Move Architecture and Design Innovation Forward by Trying New Things

05/01/2019 By Robert Nieminen

Trade show season is officially upon us. Whether you were fortunate enough to attend the Milan Furniture Fair last month or are off to Vegas for HD Expo this month or in Chicago for NeoCon in June, one thing is certain: the amount of new furniture, finishes and materials being brought to market is dizzying.

What I love about this time of year, however, is seeing innovation firsthand. It also provides an interesting reflection of how the market responds to demand.

What designers ask for or need isn’t always easy to deliver, however. For example, as the industry begins to shift its focus to wellness, healthier materials and furnishings need to meet the requirements of project rating systems such as WELL and Fitwell (much like it did for sustainability). But as noted in this month’s Report, if the way materials are produced doesn’t change, progress can only go so far.

“The challenge facing designers right now is that no one is listening to them as much as they should be to change products, not because they don’t want to, but because they aren’t capable,” notes John Warner, president and CTO at the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. “There’s a big difference between having the desire and having the ability to change.” He notes that once a tipping point occurs when one supplier meets a demand, the market typically figures out a way to follow suit. (As was the case with green products.)

Of course, it helps if designers and specifiers have a firm grasp of the nature of the materials at their disposal. As visiting assistant professor of design Cory Olsen of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville explains in this month’s IDEC column, “One of the primary goals of the course is to instill the notion that as designers we must first better understand our materials to design responsibly. We need to consider structure and composition, strengths and weaknesses, modes of joining, stresses and movements.”

Case in point: textile designer Elizabeth Whelan spent nearly 20 years developing a new stretch fabric for Humanscale that had everything the manufacturer was looking for: performance, functional and aesthetic characteristics. After many different mesh fabrics failed, Whelan re-focused her attention on weaving, and ended up with Fortis, a unique, four-way woven stretch fabric that closely conforms to Humanscale’s ergonomic seat cushions and allows end-users to feel fully supported.


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We anticipate equally exciting introductions in Chicago this year, and for a sneak peek at what to expect, turn to page 46 for our annual NeoCon Preview. If you’ll be among the throngs of people exploring theMART in June, we also invite you to stop by our Materials Pavilion on the 7th floor where you’ll find hundreds of materials samples side-by-side with details on their origin, makeup and recommended applications.

Being inspired by the world at our fingertips is often what leads us down a path of self-discovery, which was certainly the case with our Designer of the Year, Malene Barnett, who graces this month’s cover and whose story you’ll find on page 38.

Having spent years making bespoke carpet designs for companies like Viacom and WeWork, someone observed that she’s more than a designer—she’s also an artist. As a result of that revelation, Barnett is now blurring the lines between her art and design work, while striving to inspire and lift up the next generation of artists and designers of color with the Black Artists + Designers Guild, which she founded in late 2018.

“In the middle part of my life, I think more about legacy and what mark I want to leave,” she says. “Some may think I’m still so young, but legacy is about starting young. What story do you want to tell? What mark do you want to leave on the world? I don’t want my life to only be about rug design. I love it, but I know there’s so much more in me.”

Like Barnett, we don’t need to be limited to just one label. Whether designing a new office, a chair or a material that hasn’t yet been invented, we’re only limited by the constraints we place on ourselves.

The question is: what are you inspired to do? Whatever it is, remember these words from anthropologist Jane Goodall: “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

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