Domenic Lippa and Harry Pearce had reached a stage of their careers familiar to many designers. Now in their mid-40s, they had built their studio, Lippa Pearce, into a successful, if relatively small, business employing around 20 people, producing work they were happy with. So, what next?
“People our age tend either to be gearing up to selling their business or they just wither away,” claims Pearce. Neither option held much appeal: “We took some advice and, in order to sell the business, we would have had to triple our income and triple our profits for three years. We still want to design, not to become figureheads. Once you decide that, the options open to you are fairly limited.”
But there is one option that is almost tailor-made for designers in this situation: joining Pentagram. As Rick Poynor pointed out in Profile, Pentagram’s self-promotional book, “The company has found the answer to the dilemma that many designers face in the middle of their careers: How do I sustain my current position; how can I increase the opportunities available to me; and, having reached this level, what should I do next?”
This was exactly what Pearce and Lippa were worrying about. Pentagram, it seemed, could offer them the opportunity to carry on designing, while opening up a tempting vista of new opportunities unattainable on their own. The stumbling block to this seemingly happy solution is that you cannot simply apply to join Pentagram: you have to be invited. And it takes time.
Gathered around a table at Pentagram’s London studio are Pearce, Lippa and two existing partners, John Rushworth and Angus Hyland. We are here to discuss the unique and somewhat long-winded process by which Pearce and Lippa have become the latest partners to join a very distinguished club.
The Pentagram courtship begins with an informal chat with one of the existing partners. In Lippa Pearce’s case, the first contact came, thinks Rushworth, around seven years ago. “I think it was about 11,” chips in Lippa. “Well I had a lunch with John when Lippa Pearce was about three years old, so that’s 13 years ago…,” adds Pearce. “We’ve been taking our time making the decision,” finishes Lippa, somewhat superfluously.
After the first date, a couple more, usually with other partners from the same office, are arranged and, if both parties like the look of each other, things get serious. “Bringing in a new partner is always an international decision,” explains Hyland. “The partners all meet twice a year so the subject can only really be broached then. The local office has to decide unanimously to put someone forward and brings them to the table at the partners’ meeting. Someone from the local office shows their work and makes a case for them [Daniel Weil and Fernando Gutiérrez in the case of Lippa and Pearce]. They get discussed in terms of their work, their fit with the rest of the people here and so on. If we all feel they are going to add something to the office, we agree to go to the next stage, which is to introduce them to each partner.”
The prospective partner then has to visit each of the existing partners in London, Berlin, New York, Austin and San Francisco on a kind of grand self-promotional tour. An exhaustive, and exhausting process. “Bringing in a new partner is the biggest single decision we make – it’s our business strategy,” Rushworth maintains, by way of explanation.
Six months later, the applicant is discussed at the next partners’ meeting. Decisions have to be unanimous – if just one partner objects, the applicant is rejected. Reasons vary – Hyland admits to having once rejected an aspiring designer because he didn’t like his haircut. “It’s about how they will fit in and what they will bring,” he says. “We need someone who will enjoy this dynamic,” adds Rushworth, “they have to have a national reputation for their work and be able to run their own business. We don’t pick people to fill a particular slot, we’re not strategic in that sense, it’s just about people.” As former partner John McConnell once put it, the acid test is whether you could bear to spend a weekend with this person.
Despite the rigorous selection process, things do go awry. “We do get it wrong,” admits Rushworth, “you can never predict when people will be successful. People I thought would be difficult worked out great and vice versa. It’s like a big family here, sometimes you find it difficult to get on with everybody.”
High profile casualties have included Peter Saville and April Greiman, neither of whom felt comfortable with a structure that demands that each designer meets some pretty stiff earning targets. All partners are paid the same and get an equal share of annual profits, so that a subtle, internal pressure not to let the side down, is inevitable. The latest partner to baulk at this was Fernando Gutiérrez who left in September, citing similar reasons to those which led founding partner Alan Fletcher to quit in 1991.
“There’s nothing bad I can say about Pentagram, it was a great learning place for me,” Gutiérrez says from his new, much smaller, studio in Hampstead, north London. “But I realised that I want to do beautiful work, have time for people to come over and hang out, and have a good time, rather than have to hit huge targets every year.”
“For some people, earning enough money can be a big pressure,” admits Rushworth. There have been recent reports that the US offices have been unhappy that London has not been contributing as much as it might, something which Rushworth disputes: “It’s less a case of pressure from the US than that London has lost two or three senior people, that’s really the problem. If you lose a John McConnell or Lorenzo Apicella as we have done, they’re big bits of business.”
“The pressure comes from within,” adds Hyland. “Pentagram is a collective, the other offices don’t impose their will.”
“Part of the idea of Pentagram is that everyone wants to be the best – at earning money and at doing the work,” Rushworth adds. “We’re a very competitive bunch.”
Rushworth and Hyland are confident that Pearce and Lippa will fit well with that atmosphere. “They are like-minded in terms of how they ran their business and their design lives – they each had their own team exactly like at Pentagram,” says Rushworth. “And Lippa Pearce had developed a strong portfolio in packaging and retail which haven’t been core here for a while,” adds Hyland. Rushworth: “But this is all post-rationalisation in a way.”
For Pentagram, Lippa and Pearce, who will join as individual partners, working separately from each other, just felt right. The attraction was mutual: “Lippa Pearce had gone as far as we could take it and Pentagram had always meant a huge amount to us,” says Pearce. “It stands for great work and dignity so we thought ‘let’s put ourselves into that’.”
“Our past relationship with Pentagram was a really important factor, the process was less daunting because of that,” adds Lippa. “It really came down to what we wanted out of our lives, we knew we wanted to control our own work. Harry has his team and I have mine, so the cultural fit was right.”
Both recognise that there is risk involved, both creatively and financially. At a time when many designers of a similar vintage are looking to cash in, Lippa and Pearce are making a move which is actually going to cost them money as each new Pentagram partner must purchase shares in the company. “This is like plugging into the mains again,” says Pearce.
Lippa Pearce has now been wound up, with most of the employees and all of the clients moving to Pentagram. “We talked it through with our clients and they were very comfortable, there were no conflicts,” says Pearce. “In effect, the name on the invoice changes and that’s it,” adds Lippa.
Creatively, of course, there is much to live up to. “There was a huge comfort zone for us at Lippa Pearce,” admits Lippa. “It’ll be good to be in a situation with more people looking over our shoulders – it’ll be challenging and exciting.” Looking over shoulders is something that literally happens at Pentagram where partners are not shy of expressing opinion about another’s work. “There is an issue of matching up to those who have gone before us,” says Pearce. “There are two sides to that – you’re trying to be seen in that light and also feel that what that represents is something that deserves your support.”
Rushworth is adamant that the two new recruits will not be the last for London: “We will continue to look. We’re down to five partners in the London office now: we haven’t been that few for ten years or more. Looking at our overhead, at the space we have, eight is probably the ideal but we don’t look at it in those terms – we could do with someone from architecture or interiors, products, new media even [an area conspicuously lacking in the London office skill-set] if we found the right person.”
“It’s like a conveyor belt here – as soon as you’ve got someone new on at one end, someone drops off at the other,” says Hyland. Rushworth: “It’s not just spin – we do look for new people all the time. There’s always someone being put forward.”
Lippa and Pearce are clearly delighted to be the new recruits. “I can’t think of another design company I admire as much,” says Lippa, “it’s like being asked to play for your favourite football team.” Pearce sums it up: “Our aspiration was always to be like Pentagram. But it’s better to be part of the real thing.”