Question: As a furniture designer, how do you approach the design of new products and how have changes in the manufacturing process affected your approach?
Answer: I’ll give you a recent example of my latest seating design that perfectly illustrates my approach to designing new products. I have specialized in designing office, institutional and public space furniture during my career and the recent Covid 19 pandemic ravaged all sectors of this market with a vengeance. Social distancing, working from home and outright bans on public gathering caused a precipitous decline in furniture requirements. Already gaining in popularity before the pandemic was an emerging style of public seating geared to provide “landing spots” for cocooning in privacy. This rethinking of public seating resulted in my designing a chair collection that cradled the occupant in a protective shield from close encounters from others. It utilized a bendable plywood material adapted from the home building industry. Fabricated with a CNC router, the chair is literally folded like a taco into a high-backed winged envelope of protection. Office, education, healthcare and hospitality interiors must respond to this new normal in public interaction and furniture designers are tasked with offering new solutions to the simple act of sitting down.
Question: What historical tools and processes do you still use on a regular basis? Why are these important to you?
Answer: As I began my career as a designer, my first, and very wise employer required me to apprentice at every work station in his furniture factory over the course of one year. Shipping, receiving, cloth cutting, sewing, upholstery, woodworking, engineering and developing patterns…well, you get the picture. Simply put, designing the furniture could only occur after I learned how to actually make the furniture. As a result of that education, I developed an intimate understanding of designing products that are actually possible, rather than impossible, to manufacture for sale. Thank goodness, the creative process is constantly seeking “what if” scenarios in a push to innovate and dream, but making dreams a reality is the true adrenaline high. To this day, I mentally put each of my designs through every workstation in the factory. Each station influences the design inspiration; from the initial sketches, to the engineering drawing, and all the prototype stages. The symbiotic relationship that occurs between a successfully executed new design and the craftsmen that make it possible should never be taken for granted.
Not a day goes by that I don’t pick up a pencil and sketch. I use drawing to communicate as much as I use words. The old cliché, “A picture is worth a thousand words” rings so true with designers. And once the sketching process has matured to the point of taking the next step, color theory. I literally use drawing to communicate as much, maybe even more, than I use words. The old cliché, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, rings so true when explaining your design concepts to the craftsmen that are responsible for its manufacture. These simple visual tools of our trade, and an insatiable curiosity, continue to be the building blocks of my career’s foundation.
Question: How does researching the history of design and design details help your inspiration?
Answer: I continually stand on the shoulders of the masters that have inspired me; Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Sheraton, Wegner, the Eames, Nelson, Knoll. Bennett, Le Corbusier, Breuer and many countless others have influenced any success that I have experienced throughout my career. From their designs came new interpretations of material uses, joinery techniques, construction processes and market applications. Yet, their efforts were also rooted in those of their predecessors. That’s the way it works. I’m often asked how do I come up with NEW furniture designs. The honest answer is that I really don’t. Any originality in my design stems from simply reinterpreting what has been given me from the past and placing it in the present. All those art history courses required for my BFA remain an invaluable resource as I prepare for my next NEW design.
Question: What excites you about the modernization of these processes?
Answer: I have tended to specialize in seating design, specifically wood and metal chairs Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once quipped “A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.” I enjoy the challenge of designing and engineering the assembly of legs, stretchers, rails, cleats, blocks, springs, webbing, padding and fabric to construct an object which can be appreciated for its beauty, as well as for providing a comfortable sit. Admittedly selfish, trying to gain the respect of van der Rohe has been a great motivation for me. So I continue evaluating new materials and processes, such as the wacky wood plywood that I mentioned earlier, and finding new solutions for the simple act of sitting. And since I’ve always enjoyed what I did every day, looking back over the past four and a half decades, I guess I’ve never really had a job.