Richard Holbrook jumps horses; his current mount is a big Hanoverian chestnut named Latigo.
"The Germans breed for performance rather than pure bloodlines," he says."They'll add a plow horse to the line if they think it'll improve the jumping ability."
Holbrook takes much the same functional approach to design, being careful to distinguish between "styling" and design. "You can 'style' a computer monitor case or the buttons on a VCR or the graphics on a car audio system so that they look nice," he says, "but if you're not making it more satisfying to use the product, you're not designing."
He should know. Since his graduation from Pasadena's Art Center College of Design in 1981, Holbrook's design portfolio has grown to include a diverse group of products: Peugeot automobiles, Thermador and Dacor kitchen appliances, Casablanca ceiling fans and lighting, Yamaha Sports fitness equipment, Alpine Audio consumer electronics, and now Herman Miller office seating. All his designs have one thing in common: a focus on the product's usefulness, on what customers value and deserve from that product. "Then I look for opportunities to give customers something extra."
For Holbrook, that "something extra" often means less, rather than more. "I once heard an architect say that he wanted his furniture to challenge the user," Holbrook says, "to 'bite back.' To paraphrase Hemingway, I think life is too short to drink cheap wine—or to be challenged by furniture."
So the Ambi chair carries all its adjustability in only a few inviting, clearly labeled controls. And the sophisticated digital control on a Thermador oven is operated by a simple, intuitive, old-fashioned rotary knob "because part of the joy of cooking is in getting direct feedback from your actions. You don't want to feel like you're just operating another electronic device."
Having worked with so many different clients, Holbrook appreciates the "careful dance" Herman Miller performs with designers. "Herman Miller is very good at their side of the dance," he says. "That's why they end up with such inspired products. They give you the chance to fully develop your ideas into solutions."
It's sort of like riding Latigo to a jump: "At some point you just have to hold on and trust your partner."
Round Three, Pasadena, California
NeoCon Best of Show in Most Innovative and Computer Support Furniture for Acrobat/Levity, 1998
NeoCon Best of Show in Seating Category for Ambi chair, 1995
ID magazine Consumer Products Annual Award for Dacor Quintessence Cooktop, 1989