Mavericks by design | Industrial designers find independence and opportunity by combining art with science
September 20, 2010
Aside from instant widespread recognition, what do the iPod, KitchenAid stand mixer, Jeep, Fender Stratocaster, Volkswagen Beetle and Coke bottle have in common?
They are all products of industrial designers, a specialized profession that creatively blends form and function in products for mass consumption. Maine ranks fifth in the nation for the number of industrial designers working here as a percentage of the overall work force, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Patric Santerre of ARCADIA designworks in Portland, whose projects range from a semi-collapsible lobster trap to children’s toys made from wood waste, says industrial designers are the brains behind many of the country’s most successful goods.
“Every year when BusinessWeek names their top 100 products of the year, the majority of them are industrially designed,” Santerre says.
Santerre is part of a growing cluster of independent industrial designers practicing their profession from their homes and studios around Maine. Only Michigan, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin rank higher. “I’m completely stunned by that statistic,” says Judy Paolini, a Portland-based industrial designer who has been operating independently since 1990. “But that’s the kind of information we need to get out to the business community — that there are a lot of designers here and a lot of Maine companies need product designers.”
Bound by work that combines applied art and applied science, industrial designers are both creative mavericks and poster children for Maine’s creative economy. And their ranks will continue to swell, according to John Rohman, co-chair of Maine’s Creative Economy Council. “In the creative economy, people rely heavily on the design aspect of what they do, so there’s a lot of emphasis on the quality of design,” he says. “As a result, there’s a large collection of design-based talent and resources here in the state.”
Concept and application
Industrial design work typically falls into three broad categories. The first is product design, either creating a product for a specific purpose with certain capabilities, or improving upon an existing product.
“Think about every coffee pot you’ve ever had that pours coffee on the counter,” says Paolini. “That’s an example of a product that would benefit from an industrial designer.
“Or think about your computer mouse. In applying industrial design, you have to think about the physical product, but also the aesthetics and usability,” she says. “The mouse has to work with the computer, but it also has to fit your hand and look like it will fit your hand, be easy to use and so on.”
A second category is package design, involving a product’s delivery to market. Several years ago, Lauren Rudy, of Lauren Rudy Design in Arundel, designed cottage furniture for L.L.Bean that could be shipped in a flat box. The benches, chests, shelves and other units had upscale design elements — deep reveals and tall panels — but could be shipped economically, enhancing the line’s competitiveness against other furniture suppliers.
Rudy now specializes in home décor for Foreside Home and Garden, formerly of Gorham, designing colorful and whimsical dinnerware and serving pieces that capitalize on the popularity of entertaining at home. California-based Transpac Imports recently acquired the company, reassembled the Foreside team, including the designers, and is re-launching it as a brand under the Transpac umbrella. The ability to recognize a trend and design products that help a company capture a market segment is the third specialty within the field. “Design doesn’t have to be about bringing something to market that’s not understandable, it can also be about making something better,” she says. “But it should be about making sure everything has a purpose, and that you’re not just gluing things on for the sake of gluing them on.”
The bulk of Maine’s industrial designers work in offices, as what Santerre calls “cubicle” industrial designers, while he, Paolini, Rudy and others prefer to strike out on their own. They are contracted to design for a variety of companies, from large corporations to paper mills to smaller boutique operations.
Most independents either know or are aware of each other and their work. According to Rudy, Santerre has been active in attempting to increase awareness among Maine companies of the availability of industrial design talent right in their backyards. “There are a lot of talented designers here in Maine, a lot of people who can bring new life to a company or product,” she says. “Unfortunately, a lot of companies may not know they need design.”
For the past several years, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts has organized a symposium called “Creating in Maine” that draws together manufacturers and designers. The event tries to encourage dialogue between the two groups, a connection that brought Santerre to Robbins Lumber in Searsmont and led to a project to create toys and games from wood left over from the company’s lumber operations.
“Unfortunately, it’s really difficult to sustain that energy and create a more formal organization [among industrial designers] because everyone is so focused on finding work that will pay me right now,” Paolini says, an attitudinal offshoot of the recession.
Rudy says that while the economy has prompted some of her clients to put projects on hold, it has created other opportunities. “The trend with the downturn has been toward more unique products or making products that last uniquely,” she says. “As a contract worker, it can be a great time. It’s a great opportunity [for a company]to cut costs by hiring a contractor to fill in the gaps, rather than a full-time employee.”
A: In short, I would say opportunity and interest. Although Maine is still manufacturing a variety of raw materials and specialty items, the production of consumer-type goods is limited. Therefore, designers are in less demand. Also, many companies with engineers on staff do not fully understand the value that an industrial designer can bring to a product. However, architects have been designing manufactured products since the early 1900s. Peter Behrens, one of the first industrial designers, was also an architect. Behrens designed a turbine factory for the German company AEG as well as electric clocks, fans, and teakettles and even developed AEG’s graphic corporate identity. More recently, in the United States, architect Michael Graves has expanded his practice into a dual office with associates designing architecture and a separate group designing products such as housewares for Target stores. Furniture is one of the most common manufactured products designed by architects. There are actually quite a few Maine architects who have designed chairs and tables that could be industrially produced.
Up and down
The annual mean wage for an industrial designer working full time at a company in Maine is just over $60,000, according to the Department of Labor. But for independents, income fluctuates, adding uncertainty and special challenges, says Sunny Stutzman of Sunny Skies Design in Dover-Foxcroft. “There are times when you’ll be straight out for three months or so, then have nothing for a while, then straight out again,” he says. “You go from being stressed to having nothing, then back to being stressed.”
Stutzman says he’s learned to accept — and embrace — that inevitable cycle as the nature of the job. To fill the down times, he’s been designing and building a number of products for himself, rather than for a client. This includes an upright bass that’s half the size of a traditional bass for easier transport, as well as other projects still in the research and design stages.
“Being so far from population centers, it just doesn’t make sense for me to drive all over the state, knock on doors and come back empty-handed,” he says. “Designing and developing my own products and projects during down times, I can build up my own inventory now and take pressure off later.”
Rather than delay a project while he searches for an elusive partner, Stutzman, an accomplished woodworker, turns to that skill for additional work. He recently completed an exhibit at the Maine Discovery Museum in Bangor and finished a renovation at the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft.
Like several other industrial designers, Stutzman came to Maine by way of a corporate job. With degrees in both business and industrial design, Stutzman worked in and around Portland before landing a job designing footwear for Dexter Shoe. When the company closed, he “lived out of hotels” for a while before arriving at Moosehead Manufacturing in Monson to design furniture. When that also closed, Stutzman says he hung out his shingle and started contracting. Among the projects he’s worked on are designing store fixtures and layouts for JSI Store Fixtures in Milo and planning and designing furniture for L.L.Bean’s home division.
Coincidentally, Rudy’s path also led her to the Freeport retailer’s home division, where she took on furniture and home décor design soon after graduating from Rhode Island School of Design. After going to work for Foreside Home, she struck out on her own in 2008. She continues to design for Foreside, as well as Garnett Hill of Franconia, N.H., where she designs a line of home décor products using the distinctive Lilly Pulitzer look.
Santerre, a trained architect, pursued a master’s degree in industrial design while a visiting assistant professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. From there, he joined Orcutt Associates in Yarmouth in1998, where he worked on a variety of projects, including University of Maine residence halls and some YMCAs. In 2005, he formed ARCADIA designworks, where he continues to pursue both architecture and industrial design.
For Santerre, being pigeonholed as a designer of any one thing in particular was never an option. “Living in Maine, you need to have that diverse approach,” he says.
Rohman says the three designers’ career paths are exactly the kind of success stories that speak to Maine’s emerging creative economy. “People want to be in a quality place that offers the kind of lifestyle they want, with hiking, biking and other natural-based resources available to them,” he says. “Because technology allows them to work from anywhere, they tend to migrate to where they can find the best quality of place, and here in Maine, there’s something for everyone.”
Santerre worries that as high schools grapple with budget cuts, many will cut their industrial arts and technology-related classes, potentially short-circuiting a conduit for careers in industrial design.
“In a lot of places, you can’t just run to the hardware store to repair something, so you have to get creative, maybe invent a fix. Maybe that fix is something that could become a product and help others with the same problem,” Santerre says. “Talented young people with that kind of ingenuity would flourish in an industrial design program.”
The University of Maine and University of Southern Maine offer engineering programs, but not industrial design. Santerre says his dream would be for the state to create an industrial design program within the university system. To help that happen, he submitted a proposal to the governor’s office to offer industrial design within the community college system, but so far there’s been no concrete action.
In the meantime, Santerre will teach an all-day industrial design class and workshop at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland starting in the spring. It’s a start, he says, but without students who recognize industrial design as a potential career, Maine may be missing out on a major opportunity. “Right now, these students are going out of state for school and for work,” Santerre says. “With the right program in place, we could keep more of them here and support industries that now have to look out of state for talent.”
Stutzman, too, is finding ways to encourage young people to consider careers in industrial design. He’s looking for three or four school districts in Piscataquis County where he can offer an industrial design course. Initially, he says, he would teach the courses locally and eventually create a turnkey curriculum for other schools to adopt. Stutzman says others, including the Maine Arts Commission, are excited about his program, but he hasn’t come up with enough grant funds to start the program this year. Undeterred, he’s moving forward with the plan.“It’s a question of convincing people they can afford it,” he says.
An industrial design educational program coupled with a focus on sustainable projects could position Maine as a national leader in the field, according to Santerre.”If we could harness the potential we have in the state and create an economy around sustainable design and green materials, we would be on the cutting edge,” he says.
Such an emphasis could have a positive impact on Maine at many levels, according to Rohman. “Creative economy workers, especially those working in industrial and manufacturing settings, rely on and are working on a number of issues like energy and transportation,” he says. “As the design process morphs into more of a creative thought process, that will certainly help grow our creative economy.”
The Line on Industrial Design
Industrial designers are often charged with developing new products for mass market, based on a client’s needs. Sometimes the need is to enter a new market, sometimes it’s to reduce production costs or to hit a retail price point.
Toys: Patric Santerre
At the request of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont, Santerre developed a line of toys using its wood waste. Trukles, pictured here, encourages memory and logic skills.
Another specialty among industrial designers it to improve an existing product for a new market, or to capture a greater share of an existing market.
Collapsible lobster trap: Patric Santerre
Santerre developed the semi-collapsible lobster trap, which can hold more lobsters than conventional traps. The traps were made by Brooks Trap Mill on Union Wharf in Portland. Santerre received nearly $15,000 in seed grants from the Maine Technology Institute for the project.
Home decor: Lauren Rudy
A line of colorful, whimsical home furnishings for Foreside Home and Garden capitalizes on the popularity of home decor
Often an industrial designer will be tapped to improve packaging for a product to reduce costs, enhance display or to accomplish a social mission, such as reducing its environmental impact.
Green packaging: Judy Paolini
Gus’ Baking Co. asked Paolini to design the packaging for Mongo Choco Chips to reduce its carbon footprint. The individual, gluten-free cookies are wrapped in plastic sleeves that are bundled together with a paper wrapper that also serves as the product display hanger. Paolini developed the concept originally for Down East pasta products.