Q&A: Barry Richards Talks Products

Barry Richards, a Principal and Studio Leader, leads Rockwell Group’s product design, from his first project—a one-off, custom chair for Grand Central’s lower level—to the firm’s current collections for Maya Romanoff and Shaw Hospitality Group. To watch Barry pore over drawings of an upcoming collection is a treat: he brings his encyclopedic knowledge of product design history—as well as his intuitive sense for what people want to see, touch, and live with—to bear with simple words and quick gestures. We asked Barry about Rockwell Group’s products and how they complement the rest of the firm’s work.

Q1. Why does Rockwell Group design products?

A1. We create immersive environments where everything you touch helps tell a story. That includes every piece of furniture and lighting—so it’s a natural extension to design those objects, even for environments we haven’t created. They are the touch-points one remembers, from the fabric on the chairs to the wall coverings. We thought: If we’re paying attention to the total experience, we should pay attention to the design at all scales.

Q2. How do you decide to design one product as opposed to another?

A1. We always have a ton of ideas that are germinating, but each product starts with a response to a need in the marketplace and a relationship with a partner. We talk about what they need, what they’re capable of, who the product is for, when it should launch, how much will it cost. We create a visual dialogue. It’s a true collaboration that utilizes the partner company’s strengths and our point of view.

We like doing these products for interiors. They are flexible, transformable, and aren’t so iconic as to be distracting to another designer’s goals for a project.

Q3. Give us a recent example.

A3. We previewed a collection for Stellar Works (at Clerkenwell Design Week in London) inspired by the idea of a "valet." The entire collection will launch during Milan's Salone del Mobile 2016.

We’ve been designing a lot of rustic spaces with reclaimed materials, and we wanted furniture that was at home in those spaces. The collection is a response to how people live today. It includes a bench and standing mirror made with simple, straightforward, honest materials. They are not slick or overly designed.

Q4. You worked for Michael Graves before you came to Rockwell Group in 1997. What did you learn there and how did that experience shape what you do at Rockwell?

A4. There is a tradition of European architects who did everything, such as Josef Hoffmann, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer. But most architectural practice in the 20th century was confined to buildings; if you designed furniture, it looked nice in your clean white Modernist box.

Graves gave architects permission to play with color, pattern, and products…all those things were part of your practice. Because David Rockwell has a passion for the temporary, theatrical, and ephemeral, product design at Rockwell Group is intertwined with the narrative of projects.

Q5. What are some of Rockwell Group’s most successful products, and what do you think makes them interesting?

A5. Our surface coverings collection for Chicago-based Maya Romanoff marked the first time they collaborated with an outside designer and they say it was a pivotal moment for them because it broadened how they were viewed. Of course one of our most successful products has been Imagination Playground—blue foam blocks that allow kids to be the designers of their world. For Shaw Hospitality Group we created customizable, luxe floor-covering patterns.

The Rug Company and Rockwell Group have collaborated on a handful of special collections with modern, abstracted patterns. The Rug Company's designers are brilliant at interpreting our graphic and textural explorations.

We also design custom products, like director Jack O'Brien's motorized bed that rotates 360°; he could look at his fireplace or out the window.

Q6. What if you could design any product…what would it be? What’s your dream project for Rockwell Group?

A6. I love the idea of designing an executive dining room and doing everything from the rugs, lighting, and wall coverings, to the tabletop—having a Josef Hoffmann moment.

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