Moving up fast on the inside lane

June 19, 1998

Kam Patel looks at how Juggernaut, an interior design firm set up by four graduates, has thundered its way along the road to success

Steven Jensen scrabbles around some shelves in his design studio and eventually finds what he is looking for - a prestigious award won by his firm, Juggernaut, in 1994 for coming up with the best-designed shop interior. He blows the dust off the award, chuckles and plonks it down on the desk unceremoniously.

Juggernaut beat off established players in the design industry to win the competition, organised by Canon Audio and the design magazine Blueprint. The judges said that the firm's entry, an interior for a barber's shop in Hampshire, demonstrated "invention and integrity". Conjured up out of a construction budget of only Pounds 3,500, it was a remarkable achievement considering the firm had at the time been officially in existence for under two years.

It was started by three design graduates in 1992. "We all had a year out during our courses and decided then it was not quite as sexy as it should be out there. When we graduated there was hardly any work so we just decided to set up an unofficial studio in a bedsit in Hammersmith," says Jensen, an interior design graduate of Kingston University. Jensen teamed up with fellow Kingston graduate Graham Russell, a furniture designer, and Geoff Stewart, an interior designer from Middlesex University. A year later they were joined by David Germond, a furniture design specialist and another Kingston graduate.

Now in Shoreditch, London, in a warehouse split into a workshop and studio, Juggernaut has secured a stream of contracts that have caused some pandemonium at the firm. "It is great for business, it has taken us a notch up in the league," says Jensen.

It also meant a wage of sorts, at long last. "We always used to pay ourselves peanuts and did extra work here and there. Even now, what we pay ourselves is peanuts compared with salaries at major design companies. But we are happy because we do our own thing," says Jensen Much of Juggernaut's work has been for nightclubs and bars, where its edgy, innovative, industrial style, combined with a respect for the original fabric of buildings, has attracted interest. There has been a collaboration with a performance artist that resulted in shows at the ICA and an installation at the Architecture Foundation. Juggernaut-designed office furniture is being made under licence in Tokyo for the Far East market. The stools, tables, chairs and wheely units, tare cheery and colourful and not made here because no one in this country can mass produce it at an accessible price, says Jensen.

The firm prides itself on not being just a "paper-based" operation. Its workshop enables it to produce designs to full scale when space and machinery permit, as well as prototypes to perfect tricky designs. But the workshop is there for financial reasons too: by consolidating manufacturing as much as possible, profit margins can be increased.

Turnover at the firm last year was Pounds 150,000. A current project involves designing and manufacturing the interiors of two of a new chain of contemporary cafe/music bars called Elemental.

The firm has also won a contract to refurbish the 700-person dance and bar area of the student union building at Queen Mary College's Mile End site in London. Of the Pounds 1 million allocated for the project, Juggernaut's budget will be about Pounds 150,000. Its fees - about Pounds 7,000 - are less than half what they would normally charge. "We thought it was a good thing to charge minimal fees," says Jensen. "We are not typical businessmen and we prefer to deal with people who are a bit more like ourselves rather than people who have no understanding of what we are about." But with a leading burger chain contracted for a food bar in the building, this is presenting them with "interesting challenges", says Jensen. "We have got to deal with them and they have to deal with us; we are going to want certain things and they will want others I it will add a bit of spice to the job."

Both Jensen and Russell are part-time tutors at the university. What advice would Jensen give to design students wanting to set up in business? "Make sure they do it for the right reasons. It sounds naff but they should do it for the love of design. If they do it for that, everything else will eventually come. If they are going to go all out in the first instance for money and success, then in my view that would be the wrong way of going about it. Above all it should be an enjoyed process."

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