The Interviews

Michael Vanderbyl


on the Beauty of Simplicity in Design and Life

Interview by Leif Steiner & Emily Potts
November 01, 2016

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When most people reach a certain age or hit a milestone in their career, they look forward to retirement and relaxation. Not Michael Vanderbyl. Just a year shy of his seventh decade on this earth, he is just as excited today about his work and his clients as he was 40 years ago.

A big part of this enthusiasm stems from his diverse design practice. He doesn’t just do identities or websites or products—he does it all, and then some. Vanderbyl’s work encompasses wine labels, complete branding programs, furniture design, interior design, architecture, and more. He still has a hunger and capacity to learn and grow as a designer, which perhaps is why he’s been so successful and has managed to work with some of his clients for more than 20 years.

His modernist design sensibilities have garnered countless awards, and his work is in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the Library of Congress. In 2000, he was an AIGA Medalist, and in 2012, he was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame. His cross-disciplinary approach to design is his “art” and he feels blessed to do what he does.

Here, Vanderbyl talks about the care and keeping of his enduring design career.

Who is your longest running client and what’s the secret to this longevity?

I’ve been working with Teknion for 20 years. I was in Milan a few months back for the Furniture Fair and I ended up having a four-hour long lunch with Teknion’s president. We just talked about our families and stories, and how we’ve become family over the years. I love my clients … most of the time.

I realized early in my career that one of the hardest things to do is to find clients, so once I find them I want to be able to do as much for them as possible and make them lots of money, and then they’ll return the favor by hiring me to do more things. I’m not on retainer, but I’ve become part of the equation. The fact that we do interior, architecture, product and graphic design is also a big factor. It all comes from one source, so there’s more control.

Do you ever just do one thing for a client, like a logo or poster, or are you always brought in to do everything?

Sometimes we do. It usually starts with one project and then it evolves into helping them in other areas. Let’s say we’re hired to do the identity or brand for somebody. Instead of doing just the logo, type, and color, we do a very extensive presentation on all platforms – to show how it will look on the web, on the side of a truck, what it looks like on signage, on packaging, etc. … it’s not just about slapping a logo onto something. We’re trying to show the breadth of the brand, and where it’s going to live.

You have to show them what it all means when you put it together. It’s hard for clients to actually visualize something when it’s not blended into where it’s going to live all the time.

Clients respond extremely well to that. It starts the conversation and lets them know that we can do lots of levels of work, and they don’t need to hire a web producer or architect.

Modular Bench, Aegis Collection

Modular Bench, Aegis Collection

Does the same kind of planning and strategy go into everything you do—products, interiors, print?

It’s different for each project. That’s one of the problems of design today. Every firm thinks they have to go thru this whole process of explaining every little detail about the brand and strategy.

Not to glorify myself, but I’m more like Paul Rand, in that I offer one solution. Trust me, when he worked with IBM he didn’t do some sort of strategic deck on the advantages of brand and staying on brand. He just did it, knowing what was the right thing to do.

Some firms have gotten to the point where it’s aimed at middle management. The difference I have is that I’m usually talking to the president of the company, the decision maker. I’m very good at reading a room and knowing whose important. In the past, I’ve worked with firms and I’ve worked with the marketing director. But what often happens is they make decisions based on their job security, not what’s best for the company.

Teknion had an offshoot project and they wanted something different, not done by me—which of course, I disagreed with. My client got the experience of working with another designer, and he gave my client what I would call, strategic bullshit—a program of what they were going to do and what the project would mean. My client said, “When we call Vanderbyl, we just tell him what we need and that’s what we get. Not this whole discovery thing.” It was one of the best compliments I ever received.

The client knows who they are and what they stand for, it’s not brain surgery.

But designers are often told they need to explain their process and why they’re doing things a certain way.

I do that, but I do it in conversation. I don’t write it out in a document. The work should resonate and speak for itself. I talk about where the work appears and who the competition is, and why we did this instead of that, but I don’t show them lots of different versions.

I show them one solution in a 360 degree exploration. Looking at something is a lot better than giving them a bunch of words. You should be able to visually put the package together to show how well it works together. I would rather work on one answer for you, than present three things. That means you’re only getting 33% on every design I do. I’d rather spend 100% of my time on solving the problem, working on one solution that makes it very clear what it would be like to live in that reality. It’s a waste to spend two thirds of your time doing something they won’t buy. It’s taken me years to explain to people why I do this.

Knock on wood, I have a very good hit rate doing it this way. I think there’s something when clients see how confident you are—not cocky—when you talk about dollars and how it will increase sales, what exposure you’ll have, what the competition looks like, and how they are perceived. They respond to this and it’s why I maintain clients for this long. If my client makes money off of what I’m doing for them, they’ll call me back.

I’m never in it for the short haul, I’m always in it for the long haul.

My job is to solve their problem first, then I leave about 10 percent that I don’t have to explain to them—it’s the magic or the art or the quirkiness of something.

You do a lot of wine labels. Is there a science to creating a really good label?

I’ve told my clients, “The less you say, the more expensive your wine will look.” It’s more of a psychological thing than anything else. It’s more elegant. The quieter the stronger. It’s just evolved that way. To me it’s a reflection of what California wine should be. It can also be goofy. Wildass is a low cost wine, but the design still has a lot of the simplicity, and it’s funny.

You want to touch consumers on a personal level. They haven’t even tasted it, but they see the quality. You’ve already answered questions before they’re asked. That’s the power of graphic design.

The showrooms and spaces that you design are so detailed. How do you get clients to go with the simple, sparse rooms you design—I would think they’re first inclination would be to show everything at once. 

I do work in the contract furniture industry, so the audience isn’t the consumer—the audience is designers and architects, so I try to honor their intelligence, by not showing them everything. I show them an edited version and make the showroom a blank palette. The showrooms are never static. You’re constantly moving things in and out, as new product is developed, so the showroom needs to be neutral to accommodate the different themes that happen throughout the year. It’s a financial decision, too, not having to redesign a showroom.

The difference between what we do vs. an architectural firm, is that we make the product the main focus and treat the space the way a graphic designer would, not an architect.

The space is the frame that holds the product, and the people and activity are the color inside it.

domicilie-collection

Chaise lounge for Domicile Collection.

How did you get started designing furniture?

I’ve been consulted on product development for many years. My clients want my branding perspective. One furniture client, a long time ago, got so mad at me because I rejected every design I saw—I didn’t like anything. He said, “Fuck you Vanderbyl! You design something.” So I designed a chair …. That started it.

When you design a piece of furniture, does it come to you because it’s something you’d like to have?

To me, it’s more of a strategic thing. I look at the market and I look at my client and I say this is an area we need to focus on.

With such an impressive portfolio, is there anything you haven’t done that you really want to do?  

I think it would be fun to do an airline and see the brand painted on the planes. I’d design the uniforms and the whole experience. I’d probably go totally retro, like old Pan Am, and bring back some elegance to it. Flying is not a romantic notion any more.

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Are you a “sketch on a napkin” kind of designer? Where do your best ideas come from or when do they happen?

Everything starts as a sketch on my desk. I don’t work on the computer. I’d rather draw. It will go to the point where they’ll scan it in and work off of it, or I’ll sit behind someone and ride shotgun while we brainstorm. It’s a fast way of working. What helps is there are five designers I work with and I hop from chair to chair. Sometimes the ideas are erratic. I’m typical of any designer. Deadlines motivates me the most. If an idea comes to me, I quickly get it down on paper.

I enjoy bouncing around from working on an interior space, to a product, a poster, a brand. One informs the other. I’ll be in the middle of working on a wine label, and I’ll sketch something and turn an edge, and then I’ll pull out a chair I’m working on and I’ll see an angle that works for that.

I’m Mr. Instant Gratification. If something isn’t working, I’ll move on to something else, which probably frustrates the hell out of the designers in my studio.

 

It seems in your work that everything has an order, a place. Is there ever any chaos in your work?

The chaos is before, and my job is to pare it down and have clarity.

I want everyone to walk away with the exact same impression.

If work is chaotic, you leave so much to the viewer that they may miss the message.

Your home is as sparsely designed as your showrooms. What happens if someone spills red wine on your furniture?

[laugh] Usually the wine is so good, no one wants to spill it.

I’m a modernist at heart. It’s a functional house. I don’t like clutter. To me it’s restful. It’s so beautiful outside that I want the inside to be very simple. The olive trees and grape vines are sort of the decoration.

Do you think you’ll ever retire?

Never. I was just having this conversation with a client. He asked me what my exit strategy is, and I said, “I think it’s feet first on the gurney, when they wheel me out.”

I have such a good staff that I don’t go to the office on Fridays. I leave Thursday night for the country and I work from home and meet with my wine clients on Fridays. I have a long weekend. That’s my retirement. I’ve loosened up by not going to work five days a week. I feel totally restored when I get back on Monday. I still get excited when a poster or brochure is printed. I pick it up and feel the paper and smell the ink.

I think we are blessed as designers. This our art. I don’t know what the hell I would do if I wasn’t working. I hate to golf. I can’t stay home and drink wine all day, otherwise I’d be in rehab. Interfacing with the people who work for me and my clients is too much fun. I’m not ready to give it up.

Luckily, it’s not like digging ditches. You can do this a long time.

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