At Mannington Mills, Roby Isaac Invigorates Product Design with Fine Art

The vice president of commercial design for Mannington Mills and part of this year’s Metropolis Specify Hot List pursues partnerships with fine artists.

Kelly Beamon: You’ve been leading Mannington Mills in some fun collaborations with artists recently, notably sculptor Larry Bell and fiber artist Gabriel Dawe. Could you speak to the ways fine art fuels innovation in commercial design?

Roby Isaac: Wow, that’s a good, loaded question. When I got into the industry, I was balancing this idea of how a formally trained designer incorporates that expressive side in a commercial space. It was this thing tugging at me that said ‘We’re all born creative.’ I wanted to be creative, and I think [Mannington] hired me because I believed I was creative. 

KB: Describe your technical training.

RI: My background is in textile design, and I was trained in a way that prepared me for the industry. Manufacturers back then were looking for designers who understood not only aesthetics but also textile chemistry and manufacturing.

KB: How did you arrive at the idea of fine arts collaborations?

RI: In high school, I had worked as an apprentice at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia. They would invite these artists to come into the workshop and do an exercise or a collaboration with the studio staff. They would give their ideas to the staff, and the staff would work in conjunction with the artists to prepare fabric. It was cool that you could take these ideas from an artist who is skilled in photography or sculpture or something else and show them in a different medium. For me, it made the entire process and the product a lot more valuable because it seemed much more intentional. 

Isaac’s love of fine art, sparked by his favorite high school teacher, is being paid forward through Mannington’s participation in IIDA’s Design Your World Education program for BIPOC teens. COURTESY MANNINGTON MILLS

KB: Walk me through that process at Mannington.

RI: We reached out to Gabriel Dawe because I was a fan of his, and because multiple times, in design reviews, others would have images from his installations on their mood boards. 

So, we reached out to him, and first he said, ‘What’s a Mannington?’ Second, he said he saw a lot of neutrals on our website, and told me, ‘I don’t know if you know, but I work with a lot of color.’

I said, ‘That’s why we’re reaching out to you.’ We started with sketches, then we moved into prototyping. And when you’re building carpet, you have to have a yarn ‘thread-up,’ which refers to the specific placement of yarns on a machine. So Gabriel said, ‘Hey, do you mind if I take a stab at that?’ Right off the bat, it was exactly what we needed.

Larry Bell’s collaboration was different. Gabriel said we should reach out to Larry, and then he traveled with us to Larry’s studio in New Mexico. Then we started working on pattern development. We flew out a couple times to see him, showed him samples and prototypes, and he gave the blessing.

KB: Were you breaking new ground in contract flooring with these partnerships? 

RI: Other places were doing it. But I felt like a lot of places, competitors or otherwise, would create these product stories and—this is going to sound awful—but I felt like it was a little bit over exaggerated. So, I thought, ‘How do we make it genuine?’ And I asked our design team to start with an experience. It’s when you’re in a moment, a space. Something that might evoke an emotion. Don’t force it. Let it happen, and if it does let’s talk about it and see if there’s something we can take from it. 

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