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October 4, 2010 / Kuan

Humility of Being Designers: Insights from Ronald Beckman

The golden rule in the Herman Miller office is the humbleness — the humbleness of being designers, of respecting works who truly understand the process of making things, and of striving innovation behind the product.

Ronald Beckman, former director of the George Nelson Office Herman Miller Account and SU Emeritus Professor of Design, spoke in Everson Museum of Art in downtown Syracuse today about his experience working with designers such as Gilbert Rohde, Ray and Charles Eames, George Nelson, Alexander Girard, Robert Probst, Bill Stumpf, Don Chadwick amd Ayse Birdsel.

Beckman taught his last class in SU last fall, but he never stops designing. Almost 80 years old, Beckman and his wife, who is also an industrial designer, are redesigning their old apartments in Paris. His lawyer told him that they are the only couple who divides their life between Paris and Syracuse.

Back in Herman Miller, he said, workers are encouraged to challenge designers. It was in such an democratic environment that intellectual thinking was provoked. In the 50s and 60s, Herman Miller designers have already thought about ecological design. “We do ecological design isn’t because it is something trendy to do, but it is an extension to  problem solving,” Beckman said.

Therefore, collaboration is needed in the process of finding the solution. Beckman encouraged industrial design students to talk to graphic designers, engineers, economists, “Work with others, like you’re almost reading each other’s mind.”

After the talk, when I was walking through the exhibit, he walked up to me, saying “Need explanation for something?”

“Everything,” I said.

He burst into a laugh, and started to explain some of the most interesting furniture pieces, their designers, stories to me. One of the things he mentioned in his talk was that the Herman Miller company was about innovation, intellectual thinking. That is a tough thing to do — to make people understand their idea of interaction and collaboration. When he was with me, I asked what was the solution to the problem.

“Teach people to see,” he said, “To teach people that it is not about market, it is about the idea. When I told my dad that I wanted to be an industrial designer, he said, ‘are you going to make something and try to sell it?’ When I told him that I wanted to work in a design studio, he asked me what a design studio is. It’s touch to make people see.”

“It’s even tougher for students, no? We’re about to graduate, and there is the commercial world. What should we do?”

“Work for someone, and then eventually open up your own firm,” He beamed, “You have to have some experience first.”

Indeed, he’s already made me see things differently.


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