Susan Lyons Instigates New Thinking at Designtex

Susan Lyons brings both the keen sensibilities of a designer and an open and collaborative managerial style to her leadership role at Designtex.

Portrait by Kyoko Hamada

Designtex president Susan Lyons sits in front of the development board for the company’s ongoing collaboration with the Charley Harper estate.

Two years ago, industry insiders were surprised when Designtex hired Susan Lyons as its new president. She was a veteran designer, but she had little experience in sales, so she seemed an unlikely candidate to run one of the largest contract-textile companies in the United States, with around $70 million in annual sales. But lack of formal training has never prevented Lyons—former creative director for materials for Herman Miller—from forging into areas in which she knows little, and staying the course until her goals are realized.

Designtex’s eighth-floor New York studio is exactly what you’d expect a textile company owned by Steelcase, and run by a designer, to look like. It’s airy and bright, with sleek light fixtures, clean, bold furnishings, and white work tables. Light streams in through giant windows and the whole place glows like a patchwork spectrum made of fabric samples. There are big industrial spools of thread in every hue, and trays lined neatly with swatches whose textures range from sturdy, sound-absorbing, origami-like finery, to thick, gray felt and postconsumer polyester that is impervious to knives. This colorful lab is where Lyons and her team of collaborators create the fabrics of the future.

Although she directs a multidisciplinary team comprising architects, designers, weavers, artists, textile engineers, architectural historians, and even a poet, Lyons almost demurely avoids the spotlight. “I do think of myself as an instigator,” she says, straining to describe her approach to running the company. “Art director is not quite right. I’m introducing the possibility, nurturing the process. I like the notion of an ecosystem—interdependent parties working together to make something happen. Each project is different. Sometimes we provide the technical experience, sometimes the sourcing.”

“I like the notion of an ecosystem—interdependent parties working together to make something happen.”

And sometimes it’s a technical framework, which is the case with Made to Measure, a new service Designtex will launch next week at NeoCon. Made to Measure is a digital-printing program that allows designers and architects to work with the company to customize imagery. About seven months before Lyons’s return to Designtex as president (she served as creative director from 1989– 2002), the company bought Portland Color, one of the best digital printers in the business. This ecologically sound “sandbox,” run and managed entirely by artists who were encouraged to do everything with the machines except break them, was the kind of place Lyons would have created if she didn’t come to it by choice. “Frankly, one of the reasons I came back to Designtex was because of that collaboration,” she says. The program introduces the idea of mass customization and “just in time” manufacturing, which means Designtex clients can now print fabrics as needed, rather than in the minimum quantities typically required in manufacturing, which more often than not end up on shelves or as waste.

Courtesy Christopher Barrett

Designtex + Charley Harper

The Big Ladybug is from the Designtex + Charley Harper Collection of 12 wall-coverings and textiles, featuring playful images from the Harper archive. Lyons and Todd Oldham, who oversees the archive, hope the fabrics will bring Harper-induced smiles to patients in hospitals and wellness centers.

Lyons decided to kick-start Made to Measure by producing a line of wall-coverings with imagery from Charley Harper. Designer Todd Oldham, who befriended the modernist painter at the end of his life, is steward of Harper’s archive. Lyons picks up the biology book Oldham had as a schoolboy. Whimsical bird, bug, and otter illustrations by Harper seem to dance happily on the pages. In a micro-to-macro collaboration, Lyons teamed up with Oldham to produce Designtex + Charley Harper, a cheery print collection primarily for hospitals and wellness facilities. “I met Todd when I was doing work for Herman Miller,” she says. “We bonded over our mutual admiration for the work of Alexander Girard and Charley Harper. When I returned to Designtex, I immediately called Todd to see if we could work with Charley’s archive. The work is so beautiful. It always made me smile, so I thought, ‘What would be better than developing products for health care using this extraordinary work?’”

But because this is a Lyons product, aesthetics were only step one. Printing on an environmentally friendly surface, Portland Color mixed each color individually until it matched—exactly—the colors Harper stipulated in his estate. “To be able to do a non-PVC vinyl that’s printable without color restrictions is remarkable,” Oldham says. “Before this, you could never do something like Charley, where there are 70 colors in one item—it was unheard of. Susan respected this. It also passes health-care standards and doesn’t wreck the planet.”

 Lyons’s long commitment to sustainability goes back to her roots, growing up in Illinois. Her mother, a child of the Depression, gardened, recycled, and composted. “Wasting anything is nearly a mortal sin for her,” says Lyons, who remembers the reused lunch bags she was forced to carry in the early 1960s when that kind of thing was not cool. From her youth, Lyons was interested in textiles. At Williams College, where she majored in studio art and English, she started a T-shirt business for her senior thesis project, cleverly calling the venture “The Alliance of Art and Commerce in Culture.” Her professor signed off. Lots of kids make T-shirts and sell them in their dorms, but Lyons’s variety—trim and silk-screened with the Rosetta Stone, Greek vase fragments, and James Joyce quotes—sold at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Henri Bendel, and Bloomingdale’s. She and two partners went from printing ten T-shirts at a time, to 800, to filling orders in the thousands; eventually, a retired stockbroker bought the business.

Lyons spent six months in Ahmedabad, India, in 1979, living with a family who owned large industrial textile mills. The family wanted to preserve traditional wood-block printing and silk-screening techniques used in villages to make saris. Working with local artisans, she developed 100 contemporary wood-block patterns; the resulting quilts, pillows, and “yardage” sold through Habitat (now the Conran Shop).

“I moved back to the States with all this great stuff and no job. Someone said I was a textile designer—okay?!” she says, raising an eyebrow. She was introduced to Robin Roberts, owner of a posh textile company that made eighteenth-century chintz. While Lyons’s taste is spare and bold, she cut her teeth on chintz, nonetheless. In 1980, she joined Boris Kroll Fabrics as director of product development and marketing, and spent the next four years studying with the legendary textile master at his mill in Paterson, New Jersey. At Kroll, weavers mapped the interaction of every strand of thread on graph paper; when Kroll sent Lyons to Como, Italy, for two weeks to study silk finishing, she internalized the Mies van der Rohe maxim: God is in the details.

Courtesy Roque Montez

Designtex + RISD

Think BIG! was a graduate course at the Rhode Island School of Design, created to consider large-scale print installations in the context of public art, architecture, and urbanism. Students worked with Designtex’s Surface Imaging team in Portland, Maine, to experiment with innovative techniques and materials using state-of-the-art printing equipment. This installation is located in the future “Knowledge District” of Providence.

The Harper collection, digitally printed at Portland Color, led to another Lyons collaboration, this time with the Rhode Island School of Design and Andy Graham. For a winter seminar called Think BIG! students spent two weekends “messing around” at Portland Color, printing imaginative signage systems aimed at remediating a gritty area of Providence located under a highway overpass that was recently knocked down, leaving an urban crater. “We wanted to challenge the status quo,” explains Graham, who managed Think BIG! and now serves as chief innovation officer of Designtex’s Surface Imaging. Graham is a photographer whose brother is sculptor Dan Graham; not surprisingly, Andy finds this type of urban branding a subversive way for artists who homestead rough neighborhoods to literally tattoo it before they can no longer afford the rent due to gentrification. Lyons, who shares Graham’s deep respect for artists and artisans, served as an advisor.

Courtesy Designtex

Designtex + Surface Imaging

The Premiere Collection of wall-coverings and upholsteries celebrates Designtex’s first foray into standard-line digitally printed offerings, showcasing the production capabilities of its Surface Imaging facility in Portland, Maine. Inga (above) is available in large and small scales for upholstery, as well as large-scale wall-coverings.

In Lyons’s care, art and commerce entwine as seamlessly as the gorgeous, hand-loomed scarf she wears today at the studio. The scarf, woven by Harriet Wallace-Jones and Emma Sewell in London, is the kind of traditional handicraft that those of little imagination would never have the nerve to suggest, much less produce at industrial scale for contract textiles. Lyons thought otherwise. She saw an image of a Wallace Sewell mural online and tracked them down, mistaking them for painters whose work would be perfect for digital imaging. “But I discovered that the piece was actually woven,” Lyons says. “Stunning, and a real tour de force of composition and weaving. I flew to London in February to meet them at their shop.”

 Two months later, the Designtex + Wallace Sewell line arrived here. Vivid finery supersized for industry, yet sturdy, gorgeous and meticulously woven, it’s the kind of micro-to- macro collaboration that thrills Lyons. “For the past two decades, they had been exploring color, pattern, and weave for accessories, but hadn’t worked on products for the built environment. I put them together with one of our mills in Yorkshire— Hield Brothers, a venerable firm that weaves the finest worsted-wool suiting fabrics for Savile Row,” she says. “I love the chance to put creative ecosystems together! It makes for the best result.” Unraveling a roll of the sumptuous plaid fabric, Lyons says, “There was no digital file on this. They did the stripes by hand wrapping yarn around a board. Only if you’re a weaving geek do you get this.”

Or an environmentalist. Bespoke weaving does much less harm to the earth than almost any other kind of textile manufacturing. “If we design like nature does, then nothing should go to waste,” she says, channeling her longtime friend and collaborator William McDonough. It is an extremely ambitious mandate for any industry, especially textiles. “It’s a hideous industry, which we were reluctant to enter in the old ways,” Oldham says. “For someone like Susan to go in and adapt it to the present and expand the capabilities to earth-friendly processes is remarkable.”

Courtesy Alpha Smoot

Designtex + Wallace Sewell

Soon after Lyons spotted the bespoke weavers’ vibrant work online, she flew to London and commissioned Harriet Wallace-Jones and Emma Sewell to create Designtex + Wallace Sewell. The line includes four large-scale patterns for upholstery, woven in 100 percent wool. Above: Myddleton by Wallace Sewell for Designtex.

And yet her most challenging collaboration has turned out to be her best. More than 20 years ago, Lyons led a group of mavericks to develop the first biodegradable fabric. Called Climatex Lifecycle, it won numerous awards in 1995. Back then, even with a mother who made her recycle her lunch bags, she—like most of America—was unfamiliar with the word “sustainable”; she came upon it in a Wall Street Journal article on McDonough. “He said waste = food. I was like, ‘What a brilliant idea.’” She snaps her fingers. “I thought, ‘Okay, I want to work with you on this.’”

McDonough agreed to create the line with a disclaimer: “I’ll design not only what it looks like, but what it is.” Again, an eco-system was formed among four partners: Designtex, McDonough, microclimatologist Michael Braungart (who ran tests and established strict guidelines), and a small family-run mill in Switzerland that made it manifest. “It was a leap of faith that we were all willing to make,” Lyons says. The popularity of Climatex Lifecycle led the company to develop other breakthrough textiles, such as Loop to Loop, a durable fabric made of postconsumer recycled polyester.

Courtesy Designtex

Designtex + 3M

A new collaboration with 3M adds DI-NOC Architectural Finishes to Designtex’s offering of innovative materials. Conforming to flat or curved surfaces, this versatile material is available in more than 500 patterns, from wood grain to metallic and stone. Above: HS-1658

Twenty years later, Lyons and McDonough are once again collaborators. Their newest venture, The Butterfly Effect, is still in development. When asked how she finds McDonough (the subject of recent bad press Lyons sees as backlash against sustainability) as a collaborator, she says, “That was one of the dream partnerships for sure. He’s generous of spirit and time and knowledge. He’s probably got the biggest ego out of anyone I’ve worked with, but it didn’t come into play.” 

Perhaps it didn’t come into play because making ideas manifest the Lyons way takes a village. “You’re trying to build a network of intelligence,” she says. “I look for people who have a deeper knowledge of something than I do. Then I trust it. It’s like a sports team in a way. Being president is also like a design project—designing the ethos of the company, taking apart each part and putting it back together. One thing that’s very important to me is investigation and experimentation. What materials can we use in the next decade?” she says with deadpan cheekiness (for this question could not possibly be rhetorical to the Designtex president). Indeed, that day she lets slip that Designtex is “looking into embedded technology,” but adds, cryptically, “That’s under wraps now.”

Whatever the new fabric will do, and be (and, most excitingly, solve), rest assured that beneath her midwestern reserve, studious reading glasses, and demure smile is Lyons’s singular ability to braid art and sustainability with industry. As McDonough says, “I see Susan like a butterfly that flaps its wings and hurricanes form.” 

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