May 1, 2010
In a long career that includes collaborations with Harry Bertoia and Florence Knoll, the furniture designer Richard Schultz has carved out a space in the domestic landscape that’s all his own.
Richard Schultz never planned to become the master of outdoor furniture. But in 1951, after he graduated from Chicago’s Institute of Design, Hans and Florence Knoll hired him on to their company to assist Harry Bertoia, who was working on his metal experiments in a shed in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania. The Knolls wanted the project to move more quickly. “He didn’t have any helper, so I was given a job,” Schultz says. Later, when Florence resettled in Miami after the death of Hans, she discovered that her Bertoia chairs were rusting in the saltwater air. That led to Schultz’s first outdoor line, originally called the Leisure Collection and now known as 1966. In the early 1990s Schultz and his son, the architect Peter Schultz, reintroduced these modernist icons, and over the years, they’ve continued to expand the collection. At this month’s International Contemporary Furn-iture Fair, the 83-year-old designer will debut his latest creation, the Fresh Air chair, a piece with many of the same qualities as his other outdoor classics. Earlier this spring, I interviewed Schultz and got a peek at the final prototypes.
PAUL MAKOVSKY: You worked with Bertoia on the Diamond chair. What was that like?
Richard Schultz: I’ve read that he was asked to design a line of furniture for hospitals and said no. Harry wasn’t a product or industrial designer; he was an artist. But Hans and Shu [Florence] Knoll were open to whatever he would come up with. The Diamond was the essential chair, and he developed it using a wooden armchair to get an idea of comfort angles. Then he started sketching in wire three-dimensionally. He never drew anything. Since Knoll didn’t have any metalworking equipment in those days, it was all brazed together. As the chair took shape and evolved, my big assignment was figuring out how to do the upholstery.
PM: Why do an upholstered version?
RS: It isn’t a terribly comfortable chair otherwise, with its inch-and-a-half metal squares and thin wire. In the begin-ning, Knoll sold some chairs coated with the sort of plastic you’d find on a dish rack, but the vinyl didn’t bond to the wire. The reason my outdoor furniture came into existence is because Shu—who had married [Harry] Hood Bassett and was living in Miami—came back from Florida one day fuming about how the Bertoia chairs weren’t rustproof. We started getting envelopes with rusty nuts and bolts or corroded parts of a chair, and notes saying, “Why can’t you make a chair that works?” Finally she asked if someone could design decent outdoor furniture. I said, “I’d like to work on that.” It must have been about 1963. It took about three years to develop that.
PM: This was the 1966 collection. Weren’t you also asked to design a side table to go with the Bertoia chairs?
RS: I did the Petal table for the opening of the Los Angeles showroom, but it was not well suited for the Bertoia furniture because it was too expensive to make.
RS: I thought we could take a wooden top and break it up into eight sculptured, carefully radiused pieces of wood and have something more interesting than a wooden-slat table. Underneath, there’s a cast-aluminum part that holds up each petal individually. That’s all there was to it. I don’t know if I would do that again, given that it’s so expensive.
PM: Was it always meant as an outdoor table?
RS: Yes. Originally it was made out of redwood. When we brought it back to life in the ’90s, redwood had become endangered. Now it’s made of teak.
PM: You left Knoll in 1972. When did you start your company?
RS: In 1993. After I left Knoll, I became a freelance designer. One day Carl Magnusson, from Knoll, called me and said that the company was having trouble with outdoor furniture. He asked if I’d come back and help them redevelop the line. I went there and discovered they were using the wrong thread and the furniture was just falling apart. They also weren’t coating the castings properly. So I worked on it for awhile, and then one of the company’s executives asked why Knoll was even doing outdoor furniture. Eventually they gave us the rights, the tooling, everything. It was very generous.
When Peter and I started making this furniture again in the ’90s, we had a huge market of people who wanted replacement slings for their Knoll outdoor furniture.
PM: Tell us about the new chair you’re debuting at ICFF.
RS: It’s called the Fresh Air chair, and it evolved from a bunch of cardboard models that I made in the ’80s. The chair harkens back to the Topiary chair, an aluminum sheet-metal piece I did. Sheet metal was used exclusively in that chair. The Fresh Air doesn’t have legs but panels that go down to the floor. Because we use simple tooling, it’s unsophisticated metalwork. We use laser cutting as well as computer-aided design, which allows us to digitally draw the chair, helping us to figure out the tooling. We can easily make full-scale metal prototypes.
PM: You tweak the design in three dimensions?
RS: We make a chair and sit on it, to make sure it’s comfortable, make sure it has the proper radiuses and can be put together and coated. We want to see if it’s a product. We’re going to have a few chairs made up for ICFF, though we’re likely to make changes in those chairs.
PM: Why do another outdoor chair when you’ve already designed the classic pieces?
RS: It’s a question of satisfying your creative interest. I wake up in the morning and have an idea for a chair. Whether we manufacture the thing or not has to do with a number of factors. This chair can’t be a one-of-a kind thing. The original concept should be capable of creating a vocabulary of forms that allow you to make more than one object.
PM: When I look at your outdoor furniture, like the Petal table, they seem inspired by nature.
RS: That’s true. Do you know what Queen Anne’s lace is? It’s a weed about three inches in diameter—but look underneath it. There’s a little stem that comes up, and each one supports a little floweret. That was partial inspiration for the Petal table.
PM: Is there a natural inspiration for the new chair?
RS: No. The Fresh Air chair is a sheet-metal chair. Traditionally, outdoor furniture is made with either wood or metal slats. Because the slat is not a functional part of the chair but an aesthetic one, I may do a version of this chair without them. Chairs are sculptures and have to work in space. Outdoor chairs either complement or supplement nature. The Adirondack is complementary. The Topiary chair is supplemental. In our catalog, there’s a picture at a restaurant in New Jersey where the owner put these chairs against an ivy-covered wall. They’re like shrubs. You can hardly see them. It’s terrific!
PM: How do you see the chair fitting into the landscape?
RS: It’s going to be in contrast to the landscape. Because it’s sort of traditional-looking, it picks up on what outdoor furniture has always looked like. It’s a dining chair. We haven’t done the lounge chair yet. That won’t be as radical, because when you tilt something like that it affects the appearance of the chair and may be hard to deal with sculpturally. I don’t know. It has to be sorted out. I am interested in comfortable chairs.
PM: Why does most of your work focus on outdoor furniture?
RS: I found that outdoor furniture could be more fanciful and interesting than office furniture. Who wants an office full of wiggly furniture? Designing office furniture is boring! Niels Diffrient doesn’t find it boring, but he designs differently. He’s more of an industrial designer.
PM: You’re not an industrial designer?
RS: I think the only term is furniture design. Historically, furniture wasn’t very functional. A dining chair had a decent seat and arm height, and it would fit under the edge of the table. If the chair was cute-looking enough, you could say, “Ah, it doesn’t work too well, but isn’t it nice-looking!” The Shakers are the only people who looked at these problems and solved them well, making some of the most exquisite furniture and interiors in the world. Their furniture is breathtakingly beautiful and simple. They had Mies’s “less is more” idea figured out way before Mies ever did.
PM:< Do you spend a lot of time outdoors?
RS: No. I like to have a meal outside and do a little hiking, but I’m not a big outdoorsman.
PM: That’s a bit ironic.
RS: I don’t think so. An outdoorsman would carry something like a folding stool or camp stool. Those guys aren’t interested in cute chairs. Do you know what a shooting stick is? It’s just a cane where the top opens up and you can sit on it—it’s something the British invented for watching horse races. Now that’s an outdoorsman’s chair.