C.C. Sullivan -- Interior Design, 11/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
While many architectural names are associated with product design, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill isn't generally among them—an omission that next-generation leaders quickly correct. "We have a long and distinguished history in this arena," interiors partner Stephen Apking says, citing his "professional hero," Davis Allen, SOM's first director of interiors. In the postwar years and beyond, Allen designed furniture for Steelcase and Bernhardt and the Andover chair for Stendig. This "homage to the Windsor chair," as Apking has described the 1983 piece, is produced to this day by Knoll.
SOM and Knoll found another occasion to innovate in pioneering the "open landscape" workplace for Weyerhaeuser in 1971—when Charles Pfister designed a system of wood-finished interlocking panels because nothing on the market would do. "When we're struggling, we think, Maybe we should design something," Apking says.
By 2000, the firm had found enough gaps in the market to merit the inception of a product division. Launches followed, first for Helikon's Andante line and Milliken & Company's Way carpet tile, later for Tuohy's Parameters furniture, Halcon's Medio conferencing system, and designs for Gunlocke, Herman Miller, Hansgrohe, and Valli & Valli.
A less conventional product is books. SOM has published retrospective monographs every 10 years for half a century. Then, in 2002, the firm came out with the first SOM Journal, a juried review of current work. Unlike the vanity books so common in design fields, the Journals ask high-profile outsiders for their hardball critique.
Up next: a foray into LED lighting. "It's difficult and time-consuming," Apking admits. "Will a product come out of this? I don't know." But some bright ideas undoubtedly will.