Authenticity as Intent at Pratt Institute

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How do we define what is legitimate – what is real – in design?

That’s the question Be Original Americas aimed to answer at Pratt Institute last month in a live discussion between industrial designer Leon Ransmeier and Ben Watson, Executive Creative Director of charter member Herman Miller. After an introduction by Karin Tehve, Chair of Interior Design at Pratt Institute, moderator Felix Burrichter, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of PIN-UP Magazine guided Ransmeier and Watson in their investigation of authenticity.

Ransmeier and Watson know each other well, having met when the designer was approached to create what would become the AGL Table Group for Herman Miller in 2011. Using this collaboration as a model, they began to point to the specific elements that contribute to the integrity of a design.

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AGL Table by Leon Ransmeier | Photo by Francois Dischinger used courtesy of Herman Miller

Authenticity begins with intent. Herman Miller undertakes every project with an interest in people, and solving a problem for the end user. In the case of AGL, this was updating the task table for a contemporary relationship with technology.  In every Herman Miller process, the objective for a design is honored, even under constraints, and guided by the core values of transparency, equality, voice, and design philosophy. Or, in the words of Ransmeier, “Authenticity is combined passion and work.” This is one of the core differences between knockoff designs and originals. Copycats want to imitate profits, but not the good intentions or disciplined production that lead to unique and effective design.

Burrichter noted that this extends beyond aesthetics or ergonomics to environmental factors, and Ransmeier agreed that ecological consideration is part of the designer’s responsibility to make things that support and enhance people’s lives. As sustainability and the product life-cycle climb to top of mind in the global marketplace, knockoffs produced cheaply through environmentally devastating methods are more dangerous than ever, serving to exacerbate pollution and “throw-away” culture. Legitimate design – real design – responds to the circumstances of the world that created a need for it in the first place.

Solving a problem is never easy – and Watson noted that most consumers don’t know the true cost of designing an effective product.  For example, a high performance task chair, perhaps created with the intent of supporting modern working postures to improve workplace wellbeing, can cost as much as $25 million to develop and take 3-4 years to come to market. Ransmeier’s AGL Table group took 2.5 years to be ready for launch at NeoCon 2013. Premium manufacturers aren’t interested in quick fixes – they seek to create solutions that last. This requires human resources (designers, researchers, support), tools of labor, capital expenses, 3D molds, prototypes, and more in order to truly test and refine the products that improve quality of life for their users. Without this significant investment – and without clear, honorable intentions – there would be no great design to be copied.

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Felix Burrichter, Leon Ransmeier and Ben Watson at the packed Juliana Curran Terian Design Center

There may, of course, be other ways to define what “real” design is – and to be sure, this discussion is one Be Original Americas continues to explore. However, it seems likely that a process that doesn’t begin with authentic intentions – to create something useful, beautiful, unique – cannot become an authentic process halfway through the making.

Be Original Americas invests in the future of design with a series of talks, round tables, and panel discussions at universities, industry programs, and more. You can learn about upcoming events here, or become a supporter to stay in-the-know.

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