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Cinde W. Ingram

Kirsten White

Makes connections count

Kristen White

Design is a differentiator that sets one company apart from the next.

That’s one concept Kirsten White teaches her furniture and industrial design students. She demonstrates it through her own designs for Rock Wood Casual Furniture.

Two casual furniture collections White designed for Rock Wood attracted attention when they debuted at the 2008 HD Expo. Molta, a teak and aluminum group, appeared along with Rock Wood’s first outdoor woven collections, Totem and Cove, at the Casual Furniture premarket in Chicago.

Of the two, White feels most pleased with Cove because it presented new challenges. “I’m really pleased Rock Wood is going in a bit of a different direction with this collection,” she said. “I don’t think it changes their present focus but it’s opening a new market for them. Maybe earlier they weren’t ready for it, but now they are and it’s really exciting. They’ve entrusted me a lot with that.”

When Rock Wood gave White the challenge of designing woven furniture, she dashed off pages of ideas. She edited her notes before sitting down with Rock Wood owners John and Jennifer Mulholland, but still presented quite a bit of options for them to consider.

“I’m not an artist, I’m very much a designer so I need constraints and parameters to work within,” White said. “It’s great having someone who I can bounce ideas off of. They can give me some tighter constraints and then go forward from there.”

Like other designers, White works to find a balance between keeping her clients happy and, at the same time, ahead of the curve.

The woven project required White to spend time on the factory floor in Indonesia. Viro developed a custom fiber to make sure the single-woven layer looks good on both sides. “We were determined to have it just one layer at the chair’s sides,” she said. “As I would tell my design students, the best furniture looks great from all sides.”

Silver woven lounge chair
Cove Lounge Chair

White first met the Mulhollands when she was finishing her industrial design degree and searching for a real-world design experience. That timely connection led White to design the stacking Kattegat chair for Rock Wood while she completed her thesis project at Ontario College of Art and Design.

Her former boss at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto later remembered White’s chair design after he became director of design at the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles and was searching for outdoor furniture. The Getty Center expansion project led White to work again with the Mulhollands to develop the Courtyard Café Chair, which was used to furnish the exterior of the Getty.

“It was a huge contract and such a strategic location,” White said. Her Courtyard Café chair also was selected for use at the original Getty villa in Malibu. “That chair was quite sought after. It also went to Canary Wharf in London when they started expanding.”

After completing college, White opened her own design studio, where she focuses on designs for contemporary furniture and household products. White also teaches industrial design at what is now Ontario College of Art & Design, and furniture design at Sheridan College.

“Most young designers should be taught when you’re exploring an idea, you’ve got to explore a million ideas before finding the right one,” White said. “When my students come up with one idea and say it’s the best, I ask 'How do you know it’s the best idea if you don’t have anything to measure it against?’”

She personally measures her work against the classic, mid-century modern styles that inspire her. “I grew up in a house full of Scandanavian pieces of modern furniture and my Mom was obsessed with all things Danish,” White said. While her friends had big cushy sofas and landscapes on their walls, her home had abstract art and Danish teak furnishings. “Growing up in a suburban environment in a little bungalow, I wondered why our house didn’t look like everybody else’s,” she said. “I always credit my mother really for forming my aesthetics without my being aware of it.”

While she was studying art history at the University of Ottawa, White realized she wanted to pursue a career in design. She left the university and changed her direction to follow her love of classic designs. She enrolled then at the Ontario College of Art & Design to study industrial design.

Earlier in her design career, she enjoyed participating in exhibitions that were not money-makers but helped her generate ideas. “Now my students do a lot of that kind of work and I’m supporting and encouraging,” she said. Although her design students can be demanding, they keep her focused.

“I’d like to think teaching has probably made me a better designer,” White said. “It’s made me have to think about and be aware of my process and the right way to do things. I’m always teaching my students strategies to get out of those dead-ends.”

When she needs inspiration, White heads outdoors. “When the weather’s really nice, it’s lovely to spend a day outside and enjoy the day sketching and coming up with new ideas,” she said.

In past years, she would have selected wood as her favorite material for designs, but designing outdoor woven furniture now presents a new range of possibilities. For any outdoor design, White views durability as the biggest challenge.

“Because I like all that modern stuff personally I always want things lightweight with lovely proportions, but you have to consider the elements,” she said. “It’s got to be made to last and really withstand weather and sun exposure.”

She considers new uses against a backdrop of ancient ones.

“Especially for the casual market, it’s great to look at classic designs that weren’t necessarily intended for outdoors,” she said. “Those pieces are timeless, people still want them. As a designer, wouldn’t you want the same thing? I certainly do. I want my designs to be timeless.”

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