How is European design influencing American manufacturing, or vice versa?

This was the topic discussed at our Experience Table event during ICFF 2019, held at A/D/O, a creative exchange center in Brooklyn, New York, and sponsored by Insidesource, Normann Copenhagen and Affordances. Helping to lead our group’s conversation was Yorgo Lykouria, creative director of Rainlight, Jason Heredia, vice president and head of product design development for HNI, Simon Legald, creative director of Normann Copenhagen, and Eric Pfeiffer, founder and creative director of Corrall.

During our discussion we talked about the differences in design in the US and Europe, the history of design in the context of economics and culture, and the impact of globalization on the design world and manufacturing.

Design is synonymous with Europe and an embraced norm in all aspects of European life. Lykouria described the impact of design on European culture and mentality: “For Europeans, buying a sofa is like buying a car. They save for it… they aspire to it.” He continued, explaining that Europeans have a different value set than Americans. “They value time more than money… quality over quantity.”

The early roots of European design laid the groundwork for what became a loosely knit but closely located network of A&D professionals and crafts workers with generations of experience. “With European factories, I can order 20 of something in a custom color, because the distance is so close.” Eric Pfeiffer went further, explaining that smaller quantities and customizing doesn’t translate to the largescale manufacturing in the US. Lykouria pointed out the dynamics within European factories are more personal. “People on the factory floor revere designers. If something sells, they’ve got a job… it’s a relationship, it’s not just about efficiency or price.”

Conversely, innovation and manufacturing have shaped A&D in the US. As fundamental infrastructure and development took form in the 18th century, industrialization and scientific innovation came to define the American identity. “There is a Henry Ford mentality in the US, a tension between quality and quantity.” Heredia explained. Legald adds that in the states “you want things faster… it’s impossible in principle unless you standardize things.”

The general population in the US “sees design as something superfluous and expensive,” something precious as opposed to the norm, Andrea Teixeira of Shop Architects noted. She explained that though we strive as innovators in the US, this creates a conundrum. “We make better quality things for a lower price. Then that lower price becomes the baseline, and the quality falls again.” While we lead in technological innovation, there is little room or time left for thoughtful design.

Although design will continue to be a defining feature of Europe, it has not been immune to the impacts of globalization. As prices continue to drop and product is manufactured faster, Europe struggles to maintain the thriving production communities it once had. “Most factories in Denmark are almost gone… people don’t want to pay the price of craftsmanship, so they move to other countries.” Legald continued, noting that furniture manufacturing is moving to places like Lithuania and Latvia. Indeed, many post-soviet countries with lower labor costs are becoming the fastest growing markets for furniture production.

China has become the leading manufacturer globally. Lykouria explains, China is “…actually making equal or better quality than anyone in the world”, and that we’ve “outsourced all the knowledge to China,” along with the craft and generations of experience. Acquisitions and partnerships have also changed the landscape of design globally. As companies consolidate, designs become more standardized and less individual.

Making the conversation more complex are the rapid changes within workplace design. A shift away from the traditional 9-5 model and advances in technology have pushed for greater flexibility and mobility in the workplace. The modern office has evolved from utilitarian and homogenous to experiential and personalized.

Legald mentioned that it is predicted that the desk may one day become obsolete, while Omar Ramirez of Affordances questioned how far will these changes go, and is it inevitable that there will be a slowdown, will the pendulum swing back?

The US has always looked to Europe for design inspiration. But as workplaces struggle to keep up with evolving technology, where does that leave design? The uncertain future of workplace design is at the mercy of technology and globalization, forces almost impossible to contain or predict.

Our conversation closed with a question posed by Liz Wert, of Insidesource, “how can we take reinvention and rapid growth, and marry it with the craft?” Perhaps the answer will emerge in our next round table discussion.

Inspired by casual conversations at industry trade shows, the Experience Table creates a platform where a diverse group of workplace industry influencers — end users, project managers, brokers, interior designers, industrial designers, art curators, sustainability and tech experts — sit down together and dig into the issues and ideas that transform the quality of the workplace experience. This event is cohosted by Insidesource and Affordances.