View from the Stars

Sept. 1, 2004
Beverly Russell

A marathon NeoCon program emphasizes the importance of "Brand You."

Eleven stars shone their considerable light on 75 students from Kendall College of Art and Design, Grand Rapids, MI, along with 14 student from Pratt Institute, New York, NY, who joined them for the annual Interact with the Stars program at NeoCon, a four-day marathon exposure to leading designers and their products. It was the eighth year for this stellar program held at the Institute of Design, Chicago, co-sponsored by Interiors & Sources magazine. Michael McCoy, senior lecturer at the Institute, and Katie Sosnowchik, I & S editor, greeted the group.While the majority of the students are pursuing degrees in interior design, the intent is to help them understand and explore alternative career paths, including product design, and how to market themselves in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Repeatedly, the speakers stressed the importance of "Brand You," making the point that anyone who sets him/herself above the crowd, in a unique niche, will surely be taking a route to success.The first speaker, the celebrated Jhane Barnes, men's fashion, textiles and furniture designer, spoke of how her initial interest in astrophysics and math—as well as a talent for sewing—brought her into the fashion industry, from where she crossed over into textiles for Knoll, Bernhardt and Herman Miller, carpets for Inscape and furniture for Bernhardt. Known for her most unusual prints, she showed how they are all achieved on computer with various software programs using complex algorithms and fractal geometry. She demonstrated how "order means chaos and chaos breeds life,"—the underlying principle in these patterns that makes her designs so appealing. Men particularly love her shirt, tie and sock patterns. Many manufacturers have asked her for her software programs, but she maintains that they are her intellectual property and will not share them.Barnes definitely exemplified the "Brand You," idea, and accompanied by Jerry Helling, design director of Bernhardt, she showed her latest product designs in the Bernhardt showroom. Lauren Rottet, FAIA, was the second star. Principal of DMJM/Rottet, one of the 100 Giants of Interior Design with offices in Houston and Los Angeles, Rottet also showed furniture at Bernhardt as well as Halcon, and spoke about "The Substance of Style," which tied into the branding theme. "Style is not about aesthetics," she declared, "it is not borrowed from Armani, Michael Graves or Frank Gehry—it is an attitude and a state of mind within yourself." She added that personal confidence played a large part in that attitude and that "style is not superficial, but has real meaning behind it." Rottet's personal style has led such clients as Disney, Hewlett-Packard, Ernst & Young and many large law firms like Paul Hastings to her door. Rottet also spoke of the challenge designers repeatedly face of making something out of a nine-foot-high "pancake" space with no architectural relief. She breaks through ceilings where possible to the next floor, creating light wells, and also uses glass as a material on walls, even with wallboard and plaster behind it. "It helps to create a sense of movement," she explained. Rottet subsequently led a tour of the Bernhardt showroom where many of her elegant conference tables and executive office designs were on view.Joseph Ricchio, founder of Ricchio Design, greeted the students on the second morning. His easygoing, relaxed West Coast-style provoked laughter from the audience. Designing products, he said, was similar to bringing up children. "There is a lot of messing around for a long time and then something happens." His award-winning products can be found in the Knoll, HBF, Vecta, ICF, Helikon, Metro, Peter Pepper, Loewenstein Umbra and Terra lines. Ricchio revealed his personal mission statement: "Have fun, work with great people, and do your best work. That way," he said, "even if your work is not accepted for some reason, you will still be able to put it proudly in your portfolio." Ricchio gave students a clue about royalties. "It's usually three percent on the life of the product," he said, "but recently manufacturers have been trying to squeeze down on percentage and time." He does not sign any contact like that because it shows little respect for the designer. The Ricchio chair for Knoll has been in the line for 11 years and typically sells 30,000 to 40,000 per year, while other wood pull-up chairs may sell only 700 to 900. "It was the right chair, the right company and the right time," he noted. Following his presentation, Ricchio conducted tours of the HBF and Knoll showrooms to discuss his products hands-on.Peter Wooding and his wife Joann Wooding, of Wooding Design, took the students into the real life of lighting design with their products for Nessen. Living in Providence, RI, in a picture book New England Colonial-style farmhouse and studio, they take advantage of this location for brain-storming design sessions that typically produce results for their clients. Clambakes and sunning in beach chairs are part of this desirable format. Wooding's studio is engaged in 50 percent interior design and 50 percent industrial design, a process they describe as "inclusive" with a "broad view" that encompasses modern design from his days at Herman Miller with Robert Propst and Charles Eames to more traditional creations. His executive desk line for Kimball won a Best of NeoCon award in 2002. His personal message was: "Take advantage of happy accidents. When they occur, go for it." Joann Wooding recalled researching the titanium material used by Frank Gehry on Walt Disney Hall. A perforated version proved just right for a line of sconces that were seen in the Nessen showroom later. A visit was also made to the Riviera showroom to look at the Goddings' latest office furniture line.
David Ritch, Mark Saffell
and Jane Kobayashi, founders of 5D Studio, have won awards for Metro, Brayton, Haworth, Arcadia, Vecta, Herman Miller Red and Tuohy. This hefty track record appealed to the students, particularly because they belong to the younger generation of multi-disciplinary designers. The trio like to work on branding for their clients, and have the capability to do everything from print and Web communications, to showroom and product design. Ritch and Saffell were trained in Don Chadwick's office and worked on the Herman Miller Aeron chair and Ario. All of their vision and creative branding solutions for their clients come out of their backyard—an ocean-side location in Malibu—which also provided their audience inspiration. Visits to the Vecta and Tuohy showrooms followed.The next speaker exemplified a textbook case for personal branding: Craig Park, director of marketing and operations for Fields Devereux, a major architecture firm in Los Angeles. Park told how, upon graduation with a Bachelor's degree in architecture, he contemplated how to differentiate himself from his peer group. He fell into audiovisual technology and grew in this expertise, consulting with business, education, government and private and public institutions, working in tandem with leading architects. His focused presentation gave an in-depth overview, using his 1,000-plus career projects, of where audiovisual technology should fit into the design picture: integrated at the beginning and not an add-on later. As an example, Park cited speakers at the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, cumbersome black fixtures hanging from the roof which were added on at the last moment—and are now trying to be "disguised" with beige paint. Park has also made marketing a career path, authored the book Design, Market, Grow and attended relevant seminars presented by the Society of Marketing Professional Services, of which he served as 2002-2203 national president. Referring to "Brand You," he said that audiovisual work was not what he intended to do as a student, but once he had taken it up it led to "a lot of interesting things." He advised the audience: "Concentrate on brand you, developing that and polishing it."David Oakey, the penultimate speaker in the program, is founder of David Oakey Designs and a carpet designer from England whose mission is sustainability. His firm collaborates with Interface Inc., whose crusade established by visionary chairman Ray Anderson is to raise public awareness of environmental responsibility. Oakey showed photos of his studio in an industrial park in Georgia, with his building surrounded by trees and plants—in stark contrast to adjacent industrial buildings in the same park swept clear of trees and surrounded by asphalt. He said one of his employees once asked him when the weeds were going to be cleared, which prompted Oakey to ask: "Do you want our environment to look like our neighbors'?" Oakey's passion and commitment to ecology is pursued in his product designs, which mimic natural environmental patterns. (In this way, he provided a book-end to the front-end presentation by Jhane Barnes of fractals, the underlying mathematical principal of nature). A visit to the Interface showroom on Wells Street, nearby the Merchandise Mart, followed.The final presentation was made by Henner Jahns, president and design director of D'Tank, with offices in New York and Los Angeles. An industrial designer trained in Germany, Jahns took the Best of NeoCon and Most Innovative Product at NeoCon 2000 with his Swopper chair for Aeris. However, D'Tank's brand message is: "When Ready Made is Not Enough." The company has grown significantly since its founding in 1998 by creating one-off office solutions for a variety of clients who cannot find what they want in the marketplace. One particular niche market is architectural offices, "a large market for us, but a small one for the furniture industry." Architects need special storage for drawings and so on. They also like well-designed spaces. D'Tank collaborates with them on the workstations they need. Very often, the price for this custom produced furniture is advantageous as well. Despite showing many sophisticated virtual renderings of their product design done with Form Z on computer, Jahns noted that everything begins with hand drawing. "Interns are often surprised how much drawing we do," he said. "Typically one of our jobs takes five to eight weeks from start to finished product. We must do a lot of quick drawing upfront to go through concepts."Dr. Oliver Evans, president of Kendall College of Art and Design, who was present throughout the week, wrapped up the course by noting that it has become one of the most popular in the college. He was accompanied by Erli Gronberg, professor in Kendall's interior design department, and Jon Otis, a professor from Pratt Institute's interior design program. Cheryl Johnson and Shirley Hubers acted at coordinators and logistical experts.Beverly Russell is an award-winning author of 11 books, lecturer, producer, educator and communications consultant. She is president of Beverly Russell Enterprises, Los Angeles, CA, and also conducts "The Enrichment Workshop: Walking the Labyrinth," a .2 CEU self-development program for architects and designers. With the 2004 Interact with the Stars program, Russell is stepping down as creator of the annual event. She will be succeeded by Georgy Olivieri, vice president of architecture and design for Haworth.

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