By Spencer Bailey | Portrait by Andrew Musson
To call Michael Maharam an avid collector would be an understatement. Among the rare and one-of-a-kind pieces in his personal collection are bicycles, motorbikes, and cars; artwork and furniture pieces by the likes of Carl Auböck, Gerrit Rietveld, and Ettore Sottsass; and several thousand art books. One of the sharpest design thinkers in the U.S.—and the winner of this year’s Endorsement Award for American Excellence—Maharam is downright obsessive. A detail-oriented organizer with an archivist’s mind and an editor’s eye, he has run his family-founded textile business with his brother, Stephen, for nearly two decades, helping turn it into one of the country’s strongest contemporary design voices. This month, the 55-year-old steps down from his perch atop the company, which he and his brother sold to Michigan-based furniture giant Herman Miller in 2013. (Maharam will stay on as an advisory board member for one more year.) During his tenure, Maharam proved that while many viewed textiles as utilitarian, stodgy, and decidedly unsexy, they could in fact be manufactured and presented in artful and even innovative ways. Surface recently interviewed Maharam in a boardroom at the brand’s light-filled Manhattan headquarters on how he formed his personal taste, why he decided to move on from the business, and his plans for the future.
Let’s start with your interest in collecting. How did it begin?
When I started, there was no eBay; there were flea markets. I had the good fortune to be able to travel often. I once ended up in this antiques shop in Geneva where these two sweet ladies sat, and there were all sorts of beautiful things there. One of them said to me, “Oh, you have a very exercised eye.” I didn’t. But that term always stuck with me.
My father was all about clutter. It was high-quality clutter, but he was sort of casual about it. It was stuffed into drawers. I’d unpack it and find vials of mercury or odd bits of stuff that were just fascinating to me. It became a game as a child, and then it extended into my adulthood as an issue of seeking out the things I like, and surrounding myself with them.
What kinds of things were you collecting early on?
I wasn’t collecting fine things. I was collecting modest things that had a visual or tactile friction with one another. I still have these things in boxes labeled “Country Home,” with the idea that one day I would have a country home that I’d fill with these sentimental things that I now can’t get rid of. I have to find people to give them to, because I don’t want to sell them on eBay. It’s a nuisance to get rid of things. When you hit a certain age, it all becomes about deaccession and leaving the planet with as little as possible, so that you’re not a nuisance to your family, who will then have to get rid of the stuff. This is the stage I’m at.
As you grew the Maharam business, how did your collection change?
Family businesses are oligarchies within democracy—I guess I would put it that way. I said to my brother I wanted to first build a library. I eventually had 4,000 or 5,000 books for reference. I wanted to start collecting as part of the corporate collection of the things I loved. Of course, there’s a churn at the beginning, because you don’t know much, and after a while, you realize there are things you should and shouldn’t be collecting. It takes time to find the courage to buy the biggest, best, most important things.
Some of us like a lot of clutter—I do—but I would say that, in retrospect, if I had chosen to buy one thing instead of 20, I would have been a much happier, and probably wealthier, person.
You’re currently building a house in Italy designed by John Pawson. Are a lot of these pieces you’ve collected going to go there?
The nice thing about the house is that it doesn’t have room for a lot of stuff. We’ll have to choose carefully. It comes down to editing, and the company itself has always been about editing. If you look around the space here, there are really very few things. That’s inclusive of the collection.
You mentioned clutter: Where does that fit into the company culture?
I always felt there was an element of creative chaos that had to rest atop a platform of extreme order. In the end, having a business like this is a very selfish gesture. You do it because it makes you feel good, and you hope that the people who work here feel good being here. You do everything you can to make the experience as good as it can possibly be for them. I insist that the person who comes here first in the morning set all the lights and the music, so that when everybody else arrives, they feel good and that they’re arriving at a place that’s fluid and moving and comforting—a place that’s immaculate and where the light is beautiful. I insist that everybody’s desk be orderly and that everybody clean their desk at the end of each week so that they start fresh on Monday. I insist that people not work excessive hours. We give a travel stipend to our staff on key anniversaries. We want our employees to have a balanced life. Our clients tend to be very discerning people. We want to be judged in the same way that they judge the place where they buy their clothing or their shoes. Being a benevolent dictator is, I think, essential.
Explain your approach to creative chaos.
You have to isolate it. The rest of the stuff has to be orderly. You don’t see a lot of fabric around this place. If it were a fabric den, you wouldn’t see any fabric; it’d just be this place full of stuff. But here, the fabric can look beautiful because it’s set amongst all these hard surfaces and all this whiteness and grayness. You have to define and engineer this critical juxtaposition between chaos and order.
I’m sure there’s an element of chaos when you’re collaborating with designers, whether it’s with Hella Jongerius or Scholten & Baijings or Paul Smith.
They each have a different cadence, wherewithal, and tendency. It all changes from the beginning of the relationship, which evolves and matures. Scholten & Baijings, for example, learned about our medium and got better at it. For a while, they still didn’t know the audience, or how textiles behaved on a chair. Through the course of time, though, with various products and projects, they learned these things and became more independent. Hella, at this point, has largely identified herself as a textile designer. It’s what she does for us, it’s what she does for Vitra, and it’s what she loves most. She’s almost utterly independent. We send her to our weavers. In a best-case scenario, you have someone like Hella, who embraces the category, who does the research, who thinks about it in the odd hours, who comes up with the ideas. You have others, like Konstantin Grcic, who focuses on a category or material type because he has a tendency in an area. He’s very unwilling to compromise. We do a lot over and over again with him. He pushes us to do technical things that can’t easily be done, and we have to push our manufacturers to help us find a way to do those things.
How has Maharam changed since bringing these designers into the fold?
Originally, these designers were intended to bring a new voice to our company and industry, and to challenge our in-house designers to create a dialogue that gets us out of the realm of what everybody already does.
In a world where boutiques are the “sexy” way to shop, we’ve been able to be a department store. It’s this idea of design as a hackneyed marketing exploit. Look at what Uniqlo does: They do beautiful things, in beautiful colors, at excellent prices, and they present them in a way that makes them very easy to buy. That’s what design should be—and that has nothing to do with design. It’s just a vision, plus fabrication, plus creative association. It’s bigger than just saying, “How do I make this phone? What shape is it going to be?”
When you and your brother took over in 1997, Maharam wasn’t that. How did it become that?
The simple answer: by saying no to a lot of things. And by saying yes to the things that felt really good to us, without thinking about making money. We’ve never had a focus group. We like to listen to what our clients have to say, but if we do that, for the most part it’s based on stuff they’ve seen already, most of which was dreamed up two or three years earlier.
The interior design of your office space seems to have really helped define the company, too.
I got very lucky. We found a couple to do all of our architecture and interiors, Fernlund + Logan. They were zealous about how they did things. They had no staff; it was just the two of them. Our relationship was very personal, and also had a lot of good friction. They changed my mind about how we should present ourselves in so many different ways. We worked very closely with them and we’ve done more than 50 projects together over the years.
Connected to that, our graphic-design studio’s approach was appropriately Swiss Modern, which I liked and wanted. It felt good to me. Everything was done in the most reductionist way possible, so that we had what we needed, not more, and so that it looked good.
Is there a management mantra or ethos that goes along with this?
We distribute “Finished Staff Work,” a mid-20th-century document that basically says that the job of everyone here, upon identifying an issue, is to find potential solutions and make recommendations. Every single person in the organization has that same job. Why the graphic design is how it is, why the spaces look and feel how they do, why we insist on this orderliness—all of that becomes clear to everyone who works here.
The company now has the cliché “DNA.” It’s now the cliché “authentic.” Those were things we strove for and talked about through the years. They’re finally playing out into something that’s real and discernable and has continuity.
What were some of the earliest projects crucial to defining this DNA?
Courting the executors of estates—whether it was Eames Demetrios, Marianne Panton, or Lisa Ponti—was really important. They all controlled the rights and re-editions. Nobody thought to do that work. That was a nice adventure. Fortunately for me, I’ve always been a Europhile. I could be in Europe and meet somebody for a day, then spend two days walking around, seeing things, and learning. That’s probably what gave me the idea to work with these European designers.
Why Europeans? Maharam is an American company.
In the issue of America versus Europe, I think Europe is at a distinct advantage because there’s still a commitment to craft and tradition that isn’t so much about manufacturing efficiency, but about creating beauty efficiently.
Europe is also a place of monocultures. Unlike in America, you don’t have this pressure to create a product that pleases all the tribes. It’s not to say that America isn’t a huge market and there isn’t a product for everybody—and everybody for a product. But when you have a country like Denmark that has a distinct visual sensibility that then gets put on a pedestal by the rest of the world as something that’s really good, you have something that you can sell. America doesn’t have that. We’re a country that knows about manufacturing, productivity, communications, the efficiency of commerce, and how to distribute products. Because of that, there hasn’t been as much pressure on making things well, nor is there the underlying cultural force of the aesthetic vocabulary of the monoculture. The Netherlands has a point of view different from Sweden’s, which is different from Denmark’s. Every country in Europe has a cultural vocabulary that’s distinctive. In this country, it all gets blended, and I think that’s a problem.
For the rest of the interview with Michael Maharam, purchase the April issue here.