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Manufacturers tap inside talents

Desingers Within

It has been said true beauty comes from within. The same could be said with regard to the naissance of the products and accessories adorning outdoor spaces.

Bill Vanderminden
Bill Vanderminden credits a team approach for Telescope designs like this counter-height bistro.

Many of the styles and forms that are exciting the outdoor consumer today are not the product of a recognized name in design, but the creation of dedicated individuals working and designing within the heart of leading casual manufacturers.

“Our designs are a team effort by individuals within our company,” said Bill Vanderminden, Telescope Casual’s executive vice president of design and marketing. “In fact, in-house designing has been a part of Telescope’s business model for decades.”

Like Telescope, many casual furnishings companies have built on designs crafted by individuals working from within the company. The background, education and professional profiles of these team members include a wide range of experience and knowledge. Much of the knowledge is home grown, the result of years of learning at the knee of a predecessor.

O.W. Lee is one such company that is proud of its long in-house design heritage. “Traditionally, we have always designed in-house ... from my great-grandfather O.W., to my grandfather Bob Lee, to my uncle Brian Lee and now me,” said O.W. Lee designer Paul Rogers, one of three Pinnacle Design Achievement Award finalists in the Summer/Casual category this year.

Team concept

Michael Mettendorf
Michael Mettendorf says New River Casual Furniture’s design team pulls from nature for its creations in wood.

Final designs may come from within, but are not a solitary exercise. The concept of a team effort is echoed by many. Responsiveness to input from manufacturer representatives and retailer requests also is viewed as instrumental to the process.

“A team of folks works on our designs including our in-house engineering and design departments,” said Michael Mettendorf, New River Casual Furniture’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We also use input from our very credible sales force as they bring ideas from the field.”

To enhance the team concept, New River invites representatives and retailers to its annual design brainstorming session.

Telescope also places a great deal of emphasis on including representatives and retailers in the design process, and looks to them to provide a wish list for use in the creation of new product.


Rain is the latest collection of outdoor rug designs from Surya’s inhouse creative staff, shown with artwork, pillows and throws.

Input and wishes from the field are not the only directional clues used by internal designers in the creation of the annual collections.

“Inspiration can come from anywhere,” Rogers said. “There are times when the most unlikely object provides inspiration and these become the more interesting designs.”

While gathering a myriad of ideas, the New River design team, finds the most successful designs begin with inspiration well-suited to the wood category, including natural items and architectural elements. In-house design departments are perfectly situated to incorporate into their designs a thorough knowledge of the materials and processes involved in the product’s construction.

“One of the things that has really helped me as a designer has been a good understanding of the physical capabilities of what O.W. Lee can produce and designing around that,” Rogers said.

Style trends, although originating in art and fashion, provide inspiration for casual furniture and accessory designers as well.

“We cater to the design trends, but we do not set them,” said Seth King, vice president of sales and marketing for Surya Rugs. “Our goal is to be on top of popular design and have product that reflects those trends.”

Playing it safe design-wise also is being recognized by multiple design teams, especially in the current economic times.

“I like to try to incorporate trends into design, but I have found the best-selling collections are the ones that stick to the basics,” Rogers said.

Reluctance to go out onto a “design limb” also may be dictated by internal factors. “Due to our size, there is less risk-taking and this flows into the design area,” Mettendorf said. “We approach trends cautiously now more than ever due to the economy.”

Fabric selections and colorations play a major role for designers within.

“We look at fabrics from the beginning of the design process,” Vanderminden said. “Integrating color trends can be as important as style trends.”

Although New River also uses fabrics as inspiration, a lower buying volume creates challenges and opportunities for its design team. “We stick to stock fabrics or those with low minimums when designing,” Mettendorf said.

O.W. Lee’s Rogers finds the major fabric companies work well with in-house designers to provide assistance in the marketing phase. “When I design a collection, I generally do not keep fabrics or yarn colorations in mind; but when it comes time to photograph and market the collection, these companies always provide the perfect look,” Rogers said.

For Surya, coloration within outdoor fabrics is of major importance to the rug company’s design process. “We use many fabrics from all price levels to put together our color and design trends,” King said. “The more we have, the easier it is to see trends. We develop the complementing rug style with color groups that will coordinate with product in retail stores.”


Paul Rogers, great-grandson of founder O.W. Lee, designed its latest products including the Luxe 30 Deep Seating and San Cristobal Dining groups.

As inspiration is ongoing, so is the design process for casual manufacturers. Many work year-round creating new additions. Focused on having new product and the accompanying sales materials available for the Preview Show in July, in-house design and marketing teams are charged with keeping the process moving and on schedule.

Each year, Telescope plans for 20% of their total offering to be updated or new product introductions. To facilitate this ambitious task, the company begins each August with an exacting schedule to have product decisions completed by February and photography for sales materials underway by March.

The quantity of new introductions varies by company.

Paring down the lines can take place throughout the design process, but several manufacturers say it happens primarily during the prototype stage when the manufacturability as well as profitability of the product is determined. Within the final selection phase, manufacturers continue to keep the retailers’ wish list in mind. One such directive to Telescope’s designers in recent years has been to create products that open up new sales avenues for its dealers. To this end, the design staff has focused on introducing products for commercial or contract applications with which retailers can directly pursue additional sales.

Surya’s rug design staff actually creates many more designs than they plan to produce with the intention of cutting many out, King said.

Optimization of lumber usage is a criterion in the number of designs that will end up as introductions in the New River line. “There are a finite number of collections that are involved in the design process annually,” Mettendorf said. “We scale back after closely looking at trends, execution and pricing.”

Outside Help

In some instances, the in-house design staff works in combination with outside designers to create the needed casual product offerings.

“We use our in-house design team, our Indian and Chinese design teams, and we also use outside freelance designers,” King said. “Instead of limiting our resources, we use all of them.”

With a long history of in-house design and a 2008 Design Excellence award for Resin and Fiberglass, Telescope offers proof of an in-house design business model that has worked. However, change is underway. Vanderminden said, “2010 will be the first year we will use an outside designer for a couple designs.”

At this year’s Casual Market, New River customers will see for the second year product that was designed out of house. “During 2009, we had product from an outside designer for the first time in the history of the company,” Mettendorf said. “It has been a positive experience, but we plan to continue doing the bulk of our conceptualization in house.”

The Monte Carlo Collection created by well-known outdoor furniture designer, Philip Behrens was a part of New River’s introductions. Mettendorf includes credibility, a unique outlook on the product audience and the opportunity for premium pricing as advantages to adding pieces from independent designers.

O.W. Lee currently does not use outside designers, but Rogers does not rule out the possibility. “At O.W. Lee we’ve been lucky (with designs), but I don’t believe we have all the answers,” Rogers said. “Another designer’s point of view in addition to my own will be crucial in the future to providing top designs for the customer.”

Whether driven by a long history or by current economics, “designing from within” holds a valuable place in the world of casual furnishings. The proof can be found in the industry’s award-winning innovation and the depth of design on display each year as well as the resulting beauty adorning outdoor spaces worldwide.

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