Posted on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 by Christina Linden
Teknion NeoCon Showroom by Michael Vanderbyl, Chicago, 2012
"My high school guidance counselor told me I wasn't smart enough to be an architect," Michael Vanderbyl said, wryly, as he handed me the program produced last fall on the occasion of his induction into the Interior Design Hall of Fame.
Given the multidisciplinary course of his extraordinary career, perhaps the counselor meant to say something more like, "Vanderbyl is too intelligent to be limited to just one pursuit."
The Hall of Fame award is reserved for individuals who have made a significant contribution to the prominence of the design industry. Other inductees over the years have included such legendary figures as Frank Gehry, Antonio Citterio, and Massimo and Lella Vignelli.
"It's very flattering to be counted among such company," Vanderbyl says. "I had attended the Hall of Fame event in the past -- it's held at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan -- and it was fantastic to be recognized there myself."
While Vanderbyl has designed award-winning showrooms and retail stores, he did not start out in interior design; rather, he first became known for his elegant work in graphic design. The multitalented designer, who graduated from CCA in 1968, has been recognized with the AIGA Medal, the highest honor given by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), and has served three terms on the AIGA board of directors, most recently as president for the 2003-5 term.
He established his firm, Vanderbyl Design, in 1973, the same year he began teaching at CCA. Since 1976 he has been the faculty director of the Graphic Design thesis course, the capstone experience for every student in the program. He has also been our Dean of Design for the past 26 years.
The Graphic Arts in the 1960s
Born in Oakland and raised in Castro Valley, Vanderbyl credits his high school art teacher Frank Polson with pointing him in the direction of CCA(C). At that time, the college had only about 400 students (today it enrolls 1,950 students), but it was alive with energy. "I took a tour and fell in love. It was a compelling time to be at the school, artistically and politically.
And it was a turbulent time, as the Free Speech Movement was in full swing." The 1960s were also, of course, the "Mad Men" era; the name of the department was Advertising and Design, and the career brought to mind glamorous associations. Wolfgang Lederer, the legendary designer and illustrator, was teaching at CCA and became a key mentor for Vanderbyl.
Immediately after graduation, G. Dean Smith hired Vanderbyl to work in Smith's San Francisco design studio. Then came a stint serving as an Army Reserve drill sergeant during the Vietnam War. When Vanderbyl returned to Smith's office, he was given a good raise and some important projects that included environmental graphics and signage.
"I wasn't yet doing much interior work, but the projects had a three-dimensional aspect, which gave me a foundation in operating simultaneously across different facets of design." Specifically it led to modes of thinking "between" 2-D and 3-D that might not have developed if Vanderbyl had started out in architecture or interior design. "So maybe my guidance counselor called it correctly, after all," he laughs.
Explorations in Permanent Structures
Environmental graphics led to trade show exhibits, and these, in turn, led to commissions for permanent showrooms and retail spaces. “"It was great to actually attach things to walls and build permanent structures. One of my first experiences in this arena was for a client who couldn't afford an architect to do a showroom. I'd planned to design only the signage, but ended up creating an entire showroom off-site and bringing it in to be bolted into place. And we won an award for best small showroom, which led directly to more interior work.
"In designing an exhibit, showroom, lobby, or retail space, I like to think about what the space says and feels like, and create layers so that you can't see all the way in at first. Rather, you experience the space like chapters in a book."
Eames Versus Chippendale
"Because I was trained as a graphic designer and not as an interior designer, I view things from a different perspective. For example, an Eames chair may have the same practical function as a Chippendale chair, but their semiotics are dramatically different. I am conscious of what things say. The value I bring to my clients is that I can look at the totality of the elements and create a cohesive presentation."
Often this synergistic approach begins with graphics and proceeds into the third dimension. Teknion, a major manufacturer of office furniture based in Canada, is one of Vanderbyl Design's long-term clients. Since 1996, Vanderbyl has designed Teknion's brochures, binders, advertising, showrooms, and exhibit spaces. "This allows us to establish the whole look and feel of the company, although no two showrooms are exactly the same."
Today, his sphere of responsibility for Teknion has expanded to encompass everything from its identity and web presence to its new corporate headquarters.
From Madison Avenue to Yachting
Vanderbyl recounts an episode in the life of his design studio when the clothier Robert Talbott asked him to redesign a Madison Avenue retail store . . . before Vanderbyl had done any graphic or identity work for the company. Thrilled with the result, including the logo he had redesigned for the store's awning, Mrs. Talbott asked as an afterthought if Vanderbyl knew a graphic designer who might be able to put the logo on letterhead.
He laughed and said, "Maybe I can take care of that, too."
Ultimately, Michael Vanderbyl's talents are not confined to any of the traditional design disciplines. He has created print collateral and interiors, signage and environmental graphics, furniture, lighting, textiles, ceramics, and even hull graphics and uniforms for the yacht America One.
It is a remarkable body of work, clearly worthy of an honor that commemorates having made a "significant contribution to the prominence of the design industry": election to the Interior Design Hall of Fame.