In Conversation with Matthew Hilton

The In Conversation series celebrates the stories and style of pioneers across the creative industries. We explore their craft, from beginnings to breakthroughs, and uncover how their Cutler and Gross frames mirror their unique aesthetic. 

Art direction by David Hellqvist | Photography by Freddie Payne | Interview by Imogen Massey

Matthew Hilton is a titan of industrial design. His name first garnered prominence in 1991 when he created the seminal Balzac chair, which – 30 years on – is still defiantly in production. Contemporary British design has been frequently shaped by Hilton’s hands, be that through the manufacture of his award-winning Cross Extension table or his four-year stint as Head of Furniture Design at Habitat during its peak in 2000. In recognition of his achievements, Hilton was awarded the prestigious title of Royal Designer for Industry.

With four decades of history to his name, Hilton could perhaps justifiably rest on his laurels. But that’s not his style. Enter the designer’s South London studio and you’ll soon realise that he has an insatiable desire to experiment, to learn, to create. This led Hilton to sculpture. Having spent much of his career working with wood and upholstery, the metal structures present an interesting departure. Hilton, a self-professed ‘detail obsessive’ combines extreme precision and balance to create works that are utterly singular in form.

Surrounded by the tools of his trade, he talked to Cutler and Gross about finding inspiration in the every day and the joy of being challenged.

A collection of design models in Hilton's London studio.
A collection of design models in Hilton’s London studio.

CG: What was your route to becoming a designer?

MH: I guess it was quite conventional really. I wasn’t academic and did well at art. I was told that Kingston [Polytechnic] was the best place to go so applied and got in. I left college in 1979 and worked for about 5 or 6 years as a model maker for an industrial design company. In 1985, I met Sheridan Coakley [founder of SCP, a leading London manufacturer and retailer of modern design products] and we had three or four pieces in production before he commissioned me to create ‘Balzac’.

CG: What’s your earliest memory of experiencing design? Is there a particular exhibition or piece that was formative for you?

MH: I don’t think I knew that it was ‘design’ at the time, but I gravitated towards things that I found exciting. I’d notice particular buildings or cars that interested me; I remember seeing the P6 and SD1 Rovers and thinking they were extraordinary.

Mathew Hilton wears the 1320 Cutler and Gross glasses in black.

"It's sometimes difficult to pinpoint when an idea starts because one can quite organically lead into another." - Matthew Hilton tells Cutler and Gross.

CG: When you’re starting a new project, do you always begin in the same way or does your method change depending on your medium?  

MH: There’s so much going on in my studio, I don’t have a set routine. We’re designing multiple pieces of furniture at the moment; there are at least 6 sculpture ideas in my head, in my iPad and model form; then there are drawings; wall hangings… It’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint when an idea starts because one can quite organically lead to another.

CG: How do you balance opinions and feedback whilst staying true to your vision?

MH: You have to recognise what is important to you, you have to value your ideas and have confidence in them. I’ve done this for a long time now, so if I have a good feeling about an idea I know that it’s generally worth pursuing. Of course, I have to take into account all the other factors – the design brief, the people I’m working for, the market – but it’s important to do that in a way that keeps the original essence.

Matthew Hilton wears the 1320 Cutler and Gross opticals in black.
Matthew Hilton wears his 1320 opticals in Black.

CG: Do you ever have to fight for your ideas?

MH: Not often, no. I think if there’s a fight then it’s generally because the idea is not right for that company. That’s why I’m doing my sculpture – I have absolute creative freedom, the only limiting factors are time and money. Any restrictions or editing comes from me. There’s no point in me creating art unless I’m true to my vision. I think it’s really important to ignore the commercial side of things when you’re creating art; if you focus on what might sell that’s when it starts going wrong. You have to be original and dig deep within yourself for ideas.

CG: Do you ever feel ‘stuck’ with a project or concept?

MH: There’s so much going on in my studio that that just doesn’t happen. One idea will lead to another and another. I don’t have designer’s block as such. Of course, sometimes I’m unclear about the direction I want to go in, but I’ll work through it and eventually, something happens.

"I'm not sure it's actually possible to create something timeless or new." - Matthew Hilton tells Cutler and Gross.
Hilton pictured in 1991 working on the Balzac prototype.
Hilton pictured in 1991 working on the Balzac prototype.
The Balzac armchair by Matthew Hilton for SCP. 
The Balzac armchair by Matthew Hilton for SCP. 

CG: How do you know when a piece is finished?

MH: It’s simple with design because it will have reached the point you want it to reach. Also, there are other people involved so it’s not all up to me – the piece will be finished because it hits the brief, it’s the right kind of style, looks good, is makeable for the right price, and has the right qualities. The design goes through so many stages of development and at each stage, you feel this excitement, something is happening and it’s looking good, and then you take it a stage further and it’s still looking good and so on. You can feel it and see it when it’s finished.

It’s much more difficult for me to decide when a piece of sculpture is complete. Often, I’ll reach a stage where I think ‘I like this’, then I’ll leave it and come back with fresh eyes, by which point I have doubts that it’s enough, saying enough, doing enough. I tend to overcomplicate things, add things, and let them sit for a while, even get really excited by them, to return a few days later and realise that I’ve blown it, I’ve gone too far. I often think that if you can achieve what you want to in a simpler way, it’s more impressive.

CG: How do you balance creating something that is both timeless and distinctly ‘new’?

MH: I don’t know that I do. I’m not sure it’s actually possible to create something timeless or new. All I can do is make something my way and hope that I inject originality through my approach. I think really great things are of their time, they might go out of style for a while, but they come back because people recognise their value. If you think about the classics of design, they all make strong statements and in doing so are very much of their time.

"I often think that if you can achieve what you want to in a simpler way, it's more impressive." - Matthew Hilton tells Cutler and Gross.
Hilton pictured with one of his latest sculptures.

CG: Cutler and Gross frequently looks to the worlds of music, film, and art for inspiration – what or who inspires you?

MH: There’s so much, I don’t know where to start. In terms of designers, I would say…[whistles] the big Italian designers from the 60s and 70s, such as [Achille] Castiglioni and [Ettore] Sottsass. Then there are loads of architects – Richard Rogers, Oscar Niemeyer – and Richard Sapper, the product designer. And I haven’t even touched on artists… It’s not all 3D stuff, it’s also music and painting, it’s everything. I consciously and subconsciously store it all in my mind, my visual library.

CG: If you had free reign of a crowd-less gallery for a day, where would you go?

MH: Fondation Maeght, a gallery in the south of France that’s packed with works by Miro, Giacometti, Chillida, Max Ernst… It was originally a private collection and the art in there is amazing.

A corner of Matthew Hilton's work bench.

CG: What three words would you use to describe your creative style?

MH: Elegance, balance, efficiency.

CG: What’s next on the horizon?

MH: There’s a lot, I’m doing a lot. I have my continued partnership with Case Furniture; the Cross table I made for them is probably one of my proudest design achievements. I’m also hoping to get my next sculpture show lined up. On top of that, I’m working on some wall hangings with a rugmaker, which I’ve never done before, I like the challenge of doing something new. I’m also working with a Japanese company around the idea of getting my drawings engraved into aluminium. There are loads of things that I don’t understand about the process, but I’m sure it’ll turn into something, it’s looking very promising. I’m lucky that I get to try so many new things.

Matthew Hilton pictured at his work bench in the 1319 Cutler and Gross glasses
Hilton pictured at his work bench wearing the 1319 aviator in Black.

Discover Hilton’s furniture at Case, and stay up to date with his ongoing projects and exhibitions here.



Shop Matthew Hilton’s frames