Furniture designer and ASFD president discusses women in our industry and the value of leaving open avenues for creativity in product design& retail displays.
Furniture World spoke with Catina Suarez Roscoe, of Greensboro, NC, for this installment of Design & Designer. Originally from Havana, Cuba, Catina, who came to the US as a child, displays her Latin heritage in her life and work. Both a freelance furniture designer and founder of Catina Unlimited Design, Inc., she is inspired by form, color, composition and pattern from the world around her. Catina earned a Fine Arts Degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.
Throughout her career, Catina has successfully collaborated with leading industry manufacturers including Harden Furniture, Borkholder Furniture, Haverty's, American Drew, Kincaid Furniture, Hooker Furniture, Pennsylvania House, Magnussen Home, Lane, and others. Her studio is a repeat finalist and winner of the Pinnacle Award. In addition to her design work, Catina is president of the American Society of Furniture Designers (ASFD).
Furniture World asked Catina about her tenure as President and involvement with the ASFD.
“ASFD is an important organization that was in the shadows of our industry, existing as more of a social group than having obvious benefits for professional furniture designers. I served on the board many years ago, then returned to the organization and was elected President. I am passionate about its potential to advocate for and support both original design and designers. Unfortunately, design creativity has not always been equally valued in the furniture business. At ASFD we are working to change that perception. The furniture industry needs to come together and collectively support the value of great design. In addition, we need to inspire and support furnishings designers so that their role in the industry can be counted, recognized, and valued.
“ASFD is in the process of being re-imagined as a resource for networking, mentoring, and promoting creative furniture design. We have a history in this industry of designing and manufacturing knock-offs. That always leads to a less than optimal result – competition among producers to see who can make it cheaper.
“ASFD’s Pinnacle Award has become a sought-after industry honor. It’s been a big plus for designers and manufacturers. Recently, we’ve started working with other organizations such as WithIt, the Home Furnishings Association (HFC) and the International Home Furnishings Representatives Association (IHFRA), to create special events and member benefits across organizational lines.
“Coming up, ASFD is organizing a designer showcase to debut at the 2019 April High Point Market. Furnishings from maker-designers, product developers, and designers who submit a prototype, will be shown in a gallery setting open to Market attendees. The whole idea is to feature and reinforce the impact that design and creativity can bring to our industry to move it forward.”
Women In The Industry
Question: How are women represented in ASFD and the industry?
“I am the third woman to hold the ASFD presidency in the history of the organization. As a whole, our industry has become aware that women’s perspective is an important part of the furniture design/product development process.
“There are many more talented women involved in product design now – and not just on the soft-goods side, even though that has traditionally been the focus of women in our industry. I’m seeing more women, like myself, working on the case-goods side.
“Even in male-dominated companies, more women are actually designing the products, or are on merchandising teams. While there has been progress recently, there’s still a long way to go, especially in the ranks of top management.
“The WithIt organization (www.withit.org) is a tremendous resource for women in all areas of our business, including retailing. Its value in networking, mentoring and elevating the role of women in our industry cannot be over-estimated.”
A Collaborative Web
Question: Many designers, design influencers, interior designers and celebrity designers have become influential in the furniture industry. How do they figure into the mix at ASFD?
“It’s an interesting part of the evolution of our industry: we are all cogs in the wheel of furnishing design, production and marketing. It has become a collective process of inspiration and support.
“Celebrity designers, in particular, have raised awareness, brought cachet and passion to our industry. Not all product designers can have, or even want, that kind of attention. Instead, they work behind the scenes drawing the pictures, developing, and engineering the products behind famous names.”
Fine Arts To Furniture Design
Question: Tell us about the steps to forming your own company.
“I have a Fine Arts degree in Design with a concentration in sculpture. Right out of school I landed a job doing illustration work for Norman Heckler Associates, a top furniture design studio in High Point, NC. I got an on-the-job education in furniture design and construction through my work with Norman, and later with furniture designer Tom Keller.
“These two men were amazing in terms of their creativity and design work. They became true mentors, spring-boarding me into eventually setting up my own design office in 1995.”
Question: How important is your Latin heritage to your design outlook?
“My family came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1960. I grew up in Smyrna, a small town in Georgia. Growing up Cuban, we were very different. My Cuban heritage, music, food, culture, and passion, mixed with a good dose of Americana, evolved into my approach to design. I juxtapose elements of traditional and contemporary, to create a cleaner, fresher variation of the familiar.”
Question: Do you work differently than other furniture designers?
“Although my background is in art, rather than the strictly engineering side, I don’t think I work differently. All designers have their own variations. I’ve had my favorite sketch pad, my favorite pens – other designers have their favorite software! Bottom line, however, I think we all go through similar types of design thinking.
“My approach is to see deeply into life, all the way down to an emotional level. It’s a design process that transcends a literal interpretation of a case piece or a chair.
“My preference is to design backwards, first identifying the end consumer and their lifestyle. Whether it’s an outdoorsy, adventurous type; a romantic, lavender-and-lace type; or an urban dweller, it helps to categorize styles of living, and then design to those.”
Furniture is Fashion
Question: You’ve been quoted as saying, “Furniture is fashion,” and you have also talked about “Interpretive Design”. Are these your by-words?
“These are phrases I use in design presentations time and time again. ‘Furniture is fashion’ is just a fun way to remind our industry not to overlook the emotion, the expression, the personality, the identity of a product. Just as individuals have a personal sense of style reflected in how they dress – their likes and dislikes – I think our home environments are the same. Consumers fashion their homes with the same type of personal expression as with their clothes.
“This element of personal expression needs to be considered by manufacturers as part of the product development process, along with other variables. Price is one of the variables that often gets more attention.
“Likewise, retailers should address more than just their customers’ basic needs. A customer may come in looking for a functional case piece to hold socks, but that doesn’t mean that any old case piece will do the job. Lifestyles are becoming more experiential, and the story that retailers tell has to be that as well. Retailers need to look beyond the literal for inspiration.”
“Interpretive Design is about incorporating essential lines and elements into a design, capturing the vital character of a style without overstatement. There doesn’t need to be a lot of extra carving or superfluous elements to convey the essence of a style direction.
“From a retailer’s perspective, Interpretive Furniture Design leaves open avenues for creativity in store displays and interior design. Depending on how a design is displayed, the room setting that’s created around the furniture becomes interpretive.
“If a given furniture design is placed in an environment with a more traditional setting, a traditional rug, lighting, and accessories, it feels one way. But the exact same design placed in a room with exposed beams, a hair-on-hide rug, and a stacked-stone fireplace will have an entirely different expression. That is the essence of the Interpretive Design. The interpretation is left up to how each store, or each individual, customizes it to their own sense of style.”
“My design work is all about creating a mood, touching the senses, and becoming an expression of life. And when a feeling or mood is created, it must be communicated from a marketing perspective. There is often a disconnection between furniture designs and how they are marketed on retail floors. In many retail displays, furniture just sits there, lifeless and without any expression.
“We are all guilty at times of doing what is comfortable, what’s worked before, and what’s easy. And then we stop there.
“Lifestyles are evolving quickly – we’re all moving faster, and retailers have to connect and adapt. They need to make an effort to display unique, creative interpretations of the products they show. No longer can retailers just show furniture and expect people to buy it.
“Manufacturers and furniture designers work to create settings that connect to the way people are living their lives today. Sales associates can’t just say, ‘Ain’t it pretty. Don’t you wanna buy some?’ A larger effort has to be made, which includes crafting a visual story around how people live their lives today. We must capture the expression and convey its value.
“Designing furniture is a commercial endeavor, with many inputs going into developing a product. Research, inspiration, and marketing can all come into play to create a look and tell a story.”
“Another important element for retailers is to create an environment that appeals to all of the senses and to how people are living their lives today. This may include a focus on health and wellness, inviting curiosity by sponsoring more special events, such as cooking classes, yoga, meet and greets. Having guest speakers can make the shopping experience more interactive.
“We are not just in the furniture business, we are in the business of design. Sure, ‘It’s on sale!’ but how is it also creative and relevant? The only way to discover this is to get out of the office, into the world, and observe. See how people are living their lives, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
“That can be as simple as going to the beach. Traveling to trade shows is essential, but switching attention away from one’s phone to nature, or architecture can provide inspiration and allow the creativity to flow.”
Sources of Inspiration
Question: Have you used The Bienenstock Furniture Library as a source of inspiration?
“The Furniture Library is amazing. It’s director, Karla Webb, is on the board of ASFD. Every designer who comes to High Point should definitely take the time to visit. It’s beautiful; it’s peaceful; it stimulates creativity. With over 5,000 volumes, ranging from current materials to those more than 300 years old, the Furniture Library is a place to find the roots of great design, fresh perspective, inspiration, and collaboration with other designers.
“In addition, I recommend that retailers check out some of the great design and lifestyle sites that offer insight into how consumers are living their lives today. Don’t just focus on furniture or a literal interpretation of what’s happening in the furniture industry. For inspiration, check out lifestyle websites like www.popsugar.com. Look at design-milk.com, which focuses on aspects of design in our lives. It can be slanted and edgy, with a focus on contemporary, but it can also provide fresh perspectives into what’s happening inside people’s heads and hearts.”
The Real Story
“There is more to having a brand story than product and experience. The story has to be authentic, so that consumers can connect personally with it. The story has to convey the brand’s value. That includes the meaning of the brand and what it stands for. We used to say, ‘you can talk the talk, but you gotta walk the walk.’ People today want to know that the companies they deal with live out their values.”
Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.