Obviously Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand are huge deals, but I’ll admit i don’t always enjoy their podcast, The Observatory. At times it sounds like you walked in on two older, storied faculty members talking about things you can comprehend, or don’t care about. When they aren’t talking about the projects they’re involved in, every now and again they’ll talk about something pretty cool, like in this episode where they talked about all this, discussed ethics in design/tech, and it was awesome:
Huzzah, back to Studio Dror in the sunny morning that Monday should have been. This won't be a long one, as it was more of a conversation over a coffee with Dror, but it was definitely refreshing and interesting to spend some time with someone who spoke of a more metaphysical approach to design. I'm going to be honest and say that I didn't agree with everything that he said (I'm sure he won't mind), but it was fun to see a really honest and personal view on the industry. Dror also had some consistent advice which has come from throughout the experience, but was able to articulate it in an interesting way when speaking from a spacial view point, discussing the needs for both a macro/micro view on a project or exploration, for it to really meet the root cause or problem of a need.
This is a great video which you can find on Dror's website, and really gives you a sense of his style.
It's the last day of this thing (kind of, tomorrow I get a do over with Studio Dror), and a chance to spend sometime with the super hot NY based lighting brand Rich Brilliant Willing, starting off in their brand spanking new SoHo showroom.
So the background, it's a fairy tale of right place right time, foresight and commitment. They started in the East Village producing their first 100 of the Excel floor lamp in a part earth floor artists basement. It's really interesting how they are somewhat a product of the 2008 recession which saw them lose their jobs, but emerge in a climate in which people were willing to buy from furniture from the internet and trust in smaller brands. They're also really pioneers in the sense that they were one of the first studio brands which emerged onto the market and acted as both the design studio and the manufacturer.
The next few years saw them moving around SoHo, working in buildings with other designers and architects (helping them build relationships with their clients early). Working in both furniture and lighting, (and this part of the insight into the company came later, but I'll stick it in the narrative here) they didn't see a huge future in the furnishing market. The opportunity was actually in the lighting industry, where LEDs were emerging as a technology which RBW jumped on. This allowed them to explore new forms and typologies and due to the size of the company and the interest in them, they were perfectly placed to be nimble and quick to respond, but to still carry clout in the industry.
These days, RBW has built its brand around listening to customers, ensuring they continue in their own specific aesthetic, but also ensuring that their offerings fit with needs of the people they are designing for. Pieces like hoist which allows for pendants in hospitality, which features a 12 ft cable and two wall clamps, but can also be sconce and comes in multiple configurations (it is even rated for exterior usage). The flexibility of this, and the thought which has gone into it allows for maximum return on investment for RBW and great engagement with the A&D community. Multi finishes, custom finishes available. RBW also divides their product up quite simply into decorative and staples, one of the most interesting staples being a new ceiling light which has just been launched, but interestingly has an integrated backup battery—eliminating the need for those awful emergency lighting boxes.
This idea of listening to customers extends to working in partner ship with other companies. Recently RBW has built a new model in the industry, working with another company (COMPANY 1 and COMPANY 2) in an consultant/client relationship to develop products for certain situations. The work which has come out of this is really interesting, but also delivers a good model for other explorations RBW might want to make into areas of the industry of which they have less expertise (light acoustical fabrics or IoT).
One of the great parts of today was the opportunity to talk to the three guys who started the company—the chance to speak about the development of the company and the path RBW have taken, how they have been able to work collaboratively as a studio of three in a democratic manner with mutual input to designs but also act as support and checks on each other. During lunch with Theo and Charles, I was able to ask some questions which I have been wondering for a while, around the topic of being successful as a designer, and how that change from being a designer to being a brand feels. Many of their thoughts revolved around the though that you have to make your own opportunities. However much circumstance might play into your hand, you have to have something to use in that moment—so make things, get them out into the world, and produce. It's also important to aim for long goals, and have an idea where you are headed, but have the flexibility to make faster short-term decisions while allow you to head towards (but not always necessarily directly towards) your goal. In terms of looking at projects, learning to use "ball park math" which can allow you to study the feasibility of a project and really see if you want or can commit to it. This can also help predict or define whether certain relationships and methods of producing work (like licensing) are actually viable for you. As far as owning your own business—individual control is hard, but gives you more control over your environment and relationships. All of this stuff is kind of obvious to some people, but sitting there, listening to someone who has made it work really lets it hit home a bit more.
Upstairs in the Brooklyn space, I was able to experience the back-end of the product. From the design process (process orientated—where the team return to process and manufacturing to improve efficiency and design constantly) to assembly and shipping. The assembly was a great experience because it really hit home something which I'm not sure I had experienced anywhere else, which was the notion of design for assembly and design for installation. The assembly process was being carried out by professionals, but the design was so well refined that the process was broken into a smaller number of steps and allowed for a totally rationalization of the order. Another interesting sidebar was the packaging used for one of the products, which utilized a cornhusk and fungus component to protect it, which I hadn't seen before.
Looking at product development allowed me some time to speak to Theo about the design and iterative approach to their process, and how they look at lighting as an addition to the collage which an interior designer is trying to construct in a space—using a rich palette of materials. RBW approaches design by creating and testing many versions of a design (so this is easy to confuse with a regular iterative style—rather than making iterations as a product develops (working with just "A") they will study multiples (looking at "A", "B" and "C"). I think the most important thing I'll take away from this is to make sure to consider design for manufacturing, design for assembly, and design for installation as part of a holistic approach to design in future.
Well—it's the last week of this journey (the final presentation will be next Tuesday), and its hard to believe that it is somewhat coming to a close. The good thing is: the last week is not a light one, today I got to visit some of the places I have been looking forward to since the beginning of the fellowship. Starting with Studio Dror... that was until the weather scuppered out plans. Thankfully that is rescheduled and so it can have a whole piece of writing dedicated to it alone!
Plenty more to see and do, and I was more than happy to brave the weather to get the chance to see Suzanne Tick's studio. Suzanne is a pretty big deal—I saw some of the work she has done in the glass field at Skyline in Chicago. Anyway, shes a powerhouse in the interiors area, specifically in fabrics and textiles. The aesthetic of the studio is more architectural than most other textile companies which makes them stand out as less decorative and more sculptural. The development of product is incredibly technical and process driven, which allows them to focus on exploring new fibers and manufacturing techniques. They also make sure that they spend their time staying in touch with and studying culture, society and politics and look at how these influence their products and what trends may emerge because of them. It was awesome to step down stairs and get a look at a real life, human operated loom, which was my first, and to hear the operations which allow for the investigative process which allows the designers to construct contextual color blends which lead to spectacular colors and textures in weaves. I have to say, it was also really great to spend some time with Suzanne herself—I haven't had many opportunities to spend time with designers who these companies are named after much, and so I had a few questions to ask her which were really enlightening. One of the most insightful moments from this conversation was in response to the question "do you have to be cut-throat or aggressive as young designer to get ahead and get noticed". Suzannes answer was that you do, but that it was way more than that—its about guts, its about instinct and detail, success means you have to have a head for business as well as design. There was also a really great thought which was that her success was in part due to her desire to disrupt, but you can't expect to purely disrupt—you have to also be inclusive, good disruption is about making sure that the disruption itself is understood, that the vision behind the disruption is understood. Tha'ts the quote for the day right there.
From there, it was on to Fritz Hansen to be surrounded by wonderful danish furnishings. This was a great opportunity to catch up on the history of Fritz Hansen and Arne Jacobsen.
Right next door on Wooster is Luceplan, which I'll admit I hadn't come across before, but which showcases some more Italian innovation in lighting. Founded by 3 architects (and later, one engineer), the focus is very much on materiality and technology. There are some real gems of design in here—the Costanza, (not only because it shares a name with that Costanza, but the adjustment mechanism is beautiful) and the Cappuccina (because of that simple functionality) for example. Everything is still manufactured in Milan, and their aquisition by Philips in 2010 looks like it could only make them stronger as integration with IoT becomes bigger in the lighting industry the future... if it does.
It's the last day at Bernhardt, and time to head over to plant 4. Plant 4 is an interesting one—only opened a few years ago, it operates under plant 3 (wood) and 7 (seating and upholstery), doing some of the pre-manufactured pieces for both, some of the larger pieces, like conference and task chair assembly.
The first thing to notice is that its a much larger and much more modern environemnt than the other plants. Its more of a classic warehouse, which allows for lots of verticle space. Everything that comes into the plant is greeted by the QC department, which inventory everything from vendor, who are spread all over the world. This usually starts with a 10% check, followed by another 10% if it fails—meaning 1 in every 10 boxes pulled. Certain things require a little more observations, so all glass and corian is 100% inspected, to make sure that it meets Bernhardts standards. Regarding tracking quality, it starts with a photo inside the receiving truck, to look for damage to pallets from shipping and transport or packing. Once boxes are opened and inspected, the inspectors take photographs of damage and imperfections and record them to allow them to track problems, zeroing in on where the problem lies (with packing or with manufacturing process), and to work on developing processes to improve. Here they are inspecting pretty much every material Bernhardt deals with: corian, glass, veneers, wood, foam, chromed metal parts, all which carry their own characteristics.
On one side of plant 4 is the plant 3 side (wood), where a large inventory of stock of furniture which is produced/assembled elsewhere is held. Once ordered, this is then finished (and if it is a conference table, it is uv treated) and either sent through to further assembly, where conference and modular pieces are fitted with brackets and grommets, or straight through to shipping. At this point for conference tables, the hand cut metal extrusions are added, and if customer requests staging to check they will. On the other side of plant 4 is the plant 7 side (seating), where all the task chairs are assembled by hand. This includes foam, upholstery, and assembly, with sewn parts coming from plant 7. This is all followed by standard QC and one in every large order is pulled for testing at the test facility. The packing section was pretty interesting in the sense that, as mentioned before these large surfaces and pieces of wood can get damaged fairly easily as they are pretty heavy. Shipping them can be a pretty big deal and to stop them being dropped in transit but the blame landing at the plant they use these nifty little things called shockdots, which show rough handling.
And that was pretty much it, so maybe its time for some final thoughts on Bernhardt design? Well, the obvious things first—they're a huge company, and whilst they seem less corporate, the divisions make things seem pretty red-tapy and confusing from the outside, and they obviously care intensely about design and quality. The weirder things I've caught myself thinking about—a conversation about a more "Southern" design aesthetic in which pieces are part of an environmental aesthetic-pieces combined to greater aesthetic (rather than more loud, individual pieces which scream for attention). Spending longer on the manufacturing floor has also made me think about anther really interesting problem which is larger than one specific company or area and is something which manufacturing as a whole faces, which is to do with skill, experience and age in respect to the available workforce. This is due to many issues: a rising level of education, a reduction in the desire to work in manufacturing, the lowering of the conception of manual labor as a respectable career, through to things like engagement with younger generations at younger ages, drug addiction, draining of communities from rural environments, and even the effect of large stores like Walmart on local communities and economies.
Up with the larks to take a look around the Bernhardt plants! Today I was going to look around two of the main plants for Bernhardt design (remember, that's the contract wing of the company). The plan was Plant 7 first—furniture & seating. So the first thing to note here: If you ever drive through Lenoir, you'll see that Bernhardt have a huge number of buildings spread around. They have grown over their history and have access to lots of space—they have actually consolidated and downsized due to technology and changes in production. This has benefits and drawbacks, for example: because the factories are on-site, they are able to deal with problems with product and prototyping incredibly fast and efficient manner. Well here's the bad, the factories have been around for a long time—in fact there is a train track which runs along side a lot of the factories which isn't used any more. That age is shown a little in how the factories are organized. It's not that they aren't organized as well as they can be, but more that no-one who was designing a space for the fabrication the workers are doing these days would design it like that. The buildings are multi-level, back and forth, closed walled, hot and still. It totally makes sense that if its paid for, you have to use it—hopefully at some point in the future they will move to a more well designed building which can help rationalize the process a little.
Plant 7 receives the seating frames from plant 5 (woodworking plant which makes frames for whole company)—these are awesome plywood frames. I have to admit I've never taken a pair of scissors/hacksaw to a piece of furniture to see it's skeleton, so the whole creation process was amazing, but seeing the bare-bones really made sense and actually made the forms that you see at the end not look all that hard to produce. Once the frames are sprung and covered, they are sent through to upholstery to have the foam padding and sewn covers added. An interesting little insight (and something which came from our discussion with PD yesterday) was the whether foam bodies of chairs would be injection molded or not. The distinction is if something is thought to be potentially high volume, then this might be injection molded on to a steel or aluminum tube frame. The reason this is interesting is that sometimes they take you by surprise, like the mitt chair which is very popular, but made entirely by hand. Injection molding would mean no need to make a frame and to add the foam to the frame, but obviously plays with the risk that the tooling cost will be repaid.
Everyone in the upholstery section is trained to produce every piece of furniture. I'll make a stupid admission here, which is that I was super excited, because I thought I might have captured a hyperloop of this awesome guy making the mitt chair, but it wasn't until over half way through I realized I hadn't pressed record! Urgh! This guy was able to go from the prepared separate parts (frame, cut foam, sewn cover) to the finished piece in 25-30 mins. It was a pretty amazing sight. This is one of the highest skill jobs in the plants, for lots of different reasons. One of them is that they deal a lot with COM (customers own materials), which can be so different to the usual materials applied to the furniture because of factors like stretch, rebound, grain and thickness. This can be such a big issue that they will sometimes reject COM as it cannot live up to the standards which Bernhardt needs it to do—also they don't warranty a COM as they can't promise how it will wear after time.
One of the big things I noticed at Bernhardt was the focus on QC (quality control). There is a lot of hand work and craft focus, and obviously that individualization of labor can lead to irregularities (as well as catching scuffs and other fixes which need to be applied to the pieces as they navigate the plants). To help with this, there are many QC checkpoints throughout the factory, as well as little stations at the end of the lines to touch up finishes, and materials. Another important part of this process when thinking about furniture systems is to check modular piece and those which will live together to ensure that every thing is perfect—this means everything from color matching to lining up seams. To help this, those larger modular piece are all staged together, on a physical stage, so they can be thoroughly checked. Talking of color matching, in the finishing section of the plant, they have color boards for customers stored from 50 years. Plant 7 also includes the sewing department, another highly skilled department, which first deals with COMs and adapts patterns to fit furniture (this is done through knowledge, not by pulling it onto a pre-made piece).
Moving on to Plant 3—cased goods. I'll make a little admission here, my dad is a carpenter who works with solid lumber and so I've kind of spent my life looking down on veneers as they always seemed low quality and really to not serve any purpose beyond being cheap. Plant 3 deals with veneers and seeing them made in front of me definitely changed my mind about that somewhat. This is a huge facility, with a lot of crazy machines that are pretty fascinating, including one which was like a swiss-army machine which could CNC, saw, apply edge veneers, clean edges and drill. Seeing the process was really enlightening, how the pieces are picked, glued together, applied to a board, edged, sanded, and then finished. A lot of work goes into high quality veneers. Unfortunately the waste can be a bummer—I saw one large piece which was dropped, killing one corner of it, so that piece gets chipped (and then burnt, sad face)... the problem can be that if that piece needed to match the other pieces, or they can't make a satisfactory match with another one, all of them get dumped and everything gets started again.
Ok—two other things real quick. This awesome product, because we all need to fix a little dent or something every now and then. Also these guys, because they asked me to take their picture, here you go fellas:
Its Monday morning, and you know what that means... yep, another flight. This time down to North Carolina to spend a few days with Bernhardt design. My knowledge of Bernhardt was limited to some of the more Iconic pieces, like the Orbit by Ross Lovegrove, but I was anxious to get to know the seemingly illusive (from their website) company a bit more.
This part of North Carolina (Lenoir) has a long history of manufacturing, and up until recently was somewhere where a large percentage of the furniture produced in the United States came from. As a company, Berhardt started over 100 year ago as a logging company (the countryside here really is beautiful), and eventually moved into manufacturing furniture, making a more traditional style of home furnishings for over 50 years. Then, in the late 80s, early 90's the company moved away from the ornamented peices, into a more modern aesthetic, dabbling in Memphis styled post-modern pieces. In the mid-90's, current creative director Jerry Heling joined Bernhardt, and was one of the key players in taking "Berhardt design" as a contract part of the company (I'll explain this crazy confusing situation in a bit) and started work on creating more modernist pieces which would fit into the business world. With this, the B2B business modernized and became more of what Bernhardt might be more known for in the design community today.
Enough with the history lesson—next was a meet with product development. Considering the time spend with companies like Vitra and Herman Miller, it was interesting to meet with a company which also works with designers, but seems to work in a slightly different manner. At Bernhardt, it seems more of the design of the product itself is done in house. It seemed as if the designers Bernhardt works with provide more inspiration for the project rather than full product ideation and conception, and play a more hands off approach over all. As the creative director, Jerry Heling finds the designers to work with on projects, and has the initial relationships with the designers who Bernhardt works with. Interestingly, these interactions with a designer come about through seridipity or spontaneity. Bernhardt prides itself on working with less established designers and getting out into the world to find the undiscovered talent they partner with. The products they produce range from those which are statement pieces and high in cost (which they don't expect to sell lots of), to more safe, high-volume pieces, which can include cased goods also.
The small product development team of 5 designers is split between three divisions (residential, contract and hospitality), with only 2 or 3 working on contract designs with ownership of multiple projects out of the 20-40 products released per year. The product development team includes a small highly-skilled team from a few backgrounds (woodworking, upholstery, etc) working on prototypes, which allows them to develop both an aesthetically pleasing product, but also work through production and manufacturing considerations very quickly and efficiently. Like with most interiors companies, their busy time is in the Spring before ICFF and Neocon—where products are revealed at ICFF to create buzz and maybe presages before Neocon, but releases do run on seasonal basis also.
It's wonderful to be back in Chicago (my home city), and to visit a couple of companies which have an amazing history and reputation, but which I hadn't heard of before this experience. Today it was a trip to Skyline. Although it was a relatively short visit (compared to the multiple day trips I've become accustomed to recently) it was enough time to explore and get to know the company.
Skyline produces for anyone who is willing to pay for a premium product, more often hospitality, healthcare, and office environments, creating both interior and exterior pieces which range from accents, privacy screens, and attention grabbers. The production facilities are fascinating and extensive, contained within a large footprint which include many custom pieces of equipment which skyline have developed in a proprietary nature to continue to lead the way in all things glass. I don't have a huge experience with glass, especially not in this kind of architectural context. To see and begin to understand the process a piece of glass goes through when it comes through here really helped. Skyline, does everything (except floating the glass) but is sure to do it in an environmentally friendly manner, so it was also important to hear how they have tried to stay true to this and have adapted and changed their processes throughout time with this in mind.
Obviously one of the most important things to Skyline is light- and it was amazing to see how the environments they were able to create could play with light and transparency to create so many different situations. Another huge factor was texture, the four processes with which they are able to effect the glass allow them to create depth and tactility in a variety of different ways.
Overall it was amazing to see a company with such huge capabilities which was built from the ground up around an initial interest into a such a success just down the road from my house.
As the great Willie Nelson once sang, I am "on the road again". This time to the great state of Michigan to visit the other Eames', Herman Miller. Once I had the opportunity to sit down and think, I became pretty excited to look at Herman Miller in comparison to Vitra, just because I expected them to share a few view points and potentially approaches in marketing and presentation to the world.
The first impression was very much what I had expected (having already been to the showroom in NY), visiting the "home" of the Living Office. This is in response to many stimulus in society, but for example the growth of the start-up sector has had a huge impact. When those companies offered flexibility to workers to try and encourage them to work for them, they would encourage them to work from where ever they felt comfortable. The flip side to this is that employees infrequently coming to the office led to a distinct lowering in the feeling of community within the company, which brought a huge host of problems. Therefore there is now a large push within these companies to offer these comfortable environments to employees, which allow them to move freely and feel like they are somewhere between work and home. In this context, Herman Miller indeed practice what they preach with a large, airy and open office space built around the ideals of a manifesto written on the walls:
"Living Office helps people customize their methods, tools, and places of work to express and enable shared character and purpose. It is based on what is fundamental to all humans and evolves continuously in response to change. It is a more natural and desirable workplace that fosters greater connection, creativity, productivity, and ultimately, greater prosperity for all."
Interestingly, they go further than just furniture offerings—an analytical wing of the business called Performance Environments works within the Living Office system to use data driven systems to create environmental systems based on facts. They use many methods of studying the space and the people withing, from IR heat maps, to sensors in seats and direct observation. This this goes through a design process and reflection of various principals (the idea that there are 10 ways of working, and 10 environments to support those methods of working). Herman Miller has actually used this in the development of their space here in Holland to adapt the space and make sure that they live up to the manifesto posted on the wall. This even extends into the furniture itself with the launch of Live OS, I'll admit I didn't get an in depth walk around of it, but there is a great article here from Design Milk about it.
Needless to say Herman Miller feels more like an American company. That's not to say anything bad about it, but it's funny being in a European company one week and then a slightly more corporate environment the next. I'm going to go into some kind of nit-picky stuff now, but the set up of offices is kind of interesting to me, so here I go. The Herman Miller office here operates at around 60% territorial/resident space (meaning someone owns a specific space) and 40% flex works who move around. Interestingly this is distributed by hierarchy, but through need. Those who don't need a dedicated space, use it infrequently, or feel that it doesn't fit their work style (that it will effect the amount they interact with others) move more freely around the office.
Herman Miller has a fairly high mean age of employee, which is great because they have a huge amount of experienced workers with them still, but they will soon face a fairly large group of theiremployees retiring out of the company (around 38% have been with the company for over 20 years). This in itself is a really interesting problem within the industry to me, where many of these companies have survived on the longevity of their workforce, which in this day and age will turnover much more often. It will be interesting to see how these companies communicate the drive and passion to those new employees and whether they are able to retain them longer than the average might be for other professions.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When at Vitra HQ, have breakfast with Eckart Maise. It was a huge opportunity to sit down with the Chief Design Officer at Vitra. This relaxed and insightful conversation allowed me to peak into the more global-level view of Vitra and how the company works. Eckart offered a great thought which I hope doesn't get lost in here (hell maybe I'll just do it in bold), how would a chair look when there are 100 in a room? This was a really interesting insight which helped explain how Vitra approach a project and how they go through development allowing explosive exploration and then rein it in to regain focus. He explained this as editing pure expression of material and form. It was here where my overall view of Vitra was really cemented, where the focus of the company on the design process, the workshops they hold with their designers and the intense collaboration which takes place that leads to such original products really became clear. Lets go back to that super fun three things the company stands for question (this was actually super insightful from someone so high placed within the company). Its clear to see that everyone who works for Vitra sees the company as not only a commercial project, but also a cultural one. Their focus on a strong in-house research and development is obviously import to their process and their relationship with their designers. It was great to hear, and I have to say I think this was the first person who might have said this on behalf of a company, but Vitra is also committed to the fight for originality and authenticity beyond commercial gain. We followed that up with a tour of the studio space with Jurgen Durrbaum, who has been with the company for over 40 year. This provided another opportunity to see the higher level changes which have occurred at the company over its long life, and the huge amount of change which has occurred in the last twenty years. His time in the company has also seen societal shifts and changes within all of the spaces within which Vitra works, so it was really interesting to hear his thoughts on how he has always approached design with the thought for the future of society and how this has informed his work on future office concepts. This included ideas around office "islands" or spaces which allows workers to step away from where they might be working to have informal meetings, or just to step out of one context to see a problem in another way.
A transfer to the Vitra Campus and finally an opportunity to get inside the new Schaudepot—a German word which means something like: storage and showroom. This space was absolutely fascinating and made to be both a celebration of the world of chairs and a deep study of the development of the heart of design itself. Downstairs one can peer into the archived collections stored on shelves in rows, iconic pieces next to iterations and prototypes, which contains 7000 chairs and 1000 lamps (there are over 20,000 objects in the collection in all). Upstairs the chairs are laid out chronologically, with a revolving exhibition on display also. I was also very happy to find the piece I wrote my essay on for Be Original Americas in the collection. Vitra had also arranged for an extended info session on the Panton chair and its history with the company, with access to some initial sketches by Panton and historic photos.
I was lucky enough to go inside the office of the Vitra Museum Foundation, which was wonderful and holds an absolutely incredible library (which is open to the public by appointment!) This also provided the opportunity to spend some time peering into the conservation space where the conservators were diligently working on some very interesting Ettore Sottsass pieces for an upcoming exhibition.
My final planned stop of the day was a tour of the aluminum production facility which provided some insight into the manufacturing processes and division of labor which allows Vitra to produce such high quality pieces in the numbers they do.
Finally, some free time to run around the campus and visit the Vitra Design Museum and some of the other pieces of architecture which I hadn’t been able to make it to already, like the Vitrahaus which acts as something in-between a showroom and a gallery (Vitra don’t actually sell an items directly from the Vitrahaus).
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When Basel, have float down the Rhine…
This has been a crazy, wonderful and intense experience. I have really appreciated the level to which Vitra pulled back the curtain and allowed me to see the real inner thoughts and workings of the company. I have to say, the length of time (three fairly intense days) allowed for enough time to get some great insight into the company and explore many of the aspects of Vitra in a very detailed and hugely impactful way. I want to take the opportunity to thank everyone who was involved with making this happen and took the huge amount of time it must have taken to organize all these experiences and meetings.
I made a note before yesterday’s post, and so I'll make a note before today's also. I am post-dating these and filing them late as it has been all action here in Switzerland. That being said, I am trying to keep up and am happy to report that the experience here has been so amazing and has provided so many rich avenues to explore in this blog that I have have ideas for lots of writing for the coming days and weeks. Should keep me busy on the plane on the way home.
So, day two! Well I started at the Frank Gehry designed Vitra Center with a presentation on Vitra originality, and their goal of spreading that message around the world. This is obviously important to me because that is the goal of the program that I am taking part in, but I have also become more and more interested at looking at the methods that companies that I am interacting with employ to interact with current and potential customers. Vitra approaches the problem in a “positive” manner, preferring not to talk about counterfeits and their deficiencies at all, but rather uses the story of the product and its designer to emphasis the originality which they stand for. An example of this is the Panton chair, which started as a sketch and a dream which no manufacturer was willing to take on board as they saw the project as undo-able. A smaller company at the time Vitra took on the task and worked with Panton for many years to test, develop and perfect the form and manufacturing, and together they created an icon.
Vitra's vision for spreading these stories (alongside their more traditional means) is a traveling installation at showrooms and dealers which focuses on certain designs and the stories behind them, which seems like a great way to link the narrative of the product to the product itself. So the critical view on this..? Maybe its easier to talk quickly about Vitra's demographics in terms of their customer: think 40+ with disposable income. The reason this is important to me, is that when listening to all of the ideas which are being shared and explored, I have to keep in mind that these are expressly not aimed at me. Vitra wants to encourage younger people to invest in quality furniture, but engagement with them is largely wasted (except for brand recognition and exposure) as they are generally unable or unwilling to afford many of the pieces Vitra produces. For a brand associated with high-living, high-fashion and quality, this distance between itself and a large portion of people who would love to get on-board seems a really interesting problem I might not have considered before (or had only considered from a very one dimensional perspective).
Next was a meeting with the head of Marcom—not a graphic novel publisher as the name might suggest, but an abbreviation of marketing-communications. Here I got further insight into how Vitra relates to its own customer base and how they tie their own ideals to those of their customer. Vitra has a few very core ideals which it represents through its marketing (and generally thought the company in general). One of these is the Eames’s trait of collaging an environment within ones home, and the more organic growth of an identity which intersects with culture rather than just brand. This lines up pretty well with another, the promotion of home heritage and the heritage of home products. This means that these items should have a life and that life is even beyond one individual, but can also be represented through the passing-down of these items from one generation to another. Within Marcom, “Listen and try” is the mantra by which they live. Marketing campaigns are led by desires within company or customer needs and come from the heart of the company (the Vitra campus).
Without getting too in-depth here, I wanted to look at a business-y aspect of the company for a moment, because I think it is interesting as an outsider. Looking at Vitra, knowing of it as a design observer and student, it seems its focus is in B2C (business-to-consumer), as this is where we might see more iconic advertisements or the more outrageous pieces of furniture. Of course B2B (business-to-business) is in fact the main income for the company, selling large numbers of systems to corporate or hospitality settings. The reason that I bring this up, is that when you consider how incredibly different these two segments of the market are and what they’re needs are, Vitra attempts to speak to all of them with one voice. Imagine how hard it is to compose a story which reaches all segments equally (no mentioning culture specific holidays, etc). Beyond this difficulty Vitra recently centralized its social media taking separate Vitra country accounts and combining into one, which definitely makes sense, but at the same time try to compose a story which speaks to all cultures equally. This is a really interesting problem in my eyes, and one that usually those of us who are still being educated never get to see or even consider, and the earlier we start to think about the depth of these type of problems, the more prepared we might be. One thing Vitra is test here is a hightened interaction between the brand and its customers on social media—having them post customer led stories and interact with the brand to create a community and also a more direct relationship.
Along side this, Vitra is a essentially a manufacturing brand which relies on dealers and showrooms to sell its products and this comes with the difficulty that they don’t actually get to really have a direct interaction with their customers, only a proxy connection through the dealers. To this end, they have started an e-commerce segment of the business, but obviously this in itself is in direct competition with dealers. Vitra marketing is interesting due to reliance on print supplements too, as currently their interaction with dealers and customers is a very specific person, but also that the brand is all about physicality and texture. Going back here to the demographic—a potentially older, more wealthy individual—this too is reflected in the people who actually sell the items. Therefore Vitra is fairly limited in how they can communicate, moving in a tech heavy direction too quickly could alienate both the client and the dealers. Another super interesting problem within the company.
Vitra is definitely not letting this stop them from experimenting though, they moving into more social media engagement and testing more interactive tools like task-chair microsite and interactive manuals for their chairs. Honestly, I expected the discussion around social media to be fairly boring, but it was incredibly interesting in terms of Vitra’s attempts to engage people and make an object desirable, but ensuring that they are also educating them enough at the same time so that they don't buy a counterfeit, either by accident or due not understanding the long-term cost. Stick with me here, we’re nearly at the end of the day.
Obviously, one of the most important things to learn about at Vitra is the process of product development. Vitra work with some of the most well know and talented designers in the “biz”, so it was very interesting to hear how this relationship between these individuals and company occurs. As a family owned company, the process is incredibly organic—and maybe that’s why so many designers love working with this brand. Either the company might define an opportunity space or problem, or a designer may approach them with something which they want to explore (as happened famously with Panton). When Vitra defines an interest, designers are picked by their characteristics to ensure they line up with the brief of the project in terms of its nature and needs. The process is an incredibly interesting one, which involves a lot of back and forth, but huge freedom to the designers and leads to potentially iconic and typology defining designs. The company also has access to a huge wealth of designs through the estates of previous designers like the Eames.
The day was capped of with a tour of some internal spaces, including the fabulous Citizen Office concept, which I cannot provide sufficient information on, but there is a great history of it here. Now it may look fair regular, in terms of a open plan community work space, but this was conceived and created in the early 90s before that experience was synonymous with offices. I also was able to tour inside some of the internal showroom spaces used to show larger B2B clients potential solutions which Vitra is able to offer.
As you might be able to tell, the days here have been long, in-depth, but interesting as hell.
I'll preface this with the fact that I woke up at 7am in Brooklyn, took a 5pm flight and haven't gotten to bed yet (apart from an short nodding session on the plane). I have had enough coffee today to kill a giant.
So first to Vitra and who they are. I think it would be fair to say that most people within the design world have a fairly extensive knowledge of Vitra. In the European mold, they continue to be family owned and champion many ideals quietly which non-European firms feel more insecure about, or use more as marketing tools to leverage sales. They look at themselves more as a developing project, which is a combination of a lifestyle and heritage brand (especially in this kind of environment, surrounded by hills, forest and wildlife), promoting the Eames like "collage"—a personalized interior space made up of collections of folk art and keepsakes along side their pieces. The stunning campus sits in beautiful location, with huge hills overlooking it, and is very integrated with the local community sitting on an industrial estate which has grown and has several homes dotted around, but which is open to the public 24 hours a day. Of course, it is composed of the family-like commitment and pride in the company and its ability to produce both classic pieces and innovational contemporary pieces of furniture which can be heirlooms because of their quality.
The campus and its open policy is a great physical manifestation of the Eames mantra of being a good host (epitomized in the basement of the Schaudepot: "The role of a good designer is that of a very good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of [their] guest"), comprised of fantastic architecture from some of the most well-known architects of the modern era, the campus is a wonderful place to look around. Vitra is incredibly proud of the fact that the campus itself is a project and that that nearly all of the works by the architects were produced before they "made it", and went on to gain international fame through awards like the Pritzker Prize. If you are ever in the area (because why not), be sure to go on the architecture tour to really get a sense of the space and the history and how the campus actually developed over time. I won't go into the history here, because lets face it, I don't have any way near the experience or knowledge, but the Zaha Hadid Firestation (1993) is notable for currently houses exhibition of Vitra design which will be touring in the future and is one of the ways Vitra is hoping to grow engagement with the company and its investment in originality. It is also the one place I have experienced nausea inside a building due to the fantastic but incredibly overwhelming, strong architectural perspective lines which are defined within it.
The exhibition itself shows Vitra off very well—demonstrating the multifaceted approach which they take to design, with a combination of all design disciplines and also a mix of speculative and commercial work. It is really interesting to the see the presentation of the history of the company and where defining moments appear, and especially the typology shattering pieces of furniture appear in the timeline. It was interesting to see, in such a visceral way, the movement from classic to contemporary. It was here where I was able to ask a few questions about the designers that Vitra chooses to work with. I wanted to know (the dumbest questions) what do they look for in a designer, and who works best with the company? So it turns out the focus is on a designer with their own perspective—someone who has their own identity and is able to bring their own view to the problem. The designers are usually given a questionnaire when they start working with the brand to build a profile of them which will help find what kind of projects will work well with them. The relationships that they have with their designers are very tight and go beyond "profiling", and are built respect and trust.. What about the briefs for the products? Well that's kind of interesting too—most of them are crafted by Vitra, but sometimes the designer will bring them to Vitra (the classic example being the Pantone chair). This is something which will come up again and again, but Vitra has a history with experimentation and risk. This is true of their designs too, some are led more strongly by business cases and others by interest in searching for a new methodology or exploring materiality.
Today I got a sneak peak behind the world of custom lighting. Lukas Lighting based out of Long Island City, merged with Flos in 2015, but their history goes a long way back. A family company started by two brothers, and now run by one of their sons, the 2000s saw them shift their focus into the more corporate setting and specifically the gap in the market which is custom lighting solutions.
Documentation is a huge part of the process, and it was amazing to see the spec books that Lukas puts together to ensure that the light goes all the way from design, through production and into fitting and installation as seamlessly as possible. As Craig said, "everything has to look magical."
It was very interesting to learn about the process from Lukas's point of view. As a manufacturer with a huge amount of experience in the field, they will sit down with the architects and lighting designers to develop ideas and make sure that they are both beautiful and feasible. They help flush out ideas and support the evolution of the project from rendered ideations, through to custom finishes and styles. Partnering with Flos allows them to take Flos fixtures and use them as the well-produced components to produce high-quality, customized solutions. It has also allowed some great knowledge sharing, giving Flos insight into a company with over 30 years working in the lighting industry in the USA, in every sector, from residential through to corporate.
Everyone knows Emeco—if you don't think you do, I promise you, you do. This incredibly iconic brand chairs are built in an awesome and understated factory in Hanover, Pennsylvania.
So they are a really interesting company. Started in the 1940s and originally furnishing the messes US navy, in the late 90s/early 2000s Emeco started collaborating with designers like Starck. Sustainability is in the DNA of the company—recycled aluminum was used since the beginning and Emeco goes to great lengths to uses local and sustainable materials throughout their products. They even made the 111 with Coke, out of 111 used plastic bottles.
This is the first real factory tour that I've been on—and this was a super intense one as I actually got to work on some of the pieces themselves at different parts of the process. I don't have a huge amount of experience welding (I actually managed to weld the torch and the metal to the metal bench...), or much with metal in general so it was pretty overwhelming to be working on a $500 chair which would go out into the real world. This feeling was actually super interesting and I want to think about it and write on it some more in the future.
The workshop itself is very interesting. Everyone who works here is local, incredibly humble and incredibly proud—as they should be. They work with the designers to realize their ideas and blueprints—taking the sketches and making them real and reproducible, a massively impressive skill in itself. Still mostly non-automated (in fact only one part of the process is computerized in any way), the workshop is able to produce between 100-150 chairs a day. The medium age is 28—where a lot of new Emeco employees (new being a relative term when compared to the many 30 years plus employees they have also) are taking training from backgrounds like automotive work, and being brought up to speed on metal craft.
It was amazing to see the level of craft applied in this handmade process. Nearly every piece that comes through this shop gets touched by every 31 people on the floor, and often more than once. Here's a ridiculous hypothetical (but why not), I asked how long it might take to produce one single chair in the workshop, and the answer: around 3 days (this takes into account anodization, oven processing overnight, etc). 3 days to make a chair that will last forever and which is worked on by over thirty people. This is where I start to see a great argument for the cost of original furniture—craft, quality and responsibility. If only every person could come and do this tour, talk to the people making the products and see the process...
Flavor Paper, proprietors of scratch and sniff wallpaper, and more recently conductive wall coverings—what a place. Started in the early 2000s and known globally for its product as well as for the association with the Andy Warhol Association, who approached them to work together in 2013, their collection is an eclectic treasure trove. Focused on trail blazing trends rather than following or catering to sectors, Flavor Paper makes loud (but also delicate) and awesome offerings, seasoned with a healthy dose of humor and creative talent.
The definition of custom, Flavor Paper works with customers to make everything to order and produces everything in-house, meaning they are able to retain quality over absolutely everything. Their ability to produce everything in Brooklyn and their mix of analogue and digital printing makes them incredibly nimble and able to work on projects ranging from small to 40 foot walls of large format photography pieces. Lucky enough to tour both the analogue and the digital facility, the teams love the production here, and not resting on the aesthetic greatness, they continue to work with an evolving list of materials and techniques to produce ever more outgoing and iconic pieces.
I had an amazing experience here, and I even got to print my own design—how cool is that?! Custom color selection, and yes—that is a holographic background on the right! It was so amazing to experience just a taste of the creative opportunities in this field and just to play with some tip-top printers/designers to see how inks interacted.
Also, if you ever get the chance to visit, get the elevator up to the bathroom on the second floor—wow....
Back to SoHo to visit some more showrooms and imbibe more design culture. Firstly, to Lissoni, whom I have some past experience with through conversations with one of my fantastic professors Felicia Ferrone who worked for Piero Lissoni in Milan before moving back to the United States. The breadth of work and passion is astounding. If I'm ever lucky enough to go to Salone Del Mobile, Lissoni would definitely be one of the places I would plan to visit. From an outsiders persective (and in the most positive and appreciative manner) Lissoni seems like company built on the cult of personality akin to Apple with Steve Jobs. People talk about the culture of the company and the man himself with such adoration and respect that it seems like a singular environment to be a part of. Lissoni as a company prides itself on its attention to detail, demonstrated in the unbelievably lifelike models the company is able to produce. The ability of the company to create unexpected and engaging solutions which are beautiful and functional is inspiring. Considering their size and the projects that they work on, their continuing commitment to originality and supporting artisan craftsmanship is a sign of the character of the company, especial in such a difficult sector—caught between a rock, a hard place and a potentially spendthrift developer.
If you haven't seen a nanimaquina rug (you have, but you might not have known it), find one. Gold standard in the industry, the handmade in India/Pakistan rugs are a cacophony of wonderful colors and textures. They demonstrate a producer zeroing in on knowledge in techniques and fibers, whilst exploring aesthetics and what is possible. Nanimaquina is driven by narrative and emotion, both through the product, but also the company and their impact on the world—they support the Care and Fair school in India which educates Indian children and prevents forced child labor.
Recently combined into the Italian Design Collective, Fontana Arte represents some of the finest Italian handicraft in the world of glass-work. The video below shows the production process behind the Pinecone, a wonderful piece with so much history and craftsmanship behind it. With an incredibly strong catalog of work and an amazing list of classic pieces, Fontana Arte is now reviving classic designs with LED functionality for those out there who want to bring some of the new into the old.
The recent merge with the Italian Creation Group (a combination of Driade, Fontana Arte, Valcucine and Tosscoquattro) allowed me to see one of the crazies things I saw today...
Out of this world.
Carnegie works hard to find artisan creatives to work with. I started the day with a trip to the studio of Erik Bruce. A truely fascinating place where craft meets exploration. Lucky enough to spend some time with Erik himself, it was amazing to hear from someone who clearly has such intense passion for such a specific area (from an outsiders view)—window treatments. In the space where fashion, art and architecture meet, the focus on the traditional techniques being blended with contemporary design, texture interplay and light are the key considerations where the main goal is to frame a view with the softness of a textile. Erik also wins the quote of the day award with something we should all keep in mind, whether in design or not, "if you can't hide it, feature it."
Heading back to the office, I then got to sit in on a lunch an learn—a demonstration CEU (customer education unit), aimed at helping clients understand key features and the importance of safe, clean and environmentally friendly fabrics. These are available as live webinars currently, and will soon be recorded and available on demand—a great resource for anyone interested in this industry.
The afternoon was then spent on two quick creative projects focused around the continued development of the Xorel Artform system, and another around a promotional exercise for a released pattern. Once again, great to get those creative juices flowing and use some post-its (Carnegie knows a thing or two about postits as the OG's of the post-it wars).
Obviously I was hugely bummed that I missed Neocon this year (some things have to be sacrificed to the greater good)—especially as I seem to miss it every year for some reason or another. One of the main reasons for this, other than being able to see all the cool shit that I can't afford everywhere, was being able to look at all the amazing innovation in different areas of the industry. I'm a huge fan of companies like Designtex and Carnegie.
Textiles has always interested me because its design which is somewhat simplified by the fact that it isn't necessarily form led, but rather material or manufacture led. I've always enjoyed material studies, or the idea of trying to create something new in a way which no-one else has done or hasn't applied to a field before. This is Carnegie in a nutshell, and this week I had the opportunity to visit the showroom and creative department in New York
Our first day started with a drive to New Jersey to tour a mill. It was absolutely fractionating to so see the environment where some of the Carnegie textiles are produced (Carnegie produce many different forms of textiles at mills through out the country). Learning about the production process and the extended lengths inside the textile industry that a piece of material goes through from start to finish really makes you appreciate the complexity of the industry. It also really opens your eyes as to why environmental considerations are so important.
When you look around and notice that material and textiles are all around you, it really starts to hit you hard once you hear about all the terrible stuff that is in them (formaldehyde, chlorine, fluoride). Not only that, but production methods which cause huge amounts of environmental and energy waste—it’s really something we should try to pay attention to on a larger scale.
So Carnegie, well they huge on this. They center themselves around integrity, durability and the environment—they have been PVC free since 1980, and are B-corp certified—as well as being creative badasses and working with some of the coolest people in the industry. For example one of their huge products (half of the creative team works on this) is Xorel. A plant based extruded material which allows them to create intricate an interesting designs which are rated as some of the best environmentally.
Huge on principled design, their focus is on the integrity of the brand, in how they deal with their customers, clients, mills and employees. They strive to be different, and to stay on the cutting edge of their industry using creativity to push material and form further. Most of all, I would say the passion through the office in all of the people I met, was amazing. All of them love the company, love the work they are doing and love the environment they are doing it in.
In terms of originality- the goal is to create things which are useful and different. This can only be proved out through them being financially successful, that's the point of a business after all!
So long New York, its time to get out of the city and out of the state. Having spent the last two days visiting some of the best showrooms in the cities, we had the pleasure to travel to the DWR head office in Connecticut
DWR moved from San Fransisco to the East-coast in 2010, and holds some of the most iconic pieces of furniture in is catalog.
The visit here was awesome. After two days of looking at beautiful things in wonderfully constructed spaces, DWR asked Irene and I to work on a project to promote a new product, the Story Bookcase by Afteroom exclusively for DWR. It was such great fun to throw the designer hat back on for a few hours and do some “work” for a little while.
We also got to explore their wonderful headquarters which includes a fantastic showroom on the ground floor.
SoHo showrooms day!
Kartell is all about Claudio Luti, the president, who sums up the brand with his fire, energy and desire to see innovative and engaging design. Dealing purely with plastic (or so we thought) Kartell have been going since the late 40s. Their catalogue is made up of iconic pieces, from the Louis Ghost (Starck), to the Joe Colombo (my favorite), envisioned by renowned designers which Kartell help realize in Italian factory. Their quest for innovation with their signature material, plastic—exploring new possibilities and manufacturing methods to produce stronger compounds and previously difficult or (Mr) Impossible constructions. Juxtaposition is a key word—a sense of fun and irony help in its objects which look to be playful and interesting. The lighting they offer demonstrates the showcase nature of Kartell—no-one wants to live in an entirely plastic world, but these act as great accent pieces.
Artemide demos some of the most interesting lighting pieces in their SoHo showroom. All made in Italy, Artemide’s ethos to mix tradition and technology is evident in the closeness of the handblown Venetian glass, and level of IoT development going on at the company. That’s not to say they aren’t focused on the user—their core concept is in the human light, keeping those in contact with light healthy and happy. Designing “good” light with comfort and tone in mind can only come through research and development. Artemide has a reputation for working with interesting creatives (designers and architects) to create custom and concept led solutions from start to finish.
As soon as I stepped into the Valencia based Gandia Blasco, I felt like I was on holiday and getting a tan—the store is modeled on the presidents Ibiza villa. All of the clean, modernist outdoor-furniture is made in Spain, and the brand does a good job of finding and promoting young Spanish talent. The durable pieces are constructed of high-grade aluminum, and although the showroom reflects the clean, minimalist DNA of the brand, the pieces are available in a number of finishes. On display in the window and downstairs were the sister brand of GB, Gan—wonderfully designed hand-made (in India) rugs and furniture. On display in many of the lobbies and staff rooms of Silicon Valley darlings, Gan’s craftsmanship and style of design are fantastic. Pieces include those recently designed by Patricia Urquiola
Alessi. Need I say more? Oh go on then, the family owned icon’s showroom is as engaging and fun to walk through as one might expect. It almost feels like a museum, except you can reach out and pick up the things on show. The emotion that nearly every piece evokes is demonstrated by the claim that everyone who works for Alessi, loves Alessi. Thankfully, this is a love shared by customers, who feel so much pride in owning Alessi products, it just shows this is a brand so big it extends beyond the products and into a raw, emotional territory. High quality manufacturing in Italy means people are returning after the same item they bought 25 years ago, but only because the 9093 comes with a dragon on it now. Delta airlines first-class passengers will be glad to hear they won’t be using awful plastic flatware any more (ha), as the price of admission now comes with the chance to use specially designed Alessi flatware not available for sale anywhere (except eBay soon probably!)
And finally, FLOS. Another cornerstone of the design community, rooted in Craftsmanship, Good design and Innovation (I know that was a real slam-dunk of the three qualities all-in-one), their commitment to working with top designers and the organic relationship they share with them, plus the historic catalogue of lights they have makes them a must-see.