow’s finest art, design, culture and food. “We brought the Instrmnt vibe to it,” said Baynham, “it was a 2D product but used a metal stamp and it had a ‘materiality’.”
Baynham and Sunderland have got into the way of trade shows; Paris and New York in their first year, London, Paris and New York in their second. “It can get a bit tiring, standing there for eight hours,” said Sunderland. “But,” adds Baynham, “you make the most of the free drinks at 4pm! Besides, who’s really going to say: ‘Oh, no – I have to go to New York.’! And the shows are not just about the buyers; you meet people from other brands, go out for dinner, other networks open up.”
The London Design Festival is not a trade show; they won’t be manning a booth: “No, they asked us to supply certain things – the watches, the bike – and we are handing over creative control,” said Baynham, “but I am sure they will have some very talented people designing how the products are displayed. It will be great from a networking perspective; there will be some hugely important people passing through.”
I ask about what’s next and they said that they really enjoy collaborative work with other creative people. What if some blue chip company commissioned them, like BMW? “We have never talked about that, but any designer if they get the option to work for a big company doing a really interesting project would probably jump at that.” I refrain from asking: “What about Apple?”
Who knows? Stranger things have happened than a globally successful watch being created on the Clyde.