David Oakey: Celebrating 70—David Oakey reflects on his 50 years of carpet design - Aug/Sept 2021
Interview by Kemp Harr
Celebrating his 70th birthday this year, David Oakey has been designing carpet for five of those decades and has, with his partner and trend analyst Cindi Marshall Oakey beside him, changed the landscape of the carpet tile category: embracing the product’s modular nature rather than disguising it and looking to nature as both a source of inspiration and an instructional guide. In Oakey’s hands, carpet tile became an element of high design rather than simply a workhorse product to be tread upon.
Today, David, Cindi and the David Oakey Designs team work from the Pond Studios in LaGrange, Georgia, a biophilic space established in a second-growth pine forest in 1996. As of yet, Oakey has no intention of stepping away from the career he loves. Here, he discusses the highlights of his journey thus far and considers the future of soft surface flooring.
Q: You grew up in England and went to work for Milliken in 1973 at the age of 21. Your dad was against this move to the U.S. What was his concern?
A: He simply did not want me to leave. All my siblings still live and work within a 25-mile radius of our childhood home. In the early 1970s, Kidderminster was one of the carpet capitals of the world. Why not work locally with 30+ manufacturers to choose from?
But I was always an explorer. My college internships took me to Yorkshire, Denmark (where they spoke no English) and Northern Ireland, where terrorism from the civil war conflict was in full heat. My mother was more distressed about me living and working in Northern Ireland than going to America.
Twenty years later, after visiting the U.S. two or three times, my father told me I had made the right decision. His approval meant the world to me.
Q: Your college internships were with European companies that designed carpet, and textiles for the floor have been your primary medium for the last 50 years. I’d like to hear from you, what environments are the right fit for carpet or rug use, and why?
A: Of course, there are the fundamental, practical reasons for using soft surface, such as acoustics, warmth and hiding soil, but more so these days, carpets and rugs dictate the aesthetics of an interior space. We see a resurgence of multiple use-be it soft high pile, durable low pile and hard surface in home and commercial spaces. And like the Rya rugs made in Denmark during the ’60s, bold color and pattern are as popular as neutrals. Carpet often leads the overall aesthetic of a space.
Q: Is the soft share loss permanent, or will carpet have a resurgence?
A: There will always be both soft and hard surface flooring. The pendulum shifts in design trends. When people were tired of wall-to-wall carpet, hard surface became popular along with area rugs. Right now, we see a practical need for the blend of hard surface and carpets in healthcare, airports, some retail, office and even hotels, and our homes-not surprisingly driven by the blend of trends bringing home, office and hospitality together.
Q: You helped lead the adaptation of carpet tile. Tell us about the major design evolutions that helped that product grow in the market.
A: Heuga’s hair tile was the first carpet tile, invented over 50 years ago. Plain loop was the limited choice in the ’70s. When I came to the U.S. in 1973, printing on tile opened up design options. In the ’80s, yarn types like heat set, twisted, and space dye drove popular design styles. The ’90s technology in new tufting machines creating integrated patterns offered more desirable looks. We continued to see developments in tufting capabilities. As technology evolved, integrated tufted pattern and design made the category more exciting, still emulating a broadloom look. Then of course, embracing the modular by accepting the seams-first with quarter turn or parquet installation, then random installation and modular planks-have all catapulted modular carpet to the top of its game.
Q: What design are you most proud of? Which product was the most commercially successful?
A: Entropy (random installation) and its companion designs-the more subtle Transformation and bold-colored Cubic intended
for the education segment-are the most commercially successful patterns around the world. The random installation, which allows for selective replacement to really work, changed the conversation. And of course, it was the first inspired by biomimicry, answering the question: How would nature design a floor?
As a result of biomimicry (and unifying manufacturing capabilities,), global collections Urban Retreat, Human Nature and Net Effect took this concept to the next level. Yes, we at David Oakey Designs are definitely proud to have that kind of mass appeal.
Q: Of all the companies you’ve worked with, which brought you the greatest joy and why?
A: It’s not a carpet company, but consulting with Nike early in their sustainability journey [was very gratifying]. As a carpet designer from England who gave his first presentation on creating sustainable design without losing creativity to over 300 Nike marketing and designers (using a carousel of slides no less-it was 1998), I got a standing ovation. It was mind blowing.
Q: Tell us how tile went from trying to hide its modularity to celebrating it.
A: Carpet tile was [originally] made to look like broadloom. The selling technique was often called selective replacement, but it never really worked because after some wear, when a tile was replaced, it stood out like a sore thumb! I began to look at other flooring categories, specifically wood floors, and embraced the quarter turn or parquet design aesthetic. Those early quarter-turn designs were an instant success, especially with A&D firms. They won a lot of awards, gaining us name recognition.
Years later, modular planks with ashlar and herringbone installation options are equally as popular, expanding growth in the modular category.
Q: Tell us more about your role in the development of products that helped designers make a space more biophilic.
A: In the quest to better understand designing for sustainability, I read Janine Benyus’ book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature” and E.O. Wilson’s “Biophilia.” Growing up in the English countryside, designing with nature struck a deep chord. In 1999, at Pond Studios, we hosted the first biomimicry workshop, asking the question: How would nature design a floor? This resulted in [the style] Entropy and random installation. Inspiration by nature is at the core of many of our best designs.
Q: Who was your favorite client, and how did they earn that vote?
A: Tech industry clients are by far my favorite. Amid incredible growth the past 25 years, these end-user teams innovate unique design challenges for office interiors/communities that focus on the wellbeing of their employees.
Working closely with their design teams pushes our creative process and has led to a variety of custom carpets. The tech industry is fun, forward thinking and leading the change that other commercial office interiors follow.
Q: Over the years, you have worked with many mill leaders. Who allowed you to drive the most change in the industry?
A: Over the course of my career, three people stand out for giving me authority to drive change.
Charlie Eitel, former CEO of Collins & Aikman, then Interface, gave me a clear challenge to drive carpet tile to dominate soft flooring and take marketshare from broadloom. He also taught me that quality is essential. A large corporate client reported a claim on a custom product because its seams were visible. I questioned the quality, but the A&D firm signed off on it. It took a lot more orders to make up for the profit we lost on that job. I now force evaluating our output through strict guidelines called “fabric adoption.”
Of course, Ray Anderson’s climb up Mt. Sustainability altered my career path in ways I would never have dreamt possible. At that Hawaii meeting where he introduced Interface’s new direction, I was, at first, a non-believer. I then read over 100 books about sustainability and green design. I don’t know-was I lucky, or was it synchronicity? Sustainable design became easy and exciting for me. You might call it second nature!
And last but certainly not least, my relationship with Dan Hendrix has been the longest during my 27 years at Interface. In 2011, he made the strong decision to make Interface product portfolios synergistic, launching global designs with matching manufacturing capabilities. For us, it was an exciting time, traveling the world to see commonalities and differences among cultures in the interiors segments and meet local designers and customers.
The worldwide success of the global collections is very satisfying.
Q: What is your favorite yarn system and why?
A: Aquafil’s Econyl yarn meets every criteria for high standards. It has always had top-quality solution-dyed yarns. It caught the sustainability bug at the same time I began to learn about sustainable design. Over the ensuing 20+ years, it has developed an exceptional sustainability story and produces 100% recycled content in a variety of colors. It has expanded into the fashion industry, making an incredible impact on sustainability worldwide in textiles. It has a magnificent story!
Q: Planks and the seamless transition from LVT to carpet are probably the two most recent innovations in soft flooring. What’s the next innovation?
A: Tufted technology manufacturing has given us the greatest leeway to create colorful patterns and design, similar to the woven Axminister carpets I designed in the ’60s yet now with all recycled materials, both yarn and backings, for a healthy lifespan and environmental story. It’s come a remarkable way from plundering the earth, as Ray Anderson would say.
I have wondered for some time if the next big innovation will be 3D printing on job sites-hopefully in my lifetime.
Q: What have you created as a result of the pandemic?
A: While other teams slowed down or didn’t know what to do in the initial weeks of the pandemic, I’m impressed with the David Oakey Designs team’s output, adapting to working from home and staggered shifts at the studio a few days a week. Maybe the isolation was good. We created the most styles ever in one year.
The Open Air collection is one of the largest collections we’ve designed. It is a combination of planks and squares, designed for larger-footprint open spaces with good design.
With travel and trade shows off the calendar, we found local inspiration in a former granite quarry turned into recreational trails. Meandering along, an oasis of color and texture revealed a “floor” designed by nature, altered by man, leaving remnants of rocks randomly broken up into straight lines and edges that lends itself to architecture. The carpet tile is designed with right angles and squares that merge with natural, tonal texture and gradating striations of color into a beautiful organic look. The quarry was a gold mine of inspiration for the Granite Mountain Collection to be released this October at NeoCon 2021.
Q: When it comes to the field of carpet design, how important or prominent are the designers themselves?
A: Carpet manufacturers are more marketing driven than design driven, and as a result, they no longer highlight designers and design inspiration. Other industries, especially fashion, bank it all on the designer’s name, style and reputation. Halston is the most famous carpet designer for his 1979 collection for Karastan.
Q: What is the biggest mistake the industry has made during your tenure?
A: Making carpet a commodity by reducing material weight to cut cost often sacrifices quality and fuels the lack of focus on design and innovative solutions. Cheap construction for the lowest price-not good for soft flooring.
Q: What’s on the floor in your house?
A: Bamboo wood and Flor area rugs. Flor is one of the most successful brand innovations in carpet design. It started when we were trying to figure out how to keep tiles from the commercial line together over hardwood floors in our home. In 2002, we wrote the business plan to pitch the concept to the Interface board, and the rest is history, as they say.
Earlier you asked what I am most proud of; Flor is now its own unique category. Current tufting technologies enable us to create unprecedented styles in colors and patterns unlike ever before-all with Econyl yarns, so the sustainable story crosses into many segments. It really keeps us up on current trends. Originally intended for the home, Flor is used in all market segments. It’s truly the most fun we have designing carpet tiles.
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