Indie Designer

In the wake of dwindling support from corporate partners, Don Chadwick continues his own blue-sky quest into new materials and forms.

In a gritty patch of urban fabric just off the Olympic and Pico Boulevard exit of the I-405 freeway in Los Angeles is a clustering of public storage facilities. These windowless warehouses are generally filled with homeowners’ trash-in-denial: not quite discarded clothes, unwanted gifts, unread books, empty suitcases, and obsolete answering machines—the effluvia of Western consumerism. But in the storage facility at 11200 Pico is a sequestered collection of a more considered sort—the archives of veteran furniture designer Donald Chadwick, creator (with Bill Stumpf) of the Aeron chair for Herman Miller and the new Chadwick mesh chair for Knoll.

There in the gloom of the metal-walled space is a rare glimpse of the back end of the contract furniture industry: a strange assortment of furniture arms, seats, legs, full-size chair prototypes, and research models dating back to the 1960s—all the key projects that Chadwick has worked on the last 40 years that have been shelved. There’s a yellow plastic armchair for Knoll he prototyped in the 1960s using a military-grade rotational molding machine; a leather and tubular-steel sling chair designed when he was just a few years out of school, renting office space from Frank Gehry; a flat-pack kit of cardboard chairs and tables that predates the architect’s famous cardboard chairs; and a reclining chair and home interior seating designed for the elderly as part of an extensive Herman Miller project called “Metaform,” in the late 1980s.

Chadwick, who turns 70 next year, moves slowly about the room, offering surprisingly candid accounts of the fate of each object in the proto-museum. The sling chair, though it marks the beginning of his lasting obsession with seats that use flexible membranes, just wasn’t good enough for him. “I was never secure enough to show it to anybody,” Chadwick says. Rotational molding—a quick, inexpensive manufacturing method recently exploited by Philippe Starck for a range of Kartell benches—was rejected by Knoll because the process, in which polymer pellets are poured into a spinning mold and heated, left blemishes in the finished surface. As for Metaform, purpose-designed home furniture never seemed to progress beyond prototypes. “Every time Herman Miller tried to go direct to the residential market they backed away,” Chadwick says.

A picture begins to emerge of an industry that has poured millions into research and development, beginning with grand ideals—residential furniture for an aging population, an office system to succeed 1960s cubicles, well-designed inexpensive cardboard furniture for the masses—and ends up with the same result: the task chair. Chadwick’s portfolio is based on three task chairs, the Equa (1984) for Herman Miller, the Aeron (1994) for Herman Miller, and now the Chadwick (2005) for Knoll. The task chair is the industry’s known commodity, the hit single, with a well-honed economic rationale. As Edward Tenner points out in his book Our Own Devices, that rationale is historically tied to industrial-age ideals of efficiency and productivity. The first ergonomic seat, Britain’s adjustable Tan-Sad chair, of 1921, was marketed toward employers as a seat with health benefits; according to advertisements, it increased worker output 25 percent and paid for itself in “12 working days.” Today’s ergonomic chairs retain some of this Taylorist ideology, albeit evolved into a more sophisticated conception of efficiency. Task chairs of recent years have encouraged regular changes of position rather than a fixed upright posture and have been named appropriately for restless jet-setting executives: Leap, Life, Liberty, Freedom.

Chadwick is one of a handful of inventors/industrial designers on which the industry has come to depend for its extensive research into task seating. Like his contemporaries Niels Diffrient, Douglas Ball, Bill Stumpf, and Emilio Ambasz, Chadwick adopted a laboratory approach to running a design studio, keeping a small staff focused on its own trajectories of research, some of which necessarily lead nowhere. “The percentage of stuff that gets produced is fairly low because of the way we work,” he says. “If it’s twenty percent, it’s a lot. I’m not interested in somebody coming to me and saying, ‘We’ve got this thingamajig—would you design something to fit over it?’ I’d rather start with nothing and base it on investigations into material or process. That’s how a lot of ideas are born.” Chadwick adds, “You screw up constantly, but you’re learning in the process.”

Robert Blaich, former vice president of Herman Miller, has characterized Chadwick’s methodology as a “deep interest in new materials and processes.” Whereas Diffrient is something of a zealot on ergonomic issues (his Liberty and Free-dom chairs, from Humanscale, focus on providing the correct kind of lumbar support), Chadwick becomes most animated about the exploration of new materials and fabricating technologies, and what they might make possible. He is decidedly more relaxed about human posture, advocating his new chair as one “more tolerant of different seating postures” and “different body shapes.” He adds with a grin, “You’ve gotta have more choices, man.”

Last April I pulled up outside Chadwick’s new studio in West Los Angeles on a cloudless Southern California afternoon. After 20 years of driving to a studio space in Santa Monica, Chadwick has decided to “downsize,” purchasing two acres of land across the street from his home for a purpose-built office, model-making shop, and design space. He called on an old Santa Monica neighbor, Frederick Fisher, architect of the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, to design the project.

Wedged into a hillside lush with eucalyptus, sycamore, and aloe vera, the building casts a decidedly understated presence in this land of grandiosity. Fisher’s collagelike use of industrial materials—concrete blocks, glass, and wood siding—is apparent but contained within a narrow volume folded to match the contours of the hillside and neatly capped by a pitched roof evoking the Cliff May ranch houses nearby. The understatement is a result of Chadwick’s insistence on inconspicuousness as well as local politics: Fisher had initially designed a more boxlike building that protruded from the hillside and included a section that cantilevered over a carport, but the local homeowners’ association—which must approve all building plans—objected. “With buildings in this area you’re always subject to neighborhood associations, and you can’t do what you want to do all the time,” Fisher says. “We probably could have gotten it through,” he continues, but following his client’s advice, Fisher came up with a more discreet folded volume pushed into the landscape.

Inside, the studio takes on a more exuberant character. A staircase leading up to a mezzanine-level office (Fisher calls it a “nest”) cleverly splits the two halves of the space—shop/kitchen and studio—with a double-height two-sided translucent bookcase filled with magazines, books, and miniature models of furniture, both classics and unrealized Chadwick prototypes. From the nest Chadwick can look out over the entrance and design studio below (recalling the panoptical arrangement of Pentagram’s New York offices, where partners oversee their employees from an upper level) or retire to the outdoor deck. On the deck, as with P.S.1’s gardens, concrete makes a dramatic backdrop. Southern California building legislation in the wake of earthquakes and mud slides requires substantial retaining walls for hillside construction. Fisher made a feature of a 20-foot-high insertion, creating a garden on two levels linked by concrete steps and shaping the wall to allow light to enter the studio from several directions.

When Knoll’s design director, Carl Magnusson, dropped in on Chadwick during a visit to Santa Monica in summer 2000, the designer showed him a scale model of a folding side chair he had made with an elastic perforated membrane seat that would have the aerated and conforming properties of mesh. The Aeron’s extraordinary appeal is attributed by Edward Tenner to its “cooling mesh and deep rocking recline motion.” But Chadwick’s proposed seat would be easier to manufacture than the Aeron’s, which requires a complex and costly assembly technique in which the mesh is injection-molded into the seat frame while under tension. Chadwick also proposed a task-chair version with a simpler reclining mechanism than the Aeron, achieved by moving back the cantilever to reduce the load on the spring.

Magnusson and, subsequently, Knoll CEO Andrew Cogan were particularly taken by the idea of a task chair that would be lighter, simpler, and easier to operate than the Aeron. Easier to make also meant cheaper to buy. “We were thinking about how you give people a great chair at a very affordable price that fits into smaller offices,” Cogan says, adding that it was “dumb luck” that Chadwick was thinking along the same lines. But the project didn’t quite turn out as planned. The side chair was fully developed but eventually rejected by Knoll as too costly, and the membrane is still under exploration for a future version of the seat. Struggling to find a suitable method of aerating the skinlike material, Chadwick and Knoll reverted to mesh, a known quantity. But just as Knoll was tooling up to launch the chair in 2004, a potential patent infringement was uncovered in the method of attaching the mesh to the frame, and Chadwick went back to the drawing board. The final iteration, launched at this year’s NeoCon, is a slightly scaled up version of the original, a thicker seat frame containing an inner frame over which the mesh seat is slipped to gain tension during assembly. The rethink seems to have been worth the effort. “It made it better,” Cogan says. “It’s visually more substantial now but doesn’t use much more material because of the gas injection-molding process we used. In a backward way it was a great thing to have to work through.” He adds, “I can’t believe it took Knoll thirty years to work with Don Chadwick. Shame on us.”

One reason why it took Knoll 30 years is because Chadwick is better known as part of a partnership with Bill Stumpf under Herman Miller. The strength of this legendary collaboration was its complementary research and design skills. Chadwick, the grandson of a cabinetmaker, had worked largely independently as a furniture designer since graduating in 1959 from UCLA’s industrial-design department after a four-year stint at Victor Gruen Associates. His first project for Herman Miller, Chadwick Modular Seating, was a strikingly prescient system of square and pie-shaped seating units that could be put together in a variety of configurations; it has been in production since its launch in 1974. Stumpf, in turn, had studied and taught at the postgraduate level at the University of Wisconsin’s Environmental-Design Center and had become vice president of the Herman Miller Research Corporation. First teaming up in 1977 to work on a Herman Miller project called Buroplan as an alternative to Robert Probst’s legendary Action Office system, Chadwick and Stumpf went on to develop the Equa seating system, which pioneered a knee-tilt mechanism and polyester shell that flexed during reclining to support the upper and lower back.

When the Aeron chair was launched in 1994, it presented the meeting and culmination of two trajectories of previous research, including the angles derived from the reclining chair project, and a shared pursuit of alternatives to foam to provide more even pressure distribution, regardless of the sitter’s weight and shape. Herman Miller’s director of research Bill Dowell, who worked closely with both designers on the Aeron, characterizes Chadwick as a “master of form” and Stumpf as a “master of conceptual thinking.” “Through his broad powers of observation Bill can articulate what people need, and at the same time Don can articulate what people find beautiful. It’s not that it’s mutually exclusive, but when you put the two of them together it was greater than the sum of its parts.”

Design collaborations, like songwriting duos, have their ups and downs, and the Chadwick-Stumpf partnership appears to have run its course. Chadwick told me that he has not spoken to Stumpf for several years, which he attributes to a falling out after the launch of the Aeron. “Our families traveled together, we were very close, but at some point egos collide,” he says, adding that with Stumpf working out of Minnesota, Herman Miller in Michigan, and Chadwick in California, “the distance was always a problem.” Flare-ups were not uncommon. “It also happened after the Equa chair,” Chadwick says. “We separated and then got together again on the Metaform project in 1991.”

If the dissolution of Chadwick and Stumpf was a bit like the breakup of the Beatles, Chadwick’s solo career is hardly marked by lack of direction—or lack of collaborators. Asked about current projects, Chadwick began enthusing about a speculative design for a coach-class aircraft seat in collaboration with New York-based designer Jeffrey Bernett. Chadwick’s employee Ana Franco (a recent graduate of Art Center College of Design’s graduate industrial-design program) handed me a soft, spongy featherweight white rectangular block with a honeycomb construction—a polymer woven in three dimensions. “We’ve looked at some interesting materials, and this could be useful,” Chadwick said. “This kind of thing gets you stimulated.”

The possibility—and probability, of course—is that Chadwick and Bernett’s seat will not get off the ground. The coach-class market, with its slim profit margins, has not seen much industrial-design innovation for about 40 years. But lines of design research never really come to nothing. As Chadwick puts it, “There’s a natural progression of ideas that weren’t successful at the time they were conceived, then were adopted for a later project.”

Yet at the same time that independent industrial-design research—whether under the auspices of an academic institution, a manufacturer like Herman Miller, or a solo pursuit—is showing signs of endangerment. Cogan contrasts Knoll’s “pragmatic” approach to research to Herman Miller’s history of “blue sky” research programs, noting that Knoll tends to begin with a narrower focus and clear idea of what it wants, be it a cable-management desk system or a chair for small offices. But Herman Miller has long since disbanded its research corporation, and like Knoll depends on experts like Chadwick to do research and development in advance of a commission. But there aren’t many figures like Chadwick around, and they are all—including Diffrient, Stumpf, Ball, and Ambasz—getting on in years. It takes a certain amount of revenue stream to permit the kind of diligent experimentation required to develop a good chair, and it is a rare designer indeed that can hit that revenue while keeping overheads at a minimum.

Driving from Chadwick’s space toward the cool breezes of Venice Beach, where the promenade was teeming with Rollerblading teenagers sporting iPods, henna tattoo artists, and T-shirt vendors, I had the sense that I had stepped out of a historic haven—an atmosphere reminiscent of Burt Rutan’s skunk works in the Mojave desert, where lightweight experimental aircraft are designed for round-the-world solo flights and space travel. Like Rutan, Chadwick represents a distinctly postwar American can-do approach to design and invention. As Rutan once put it, “Don’t ask for permission—ask for forgiveness.” As manufacturing shifts overseas and industrial design is further distanced from production, such havens are increasingly rare.

Recent Programs