Focus on Leadership: Designer Barry Richards finds inspiration through challenges - June 2018
Interview by Kemp Harr
Barry Richards is principal and studio leader of the Rockwell Group. A versatile artist, Richards has worked in a variety of design mediums, including product, space, set, event space and even film, as well as on many notable projects, including the Walt Disney Family Museum and The Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Richards earned a fine arts and architecture degree from the University of Washington and a master of architecture from Princeton University. One of Richard’s fortes is product design. He recently collaborated with Shaw Hospitality on an LVT collection that won best of show in the HD Expo/IIDA product design awards. And he has also worked with other flooring companies like Bisazzi and The Rug Company to design distinctive products.
Q: What drove you to pursue design as a career?
A: I was an artsy kid. I loved to draw and make things-but mostly draw. I told my dad in second grade that I wanted to be an artist. He said, “Oh, no, you can’t do that. You can be an architect, so you can draw and make money.” The myth of the starving artist was embedded in his way of thinking. I listened to him and started looking at buildings, but I kept up the art along the way, until my work life took over.
Q: What design work do you most enjoy?
A: Tough question. It may be sappy, but I Iove all of it, even if it is a small, thankless job. I like a challenge, and switching project types means you have to rethink the whole design approach. Often, I am challenged with something I haven’t done before, like playgrounds, where there is a big learning curve. Interpretive exhibit design work is always an interesting challenge because it has so many different layers and disciplines that have to work together, all while telling a story that feels both easy and compelling.
Q: What was your most challenging project?
A: I love them all, but most of them, in reality, are tough. The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California could qualify because I was telling the story of one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century. No one did it better than Walt did. There were a lot of people very invested in how that story was told, and everyone had to be happy with the outcome. In the end, Walt Disney told his own story through his text, audio and video. This made it easy to get everyone on board.
Q: Which project are you best known for?
A: Probably our licensed product collections. My job is often to synthesize key ideas and concepts that are elemental to what the Rockwell Group does and what fits with David Rockwell’s point of view.
People in the industry of commercial products know that I work on Rockwell Group products. However, from a broad perspective, the focus has to be on David Rockwell. He is the identity for the collections. It is a special type of work because it has to function on many levels.
Q: Tell us about the places you’ve worked, and how they shaped who you are as an artist today.
A: I had lots of jobs in Seattle, from waiting tables to historic architecture to small design firms. After graduate school, I worked for some of my professors for the first couple of years, and then I went to work for Michael Graves. He was my thesis advisor. There, my desk was in the products room, and the team needed someone to help out with products. It was a very natural transition. I could pull from many different threads of my life and apply it to products. Michael loved products: collecting, sketching and design of products. He knew how to critique your work to get to the essence. He was a very good critic, so I learned what it meant to make products.
Q: What role does nature play in your designs?
A: I think Rockwell Group incorporates natural design elements and patterns in our work naturally, no pun intended. It is a perfect source for a lot of pattern and materiality, as well as mixing indoor and outdoor spaces. For many hospitality projects, we want to have a minimal threshold between indoor and outdoor. Also, due to the way we design and put things together with many layers, lighting and patterns, often our projects reveal a biophillic pattern. We don’t create on a grid. This makes for a more appealing environment that helps people feel comfortable and welcome. For our [flooring product] patterns for Shaw, we just naturally drew from nature because that is what our designers would want in a product. Nature is always an eternal wellspring of inspiration.
Q: One of your higher profile projects was The Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia. Tell us what challenges you faced there and your favorite parts of the project.
A: The timing was fast. It was a museum that had to be completed in two years from the ground up. Museums usually take longer to get right with the many disciplines that have to collaborate. Plus, it didn’t have any artifacts to tell the story, which help with making connections to the visitor. They did have the rights for a rotating display of the Martin Luther King Jr. papers, which are amazing. That was in a separate gallery.
Typically, the primary challenge with any interpretive exhibit experience is always the story and content. Not only do you have to know the story really well, but also you have to understand that different people and perspectives will want to enter and understand the story. The design has to work in tandem with revealing the story outline and sharing each story point. It can’t be just walls and panels for text and photos. The civil rights story was told like a black box theater piece, and the human rights story was more airy and open-ended, like a punchy graphic magazine. We were fortunate to have two brilliant curators for the content, George Wolf, who is a director, and Jill Savitt, who is a human rights activist.
Q: How has the design process evolved with the advent of the Internet, 3D printers and other high-tech tools?
A: Digital has changed everything. It is surprising how much material boards, models, magazines, books and sketches have simply disappeared off of young designers’ desks. I love thinking by drawing. That is how I work out ideas and concepts. Our model has changed with laser cutters and printers. Printers are great for scale models. Even if we work out designs and patterns on the computer, [it is important to] see the pieces full-scale and in color, on the floor and walls in natural daylight. As things become more digital, it is even more important to check designs in real life.
Q: Do you prefer to work with natural or synthetic materials when you create new products?
A: Natural patterns and textures are so important to realizing warm, welcoming spaces-the biophilic approach. What is important now is how treatments and finishes can help make natural textures that are different and unique.
Q: What role does flooring play in the overall design of a project?
A: Flooring has evolved from lots of carpet-covered floors to a wide variety of materials and options, like exposing the material underneath with more durable hard finishes and approaches like stone, wood, porcelain and LVT. [When these items are used,] area rugs become more important. Today’s spaces are more space with less trim and fluff, so every surface counts and is important to the overall feel of a space.
Q: What improvements would you like to see in the flooring category?
A: Sustainable, reclaimed, reused and recycled are what every designer wants to include. We don’t want to contribute to the depletion of resources and mounds of material that goes into landfills. We can’t do it alone but need companies and manufacturers to help bring down costs and make it accessible at all design levels.
Q: What do you do to stay informed so that you can offer your client the best solution available?
A: I read the news and go out to events and see shows. But I think true inspiration comes from observation of what people are doing in spaces: how they live, work and entertain themselves. I love to sit and people-watch, noticing how they work in a space and what makes a space work.
Q: When you are looking for creative inspiration, what activity puts you in the right zone?
A: Walking, biking-letting the mind wander and reach nonlinear conclusions and concepts. In the middle of the night, I visualize things in my head to see what are the possibilities and options.
Q: Tell us about one or two of the most influential people in your life and what they taught you.
A: I think Michael Graves and David Rockwell fit the bill, as well as all of my art teachers. Michael taught me the value of the products that make up a space and how to design them. David taught me about what makes a design special, unique and stand out from the crowd. And every art teacher is focused on observing and being in the process, not to be distracted by what isn’t important.
Q: What advice do you have for recent graduates who want to follow in your footsteps?
A: I didn’t have a conscious path. My path was to take any and every opportunity that came my way. I will take on any project or job because I can learn something from every one-even the most thankless.
Q: What do you do in your leisure time to escape?
A: I go to Trenton, New Jersey, which is my home base, and there I let everyone and everything go. I tinker, bike, garden and go to the farmers’ market. I love to travel and wander cities by foot, bike or public transportation.
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