Today, Lloyd’s of London reopens its Underwriting Room after a three-month closure. The central area of the Richard Rogers Partnership’s famous building was stripped back to the structure for services, connections and lighting to be updated, whilst the ground floor has been redesigned and can now hold more managing agents, the underwriters’ representatives. And they will sit at a new ‘box’, the special desk-cum-cabinet that has equipped many of the institution’s premises and can be traced back to its very beginnings. To mark this evolution I’ve chatted with John Bennett, a highly experienced furniture designer who helped create the box for the Rogers building forty years ago.
Architect Eva Jiřičná had been appointed to design the interiors, working with RRP job architect John Young. The team had already spent time with Lloyd’s personnel to research the space issues faced by Lloyd’s and how its underwriters worked. Key to the business of meeting brokers who wished to discuss a risk was the box, an enclosing, wooden construction that served as table, chair and store combined and often for more than one person, since Lloyd’s members share cover and work closely together in syndicates. The box thus retained a memory of the benches from Edward Lloyd’s 17th century coffee house where the London marine insurance market began, and had done through the previous buildings' models.
The contract to make the new boxes went to Tecno, a widely respected Italian firm based in Milan (Rogers was Italian) that had been founded in 1953 and whose Modernist principles were a good fit for the project. Working with Jiřičná and Young, a new iteration of the box emerged that answered the brief for something as “strong as a workbench and finished as a piece of furniture”. Made from sixty separate components, each crafted especially for this design, the box was built up from a steel frame that included vertical racking above the desk surface. A range of modules could then be inserted as needed, such as cubby holes, tambour-fronted cupboards and a variety of drawers. A separate, high-backed bench with a hidden compartment complemented the desk; thick teak veneer was cut for each of the wooden elements.
John Bennett was closely involved in this process from start to finish. What follows is a lightly edited record of our email chat about what one might term the ultimate desk job:
Hi John, and thanks for doing this. How did your involvement begin?
I graduated from the RCA in London in furniture design and went to Milano to do what they called a ‘stage’ at Tecno for three months, and that was 1983. I didn’t speak any Italian and off I went! One of the first projects that they involved me in was the Lloyd’s project and more specifically the dealer desking project. They asked me to translate what was written on the drawings but since I didn’t speak Italian that wasn’t really easy.
Gosh, what a daunting introduction! What happened after that?
I became involved in the prototypes being made as well as meeting with the facility manager at Lloyd’s to get a better understanding of what was needed. It was all very exciting and pushed me into the early stages of my career, far from the farm in the Derbyshire countryside where I had been brought up.
What about the manufacturing?
I worked with Eva Jiřičná and her assistant in a very minor role and tried my best to make sure things flowed through the factory and were ready for the next meeting. I never met Richard Rogers but was always interested because of his family connections with Italy.
Yes, those prototypes were done with Eva’s firm and John Young, who I guess you may have met?
No, I don’t remember meeting John Young but I’m sure at some point I must have.
One obvious question: did you work in Britain or in Italy, or both?
I was in Italy, working in the Tecno design office in Italy. In the beginning I would go to London for some meetings.
I love the component approach to the desk, but particularly the bench element, with its high back and opening door. The slide-out drawer is brilliant.
I think that the architecture of the furniture was influenced by what was happening in architecture [more widely] at that time, and we all knew about and admired the Pompidou building and also what Foster was doing as we were working with them too [on the Nomos range].
Any stories from working on that factory assembly process?
I remember that there were many people involved in the process both internally and outside of the Tecno factory. Wood was internal and metal prototyping was internal too but when it came to the production it was mostly done outside, brought back to the factory for test fitting and then packaged and delivered.
Were there things that went wrong, or had to be changed?
Actually we wanted to make cast aluminium components but Rogers wanted steel; I even made a leg component in casting but I was never passed [sic]. Shame really because it had a nice feel to it and had a more fluid morphology. I think that by using cast components the language could have been more industrial but the steel pressing worked too and that was okay.
I think people are always interested in how things came together, particularly the lesser-known elements of otherwise famous projects.
It was all a great experience and I loved it. I remember that in the late eighties I was taken around the Lloyd’s building and up onto the top of the building so that I could look down at the floor below!!
And what came next for you?
After that project had finished I began working on the [Nomos] furniture project with Norman Foster, another great experience with Tecno. By [the late eighties] I was working in a company called Marcatrè that was part of the Cassina group. At Marcatrè I was introduced to Mario Bellini and on the team to develop a furniture system called Extra Dry, and, well, that’s another long story…
Tecno is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, and the boxes it made for Lloyd’s more than a generation ago are still in use even if the upper racking has largely disappeared and the benches have been replaced by a wooden screen and base panel on which generic gas-lift office chairs now sit. Other styles of box were also appearing in Lime Street long before this summer’s refit.
But the new models for 2023 are described by Bruce Carnegie-Brown, the chairman of Lloyd’s of London, as “mirroring the spirit of their predecessors” to ensure that “everybody who is an underwriter at Lloyd’s has at least one box on the ground floor… it should make the [area] much busier and buzzier as a result.” It’s also notable that these changes, part of a much broader
rethink of how its business could and should adapt to a post-pandemic world, stop significantly short of earlier suggestions that the Room should contract or be opened up for public use. Perhaps this reflects Carnegie-Brown’s belief that the market he runs is “proud and protective of the legacy Richard Rogers left us”.
With sincere thanks to John Bennett