You launched your Locale and Formwork projects at NeoCon as part of Herman Miller’s Living Office in Chicago. Can you explain the impetus behind these designs and the process behind their creation? They were a long time in the making.
Sam Hecht I think time is not necessarily a reference to quality – for us, the reason things can take a long time is either the scale of the project, or the amount of persuasion required to convince different parts of a company to back a particular vision. The physical scale and the amount of componentry that had to be developed with engineers for Locale – some 500 components – made it a very intense project.
Kim Colin With Formwork, it was very much a sophisticated act of persuasion, initiated by a few people in the company who had asked for a creative response to accessories for the office. Imagine for a moment the conversation we had with a publicly listed company – “We would like to design a series of simple plastic boxes for helping people sort things out a bit better. We think you have the integrity and legitimacy to do this.”
It is interesting to talk about both projects in the context of Chicago, with its history of modern architecture and early skyscrapers. Mies van der Rohe’s Lakeshore Drive apartments are a stone’s throw away from the Merchandise Mart where NeoCon is held. Formwork seems to borrow from this tradition – the clarity of structures, use of high quality materials and open configuration. What inspired the pieces’ formal qualities?
KC I guess you could view Mies’ work like a product, but it is the result of a different moment, politically, socially and industrially. There’s a big contrast between the intended quality and clarity you mention and what’s actually happening in the city at street level now with Walgreens, Gap and popcorn outlets. The vision for the city that Mies and Bertrand Goldberg propelled still exists in Chicago’s skyline, but it seems a distant memory at ground level. I feel Herman Miller thinks of the Eameses and George Nelson in this way too – they are part of an important legacy and they certainly reflect Herman Miller, but the ground has essentially changed and thankfully the company is free to discuss new ways of living and working without adhering to a style sheet from the past.
SH Formwork consists of about 14 products and each has a relationship to its potential contents. Within them there are also details that give a greater usefulness, such as the small cantilevers. So a pencil cup can contain pens and scissors, but you can also put USB sticks and rubber bands in them; things with very different sizes. We wanted Formwork to acknowledge what was going inside them (to a certain extent), and this laid the foundation for the sizes and form. If you were to look at Mies, his apartments are also a result of the condition of centralising services in the middle, and living around the edges where there is light and views – a kind of cantilever for life.
Given all the digital tools we have at our disposal, a bespoke desk accessory seems to be something of a throwback to an earlier time. What convinced you that this collection of objects was still relevant to contemporary living?
SH We wanted to create a system whereby a pencil cup, a paper tray or a tissue box maintained a kind of singular dignity, while also being able to connect to each other. There is always this grand, almost utopian ideal that a person will fill their entire lives with a new method of storage and organisation – but that is a fiction. People buy what fills in the gaps of their lives in the hope that things become more pleasurable or efficient or both. Formwork is very much this idea – that one piece can allow small items to be contained, or several pieces can work together.
KC I think it is partly because we see that desk accessories are generally bereft of good design. They are often too expressive or too cheap or overly precious. And I really believe that the digital world still has physical alliances with other things. We didn’t want to deny the fact that tablets and laptops are around us – which is why we spent time designing a very simple laptop stand. The idea was that when the laptop is removed, the object left has some formal qualities and does not look incomplete.
You have spent a number of years developing Locale, all the while testing the prototypes in your office as a way to get rid of the kinks and make improvements based on real life scenarios. Did you take the same approach with Formwork?
KC I think for every project to reach a kind of equilibrium, you need an expert and a novice. For Locale we were very much in the role of the novice and Herman Miller had the expertise. We knew what we wanted to convey, but we had to go through a lot of learning and experimentation with the engineers, particularly as it was dealing so much with mechanics, safety, sustainability and codes. But you could say that the roles were reversed with the desk accessories of Formwork. Over the last 10 years we have built up some expertise and knowledge about moulding and so it was natural for us to lead this project. In the end it is all about quality, because there is no reason not to reach a respectable quality and a reasonable price anymore. It just requires curiosity, backed by knowledge, and supported by effort. But the result should always appear effortless. Even the calculatedly mathematical proportions should appear natural.
SH It is well documented that we work primarily with prototypes in all sorts of materials, and generally make by hand. This is before we allow the computer to enter the process. With Formwork it was no different – lots of cardboard models, in this instance produced by our Finnish student Liisa Poskiparta. This process allows us to gauge a tangible trajectory. It was someone in Herman Miller who said that Charles and Ray Eames had formulated a very early principle for Herman Miller. The principle was that they should produce “The best, for the most, for the least.” I would probably change that now to “from the least.” But regardless, it is a principle that should be commended, and I see it in the work of other designers working with Herman Miller, like the German studio 7.5. They have been working quietly and very efficiently with no ego for many years. There is a tradition amongst the culture even to this day to produce things of the most appropriate quality for the object’s function.
You have spent your career rethinking the objects we use daily, generating inventive responses that revive, invent anew, or emphasise existing typologies of form and function. How do you see these new works fitting within that trajectory?
KC I can’t deny that we have a certain obsession with objects and their presence – but in all fairness this trajectory is very long and well trodden. Perhaps the Italian post-war design factories would look upon this project as a kind of continuation of their thoughts. It seems that the trajectory of useful design, that has a certain quality and inventiveness that you mention, has been in “pause” mode for a while now. We wanted to press the “play” button again because it feels like the right time.