June 1, 2011
The industrial designer talks about his legendary mentors and the absolute primacy of the pencil.
There are several in the category of what we call task seating. While I’m working on them they’re still secret. I’m told by the patent attorneys that I mustn’t divulge anything that the competition can leap on and devour.
FIRST STEP ON A PROJECT:
I start from a standpoint of the experience I create for the user. I think: how can I help this user—who, most likely, is some poor soul sitting in front of a computer for hours on end—get through his job with health and satisfaction
and maybe a little bit of joy?
LAST STEP ON A PROJECT:
I don’t consider that there’s an end at all. I follow it right up through field use and make corrections along the way. It’s not like putting something in a museum on a pedestal. We’re adjusting people’s experiences in life, and that
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
The simple answer is, it’s the only thing I know how to do. And that’s pretty close to true.
HOW DO YOU BREAK A CREATIVE BLOCK?
I don’t have any. A block implies a stoppage, but I don’t have stoppages. There are difficulties; there are new unexplored paths, all of which put up barriers. But it’s like a steeplechase. You’ve got to jump the next one,
then another one. That’s the part I enjoy.
I attended Cass Technical High School, in Detroit. So I got an art education that was better than at a college. This gave me a portfolio that I sent off to Cranbrook and was accepted. I was there for some time before I woke up to the fact that it was a graduate school! Then they woke up to that fact as well, and I had to stop and get the equivalent of two years’ academic credits from Wayne State University. Then I came back and
got my degree from Cranbrook.
I was fortunate through an adviser at Cranbrook to get a job at the Saarinen office. Working closely with Eero, he changed my outlook on life. Marco Zanuso was another mentor—not so much for design as just lifestyle. And Henry Dreyfuss. I was employed in his office for twenty-five years, learning about the intricacies of mass-produced design and maintaining quality.
Honesty in my work. I think what design is capable of will help the world more than almost any other profession. We’re just about the only generalist activity left.
No team at all. I don’t have any urge to form a team. That’s why I work alone.
I sit in several. Mainly I’m sitting in a future chair. And, of course, the question most people ask is, do we need another chair? But there’s always another way. Largely because it’s an imperfect program. Sitting is never going to be perfect. So you just keep striving for elusive perfection.
OFFICE SOUND TRACK:
I could answer that with one word: Mozart. Anything by Mozart.
A two-foot-long, meticulously crafted model of a canoe. It serves no other purpose than just for me to look at.
MOST USEFUL TOOL:
My pencil. It’s more than just a tool. It’s an anchor in reality to keep me intimately associated with what I’m doing, as opposed to sitting at a computer.
I don’t use the Internet.
BEST PLACE TO THINK:
Asleep. I solve a lot of things asleep.
I don’t read fiction at all, and it’s hard for me to get through a book of any sort anymore. So I end up reading all of the tracts that are necessary for what I do. I’m a great magazine buff.
It’s easy for me to enjoy old things. I’ve been around for a while, and I appreciate things like big-band music, classical music, and old reference books when I need them.
We recently watched The King’s Speech. It’s such joy to see a well-made movie in the midst of all this trash and computer-aided crash-and-burn stuff!
Where I am right now. My studio. I’m sitting, looking out across a meadow with a pond in it and a hill covered in just-greening trees, and I’m watching the Canadian geese eat my grass, and I couldn’t be more satisfied.
I only eat one dessert, and it is a kind of ice cream called Tofutti. I can’t resist it.
All the design that shapes our lives that we pay little attention to. We look at architecture as a facade, but the average person inside of, say, an office building is looking largely at products. They don’t see architecture. They see an architecture of things.
The penchant for decorative design, which is largely visual aesthetics, is very overrated.
LEARNED THE HARD WAY:
How to write well. I wasn’t adept at it. And it took me a long time to understand what good writing was.
The losing of a few choice friends.
The one I have. What else?