Author Q&A with Michael Maharam: Maharam Agenda

By Steve Kroeter August 9, 2012

Michael Maharam


Design executive Michael Maharam: Maharam (New York)

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Michael Maharam, CEO of one of the leading suppliers of textiles to architects and interior designers in the U.S., talks about his book, Maharam Agenda, published in November 2011 by Lars Müller.

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Designers & Books: Maharam is a fourth-generation textile company with historical ties to the Broadway stage and current ties to some of the world’s best-known designers—which makes it very interesting as an enterprise. But what made you decide that the story merited a book sold to the general public as opposed to a booklet handed out to your employees?

Maharam costume brochure, 1941

Michael Maharam: We felt that there were very few textile-related publications that were interesting to the audience at large. Textile books tend to be either technical in nature, or coffee table photo-entertainment. We’ve sought to bring newfound object value to textiles, a product type that was heretofore largely ignored by the producer and thus unnoticed by the design collector and fanatic. This effort rests on a colorful 110-year company history with all the theater that accompanies multi-generational family businesses, and we thought this was a story worth telling.

D&B: What’s the “agenda” you are referring to in the title: Maharam Agenda?

MM: As is often the case in family businesses, generational transitions can be challenging. Ours was, and we inherited a company that was well known, but entirely disheveled and in desperate need of rehabilitation and reinvention. This was our agenda.

D&B: The book is uniquely and elaborately designed, with an original embroidered fabric cover by Hella Jongerius. How did you choose her to do the cover? Was it obvious to you all along that there would be a fabric cover? Did this choice create any production challenges?

Maharam Agenda, 2011 (Lars Müller Publishers). Covers designed by Hella Jongerius

MM: In brainstorming cover options, being relevant, interesting, and different really is a challenge, particularly among design books. Hella has been an important collaborator for over a decade, and we had just completed her most recent textile, “Borders,” an embroidered geometric composition based on Latin American backstrap weaving. We’re not inclined to cut corners, and though we knew that an embroidered cover based on “Borders” was a rather lavish approach, it properly represented the tactile language of textiles and paid tribute to a good friend and valued contributor to our success. Unlike traditional binding materials, which are non-repeat, “Borders” is a composition that had to be engineered to fit Agenda, and in two colorations with two pattern variants each; thus it was complicated. Thankfully, we worked with an excellent German embroiderer who met its match in our German bookbinder, and they executed it perfectly.

D&B: Who designed the rest of the book?

MM: We run an in-house graphic design studio that was founded 13 years ago by Uschi Weissmuller, a Basel native who was educated at Art Center in Ouchy, Switzerland. Our graphic design staff is nearly equal in size to our textile design staff and graphic design is put on a pedestal at Maharam. Uschi worked in collaboration with Lars Müller to design Agenda.

D&B: How involved were you?

MM: I am a chronic micromanager, and I really enjoy this sort of project. Down to the widows!

D&B: The book is set in Maharam Regular, Medium, and Bold. What’s the story behind that typeface?

Left: The Futura-based Maharam font, designed in 2008 by Village. Right: Announcement cards for the Maharam Virtual Library launch, 2004

MM: In dealing with sampling and other standardized printed matter, a great deal of time was spent on kerning and leading font to achieve meticulous results. Fortunately, our senior graphic designer, Allen Bianchi, is a type fanatic, and out of respect for his uncompromising standards, we chose develop our own font to facilitate and optimize accurate typesetting. Maharam is a variation of Futura with numerous custom characters added to meet our requirements.

D&B: Your program of textile re-editions includes an impressive list of 20th-century designer names: Anni Albers, Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard, George Nelson, Irving Harper, Verner Panton, Gio Ponti, Josef Hoffmann, and Kolomon Moser. How close to the originals are the re-editions? What do you feel these archival designs have to say to the 21st century?

Ray Eames with Dot Pattern sketches for textiles, c. 1947. Image © Eames Office, LLC

MM: These textiles and their creators tend to have an outsize personality and can easily overwhelm our other creative activities. Re-editions have come to be perceived as a marketing device and are often produced in a compromised quality due to cost and the challenges of interpretation, and produced only so long as they continue to sell. For these reasons we chose to approach this category slowly and carefully. We have an earnest interest in these textiles—our corporate collection of 20th-century applied arts numbers is in excess of 3,000 pieces and is more a hobby than an investment—and we wanted to create a perpetual repository for these designs that would outlast any trend or fashion. As such, we had two basic criteria in their selection—that the textiles we chose to reissue would be timeless in character and not historically thematic, and that they be produced in the highest possible quality and with full respect for original documentation and the participation of the estates. Through this, we hope that our Textiles of the 20th Century will serve as a benchmark in defining a historical best of class.

Designs from Alexander Girard’s 1952-73 tenure as founding director of the Herman Miller Textile Division, reissued by Maharam, 2001-04

D&B: You are known for your preference for working with contemporary designers who don’t have specific expertise in textiles. What’s the thinking there?

Left: 1 of 10 designs by Harmen Liemburg, 2009. Right (left to right, top to bottom): 1 of 10 designs by Niessen & de Vries, Post Typography, Harmen Liemburg, Niessen & de Vries, Marian Bantjes, Marian Bantjes, Casey Reas, and Harmen Liemburg, 2009.

MM: We have an outstanding textile design staff at the Maharam Design Studio, directed by Mary Murphy, who has been with us for over 20 years. We felt the need to complement the abilities and perceptions of our textile design staff and permit them to engage in creative dialogue with non-textile designers who had the potential to bring new ideas and language to our world.

D&B: Menswear designer Paul Smith is, of course, familiar with textiles. But working with you would have involved a completely different orientation to the medium. How did he adapt to that?

Stripes by Paul Smith, 2006

MM: Beyond being an exceptionally pleasant and talented person, Paul is highly dimensional and an avid collector; thus he thinks constantly about furnishing textiles. By happy coincidence, we share many of the same textile mills in common as suppliers—it’s not unusual for a textile mill to weave both suiting- and upholstery-weight textiles, particularly in the UK—thus greatly facilitating the creative, developmental, and production processes. Our collaboration with Paul and his staff is optimal—we both bring ideas to the table, the creative flow is unhindered by ego, and the result is a tangible narrative of product that is easily grasped and appreciated by our clientele.

D&B: While flat, your textiles are of course three-dimensional. How satisfied were you with how the fabrics reproduced in two dimensions in the book? How hard is it to get the photography right?

MM: Thankfully, long ago, we chose to handle all photography in-house, and to have a studio and dedicated photographer, Robert Ortega, thus providing extreme consistency in lighting and image quality through a single eye over many years. We also have the luxury to shoot prolifically and reshoot spontaneously. For Agenda, we selected a very high-quality stock and many of the images are strong and outsize to emphasize the sumptuousness, textural character, and tactility of the textiles.

Layers by Hella Jongerius, 2008

D&B: How long did it take from the day you decided to do the book until the day you were holding a finished copy in your hands?

MM: This is a loaded question. In retrospect, it seems like a moment, and at moments, it seemed like forever—no different than life. Three years—Lars is a very patient man.

D&B: What impact do you hope to achieve with the book?

Textiles displayed at NeoCon, Chicago, 2007. Photo: Nathan Kirkman

MM: Much as Agenda could inevitably be perceived as a self-aggrandizing corporate capabilities brochure, it really is a handbook of ideals. We are careful people in a highly orchestrated environment, working with extreme pride in the most uncompromised way we can, and with very interesting collaborators. We think this is an increasingly rare phenomenon, particularly in the United States, and we wanted to use Agenda as a platform to demonstrate that it is possible to holistically and meticulously embrace design as an ideology as a small business without the resources of Apple or BMW.

D&B: We understand that you are an avid book collector. Is that correct? Has your experience with Maharam Agenda whetted your appetite for additional forays into book publishing?

Maharam Design Studio, Gramercy Park, New York. Photo: Dean Kaufman

MM: As mentioned, we have an enormous collection of decorative and applied arts. It takes up a great deal of space and feeds my fear of entropy. One comes to learn that there is much beauty in books beyond ideas and images—they are compact and portable, and if cared for, will last a very long time without deteriorating. I now tend to collect printed matter more so than objects for these reasons. Publishing is a great luxury, and one that we hope to continue to participate in and support, particularly through publishers like Lars Müller, who shares likeminded principles. Agenda is actually our second publication with Lars, the first being Bespoke, the catalogue for a show on hand-built bicycles that we curated in 2010. We’re presently finishing a book on Irving Harper—the man behind George Nelson’s most iconic work—which will be published by Rizzoli early next year, and we are in the planning stages of a book on design research with Hella Jongerius and Louise Schowenberg.

All images are from Maharam Agenda, courtesy of Lars Müller Publishers. Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Robert Ortega/A4 Studio

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