The challenge of aligning a product set to an architect’s culture

The challenge of aligning a product set to an architect’s culture

by Mark Shaw-Smith, CEO.


When I was in practice as an architect I was fascinated by how, having met a variety of suppliers, some of them intrinsically knew what my motivators were and what my interests were, as a designer. Some of those suppliers had an instinct for understanding my design culture and ethos. One of those suppliers was d line – a Danish ironmongery with a pedigree for creating classic, architectural hardware. The distributor for d line, Elementer, worked extremely closely with architects. Many of those employed by Elementer were from the architectural community and that fascinated me. It was perhaps serendipitous that many years later I worked for d line, developing products with Knud Holscher and selling those products to architects. In 1999, I created a separate entity in the UK, d line UK ltd, with a focus on developing sign systems. Through a process of organisational evolution, we now trade as dlinexsign ltd, with xSign being our primary brand. It has been fundamental to our culture to align ourselves with the architectural community and contractors and develop a range of products that meet the needs of our customers. Today, we design, manufacture and install a range of sign systems to both internal and external facades in the UK and across the world.

In my time, it has often been said that the influence and power of the architect has been diminishing, but I’ve honestly not found that to be the case. Technology and roles have changed, but the desire to create great architecture is as strong as ever and that flows through to product placement within architecture. If bad products are placed in a great building, it diminishes the architecture. While an architect may experience constraints on time and budget, which restricts their complete freedom in designing the products and fixings within a building, at least the architect can make a choice based on a range of materials and finishes, helping to keep their sensibilities alive and creating something with integrity.

We’ve developed a pre-engineered fixing system and a modular fixing system in recognition that signs need to be changed easily and quickly and flexibly, with a varied palette of materials. The interior choices for architects have previously been quite limited because they have been made of extrusions – architects could have anything as long as it was painted aluminium. Whereas, if you look at the materials in interiors of modern architecture, you’ll see leather, Corian, stainless steel, stone, bronze. So, why not make signs with those materials and give architects and contractors complete freedom of choice? The challenge for architects and contractors has been creating and developing those prototype products in a short project window and experimenting with creating something that hasn’t been done before. That’s where pre-engineered fixing systems can be effective, because we can apply it to any material. And that’s where our tagline “design freedom through engineering” comes from. Our products have also been developed with the end user in mind, considering the functional qualities of the product as well as the aesthetic. We’ve developed product features such that the product isn’t eroded or compromised by someone feeling the need to stick some tape over a door sign in order to change something quickly. The product should be capable of reflecting the functional as well as the aesthetic.

Every project brings unique challenges. Internally, we often talk about trying to offer something to all decision makers. The decision-makers vary from project to project. The protagonist can vary from the architect to the project manager to the brand manager. It’s important that our staff are sensitive to who it is that has the most pressing intrigue in the project. Some decision-makers are receptive to choice, others have pressing time considerations. It helps that we can be flexible in our manufacturing processes, with a heavy investment in technology, so that we can offer a great range of choice to all stakeholders.

In progressing and innovating our range of products and sign systems, we prolong a vision of aligning with an architectural culture that has existed before us through Franklin-Wright, Bauhaus, Arne Jacobsen and Knud Holscher. At least, that is our hope and wish.