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December 23, 2008

A 1949 Chair Returns in 2008.

“Are you a manufacturer now?” asked Jens Risom when we invited him to create something for Design Within Reach. Our reply was a simple yes, and the project was under way. We soon learned that Risom wasn’t so much asking us a question as he was stating a requirement. After he worked with Hans Knoll in the early 1940s, Risom created his own company, and for 25 years he designed, manufactured and sold furniture for the residential and commercial markets. He built his business and reputation by maintaining control of his work from concept to completion, and Risom wasn’t about to work with DWR if he couldn’t be sure that this would continue to be true.

DWR Design Studio works in collaboration with designers to fix problems that either haven’t been solved by other products or can be solved in smarter ways. Our work with Jens Risom had two components: first, to bring back a 1949 chair and ottoman that Risom designed for the Caribe Hilton Hotel in Puerto Rico and second, to expand the collection with a new bench. The challenge in bringing the chair back into production was how to keep its balance and light scale, but use modern production techniques to keep manufacturing costs in check.

Risom, at age 92, inspired us with his ideas through every step of the process, from reviewing prototypes to adjusting tiny details to advocating cost-effective changes in the manufacturing process. When he saw one of the first prototypes, he knocked on the wood, shook his head and said, “This is quarter-inch. Use three-eighths.” Changes like this not only improved the aesthetics and structure, they also gave us better board yield so we could make the most of the materials used.

The Jens Armchair and Ottoman look the same as the ones made in 1949, but thanks to Risom’s input, they are smarter solutions that take advantage of resources and tools that weren’t available 60 years ago. The addition of the new Bench makes the Jens Collection suitable for an entryway or waiting area, and by leaving a portion of the wood surface exposed, the Bench offers a seat and a side table in one streamlined piece.

The Jens Collection is made in the U.S. and, like all of the furniture by this iconic designer, has a subtle Scandinavian sensibility that works with modern and traditional settings. Or, as Risom puts it, “Good design means that anything good will go well with other equally good things.”

November 20, 2008

Drawing circles in square peg times.

I stayed at a hotel recently that had porthole-shaped windows – 11 floors of them. It was the Swiss cheese of building facades. But looking at the view of New York City from my private bubble of a hotel room got me thinking about how times of “roundness” come and go in design, creating a dotted line, so to speak, from one design period to the next.

The theory of psycho-geometrics uses shapes to identify different personality types, and people defined as “circles” are those who others bring their problems to. You may have heard of these theories if you’ve ever taken a
Myers-Briggs test (if you feel like you’re the last to know about this, you’re probably a “rectangle” personality), and I wonder if designers are drawn to round shapes – the “personalities” we bring our problems to – at times of uncertainty or stress.

And while uncertain times inevitably pass, there are examples of round designs that endure, even through times when we think being round is square. An example of this is a logo that Paul Rand designed for the American Broadcasting Company in 1962, which is still in use today. “In order to understand the aesthetic in its ultimate and approved forms,” wrote Rand in Design, Form and Chaos, “one must begin with it in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man.”

It is suggested that the typeface Rand used was based on the simplified shapes of the Bauhaus, the German school that emerged in 1919, also a time of global uncertainty. It was in 1920 that another example of enduring round design was created: Eileen Gray’s concentric glass table, which she designed for her sister who loved to eat breakfast in bed. It’s a table that uses a shape associated with comfort to fulfill a need for providing comfort.

Round shapes are symbols of unity and, while no one would call New York’s Guggenheim Museum cozy, its top-to-bottom experience does elicit a feeling of togetherness. There is something comforting in how its spiral architecture clarifies the path you should take, especially when compared to museums that send visitors wandering and retracing steps through a maze of interconnected rooms. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the museum opened in 1959, amid a country struggling for integration and civil rights.

Returning to my earlier mention of portholes, the comfort provided by these round shapes in ships is quite literal, in that portholes bring light and air to a ship’s lower quarters. Plus, a round window is stronger than a square one since corners are stress points that can weaken and crack under the force of waves. Another function of being round, such as the design of a manhole cover, is that it is impossible for a round cover to fall into a round hole. “As far as I know,” wrote
George Nelson in How to See, “the design [of round manhole covers] is used all over the world. The reason is simply that no one has ever come up with anything better.”

It remains to be seen how much “roundness” (or desire to be at sea, or hiding in a manhole) will come out of the current conditions of uncertainty, but if you’re lucky enough to own a front-loading washer with porthole opening, don’t be surprised if you start to find comfort in doing laundry.

Click here to see more photos.

October 23, 2008

Cubes on dunes: Exploring modern houses on Cape Cod.

On a recent canoe trip in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, my writer’s eye should have been on the cottage of John Newcomb, who was the “old Wellfleet oysterman” whom Thoreau wrote about in Cape Cod. But I have to admit, I was more intrigued by the house on the west side of the pond. Built 100 years after Thoreau’s visit, it is the 1948 cottage that Marcel Breuer designed for his own family. The structure is a series of rectangular boxes connected by a cantilevered porch, and while it’s interesting that something so organized can also appear casual, this house was not the reason for my trip to the Cape.

Bringing up the stern of the canoe (and politely correcting my urban paddling techniques) was Peter McMahon, executive director of the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, who invited me to see some of the properties they’re working to preserve. Incorporated in 2007, the Trust was established “to promote the documentation and preservation of significant examples of modernist architecture on the Outer Cape.” Now, if you’re thinking “modern” and “Cape Cod” go together about as well as sandcastles and an incoming tide, you’re not alone. Few people know that some of the great masters of modern architecture built houses on Cape Cod, even fewer know that these houses are now threatened, and that’s exactly what the Trust is trying to change.

One such house – located a short paddle away from Breuer’s house – was built in 1953 by Paul Weidlinger, an engineer who apprenticed with Le Corbusier. In designing his house, Weidlinger had input from Walter Gropius and Breuer, as well as from Corbu, who said, “Don’t pave the driveway.” Apparently, Corbu was confident that Weidlinger had a sturdy “machine for driving” to get him to the house, as the driveway is a narrow path that slaloms through the pine trees and abruptly rises and falls like waves on the sea. However, by forcing drivers to slow down, Weidlinger made it impossible to miss the transition into this landscape. The effect reminds me of the Zimmerman House by Frank Lloyd Wright, who controlled the flow through the open interior by varying the ceiling heights, rather than building walls.

The design – or lack of design – of Weidlinger’s driveway and his obvious appreciation for the natural setting are in keeping with the house, which is on stilts and barely impacts the landscape. This minimal impact is furthered by the fact that we can see through the stilts to the water, without a house blocking the view. Inside, the house centers on one large, open room with walls of glass that open onto a wrap-around balcony. The roof extends over this balcony, which speaks to a desire for indoor-outdoor living, as well as an engineer’s understanding of how an overhanging roof keeps a house cool in summertime.

In 2005 a falling tree damaged the roof, and since Weidlinger’s former wife gave away the house (note to self: Attend this woman’s next garage sale) to the National Seashore in the 1970s, it’s unclear where the funds for its repair will come from.

The rest of the houses the Trust is trying to save were not donated, but rather automatically reverted to government ownership under the 1961 terms that established the Seashore as a federally protected area. And I have to point out that the houses are not the only things at risk; we also stand to lose the stories. And you know there are stories. Just consider the players in this community: Breuer, Weidlinger, Gropius, Serge Chermayeff, Corbu phoning in from Paris (or perhaps he was in India then) and even the Saarinens, whose houseguests included Florence Knoll. In the quiet of Cape Cod, these architects and engineers found a place where they could play, work and collaborate.

The buildings they left behind (the Breuer and Saarinen houses are still family owned) are not going to be turned into museums by the Trust, but rather used for educational purposes, perhaps via a scholars-in-residence program. And this isn’t about studying the past. It’s about looking at how these designers’ ideas – about environmental impact, materials, scale and community living – can be applied and improved upon in the future.

While the next steps for the Weidlinger House aren’t clear, the Trust is about to begin restoration on the Kugel/Gips House, designed by Charlie Zehnder in 1970. Zehnder built more than 40 houses on Cape Cod, and I would show the Kugel/Gips to anyone who insists that modern architecture has to be sterile and cold. This is an inviting house, satisfying in its balance, use of materials and bold horizontal lines. How the sun sends shadows of trees curving across the structure is stunning and artful and makes me believe that there must be a worn path created by Zehnder’s footprints as he circled the house and planned how it would relate to the terrain.

The last house McMahon showed me was the Hatch House, designed by Jack Hall in 1960. As we come full circle in our story, something about this house reminds me of the cottage Thoreau built in 1845 on Walden Pond. The Hatch is a house that begs you to be quiet, perhaps so you can hear the ocean, or maybe because of how quietly it is perched on the dunes. This house knows it’s a visitor, and it’s a gracious one at that; if it were lost in a gale, the landscape would revert so quickly that it would be impossible to tell where the Hatch had been.

The Hatch House has historical status and is not in immediate danger of being razed, but without the necessary funding for its maintenance, this simple structure is at risk of disappearing into the dunes. There are still lessons to be learned from this house, which consists of three independent rectangular components, weathered to the color of driftwood. The sides of the house are on hinges, and when they’re lifted up and locked in place, they transform the outdoor deck into a covered area, protected from sun and rain. Behind these doors are walls of screen and the whole house becomes an open breezeway, not even impacting the salt air as it travels off the beach, through the house and into the dunes.

To make a donation to the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, or to learn more about their work, visit ccmht.org.

Click here to see more photos.

August 14, 2008

On campus with Mies, Corbu and Saarinen.

A student of modernism will recognize Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Eero Saarinen as designers of tables and chairs, but some may be surprised to recognize the work of these masters on American college campuses. In honor of the upcoming academic year, we’re looking at three buildings on the campuses of Illinois Institute of Technology, Harvard and MIT.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was originally trained as a bricklayer before becoming a master of proportion in other materials, like steel and glass. It’s also ironic that Mies directed the College of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), as he had no formal architectural training of his own. Mies had a strict, meticulous approach and a belief in using only the finest materials. The precision with which he worked and the timeless architecture he created were the result of looking, studying and spending time with a problem until he was fully satisfied with an ordered and logical solution. Even after he mastered the principles that would forever define his work, Mies remained a student of materials and technology. “I don’t want to be interesting,” said Mies. “I want to be good.”

The S.R. Crown Hall, built in 1956, was the last of seven buildings Mies designed for the IIT campus in Chicago. In 2005, the S.R. Crown Hall underwent a $3.6 million restoration, kicked off when Mies’ grandson, Dirk Lohan, took a sledge hammer to one of the Hall’s windows. The privilege to do this to a National Historic Landmark was something Lohan won the right to in an eBay auction (he paid $2,705). The building houses IIT’s College of Architecture, which was directed by Mies for 20 years, ending in 1958, two years after his S.R. Crown Hall was built. Never one to add unnecessary ornament, the exterior of the rectangular building is made up of a steel frame with clear and frosted glass walls. The interior is an open, universal space, which Mies created so it could be adapted to meet changing needs. Visit the building when class is in session and you’ll find it filled with drafting tables at which students work by natural light coming through the 18-foot-high floor-to-ceiling windows.

While Mies created buildings that appeared almost to be floating, Le Corbusier built a “tight, dense world…where space seems almost carved out of tense volumes.”1 Early in his career, Le Corbusier was apprenticed to Mies, and while the latter would go on to have a 30-year career in America, Corbu would not find the same success. In fact, there is only one building on the North American continent designed by Le Corbusier: the Carpenter Visual Arts Center at Harvard University. The building, which was completed in 1963, houses the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies. Shortly after breaking ground to build the Center, Corbu was awarded the 1961 gold medal from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Upon accepting the medal, Corbu said, “I live in the skin of a student,” referring to his desire to find new ways to apply industrial design to built structures, which he called “machines for living.” An early teacher of Corbu’s, Charles L’Eplattenier, told him to “Learn every possible form of classic art – and forget it as quickly as possible in order to create something new.”

The Carpenter Center stands five stories tall, with a ramp through the building to encourage circulation and make visible the light-filled studios where students paint, draw and sculpt. Francesco Passanti, a Le Corbusier scholar, has compared the experience of walking by these studios to that of being on a train as it passes another train going the opposite direction. The fact that the Visual Arts Center does not blend in with the rest of Harvard’s brick and ivy-covered campus was intentional, as doing so would have been a contradiction. “Architecture,” said Corbu, “goes beyond utilitarian needs. You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces. That is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart. You do me good and I am happy and I say, ‘This is beautiful.’ That is architecture. Art enters in.”

Le Corbusier was called “the Leonardo of our time” by Eero Saarinen, whose campus commissions included the Noyes dormitory at Vassar, the Kresge Auditorium and Chapel at MIT and the D’Angelo Law Library at the University of Chicago Law School. Barack Obama taught constitutional law at this school from 1992 to 2004, but he did not experience this building as it exists today, following a $32 million renovation completed in 2008. Saarinen’s concrete-framed six-story Law Library, with its “pleated” dark glass, was originally completed in 1959. The structure is devoid of the grey limestone, gargoyles and spires that are characteristic of the rest of the gothic campus, but it doesn’t conflict with them either. “Saarinen referred to his style as ‘neogothic,’” wrote critic Judith Russi Kirshner, “yet the very structure and materials – glass, steel and concrete – exemplified a contemporary aesthetic objective and philosophical idea of clarity.”

Saarinen’s design called for open areas that encouraged discussion, and the recent renovation has stayed true to that goal, while adding the best tools of the digital age to the collaborative, inviting work space. Unlike Corbu and Mies, who created open flexible areas that could change with use, Saarinen created the Law Library for the University of Chicago law students, and not for anything else. “The overall concept seeks to reflect the importance to the legal profession,” said Saarinen, “of both the written and the spoken word.”

The D’Angelo Law Library is not open to the public. For access to the Carpenter Center and S.R. Crown Hall, check with Harvard and IIT, respectively.
 

1. The New York Times, “Architecture: Mies at National Gallery,” October 20, 1979.

July 24, 2008

What is modern about Shaker?

Furniture from the mid-20th century demonstrates what is possible by using new materials and technologies. The same can be said for 18th-century American furniture by the Shakers. In fact, there are many examples of time periods when radical departures in furniture design are attributable to new technology. But what connects Shaker and mid-20th-century furniture is the form.

The Shaker movement was founded in England in 1747 and in America in 1774. For almost 200 years, the members of the sect established villages from Maine to Kentucky, living in communities separated from "the world," or people who did not share their religious beliefs. As for the name Shaker, it is derived from "shaking Quaker" and referred to the movements the members made when sitting in silent communion. Of the many Shaker virtues, utility, harmony and order were highly esteemed, and these qualities were expressed in the everyday items the Shakers created.

The mid-century modernists have more in common with the shaking aspect (coffee and cigarettes) than with the religious and isolated ways in which the Shakers lived, but they shared the Shakers' ability to turn a belief system – albeit a very different one – into a physical expression. The belief system that drove the modernists included a desire to create affordable furniture for as many people as possible. The expression of which took the form of simple, functional, well-designed items that could be mass-produced. The Shakers, who numbered 6,000 in the years before the Civil War, didn't seek involvement with the "world's people" (non-Shakers), but when they realized the demand for the furniture they created, they began producing it commercially. Different intents drove the Shakers and the modernists to remarkably parallel bodies of work that continue to reverberate today.

Both groups shunned the stylistic traditions of their times, favoring instead simplicity and proportions that met the demands of utility and were in keeping with the human form. Before "less is more" and "form follows function" became modern maxims, the Shakers had long denounced decorative excess in favor of smart, practical furniture. "Beauty rests on utility," believed the Shakers, "and that which has in itself the highest use possesses the greatest beauty."

In addition, the Shaker craftspeople did not sign their work, since doing so was believed to represent a display of personal pride and did not reflect Shaker virtues. Modernist furniture designer George Nakashima shared the belief that signing a piece is egocentric, and it was only after Nakashima knock-offs appeared did he agree to mark his work. Nakashima was an MIT-trained architect who was known to describe himself as Japanese Shaker. This label expressed his belief that his designs should be treated as everyday functional objects, not precious possessions.

The market for fakes was something the Shakers were familiar with, especially as their pared-down, functional furniture grew in popularity. Examples of Shaker furniture include lightweight ladder-back chairs that could be hung on the wall when the floors were cleaned, and worktables with push-and-pull drawers that could be accessed from either side, perhaps by two sisters working on their sewing simultaneously. While many people think of Shaker furniture as small in scale, many of their pieces were actually quite large, as they were designed for communal living. An example would be long dining tables and benches meant to be used by as many people in the community as possible. In this way, the Shakers and modernists differed, but for the most part, these groups had a lot in common, especially when it came to carefully considered, straightforward furniture that is just as relevant to how we live today.

March 20, 2008

A design edukation.

This month's Design Notes is written by James Victore, who is a graphic designer, illustrator, animator and product designer. He also teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Victore is fortunate to be doing exactly what he loves to do, but as he shares with us this month, there's no "right" way to get there.

My professional bio reads, "self-taught." This is both right and wrong. It's right in that I have no formal education and never learned the right way to do ... anything. But it is wrong because throughout my career – hell, throughout my life – I have been able to seek out and find great mentors, teachers and influencers. One of my mentors, the great poster designer Henryk Tomaszewski, once told me, "You can only teach what you know." So I teach what I know. I teach how to play. I teach how to invent. For a while, the title for the class I teach was "Knowing Your Butt from a Hole in the Ground." This is much more accurate than "Class GDD3015E." As a teacher, I use assignments that come from Tomaszewski's method of teaching abstracts: words and phrases designed to put students in a dark room and make them fumble around for the door. I sometimes feel like an evil, mustached tormentor when I give out an assignment. One exmple would be "Always the Other," or "A Big Nothing, A Little Nothing." On the surface, they mean nothing. No visual clichés or rote responses are embedded in them. But when the students really put their minds to it, they arrive at unexpected places. Places that are often personal, intuitive and meaningful.

My own education was flecked with failure. As a university freshman, I ended the first semester with a 0.04 GPA. I was asked to leave. I was sure that things would be different in New York City, and I transferred to the School of Visual Arts (SVA). I made it to the second year before I was asked to leave. It wasn't that I didn't like design, but I just couldn't find the excitement in it. Never being one to say "uncle," I pressed-on.

Today, I teach at SVA, my "almost mater," where I try to be the teacher that I needed: less a teacher, more a fire starter. I discourage my students from becoming designers. Designers tend to think alike. They even dress alike. I want my students to become good, strong citizens, independent thinkers and entrepreneurs. I try to get them to look inside themselves for answers, and not to follow trends or fashion. I try to get them to be open, and to expand their ideas of what design is and could be. I encourage them to see possibilities everywhere, love the process and read Rilke. Only when students question everything can they find ways to surprise themselves and, ultimately, their audience. But I think one of the most important things I do with my students is allow them the freedom to fail. This is important to me because when you are free to fail, you stop searching for the "right" answer. I teach design, not math. There is no right answer. No right typeface or right color. My own work is a continuous search for illogical ideas, the beautiful ugly and the confidence to put it on a page.

Being a teacher has led me to surround myself with even more hotheads, anarchists and geniuses. I will be starting a new experiment this summer with my designer/teacher pals Paul Sahre and Jan Wilker. "SahreVictoreWilker" is a weeklong design workshop in NYC. This will be the first time we all teach together and we have no idea what to expect. It will probably be a glorious mess. If it's not, we will have to try harder next year.

Victor

James Victore


February 21, 2008

Industrial design for the public good.

Yves BéharThis month, Jennifer Morla caught up with Yves Béhar, the industrial designer who has worked with a variety of clients, ranging from Birkenstock to Herman Miller.

JM: Was there a pivotal point in your youth when it became clear that you wanted to pursue design?

YB: When I was 16 or 17 years old, the relationship between product and designer became very clear to me when I saw Philippe Starck's Costes Chair in Paris. At the same time, I was making the connection between design and my own intuitive approach to things. For example, in order to satisfy my desire for skiing and surfing, I created a new experience that would combine the two. I bolted a pair of skis together and added a sail so that I could windsurf on frozen lakes.

JM: After graduating with a degree in industrial design from Art Center College of Design, you started your career by working for a few design studios – most notably, Frog Design, founded by Hartmut Esslinger, who transformed Apple from a start-up into a worldwide brand. Did you work with Hartmut? What was that like?

YB: We worked together on a few projects, which were always fast and furious. The Lufthansa project was a fun one. We redesigned the interiors of the planes and the furniture in the waiting area at the Frankfurt Airport.

JM: After a few years, you set out on your own.

YB: Yes. I started my own design company, called fuseproject, and I teach industrial design at California College of the Arts (CCA).

JM: Congratulations on your recent appointment as head of the industrial design department. Tell me a little bit about the programming you have planned.

YB: This is an exciting time to be studying design. Our role is evolving from being a stylist to being a problem solver faced with many different challenges. Students today don't have to specialize in civic design, or sustainable design, or commercial design. There's so much crossover. They're all part of this magical toolbox that we should draw from in every project we work on.

JM: Is that your definition of good design – that it is a crossover of sustainability, accessibility and an aesthetic point of view, in addition to being commercially viable?

YB: Absolutely. That's what we provide to our clients, and that's what the students are drawn to doing as well. You have sustainability projects that are for profit, and some that are not for profit, but in the end, the goal is the same: to have that educational, democratizing effect. My students think less like specialists than I did when I was in school, but today everything is more integrated, more multifaceted. I think it's a natural way for the students and the program to evolve. In my work at fuseproject, we're engaged in many social projects right now, and those experiences are reflected in my program at CCA.

JM: I'm assuming you're referring to the NYC Condom Dispenser project you're launching. Tell me about the project.

Condom Dispenser YB: It's been proven that New York's free condom-distribution program is working to slow down the spread of HIV and reduce unwanted pregnancies. But there's still room for improvement. How I fit in is as the designer of the NYC Condom Dispenser, which was designed to increase the impact of the program, get beyond the stigma of condoms and create discussion. That's exactly the role that good design can play, and this client knew that from the get-go, so it was quite exciting. I designed the condom dispenser in much the same way you'd approach a fire hydrant. It had to be immediately recognizable, and it couldn't be intimidating or preachy. The round shape of the dispenser is sort of friendly, and reminds you of a condom in its form and relief, but isn't too literal.

JM: The form of the dispenser and the multicolored typeface make it very approachable. Where will the dispensers be in NYC?

YB: Last week, there were 125 installed in sites ranging from bars to bakeries.

JM: So they're in commercial settings, too?

YB: Yes. Any business owner can call 311 in New York and ask to have one installed in their location. One is being added to the bathroom of a Kenneth Cole boutique next week. Of course, the dispensers will be in homeless shelters, clinics and social-services providers as well. So the design had to be able to migrate from fancy hotel to neighborhood bar.

JM: Good luck with the project. Now, switching subjects a bit, can you tell me how you describe the relationship between lighting and technology?

Leaf® Light YB: Until recently, I would describe the relationship as quite limited. When I first started working on the Leaf Light in 2001, I wanted to explore the possibilities of lower energy consumption and more choices with lighting coloration. LEDs were just being developed, and until then, there wasn't a lot of advanced technology used in lighting – especially not in residential lighting.

JM: Do you think LEDs are changing that?

YB: I believe in 10 years, all lighting will be LED. What's exciting is that up until now, all lighting was designed around the light bulb. Once you go to LEDs, which are only an eighth of a millimeter thick, the potential is entirely different and new. With Leaf, we explored this new language, a new expression of light based on new technology.

JM: What is "green" about Leaf Light?

YB: It consumes 60 to 70% less energy than a light using a standard light bulb. It consumes 40% less energy than a light using a compact fluorescent light bulb. From an energy standpoint, that's already pretty significant. Did you know that the European Union has mandated that task lights for EU offices be LED only? The other thing is, LEDs last about seven to 10 years. In the same amount of time, you'd use – meaning throw away – 80 incandescent bulbs. Leaf is also compelling in how it's made. There's a large percentage of recycled content in the aluminum we use; plus, it's 95% recyclable and follows the Design for the Environment (DfE) protocol. It's environmental on every level: the product, how it's made, the materials used and energy efficiency.

JM: Tell me about the inspiration for the shape of the lamp.

YB: Because LEDs are so thin, I was looking for an expression of that thinness. The top and bottom are called blades – blades of grass, if you will – which have very low profiles. The width of the blade is important because it helps keep the LEDs in contact with a lot of air, which keeps the LEDs cool to the touch. Without this heat-dissipation device, the LEDs would get too hot and burn out. So the form was partially inspired by an expression of the light source, and partially inspired by a feat of engineering.

JM: Do you have Leaf in your workspace?

YB: Yes, lots.

JM: Finally, do you consider yourself a futurist?

YB: I consider myself a futurist. I consider myself a humanist. And I consider myself an environmentalist. For me, technology is an incredible enabler, but it means nothing if it doesn't consider the human being, the human touch. In the end, all of what we create has to have the world and the environment in mind as it gets produced.

January 24, 2008

Seats that cross boundaries: personal and international.

Boeing 707If you had to choose between designing the engine or the seat of an airplane, which would you choose? Before you answer, consider that progress in engine design is measured in speed, safety and fuel efficiency. Progress in seat design is measured by a much more demanding standard: the passengers.

A lot has changed in the 50 years since the first commercial jet airliners appeared. First of all, we no longer turn planes into pop stars (Peter, Paul and Mary, the Steve Miller Band and Gordon Lightfoot all performed songs that mentioned the Boeing 707) and we've grounded in-flight smoking. In the 1950s, the British de Havilland Comet had separate washrooms for men and women. In 2007, we sleep next to strangers as we cross time zones.

Lie Flat SeatingWhile lie-flat seating is being hailed as the must-have feature for those who fly, it's worth noting that this idea isn't new. Sleeping berths were standard equipment in some commercial propeller plane interiors. Later, when the launch of the jet airliner significantly shortened flights, there was no longer a need (or so they thought) for customers to take transcontinental naps.

In addition to lie-flat seats, today's planes are tricked out with all sorts of in-flight gizmos, including WiFi access, USB ports and touch-sensitive display screens at every seat. On Virgin, talking to the person next to you has been replaced with in-flight, seat-to-seat text-chat. Looking for more information about these trends, we asked an industry insider about the work that goes into designing airline interiors. Jeffrey Bernett, who is a familiar face at DWR for his work on the Flight Recliner, Liege Desk and Reid Sofa, worked as a design consultant for Northwest Airlines (NWA). Challenged with the task of designing new business class in-flight seating for NWA, Bernett partnered with Jeffrey Osborne, a design and marketing consultant who once worked for Knoll.

Q&A with Jeffrey BernettJeffrey Bernett
Q: What were your responsibilities at NWA?

To take the next generation of lie-flat business class seats and improve their comfort and functionality, while also integrating an entertainment system into the design. The goal was to create a seating solution that was consistent with NWA brand values and looked like it should sit inside an NWA aircraft.

Q: Did the project begin with a problem that needed to be solved?

NWA's most profitable routes are to Asia. There is an 11" height difference between 95% of the U.S. population and that of Japan, so we had to accommodate those different body types, shapes and heights. The solution had to have all of the ergonomic features necessary for long-distance travel, delivered in a package that supported this target audience. Finally, the notion that people are sleeping next to people they don't know meant that part of the task was to develop features that created privacy.

Q: What were some of the challenges you encountered?

There were a couple of key factors. A heavy seat requires more fuel to get it from point A to point B. That costs the airline money, so we had to keep weight in mind. We also had to stay within budget for the overall cost of development, as well as the price per unit. At the same time, the seat had to be comfortable, particularly for long flights, and durability was another key priority. The seat had to stand up to the abuse loads seen in the airline business.

Q: Can you give me an example of a breakthrough or "aha!" moment?

The canopy. Privacy was something we thought was important from the start, particularly in lie-flat mode, when your head is just above another person's feet and knees.

Q: Are the seats you worked on still found on today's planes?

I believe they've been installed on all the new long-haul aircraft NWA has purchased since 2001, as well as in some of their older, refurbished aircraft.

Q: How has your work at Northwest influenced your work since?

It was a great project, and you can look at the Flight Recliner we did for DWR and see a bit of inspiration from NWA.

Q: Finally, what's your opinion of the Dreamliner by Boeing?

The Dreamliner is a revolutionary approach to use of materials in the manufacture of an airplane, improving a number of aspects related to the aircraft, window size and cabin headroom.