What do materials bring to a design? Most immediately, they bring pleasure.
It’s the materials of a space that give it resonance, according to Susan Lyons, Creative Director at Herman Miller. Material colors and textures “provide the experience when you walk into a room,” she says.
Lyons says there’s a sort of alchemy that happens when everything comes together: “the form, the touch, the use, the product works, it looks beautiful, it feels good, and life is good.”
“We have to be incredibly mindful and purposeful with how we use our resources,” says Susan Lyons, Materials Creative Director at Herman Miller. This is a major idea behind sustainable design at Herman Miller—doing more with less material is a constant challenge, but one we’re passionate about. A great example: the Setu chair.
As Lyons explains, Setu’s Kinematic Spine, inspired by the chambered nautilus, uses “structure instead of mass” to create its strength and flexibility. And this sustainable innovation, designed by Studio 7.5, yields a lighter, ready-to-sit chair; with Setu, there’s nothing to tilt or tweak, just immediate comfort.
Solving problems through design is a core goal at Herman Miller. Because materials are an integral part of our designs, they can solve problems, too. In this segment, third in a series on Herman Miller materials design, Susan Lyons discusses the possibilities of materials and how they play a key role in problem-solving design.
“We spend a lot of time out and about, looking for materials that we may have no idea what we’re going to do with them,” says Lyons. Our job is then to ask, “How can we possibly begin to use this? What could we do with it? What could it turn into?”
The answers to these questions sometimes come naturally. “Nature is the most efficient designer,” she has said, and the best innovations already exist in nature. GreenShield, a sustainable nanotechnology textile finish, mimics the lotus leaf’s “micro-roughness,” repelling dirt and oil naturally. By experimenting with GreenShield and our own materials, we developed Quilty—a high performance textile that stays clean because of its design, not chemicals.
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.
“Let the material be itself and do what it does best,” explains designer and Herman Miller Creative Director, Susan Lyons. Material honesty is about being true to the natural attributes of a material and taking full advantage of its capabilities.
The Eames molded plywood lounge chair (LCW), as Lyons mentions, is an example of this philosophy at work. The lounge, crafted from molded plywood and left uncovered, allows the wood’s natural beauty to shine. Combined with a sculpted form designed to the contours of the human body, the LCW has a utilitarian elegance that rightly earned it the distinction of Best Design of the 20th century by Time magazine.
Honesty is one of five material design principles Lyons and Herman Miller live by: honesty, utility, economy, pleasure, and possibility.
Five principles guide Lyon’s work as our Materials Creative Director: honesty, utility, economy, pleasure, and possibility. Each is essential when creating innovative products and environments.
Susan Lyons got her start printing “artsy” t-shirts for a college fundraising project which caught the attention of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, who later ordered 200 of them.
As her career grew, Lyons’ passion for textiles turned towards sustainability. “Spending my days in the [textile] factory made me realize how much I enjoyed the process of making. I had this idea that we could make things more intelligently, more green,” she said. Working with other environmental advocates, Lyons developed an award-winning collection of cradle-to-cradle compostable textiles.
At Herman Miller, Lyons has her hands in nearly every project. From color palettes to textiles and materials, she works with our other designers to make sure every design is just right.
Dwell magazine’s three-part video series called “The Full Spectrum” recently concluded with a view inside our West Michigan facilities. The program also features an interview with creative consultant Susan Lyons about color and its role in our designs.
Lyons and senior editor Aaron Britt discuss our range of color choices and the influences on them, including an early belief that materials should speak for themselves.
“As Charles Eames said, Herman Miller should make ‘the best for the most for the least,’” says Susan Lyons, design consultant for Herman Miller’s Materials Program—now one-year old. “So let’s call this the year of Grades 1 and 2.”
“We have been working hard to design and develop innovative materials that are both purposeful and beautiful, as well as low cost.”
The work has paid off with great reviews. In fact, the program received a Silver award from the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA, sponsored by Business Week) in the Design Strategy category.
Developed by the Michael McGinn Design Office, the Materials Program consists of two equally important components:
• The Materials Collection: physical sampling to be seen and touched.
• The Online Materials Program: a website to explore and understand our materials and their application.
I don’t envy designers their task of deciding which fabrics and finishes to choose for furniture. With so many choices and constraints to deal with, I hear it can be a complex and frustrating process. But it’s also typically the favorite part of their job because it’s a chance to get creative. So to make things easier, more gratifying, and more fun, Herman Miller revamped its Materials Program. They’ve made it simple, logical, and closely aligned with how designers and specifiers like to think about and use materials.
In addition to the online Materials Program, Herman Miller developed a new way for designers to interact with the choices the company offers. The Materials Collection, a sensibly-sized, permanently bound, recyclable set of books, contains complete swatch presentations for the entire textile and finish offering. The Collection is housed in four Baltic birch plywood slipcases. Nice. Reliable. Easy to use. So easy even a writer could do it. Read more
Susan Lyons follows her nose. And her hands, eyes, and ears. In fact, her love for all things sensate has led her to exotic as well as homely places. India, for example, with its riot of scent and color as well as its craftsmanship and reverence for materials and finally to New York where she began designing textiles. Lyons was an early champion for the environment, which led to a partnership with architect Bill McDonough and, in 1995, to an award-winning, cradle-to-cradle collection of compostable textiles.
Still in New York, Lyons has her own design firm, and she consults with Herman Miller on materials and finishes, where her passion for sustainability and love of color and texture has found a likeminded partner.
Here are seven questions for Susan Lyons…. Read more