Jeffrey Bernett likes to think of his job as a very long chess game. He participates not as an adversary, but as a collaborator—each move leaving open strategic possibilities for his clients in anticipation of an uncertain future. That mentality is exactly what’s made him the ultimate designer for hire, and the reason why some of the furniture industry’s highest-profile brands keep calling him back.
For almost two decades, Bernett and his firm, Consultants for Design Strategy, founded in New York in 1995, have been creating furniture and objects for companies such as Herman Miller, Bernhardt Design, Boffi, and Knoll. Long-lasting relationships are Bernett’s forte: This year marks the 20th anniversary of his work with B&B Italia, and the 13th since he began collaborating with Design Within Reach. (Earlier this fall, DWR launched the new Raleigh bed and storage collection, which Bernett designed.) His clients turn to him again and again for what Bernett calls “three-dimensional brand articulation,” the process by which he gives physical form (office systems, sofas, task chairs, bedroom collections) to a brand’s values and goals. The results have included a slew of bestsellers, one of which—a curvy, bright-orange chaise longue for B&B called Landscape—now hangs in Bernett’s New York office, mounted trophy-like on the wall. “That’s the one we keep out as a reminder of a great challenge,” he says.
But the laid-back St. Paul, Minnesota, native isn’t one to revel in the limelight. He is quick to shift the focus back to his clients, and distribute praise among his hardworking team of three: Nicholas Dodziuk (who’s worked with Bernett since 2003), Sarah Fels, and Chris Skodi. “We each possess a skill set that the others don’t. It’s always a team effort,” he says in his typical mild-mannered way. Bernett’s slow, steady speaking style and generousness with his time is surprising for someone as in-demand as he is.
But then again, being accessible is one of the core creative tenets that’s helped Bernett and his staff become so successful; as is a mind-set oriented toward future-proofing his ideas, a proclivity for simplicity, and an awareness of the work’s complexity. “Design is like a Rubik’s Cube. Getting one side right is easy,” he says, but “there are long-term consequences to your decisions that can impact things in ways you may or may not expect.” Staying several moves ahead has helped Bernett win time and again.
Here, the hired-gun creative reveals the design principles that guide his studio’s work.
1. Design for Performance
“My job is to intrigue you with the design, because that’s how I signal to you that we’re doing something interesting. With the Landscape chaise for B&B Italia, we got performance and comfort out of a 35-millimeter thick profile. On the functional side, once you sit on it, if it’s as comfortable or more comfortable than expected, then I win. When designing for B&B, we’ve done a great job of making sure we ‘win the sit’ as well as everything else—we don’t sacrifice on performance or design.”
2. Leave Your Clients in Suspense
“I thought of our work with B&B as a chess game. They usually make furniture molds in two pieces. When they went to make the mold for Landscape, I told them to make it in four pieces, so there would be sides to it as well as a top and bottom. They said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘I’ll tell you in four years.’ Four years later, we revisited the subject, and I said, ‘Now we can put an asymmetric arm on the side and change only that side of the mold.’ That asymmetric chaise took into account different behavior. Now we have three different types of seating preferences—including the rocking base—all with a very minimum impact on the manufacturing side.”
3. Remove Everything but the Poetry
“Most of our solutions don’t come from adding things. We’re trying to find the truth and where we’re going with it—particularly with someone like B&B. Some of our chairs are very different from Landscape, but they all have a clarity and purity to them. You could add things to them, but I don’t know if that would make them better. And I’m pretty sure it would cost more. We aim to solve problems in the most efficient, effective ways and still retain all that poetry—that’s what we don’t want to sacrifice. If we lose some of the poetry, then we gave up too much.”
4. Build on Existing Ideas
“If a product or collection has existed for a period of time, it’s going to have a natural arc to it. But if you bring something new to the table, it can bring the whole program forward. We’ve done this for both Design Within Reach and B&B. DWR’s Raleigh was initially a living-room collection consisting of a chair and sofa. Over time, we introduced new products, like a section piece, and changed design elements with an understanding that sofas live in open-plan rooms where people have TVs on the wall. We just launched a Raleigh bed and storage collection. The aesthetics reference and evolve the existing designs. There’s a rejuvenation that happens by continuing to recognize that these ideas were good ideas—so much so that we’re adding to them.”
5. Design Using Four Main Criteria
“We look at our design work through a circle of equal pieces. The first piece is that the design has to solve some type of a problem—a chair, for example, is meant to be sat on. Second, you have to make that chair for a certain quality price point, so there’s value for the money. Third, on the aesthetic side, the chair has to have some character. When you’re working for a brand, it has to represent what happens in their world. We also want to create products that last a long time and sell well over a long period of time, so there’s a fourth piece to it: life-cycle. That pretty much sums up our work for B&B.”
6. Give Your Clients the Spotlight
“We spend a lot of time picking and choosing our clients. By the same token, we provide a level of service so that if a client has a question, I answer it quickly. We want to help people make their decisions and move forward—we’re always trying to work as a team. But I’m always happier when the chair on the wall is the star. Our clients bring out the products. They spent eighteen months thinking of a whole program and were great enough to bring us in to do it. I want them to be the focus of attention. At CDS, we shy away from the spotlight, whereas other people aim for it. If you do really good work, that work will rise. That’s always been our M.O.”
7. Know What You Can’t Change
“Whenever we’re brought in to work on an office system, we have to understand the core competencies of the factories. If we can use a factory very well, we’ll help maintain the profitability of the program. Office furniture tends to be fairly capital-intensive, and it’s sometimes built for efficiency more than flexibility. So our job is to get the best that we can out of what’s existing, and understand what we can change and what we can’t change. That’s how we’ve been able to help a couple of the big office furniture players, like Herman Miller and Knoll, move forward very significantly. It’s all based on understanding what those factories are all about.”
8. Talk Back to Your Clients
“Knoll came to us and wanted a task chair and a guest chair. We were a young company coming in, and didn’t want to say no. But we looked at what they were trying to do, and we went back to them five days later and said, ‘You don’t want these two things. You actually want five things. You want much more of a system to do what you want to do.’ That in turn became Knoll’s Essentials chairs, which was one of the largest-volume selling lines for the company.”
9. Future-Proof Your Designs
“Work environments in offices change so continually today that they might need to change six months from now, and again in another six months. We helped Herman Miller win the bid to supply Exxon Mobil’s office program by developing a program that addressed the future. The strategy was to future-proof something based on the necessity of change. For our evolution of Canvas Office Landscape, we looked at the system holistically—from storage to desking, fence, and panel—and created a set of elements that allows people to work collaboratively, effectively, and efficiently, and made them to be easily reconfigured within the system’s architecture—a feature that’s rare for office programs.”
10. Sports Teach You Everything You Need to Know
“Sports are a great metaphor for achieving things in life, because you choose to do them, and you want to do them well. To excel, you have to have long-term dedication, self-belief, and self-determination, all of which feed each other. Almost all sports involve some level of equipment, and you have to take that equipment and make it work the best it can for you—whether in golf, Ping-Pong, motorcycling, pool, or skiing. Early on in my life, both in racing motorcycles and ski racing, I learned how to work on things to help them perform better for me. Tools could help solve a problem in taking something apart, or to help fine-tune to make something better. Being mechanically inclined helped me understand what tools can help. Understanding the making side was a big advantage.”