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  • Cinde Ingram

Designers shaping casual industry

Innovative casual furniture design requires a remarkable combination of inspiration, vision, skill and dedication.

Not everyone's purpose is to push the design envelope a tad wider for styles or materials. Sometimes inspiration is found in art, architecture, nature or simply being asked to solve a manufacturer's product puzzle. The manufacturer then gains credit for such solutions and the designer moves on to the next project. As a result, retailers and consumers often are unaware of the designer who shaped the product or those influential designers whose lifelong work contributes toward shaping the industry.

While no single designer's vision can be credited with creating the casual furniture niche, some still recall the contributions of early visionaries. Furniture designer and architect Marcel Breuer was credited in the 1920s with answering dilemmas with chair design using tubular steel and straps. In the late 1930s and '40s, Robert Brown was breaking ground designing high-quality wrought iron products. In the early 1950s, James Baker recognized values of aluminum over redwood and began Tropitone's quest as a design pioneer, which continues today under the direction of Peter W. Homestead.

Names of influential designers repeat through the years, not only within the casual industry but other seemingly unrelated industries. For example, you may have heard of Lister's Danish-born designer Mads Odgard, who has won international awards for his work in the automotive industry and was among the first to introduce stainless steel and modern fabrics to the modern leisure furniture industry. As consumers' needs change for space, storage and styles change, designers lead the casual industry's evolution.

Casual Living talked with a few designers who are making a difference in the casual furniture world today.

Marshall Mullins

Mosaic tabletops fit Mullins' design needs

 Marshall Mullins

Marshall Mullins' mosaic tabletop designs drew buyers to Old World Stone & Iron's booth during last year's Casual Market. Although a few high-end retailers in Arizona and Nevada already carried his lines, it was a first exposure for others who hadn't seen the jewel-like tables, which also appear in the Leathercraft showroom at the High Point Furniture Market.

It also was the start of a design relationship with Agio International. "We really liked and trusted each other, and felt it was a great opportunity for us as individuals to work together," Agio President Bob Gaylord said. In November, Mullins made his first trip to China with Gaylord. "Marshall is absolutely our designer for all of our stone tops, whether it be slab stones, cut stones, slates, marbles, granites or certainly the faux tops, what we call Dura-stones. He is working on some unbelievable new things we'll be introducing at the Casual Show."

Mullins, who has made several more trips to China since then, said, "I think the beauty of the relationship is that we're able to take our design theory over to China and bring a better value into the marketplace."

 Romano tabletop provides an example of the stones and patterns Mullins finds inspirational.

Mullins and his wife Andrea started making small mosaics, angels and crosses as a hobby nine years ago. After they gravitated to making mosaic tables with wrought iron bases in their garage, she told him "to support this habit, we've got to make some functional items," he said.

They began marketing to the Phoenix design community, selling door-to-door.

"The big break is when I got an appointment with Robb & Stucky in Scottsdale," Mullins said. "I would go source stones and put designs together, then show them what I came up with. I just kept playing with it. I would mix medias and put stone and copper together. We formed a relationship that's been a lasting and continual thing."

Mullins was drawn to stone and natural materials, but found challenges in developing a substructure strong enough to support his functional and elegant designs.

"What I attempted to gravitate toward was an Old World or Tuscany look," he said. "It doesn't happen overnight. I have to look at stone and draw different things."

His inspiration comes through attending stone shows, observing flooring patterns or architecture.

"All my ideas and information came from the indoor side of the industry," he said. "My niche is really tabletops so I look at the different elements of furniture, study a tabletop that meets a need and how the elements have to fit together to live in harmony."

Carl Muller

Muller finds rewards solving design puzzles

Carl Muller compares designing to solving a puzzle or a riddle.

 Carl Muller

"It is a very satisfying feeling to come up with a successful original design," he said. "One of the most rewarding aspects of designing furniture is realizing I have created an object that someone has chosen to bring into their home and be a part of their life."

Muller realized he loved to build things, even as a child. His design training began in the architecture department of California Polytechnic University, Pomona. He later studied graphic and industrial design at Pasadena City College and received a master's degree in industrial design at California State University, Long Beach.

"It wasn't until I discovered industrial design that I realized I could build/design things for a living," Muller said. "I worked for a couple of my professors at their design offices — one specialized in graphics and packaging, and the other in furniture, lighting and graphics. I supported myself through college by freelancing at various ad agencies, design offices and illustration projects."

Wood is Muller's preferred material for furniture designs because of its warmth, texture, strength and formability. "Ironically, most of my successful designs have been with metal," he said.

 Muller's Wellington design for Woodard won a Design Excellence Award.

Among his favorite designs are Woodard's Trinidad Collection and Wellington Collection, which won a Design Excellence Award. "I am also very proud of the work I have done for Elite Manufacturing Corporation, including the Nova Barstool, Boomerang and Tangent occasional tables, and the Metro dining collection," he said.

Muller feels most proud of his family, especially his children. "I feel fortunate that I have been able to find a profession that has been very rewarding to me, both mentally and materially," he said.

When asked which designers were most influential on his career, Muller put Charles and Ray Eames at the top of his list. "They were constantly inventing new forms and technologies," he said. "They not only created dozens of furniture icons, they invented molded plywood, and developed the entire concept of exhibit design. I am also a big fan of Philippe Starck — I feel he has really changed the way the world looks today. He has been unbelievably prolific, and his furniture not only looks cool, it pushes the limits of technology, and most of it is comfortable as well."

Muller's ideas come at unexpected moments, like when he's not focusing on the project at hand. "Sometimes I just put a design aside and let it percolate for a while," he said. "More often, I just need to get out some pieces of cardboard and wood and start playing around."

If creative ideas stop flowing, Muller tries to take time off and get out of his normal routine. He also attends furniture shows to monitor new trends and become inspired.

John Caldwell

"I've had such a lucky design life"

 John Caldwell

Expect to see several John Caldwell designs during next month's Casual Show. In addition to the complete Transitions Collection he designed for Tropitone, Woodard and Gloster will boast some of his work as well.

Caldwell's presence in the casual industry hasn't gone unnoticed since a chance meeting with Bob Brown when he was a 19-year-old student in Pasadena, Calif. Caldwell showed Brown his furniture designs and was immediately taken to Brown Jordan's prototype factory. It was then Caldwell signed his first contract.

"It took me a few years to realize there was a lot more to the business than that," Caldwell said.

Owner of his own design office, John Caldwell Design, he has worked on products in several markets. From office furniture and ceiling fans to public and health care seating, Caldwell's designs have been manufactured in the United States, Europe, China, Indonesia and Mexico, and have received numerous awards.

Being in the industry so long, Caldwell noted how the casual market has evolved, specifically in the realm of public expectation and material.

"The casual industry used to be for rich people," he said. "The expectation level now is so different that the average person expects to have a backyard and outdoor furniture in it. The size of the industry, consequently, has grown immensely. There has also been a growth in cast and an explosion in outdoor woven."

 Caldwell is excited to debut Tropitone's Transition Collection at next month's Casual Show, calling it a 'contemporary collection with a wink at transitional design.'

Caldwell's favorite design was the Silver Collection he styled for Veneman close to eight years ago. The collection pairs cast aluminum and teak and cast aluminum and sling in its dining group and accent pieces.

Inspired by the likes of Hans J. Wegner, Caldwell's personal interests in art history and specifically architecture led Caldwell to his trade. Travel is at the cornerstone of his designs, getting inspiration from his favorite destinations — Italy, Morocco and London, to name a few. Part of an art travel group, Caldwell travels at least once a year, visiting galleries and various environments where, he said, his inspiration for designs often begin. "It's funny how many times a sculpture or painting and the environment will affect me," he said.

Asked whether there is any knowledge he has received that he wishes he knew earlier in his career, and Caldwell counts his blessings.

"It seems to me that I've had such a lucky design life and I've been in such a good situation all along ... I really feel quite lucky," he said.

Frederic C. Doughty

Doughty designs to meet sophisticated tastes


Frederic C. Doughty

Frederic C. Doughty's award-winning design style evolved from the indoors out in a career spanning two decades.

After completing his education at a Rhode Island design school, Doughty worked on leading-edge designs for high-end office furniture manufacturer Harvey Probber. After he tired of Massachusetts weather, he turned his attention to outdoor furniture by designing for Brown Jordan in California for nine seasons.

"It was a wonderful place to learn the business because I had the opportunity to work with better materials and more variety," Doughty said. "This was in the mid '80s when the trend was staying-at-home, what they called cocooning. We've all been lucky to ride that wave of trend — people are concerned with trying to fix up their homes and patios more. As they do that, they are becoming more sophisticated with their tastes. I try to satisfy that taste level."


Doughty switched his attention to kitchen and bath designs when he went to work as design director of Price-Pfister Faucets, known for its high-quality faucets. He spent five years designing for that wealthy industry. At the same time, Doughty started designing for casual furniture manufacturers on a freelance basis.

"That was my first love really, and I was able to do that without competing with my day job," he said. "So in those years, I really was doing a dual career. Kitchen and bath was an interesting departure for me. For them, I got to bring some traditional styling cues from furniture and architecture designs into the faucet industry, which prior to the '90s was middle-of-the-road."

In 1998, Doughty founded Premises Design in Ventura, Calif. He helped client Crate & Barrel develop its outdoor segment. "As a designer, it's interesting to me trying to satisfy different customers' needs as they try to stay in market or change their market," he said.

Doughty won Pinnacle Awards from the American Society of Furniture Designers for three of the last four years. He also won awards in International Interior Design Association and SCFMA Design Excellence contests. He has produced more than 80 collections for customers including Alu-Mont, Mallin, Tropitone and Woodard.

For the 2006 season, Doughty designed seven collections for his newest client, Agio International. Doughty finds his architectural training plays into his furniture designs because furniture does not set alone in nature.

Scott Coogan

Coogan follows his creative passions

Design holds a lifelong passion for Scott Coogan.


Scott Coogan

"My job is truly a labor of love," he said. "I find it to be the most exciting thing anyone can do." Coogan keeps a pad and pencil handy, even on his nightstand in case he feels inspired to scribble. Despite his devotion, he recently left a job he loved with Pride Family Brands, which kept him traveling 25 to 30 weeks a year, mostly to Costa Rica.

"It was the best manufacturing facility I've ever had the opportunity to work in," Coogan said. "I was like an executive chef with the best pantry available to any designer."

Those tropical ingredients provided inspirations for furniture designs and led to Pride's 2006 season introductions including the Regent, Athene, Fusion, Lenoxx, Metropolitan and Madison collections. Pride's 2005 season offered Coogan's other designs such as Coco Isle, Tahitian and Cabana Bay.

He refrained from naming a favorite collection. "I can imagine how a mother feels when she gives birth because each one of these was like a child to me, from conception to the first day of show," Coogan said.

Still his creations were taking time away from his family, so he took a job as vice president of design and product development for Carter Grandle, which will keep him close to home in Miami and Sarasota, Fla.


Coogan's design for Pride's Regent chair is entered in this year's Design Excellence competition.

"I feel I have been offered a clean palette to ply my craft and look forward to taking Carter Grandle to the levels of excitement and awe which every performer, actor, designer or artist requires," he said. "I need applause."

Coogan has traveled far since his start 35 years ago. He studied at Pratt Institute, a New York design and engineering school, then continued his business administration education at night at Brooklyn College. After seven years with a residential furniture company, he beame vice president of design and product development, then relocated to Florida. While at high-end furniture manufacturer The Rudolph Collection, he used unusual materials such as coconut shell, horn, bone, brass and nickel silver for case goods and object d'art. After three years, he bought the company, changed the name to The Rudolph Collection/Russell E. Scott and operated it for 13 years as a design source for celebrities including Robert DeNiro and Jackie Gleason.

When he realized he was missing his children's growth, he refocused his work by taking a design job with Fine Art Lamps. During that two-year hiatus, Coogan recognized his real love was case goods and joined Pompeii Furniture as vice president of design and product development.

"I was working very closely with the founder of Pompeii, Leo Martin, who was like a father to me and truly taught me everything about the outdoor furniture business both on the residential and contract level," Coogan said. He remained with Pompeii years after it was sold to Winsloew and later Brown Jordan International. Finding the corporate structure not conducive to his design process, Coogan accepted the position with Pride and helped changed its design focus.

"My slogan is 'Details are the language of great design,'" Coogan said.

Shaun Sweeney

"I'm always up for a challenge"


Shaun Sweeney

As soon as Shaun Sweeney stepped into the furniture department at the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Mich., his fate was sealed.

As a young child, Sweeney loved to draw, and with the urging of his three brothers and other family members, decided to take a go at art as his career. After college, Sweeney worked with various furniture companies, including Bassett Furniture. When he received an impromptu telephone call from Dean Engelage, executive vice president of Woodard, he changed directions and has designed for the company since.

"My brothers pushed me to go further with all of my talents," Sweeney said. "It's a natural flow for me. It can be stressful, but I'm always up to a challenge, and thrive on it."

Sweeney enjoys Woodard's four divisions from specialty to mass, which allows him to work with different people and different factories.

"Every year, you try to bring out new and innovative product," he said. "We really stepped it up this year, and I'm already thinking way ahead."


Sweeney takes to drawing whenever the mood strikes. He designed Woodard's new stepping stone tabletop from a path he saw while watching "Lord of the Rings." A chair was inspired from a wrought iron fence he saw while taking a walk in Cincinnati over Thanksgiving (Sweeney borrowed his doctor brother's prescription pad to draw the chair).

"Sketching is so important because I can be anywhere," he said.

Inspired by the likes of Louie Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Frinier, Sweeney admits his college instructor from Kendall, Zooey Chu, had the greatest influence on him.

Philip Behrens

"I'm an inside-out designer, not a stylist."


Philip Behrens

"I realized the other day that I am 43 years old, and I've been building furniture for 35 years," Philip Behrens said.

As a seventh-grader, Behrens constructed bunk beds for his brother and himself, which they slept in until he left for college. At Utah State University, Behrens earned a mechanical engineering degree, manufacturing option and philosophy minor. After college, Behrens returned to his home country of Germany for three years to take part in an industrial woodworking apprenticeship.

Following his education in Germany, Behrens moved to North Carolina and worked for a couple of furniture companies for about 13 years, before he "tired of working other people's aesthetics out."

From there, Behrens was looking to break ground in an industry that didn't pose as a conflict of interest with his previous employers (bedroom furniture, office furniture). He and his wife attended the International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market and, from there, his relationship with manufacturers in this industry grew.


His "real first piece" for the casual market was the Santa Barbara table, designed for Rock Wood Casual Furniture. Since then, Behrens has worked across all mediums, with companies like Tyndall Creek Furniture, Homecrest, Windham Castings, Three Coins and more.

In 1995, Behrens opened his own design firm, Natura Designs in Winston Salem, N.C. Natura translates to natural in German, which relates to his inspiration — simplicity and truth.

"I like all my designs to be natural, true to themselves," he said. "I don't like ornamentation for ornamentation's sake. I operate more on a level on what kind of identity are we trying to make. I'm an inside-out designer, not a stylist. I enjoy the hunt for the experience of the idea we are trying to do. That is above and beyond everything else — that is very thrilling and totally unpredictable."

Influenced by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Ron Arad, Behrens begins his designs with CAD design software, then "hardens" the design with line drawings and a 3D computer model. The accomplishment in which he is most proud is being able to feed his family on his talent (Behrens and his wife, Joan, have a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son). Looking back, he wishes that he simply had known "how to do it" in the beginning of his design career.

"I struggled with 'how to do it' for years — how to sell the emotional content of an idea or product," Behrens said.

A firm believer in creativity as science, ideas often come to Behren as he is relaxing. "Creative thought is not a moment of eureka," he said. "It's a science, an art, a method to the madness. Being creative is not 'sit around and make it happen.'"

Richard Frinier

Frinier brings home styles of far-off destinations


Richard Frinier

Probably the casual industry's most widely recognized designer, Richard Frinier thrives on multi-tasking, travel and tropical vistas.

"I love what I do, so the creative process and concepts come quite naturally for me," Frinier said. "I just close my eyes and think about a place I'd like to be and imagine how it would look and how I would feel being there."

He's been able to take his own advice to enjoy a more casual living pace since 2002 when he retired as chief creative officer of Brown Jordan International and ended two decades of challenging the status quo. But his yen for multitasking soon led to his own design/marketing firm and Richard Frinier collections for top-grade clients including Century Leisure, Sunbrella by Glen Raven, Dedon available through JANUS et Cie and lighting/home accent maker Currey & Company.

"For the last 25 years I have only worked with materials that are weather resistant," Frinier said. "While this creates a challenge in and of itself, I enjoy altering the materials with unique textures and colorations to enhance my designs."


In addition to winning numerous Design Excellence awards, Frinier has taken home the American Society of Furniture Designers' Pinnacle Award in the Summer/Casual category, a design award from the Industrial Designers Society of America and design awards from the International Interior Designers Association.

"My designs are like family, so it would be unfair to have a favorite," Frinier said. "As for accomplishments, I am most proud of the friendships I have developed with my partners, customers and industry professionals."

All his success seems a long step from the time he spent as a child in his parents' garage, his favorite room. Yet, even then he had artistic inclinations. "As an artist, I began with one-of-a-kind sculptures," Frinier said. "While in college, I made art in series, multiples and limited editions. My interest in furniture design came when asked to develop ideas for a bedroom furniture manufacturer. While the collection was a success, I most enjoyed walking through the factory and seeing the stacks of furniture parts."

He earned a master of fine arts degree from California State University at Long Beach and taught furniture making at a community college for nine years before investing 21 years with Brown Jordan. "No overnight success here," he said.

Designers who influenced him include Robert Brown, Richard Schultz, and Charles and Ray Eames. When asked what inspires him to design, Frinier said, "I love the process, I enjoy working with the talents and expertise of my partners." In addition to thriving on multi-tasking, "I'm challenged to improve and push the limits of how it has always been done to create relevant and authentic design."

He celebrates completing a demanding project by spending a day at the beach. Ideas come at unexpected moments, like when ... "I wake in the morning or behind eyeshades on international flights," Frinier said.

Asked what he knows now he wishes he had known earlier, Frinier's said, That it would go by so quickly."


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