Heals Discovers 14: The Universities

Heals Discovers 14 Universities

To recap: this year’s Heal’s Discovers process is a little different to usual. Rather than waiting to see this emerging talent at graduate shows and design exhibitions, alongside every other retailer, Heal’s has gone direct to the place where the real action happens; into the workshops and studio spaces of Universities.

My mission was to find an innovative design, with the potential to match Heal’s ethos of high-quality craftsmanship. I was looking for design that could potentially become a future Heal’s classic, which might remain in our collection for years to come.

I feel that working with designers who understand and exploit the natural properties and potential of materials, as well as the manufacturing techniques available to them, is integral to creating a commercially viable design with longevity. With this in mind it seemed natural to seek out the university courses with this same ethos at their heart.

Utilising the expertise of the course tutors (they know their students best) I began the search for current and recently graduated designers, creating a shortlist of around five from each university.

It was important to me to get a glimpse of where the next generation of designers work and are inspired and, more importantly, to talk to them face to face. So, once the shortlist was decided, I ventured out beyond the reach of the London underground and off around the UK.

Heals Discovers 14 Universities

First stop was not too far afield: Kingston University and their BA (Hons) Product & Furniture Design course.

The course focuses on two key areas: conceptual creative thought and first-hand practical experience of materials and manufacturing techniques. The Students have access to a multitude of workshops and machinery, from CNC machines to a metal forge and ceramics room.

The three-year course provides students with invaluable direct experience and understanding of materials and technologies (they even have a materials Library). For those who go on to create a career in design, this is extremely important.  I soon discovered that the idea of ‘Intelligent Making’ is at the core of the projects undertaken here.

Heals Discovers 14 Universities


My next journey took me three hours out of London via GNER, past the Angel of the North into Newcastle to visit Northumbria University.

The Design department is based on a six-year-old campus site with gleaming new buildings.

Inside it’s no different; alongside the bandsaws and (very tidy) hand tools are 3D printers and computerised milling machines.

I took the opportunity to see the studio spaces of all three years of the 3D Design: Furniture & Product course, meeting up individually with some of the 3rd year students as well as the PHD and Northumbria Designers in Residence participants. This is a fantastic initiative that offers the University’s support and facilities to help a select few to break into the design business.

Many of  Northumbria’s past DIR have gone on to become success stories – some have established design studios that have been part of past Heal’s Discovers. I was really impressed with the buzz of creativity and the enthusiasm with which the designers presented their projects to me. It was well past dark when I got back to London, but the day up north was well worth it.

Heals Discovers 14 Universities

My final journey took me into the historical heart of the furniture industry: High Wycombe. This area was most famous during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, when many furniture factories were set up all over the town. Even though most of these companies have since declined, some Heal’s manufacturers such as Ercol still flourish here.

It seems that Heal’s Discovers 2014 had arrived just in time at Bucks New University, whose BA (Hons) Furniture course is one of several that have now been closed for future applicants; a decision that was met with much opposition. Thankfully the MA Art & Design Practice: Furniture Design and BA (hons) Furniture Design & Make, which are affiliated with City of Oxford College, still remain.

Bucks New University is a mix of tradition and modernity from the mid-century style workshops to the brand new angular extensions that have popped up on site.

After a tour of the huge workshops here, the shortlisted students each presented their designs to me. Mostly this was done in person, but  some students living further afield shared their projects and vision via Skype! Each fully working prototype was available for me to touch and test out. It’s always good to see a idea that’s been physically realised, so this was incredibly valuable.

During these three visits I was shown a huge range of products, from lighting to furniture, which were showcased at all stages of the design process, from sketches to full-scale prototypes. With all my images gathered and the shortlisted designers’ presentations complete, the really hard task begins. It’s time to choose the finalists…

Heals Discovers 14 Universities

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