New York designer Jeffrey Bernett has built a close relationship with the furniture industry, so much so that his involvement is hinged not only on designing but also the business strategy behind it. HD: Can you talk about being a designer in New York? It seems quite a conservative place to work, or are things shifting up a gear with the re-launch of the International Contemporary Furniture Fair and the opening of new and experimental buildings by Kazuyo Sejima and others?
JB: For the past 10 years New York has been going through a big real estate boom, and there have been a lot of international architects getting the opportunity to build in a big way -- something we haven’t seen before in the US. Because the US embraces change, and industry here is very market driven, oftentimes the way forward is based heavily on technology. European industry, with stronger ties to culture and history, is much more philosophically based, and sees technology as an important part of the equation but not the only means to an end. That said, we are really living in a global community more than ever, so in that way, everything is more linked together now. There is not a more global city than New York; our city is, in one way or another, always dealing with the issues that are at the intersection of commerce, culture and society.
HD: Describe your practice, your work across furniture and interiors, and your design strategy.
JB: We are a multidisciplinary design consultancy and work in many areas: residential and office furniture, household products, lighting, transportation design, graphic design, packaging and bottle design, environments and interior architecture and strategic planning. One of our main strengths is a holistic strategic approach to design in which we give input and analyse market and opportunities, process and design development, material and manufacturing, marketing collateral, and the overall design solutions. Like all relationships, good dialogue and open communication are paramount to success.
HD: What about residential work?
JB: The idea of how people live is always a very interesting inspiration. We have a knowledge base and we build on that. Contemporary architecture is something that I am interested in and we pay close attention to it. Contemporary life, in general, interests me: art fashion, architecture and technology. A lot has changed in the past 10 years when you think about the user experience. Companies like Apple have done an amazing job of changing that.
HD: What role does intuition play in your studio? Does instinct hold an important place?
JB: I think design and life are both a lot about intuition. Figuring out what one wants to do with their life can be one of the hardest things. Once one knows, or if one is lucky enough to know that early on, heading in that direction is that much easier. I think it takes five years to understand what’s going on in any given field, and then it takes another five years to turn that experience into real useful knowledge.
HD: Describe how you work with the Italian manufacturer B&B Italia. It seems to be a very collaborative partnership -- strategy seems an important part of your role.
JB: We have worked closely together for 11 or more years now. Knowing a client for that long, you get more involved strategically, helping to think about what new products and market segments to participate in. The design process benefits from being well informed, taking into account who the client is, what markets to participate in, and the overall goals. Design is collaboration from the very start with every client, and in particular, no more so than with B&B.
HD: What tends to be the more difficult to satisfy – the manufacturer, the user or your own demands?
JB: Two out of three is always easier than three out of three. That said, we are usually our own toughest critics. Coming up with solutions that are different is easy; coming up with solutions that are better is always much harder, but that should always be the goal.
HD: Do you think designers have a growing role to play in the world, beyond the object? For example, working with government on environmental issues.
JB: Obviously there are some pretty big challenges in the world these days with health care, education, the elderly, which are central to the social and cultural wellbeing of all of us. While this is a huge generalisation, globally, corporate culture places a higher priority on making money than it does on social and cultural issues. Governments are much more focused on people's wellbeing, and it's more important now that the focus stays there. One example, in our country, I wish the government would just mandate recycling nationally, then you would see the cost and efficiencies come into play, which are needed to make recycled material prices more in line with first-use material prices. HD: What research do you do into sustainability design?
JB: Sustainability has always been important, and now obviously more than ever. We always try to take into account a design solution that will last a long time and be an intelligent use of manufacturing. We pay particular attention to the type of materials used, as well as what can be done with those materials once the useful life of the product is over. HD: What do you consider to be some of the really significant problems that designers should be responding to now?
JB: As mentioned above, there are huge global problems with heath care, education, the elderly -- social and cultural issues -- so anyone with the courage even to start in one of these areas, I say is time well spent.
HD: If you had to describe your work to someone who didn't know it, what would you say?
JB: We work in so many areas, so generally I would say that we try to improve the quality of life in all of those areas.
HD: What projects are you working on now?
JB: We are always working on new projects on an ongoing basis for our core long-term clients, such as B&B Italia, DWR [Design Within Reach] and Knoll. We are just starting with a new client for some projects that will principally use wood, and another client that has a new business model for the design world, which is fairly avant-garde and innovative on most levels.
HD: What haven't you designed that you have always wanted to?
JB: New challenges are always good, but we are also pretty good at coming up with new ways of looking at the world we live in, which provides an endless stream of new ideas.