Randall Braaksma is proof you can go back again. After a writing start long ago at Herman Miller, and a patchwork of jobs since (ad agency copywriter, editor in China, freelancer), he is back. The common thread through it all: words. The constant goal: make them engaging to read.
Recently, PBS Arts, in an episode of its Off Book, took a look at product design and what it means to three practitioners. For Yves Béhar of fuseproject, the San Francisco-based design and branding company and designer of our SAYL chair, “what design does, at its best, is to accelerate the adoption of new ideas.” Harvey Moscot, a fourth generation owner of a classic eyewear brand, and Peter Schmitt, an MIT researcher looking to revolutionize the product experience through 3D printing, offer two other perspectives.
It’s certainly the case that the role of design is much in the spotlight lately. It can make the difference, some say. It can change the world, claim others. For us, design is something we get—according to FastCompany. It’s how we solve problems. It’s not just an approach to products, though, it has also become, as George Nelson said in 1948, “a central part of our business.”
There’s an attitude at Herman Miller that’s been around for a long time: treating materials as something integral to the design process. Think of Charles and Ray Eames and their work with molding plywood for the origin. In this second in a series on materials at Herman Miller, Susan Lyons gives a recent example: the Embody chair.
Whatever the example, the point is the same: to achieve what Lyons calls “beautiful practicality.” “When we talk about material utility,” she says, “what we really mean is that we use materials to solve problems.” It’s a symbiotic relationship, with sometimes the material driving the form and other times the form driving the material.
What to get that design-minded person on your holiday gift list? Give them 15 pounds of pure Girard delight. Just in time for the season, designer Todd Oldham brings us the definitive monograph on the life and work of Alexander Girard. This book is massive; it really does weigh in at about 15 pounds, making it the ultimate coffee-table book. (The irony of the name of the book’s co-author, Keira Coffee, is appreciated.)
The authors cover the life and work of Girard in words and pictures, about 2,300 of the latter, most in color and many never published before. We especially enjoyed the explication of Girard’s bold and colorful textile designs for Herman Miller during his tenure as our textile division director from 1952 to 1975. (Thanks to our folks in Archives for making these treasures available for photographing.) For a sneak peak, watch the video of Simon Doonan of Barneys New York speak with Todd about the book.
As the new film about them makes clear, Charles and Ray had so much confidence in the way they went about solving a problem—whether designing a chair, an exhibit, or a film—they didn’t entertain thoughts of failing. Other factors, besides their design brilliance, helped. Two of the most important were maintaining artistic control and having the ear of the CEOs at their client companies.
There is much proof of their successes, including the string of designs they did for Herman Miller, beginning with the groundbreaking plywood chair. But one clinker stands out: their 1976 show for the bicentennial of the American Revolution, “The World of Franklin and Jefferson.” Hilton Kramer writing in the New York Times panned it as overly ideological. Others saw it as overwhelming: too much information, too many artifacts.
But as Donald Albrecht, architecture and design curator, points out in “Eames: The Architect and the Painter,” the exhibit can be seen less as a failure and more as a reflection of the restless minds of the Eameses. Layering the material, as we do today in digital experiences, would have made it compelling and digestible. Perhaps this exhibit was simply another example of Charles and Ray being ahead of their time.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but if you look back far enough you’ll find that it rhymes.” Futurist Paul Saffo recently said this in a meeting with us. He was paraphrasing an aphorism often attributed to Mark Twain, but whatever its source the maxim relates to the discussion taking place about the future of work.
There’s plenty of “rhyme” in the words of Robert Propst, inventor of the Action Office system. In 1968, he wrote that “The real office consumer is the mind. More than anything else, we are dealing with a mind-oriented living space.”
Given the ubiquity of technology today, Propst’s words were prescient. The office is a state of mind. We once used to enter that state of mind by crossing the threshold of a building called “the office.” Today, we enter that state of mind by simply accessing our work-related data on our mobile devices. Work is no longer a place we go. It’s a thing we do, anywhere we are and at anytime.
Not surprisingly, because of the different properties offered by digital space, interacting with each other in the physical world is taking on new forms. This is evidenced in the proliferating new business models for delivering physical places dedicated to work, work clubs being one example.
Because so many people work so often and so meaningfully in digital space, they now seek new forms and new levels of social connectivity in the physical place. It is the human experience in the digital workspace that now drives the meaning, expectations, and behaviors that take place in our physical workplaces.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about design’s central role in our business lives. There’s been nearly as much buzz about how design, or at least design thinking, can solve big social problems. Cynthia E. Smith certainly thinks so. She highlights examples of this in her exhibition “Design for the Other 90%: Cities.” Projects in which the world’s poor have been “rescued by design” range from the favelas of Sao Paulo to the Kiberia slums in Nairobi to the canals of Bangkok. But as Michael Kimmelman points out in his review of the exhibition, these projects succeeded because the designers consulted the people living in poverty for their help in solving the problem. Human-centered design, as many of us have known for years, is the real key to designing lasting solutions to problems that people really care about.
Anyone with a design sensibility cannot help but love dry stone walls. Alice Rawsthorn, writing in The New York Times, calls them “a dazzling example of design ingenuity.” As with any design that really resonates with us, dry stone walls are so intriguing because they do more with less, in this case, mortar.
“Dry stone” refers to the practice of carefully selecting and shaping stones and then puzzling them together so they interlock. As ancient as the Neolithic stone walls built to set boundaries as people evolved from hunting and gathering to farming, dry stone techniques have been used for buildings and bridges, as well as walls.
The practice continues today, with few alterations to techniques developed about 9,000 years ago. Mariana Cook in her book “Stone Walls: Personal Boundaries” shows and tells the fascinating history and continuing story of dry stone construction.
One example that didn’t make her book, but could have, is Butaro Hospital in Rwanda. Built with the help of MASS Design, the structure features dry stone walls. Architects as MASS trained local Rwandans in the ancient craft. They became the masons: hand-chipping volcanic rock and beautifully shaping all the pieces so they fit together and form two walls of the hospital.
This guy wasn’t pondering this question back in 1930. (It wasn’t long after that we were.) Today, more people like him are not only thinking about being green, they’re making their living doing green work.
McGraw-Hill Construction says 35 percent of architects, engineers, and contractors report having green jobs today. The study defined “green jobs” as those that involve over 50 percent of one’s work being done on green projects or designing and installing green systems.
That 35 percent represents 661,000 jobs, or about one-third of the industry workforce. And there’s better news. The share of green workers is expected to increase to 45 percent of all design and construction jobs by 2014.
We’re delighted to see these trends. As merchants of virtue, we are committed to being green, even when it isn’t convenient, because in the end we know it’s as good for business as it is for the earth.
One of today’s most influential industrial designers, Jasper Morrison is known for his minimalist approach. Throughout his prolific career, he has strived to create simple but functional beauty in everyday objects, from door handles to trays to wristwatches to chairs. He was a pioneer in using gas-injection technology for furniture; the Air Chair he designed for Magis was one of the very first times it had ever been used for that purpose.
“It represented a big shift in the quality of the one-piece plastic chair,” he says. “Previously, plastic chairs were only possible with single wall thicknesses and reinforcing ribs. The gas-injection technology allowed for continuously smooth surfaces.”
Morrison has been featured in many magazines, and he has published several books on the subject of design. His work has been shown in many international museums, and his retail shop in London carries hundreds of well-designed household items from around the world.
Herman Miller designs a lot of furniture on campus. Seeing what students carry around helps us do it better. So, recently we asked them to send us pictures of the contents of their backpacks.
Backpacks have built-in limitations, which makes you stop and think about what you need to carry around. And, for each of us, the definition of “need” is as individual as our fingerprints. Oh, there were certainly the expected items: pens, books, cell phones, laptops. But there were also some surprises: deodorant, changes of clothes, and toothpaste. Hmmm.
Anyway, filling a backpack certainly involves making decisions. Which reminded us of ideas that designer Ayse Birsel advocates—you can design the life you love and doing so involves good decision-making. For Birsel, good design means good decisions. For us, seeing the decisions students make when it comes to filling their backpacks is fodder for making good design decisions.