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Vol. LXV, No. 42
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
(Photo by Rob Van Varick)
CHAMPION OF FUNCTION AND BEAUTY: Donald Strum has worked in the Product Design Division of Michael Graves Design Group since 1983.
Were design innovators, said Donald Strum of his work as a Principal in the Product Design Division of Michael Graves Design Group (MGDG). We produce products that improve and enhance peoples lives. The array of tea kettles, picture frames, clocks, watches, and, yes, toilet plungers, that adorn the firms conference room are a testament to the companys genuine interest in how people live their lives on a daily basis, as well as the belief that these items should be beautiful. Im an extension of Michael Gravess hand, says Mr. Strum. I feel its a big responsibility.
Ive been here for 27 years. In that time Ive had a wide range of experiences. Id say were general practitioners of design; we consider the house and all the things in it. A hospitality project for a hotel includes everything down to the mint on the pillow.
Most recently, weve really taken to working on mobility devices and the patient room for health care. A lot of this comes from Michael Gravess personal experience with paralysis. Being in a wheelchair, hes identified various levels of indignities people like him experience. Although we do our best to move products into the home and make them good for anyone in any age group, sometimes you have to focus. This is one of those times.
Our projects come from both commissions as well as when we identify a need for something; you cant wait for someone to knock on the door. Ive worked on both large and small scale products. When you see a glassblower bring your sketch to life, you really understand the alchemy and magic that goes into it. Proportion, scale, and composition are the three essential elements, along with how a product relates to you as a human being.
Theres no typical day here. Sometimes my colleague and firm partner, Linda Kinsey, and I look at each other and say Wow what a day! Its just so rewarding. You have to love what you do; you have to jump out of bed and not want to waste any time getting to work. Linda and I have worked together for 23 years. Were always together at the front end of a project, making design decisions and doing business negotiations. Then we split up: she does marketing, I work on the design with Michael and the team. In the end, we get back together to make sure weve done what we set out to do. We do the dance very well. Sometimes at the fuzzy front end some of us get a little carried away, but Linda and Michael always bring us back.
Ive travelled the world by working here in Princeton. Ive been all over Europe, China, and Japan. We designed high-end products with European companies; then Target came knocking. It was a good opportunity to reach the widest possible audience. We designed over 200 products within a year, all priced so anyone could benefit from it.
Parsons School of Design gave me skill sets, but my real education in design came from being mentored by, and working with, Michael Graves. Michael has created a real legacy; theres a language here a humanistic approach that finds solutions to problems and changes the way we interact with things. When were in the trenches of designing, collaboration can be intense. But the back-and-forth conversations, the creative dissonance that goes on, always results in something better and unexpected. Our products are evolutionary, not revolutionary.
My watch? It just came out. Its called Syzygy its to do with with astronomy, whereby three of more celestial bodies are in alignment. MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) will hopefully carry it. They carry many of our other watches.
At one point I experimented with my own design voice with a few independent projects. I had to get it out of my system, but it ultimately made me a stronger designer for MGDG. I came back stronger. Michael is very generous in giving people credit. I always feel that I am being heard; I think it has to do with his experience as a professor working with students. Hes given me the opportunity to work for the best, and I carry the torch of what he represents. I believe in it.
Mr. Strums enthusiasm for what he does is unflagging. Can I show you one last object? he asks a visitor who is getting ready to leave. Youd be surprised at how many of these we sell, he says holding up a toilet plunger. He goes on to describe how ethnographic research identified the fact that when homes have more than one bathroom, there is almost invariably only one plunger. What happens when another toilet acts up? While the typical plunger drips as you carry it across a hall or up and down steps, when you pick up the Michael Graves plunger by its handle, the base it rests in comes with it. Voila no drips. And its beautiful, Mr. Strum added.
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