Leon Ransmeier is an American industrial designer and a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. He founded his New York–based studio, Ransmeier Inc., in 2010, and now counts HAY, Herman Miller, Mattiazzi, and 2016/ Arita among his clients.
Based on his thoughtful and minimal approach to product design, Maharam invited Ransmeier to propose a new presentation for its showroom in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart on the occasion of NeoCon 2016, North America’s leading tradeshow for commercial design. Here, Ransmeier offers some insight into the project.
What did you see as the unique challenges of this commission?
LR: Some of Maharam’s textiles are very luxurious and some are very technical, but most of them are used to upholster furniture. Because of this I associate them with comfort, which is something very human and related to the body. I sought to bring the display into the human scale without using traditional typologies. While there are two benches in the space for sitting on, the display frames are a little more mysterious. I was determined from the outset to create forms that were both familiar and foreign.
If you have a normal method of working, did you need to adapt it for this project? What was your process like?
LR: Every project is different, but we have a fairly consistent pattern of research, drawing, prototyping, and parametric computer modeling that was applied here as well.
The design of the cantilevered V-frame emerged early, but in order to prove their stability we began an intense period of prototyping in my workshop. We built all three sizes of frames twice to verify the stability and flexibility before submitting drawings for fabrication.
The commission was also an unusual scale for my office: it wasn’t manufactured in large quantities, but it’s not a one-off either. We worked hard to find a solution that was appropriate to the size of the project.
What type of atmosphere or experience did you seek to create?
LR: NeoCon is crowded and hectic. I intended to create a calming space that displays Maharam’s vibrant and tactile products in a physically compelling manner. I left the walls white and the windows exposed to emphasize a sense of openness. My office also made the playlist.
Flexibility was among your objectives, along with a sense of harmony, order, consistency, and uniformity. What informed these criteria and how are they expressed in the space?
LR: I decided early on to focus on a flexible system, to ensure we could find an arrangement that would suit the space and the fabrics being exhibited. We rely on modifying and evolving full-scale models for all of our projects. The flexibility of this design allowed us to rearrange everything on site while installing, which we did.
Harmony, order, consistency, and uniformity—they sound like lofty goals when you read it back to me! I wanted to create a respite from the stress and beigeness of the Merchandise Mart. Additionally, because there is a huge variety of product being shown, my intention was to design a somewhat uniform system that would support a wide assortment of materials.
Did you have a different experience of working with textiles than you’d had before?
LR: I have developed upholstered projects in the past but this is very different because we are showing the fabric and leathers themselves, as raw materials. Maharam’s design team has developed a way of folding and hanging their product that is very effective at conveying a textile’s properties and encouraging one-to-one interaction. I wanted to maintain that approach while bringing the installation away from the ceiling, and down to the human level.
The frames come in three different heights: 44 inches, 60 inches, and 80 inches, with the median height approximating most adults’ eye level. Why was human scale important to you and how does it change the experience of the installation?
LR: I challenged myself to find a solution that was freestanding and “person sized” to open the space up visually. The height of the 60-inch frame is eye level in order to allow the audience to see across the room and take in the entire showroom at once.
The visual language of the frames and benches suggests an interest in reduction and flatness, with curving lines that seem to fold upon themselves or that nearly disappear when viewed from certain angles. Where does this derive from?
LR: The V-shaped frames were designed to be completely freestanding, without the use of a weighted base or traditional legs. A tripod is very stable, but on a flat surface, a 90-degree-bent tube can also provide a secure anchor. I avoided traditional forms to circumvent any references to furniture and allow the fabrics to hang in the air, creating a floating effect.
The tubular-steel designs of Marcel Breuer and Mart Stam were a reference point for you. What do you think was so attractive about that material in the Bauhaus era, and what draws you to it now?
LR: For those designers in the 1920s, bending tubular steel represented an efficiency that celebrated modern industry. Although we take them for granted now, I can imagine that a cantilevered chair then seemed to be a sort of magical object, giving the appearance of a seated person floating in the air.
In this case the fabrics are also produced industrially, though compared to steel, the fabrics are light and soft. I’m drawn to these similarities and contrasts. When the cantilevered frames are hung with Maharam’s products, the structure almost disappears. I hope it’s a curious experience that draws the audience to the materials themselves.
How did your interest in the interactions between humans and objects come into play?
LR: The interaction between humans and objects has always been the foundation of my interest in design. We pass through our days supported and augmented by human-made and designed objects, environments, and technologies. People can’t survive without clothing, tools, and shelter. I feel lucky to participate in shaping this world.
Are there any previous projects or experiences that prepared you for this one?
LR: It was a new way of thinking about structure. Although I used materials and production techniques in this design that are common in the furniture industry, the frames I created don’t need to support a person. The construction was familiar but the application was not.
What are your thoughts on your next project with Maharam?
LR: I’m looking forward to it!