Manuel Amaral Netto and Tomás Carvalhas, the two leading minds in Lisbon-based designer furniture brand UTIL, have developed the kind of mirror-like pace that is both riveting and amusing. As we step inside their studio, there’s an instant connection prompted by their openness about their brand, their products, their vision — and even their studio, which is probably the opposite of what one would expect: not simplified at all.
Launched in 2017 after Manuel’s odyssey across Europe, UTIL immediately gained international recognition by bringing understated yet high-quality objects to light. Unfaltering shapes, contemporary depth. Internationally designed, locally produced. This is UTIL.
FF: The process always gets me. How do you get to the point of having a final product in your hands?
M: When you’re drawing something, you always think of context. A scenario. Then, you start putting everything together and testing solutions that make sense. I used to draw a lot more. Now, unfortunately, not so much. But you can definitely go to an extreme. Then you start polishing everything up. You went too far, and now you need to edit it out so that it starts answering questions and solving a problem. And then there are no more questions to be answered. It just is.
FF: You go too far and then you have to bring yourself to the first step again.
M: You don’t even need to go that far. You almost exaggerate something, even the more technical concerns. The goal is to get to a place of constant simplification, which we all try to do in life. And this takes time. I remember an episode from when I was a kid, everyone was drawing with felt-tip pens, and I insisted on using crayons. I’ve never used them before, so the result was a big splotch of nothing. I was sad because my drawing was not as pretty, but two weeks later, I was a hit with the crayons, and the others were still trying to figure them out.
FF: You learn with anything. That’s what mistakes are for.
T: That kind of practicality, where products must serve an obvious purpose, is something we’ve been trying to do in all brand interactions. From the way you use the website to how you order something, product availability, product assembly. We’re trying to simplify everything that has to do with the brand and the service, which is something we want to see intrinsically associated with UTIL.
M: This is so important. Nothing gets finished on the first try. Take Plié: a bulky object, though very light. We had to think about how we would handle the packaging by simplifying it to an extreme. Now that we have a puzzle-like packaging for this specific product, we’re even thinking of giving this to our customers when they need to move it. We don’t want to be a nuisance in people’s lives, but the exact opposite.
FF: I’m assuming your name has something to do with that, too.
T: It’s a starting point.
M: It’s a learning process. Tomás joined UTIL almost two years ago and was able to make many improvements. I didn’t have the time to take care of the more logistic requirements or to plan things.
T: It happened very naturally. At first, I was just helping out a friend. But then I got involved with the project and took this collaboration to the next level by setting up a partnership with another friend of ours, Francisca — which is not part of the daily operations but helps us in many decision-making moments. Once everything was up and running, we started planning more, defining what we are and where we’re going — taking something inside Manuel’s mind and bringing it to life. Yet again, we edited. We simplified. We gave up on certain things so that we were able to focus.
M: That’s the keyword: focus.
T: Besides leaving the accessories out, we invested in rebranding and getting a fresh route for the brand that was more in line with the new focus. We also started selling directly to customers.
FF: That changes a lot!
T: It really does. We rebuilt the website and changed our portfolio, which then became more directed at specific products that help maximise and organise spaces.
FF: What about the relationship between what people want and what you design?
M: Our ideals aren’t set on a finite boundary, and our design culture is vastly connected to what happens on a global scale. And our attention is focused on whom we’re designing for.
T: And what kind of problems we’re trying to solve. Design doesn’t start or end on the product only. It’s a way of thinking in terms of everything that makes up a brand.
M: Tomás really knows how to read the customer and understanding what they need.
FF: It’s a two-way street.
T: We’re clear on keeping UTIL as a small-scale business, and we want this focus on people to remain our starting point. We want to build relevant objects. Everything has its function. Everything serves a particular purpose. Even though there’s always room for adjustments, all products are carefully thought out from start to finish.
Photos by Francisco Nogueira
Interview by Soraia Martins