Paul Priestman moves people. Whether its around cities, through space or over water, the chairman of London-based PriestmanGoode studio has made transport his life’s work. From boats and trains to aeroplanes and spaceships, as an industrial designer, Priestman has specialised in fill the space between the eternally imperative line – from point A to point B.
His interest in product design has a long-standing history. As a little boy, Priestman was always fascinated by vehicles, but it was their complexity, and the space they offer for innovation, which captured his interest – then and now.
A few decades later, after graduating from the Royal College, he founded the company in his bedroom. Since then, PriestmanGoode has grown from a one-man team to one of the world’s largest transport design studios.
With a portfolio that now consists of clients such as NASA and Airbus, the product of PriestmanGoode’s projects has been utilised by hundreds of millions of people across the globe and counting.
At the cutting edge of technical design, the studio’s scope extends to fixed, as well as moving, environments. One recent project in India, called “Olive”, explored co-living as its central focus.
In line with global mega-trends, the studio is concerned with questions beyond the technical; on the contrary, Priestman and his colleagues strive to answer the enquiry implicit in any sincere bid for revolution: How will people live differently in the future? How will they want to move through the world? And what might that sound like?
In fact, consideration for sound is factored into every project at PriestmanGoode. Sometimes, that is non-negotiable; regulations restrict volumes above certain levels on public transport – in train vestibules for instance.
Noise-cancelling materials and coverings, coupled with a little actuator beneath each seat to isolate a vehicle’s vibrations, all play their role in the soundscape calibration.
But less isn’t always better when it comes to noise. Air travel passengers react badly to high levels of outside clamour, but they are equally uncomfortable with too much silence. A plane’s engine hum, after all, masks surprising bangs and other mechanical sounds.
More than that, the white noise helps create an atmosphere of privacy by overpowering nearby chatter. As Priestman says, designing a space is not one process but the sum of countless micro-considerations. Done well, only a feeling of harmony should be perceptible.
Of course, music is an invaluable asset in any designer’s arsenal, especially when it comes to public spaces. Classical music at PriestmanGoode’s local tube station, for instance, offsets the stress of a daily commute. Its soothing rise and fall weaves almost indiscernibly into the city’s rich tapestry of sensory experience.
For Priestman, who developed the award-winning design for the underground’s next iteration, it’s the noise of the tubes themselves – sliding doors, “mind the gap”, metal gliding along rails – which is forever synonymous with London.
It’s true of many places: public transport is integral to cultural identity. It’s no overstatement to say that San Francisco’s streetcars, Venice’s vaporetti or Hong Kong’s Star Ferry are inextricably connected to the cities they serve.
Such networks shape a community’s most basic rhythms, as whole populations set out for work and school in the morning and head back at the end of the day, via shops, cafes and countless other cultural cornerstones. For millions, these experiences are dictated by the transport they can access most easily, with each of these arteries of a metropolis contributing their own voice to a city’s sound and spirit.
That soundtrack can leak from unexpected directions. Priestman recalls a busker on London’s underground playing songs from Saturday Night Fever and watching commuter-scurries morph into John-Travolta-lollops as they passed through the long, tiled corridors.
Testament to music’s surprising influence on the mind and body, as a designer, Priestman is personally immersed in its magic as often as possible. While his student days were peppered with gigs in Camden Town, live music’s spiritual home in London, his first love was classical music, which still escorts him to work every morning.
Since his earliest memories of building Lego vehicles to the symphonies drifting down from his father’s record player, sound and design have worked hand in hand for Priestman – a passion and an approach he continues to explore as he both adds and subtracts their elements to reach maximum harmony.