This Legendary Textile Company Is Meeting the Future by Embracing Its Past

Maharam president Tony Manzari talks about textiles, tastemakers, and timing during his tenure at the historic family-run brand.

Tony Manzari in Maharam's New York headquarters.

Heard today’s your birthday. How are you going to celebrate?

I’ve always been one of those people who’d rather things be about anybody other than me. I’m pretty much off the radar, kind of on purpose.

I read Maharam started with a guy selling fabric scraps on Wall Street. Is that true?

Close. Louis Maharam arrived in New York from Russia in 1902. He sold fabric remnants out of a pushcart on the south side of the Financial District. That evolved into selling fabric and costume designs out of a storefront near the Theater District. Later, during the construction boom [in the 1920s], Maharam started selling contract textiles, but the options available were really just strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla. Since this was a moment when design was beginning to become important, people wanted more.

How did that affect Maharam’s product?

In the late ’50s, Louis’s grandson, Don, took over the family business. He created an amazing company that was all about service and value and a few technical products, but wasn’t considered an innovative design leader. So when his sons, Michael and Stephen Maharam, took the reins, in 1996, they decided to focus on our commitment to design and on excellence in everything the company does. That brought Maharam to where we are today.


Fabric swatches from Maharam's collections.

Maharam has done terrific collaborations with designers like Paul Smith. How did that originate?

Dumb luck. In 1999, we began introducing textiles with patterns by iconic 20th-century designers, including a Gio Ponti print called “Lovers at the Window.” It was a poetic gesture to a woman who later became his wife, according to the story we heard. It’s this beautiful silk showing a pair of open shutters with a woman looking down, and a different-colored pair of shutters with a man looking up at her from below. It ended up in an exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Paul Smith saw it and asked us if he could use it to line the inside of a men’s jacket. So that opened the relationship.

The Textiles of the 20th Century collection includes graphics by the Eameses, Alexander Girard, and Anni Albers.

Michael loved midcentury furniture. He developed relationships with the Girards and the Eames family and got access to their archives. When you go through them from a graphic perspective, things that resonate as textiles jump out. What’s challenging is when you try to figure out what to do next. If you introduce too much of anything, you dilute its value. Your haircut is amazing, but if you started to see people with a similar one you’d lose interest in it.

Yeah, I’d shave it off. So what makes a good textile graphic?

That’s a hard question. Everybody has different tastes, so in that sense it’s a little bit like art. For me, I like simple, refined things: texture, classic colors. But there are big, bold patterns I love, too.


Prototypes of Maharam’s new collection of accessories, launching today in Japan, developed under the creative direction of Scholten & Baijings.

Do you know all the patterns by heart? Like, could you describe Tangram?

It’s a mid-scale graphic pattern.

Sort of. What about Steady Crypton?

I don’t remember them all anymore. Unfortunately, our industry has become like the fashion industry, with clients on a high-sugar diet. We introduce fifteen new patterns every eight weeks.

Fair point. How did you start working at Maharam?

Out of college I took a job at Milliken, a company that sold carpet to hotels and restaurants. A colleague left to work for Maharam and told me to interview there. I was twenty-three when I started. I was a sales rep, calling on architects and designers with the crappiest territory you could have. I lived out of my car at the time. After seven years, my role evolved into management, and when Maharam was acquired by Herman Miller, in 2015, I was fortunate enough to be tapped on the shoulder.

Right, Herman Miller acquired Maharam in 2013, and you became the first non-Maharam to be the president of the company. What was that transition like?

It was hard. Michael is an amazing leader—but if he can’t be in charge, he can’t be involved. When you have smart, talented people with a leader like that, it takes time to empower them again. They weren’t given time to think for themselves. Once they became comfortable doing that, we immediately started to evolve. It became Maharam again. Now, I think we’re a better version of who we were.

Why have you stuck around for 30 years?

People ask me that all the time. The best thing about Maharam is that we’re committed to evolving. In my mind Maharam is as progressive today as we were thirty years ago. I enjoy getting up every morning and coming to work today as much as, if not more than, I ever have.

Detail of Hella Jongerius's 2005 Polder Sofa for Vitra, upholstered in Maharam textiles.
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