6 Lessons from Legendary Designer Carl Gustav Magnusson

11.26.2018

“You only learn when you listen.”

That’s one of many insights Carl Gustav Magnusson, legendary industrial designer and inventor, has garnered during his decades long career in the design industry, working with some of the most prominent companies and designers the world over.

Magnusson shared his background, experiences and what he’s learned along the way in a podcast with interiors+sources editor-in-chief Kadie Yale. Here are six takeaways:

1. Learn from Others

From his childhood through his formal education in Sweden, Magnusson gained inspiration from the people, modern furniture and architecture that surrounded him.

“My father being an engineer encouraged me to move further into that. I started my studies in engineering but rather quickly discovered that architecture was much more to my liking and transferred over to that,” he explains.

After graduating Chalmers Institute of Technology in Sweden, Magnusson wrote a letter to Charles Eames and about three weeks later received a response inviting him to join the office of Charles and Ray Eames in Los Angeles. He credits this experience for providing him with his first real-life crash course in design.

“I discovered how unstructured the situation is, in that you were asked to design everything from aquariums to working on furniture projects to graphics, photography, cinema and it was just such a celebration of creativity,” he says. “Not that I was that good, but everyone around me was so good and I think that’s how you learn, is by being around people that are just terrific.”

Eventually, Magnusson went on to spend three decades working for Knoll, advancing his career, and living and traveling across Europe, before retiring in 2005. He’s now in New York continuing his career as an active designer, consultant and lecturer. “All along the road, I was able to learn from all the great designers around me, and a lot of it has to do with just witnessing best practices.”


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2. Be Inclusive

Open offices have become the norm, in part, to allow for more informal communication. Technology has also made it possible to easily connect regardless of time and location. This evolution allows for the freedom to connect with anyone and everyone, and Magnusson suggests listening and incorporating all voices and stepping outside industry circles. 

“I don’t view creativity that is something that’s the domain of designers, architects, etc.,” he says. “Creativity is something that everybody can be encouraged, trained to do and feel comfortable in doing, and that’s what I think the new environments should do, is encourage creative thoughts from everyone.”

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3. Never Throw Away an Idea

No matter how frequently endured, rejection is never easy. As designers you’re expected to develop new ideas, many of which are outside of the box, push comfort levels and are ultimately rejected. Magnusson says that’s fine, and it’s fine to move onto the next idea – but don’t throw away any of your ideas.

“I know good designers hold onto the sketches, hold onto the ideas and never throw them away because they’ll come back,” he suggests. “It could be 10, 20 years, because often as fast as we think things are moving, they’re moving at an extraordinarily slow pace. A good idea that you had decades ago might just be the answer to what the needs are today or tomorrow.”

4. Embrace Technology

Technology in some industries has far surpassed others. Magnusson says the key is to embrace tools that other industries are using, noting that 3D printing can have widespread use in the furniture industry. From the creation of structural materials, to the ability to develop individual pieces and to affect time on market.

“I have huge faith in the direction that things are going, providing that we sort of cross-pollinate the various manufacturing processes that exist in other industries,” he says. “The furniture industry is not heavily advanced compared to, let’s say, the automobile industry, which is probably at the top end of that. But we can be learning from it and working together with them to find more efficient solutions to the problems.”

5. Use Design to Solve the Big Issues

Magnusson says design solutions can go far beyond furniture and be used to solve the big issues facing the world.

“I’ve always had a sense that we have a responsibility to society, whether we’re designers or not, to make things better for the common good and the byproduct will serve you well.”

“I think as designers, we should be asked and volunteer to solve more of these problems because the job of the designer is to have an idea and then figure out how to manifest it into reality. That’s what we’re supposed to be good at and I feel that it’s an underutilized profession.”

6. Work Hard and Love What You Do

Always the optimist, Magnusson took advantage of the opportunities that arose, putting in the hard work and effort, learning from others and loving what he was doing. 

“I was just excited to be invited to work with people that I admired and so I just went into it and learned. And I realized of course they would look at me as someone who knew less than they did, but I have a pretty good work ethic. And so that buys you a certain amount of respect, because if you don’t know much at least you’re working hard,” he says.

Now, four decades into his career, Magnusson remains incredibly active in the industry as a designer, lecturer, inventor, mentor and visionary. “I must say I absolutely love it. I feel that it’s a profession that can help society, should help society and in general I think that the ethical structure of the design profession is in a good place.”


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