The Saginaw Art Museum Showcases the Work of a World Class Michigan Product Designer March 20 - June 6th

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, ,   From Issue 892   By: Robert E Martin

18th February, 2020     0

John Kaloustian wears many hats, which makes him as much of an artist as a visionary. As one of the world’s foremost contemporary product designers, his sensibilities embrace a diverse knowledge of manufacturing and a drive for innovation that has enabled him to design a broad range of products, and years of reoccurring projects within each of them.

Preferring a 3-dimensional approach to his design work, John’s fully equipped prototype studio allows him to sculpt and explore the varied components of a design to work best with its intended use. He firmly believes the key to successful design is a fusion between better functionality and a refined artistic aesthetic.

His ability to provide diverse design solutions goes beyond the furniture industry to encompass various electronic components for companies such as EDS, Fanuc Robotics, Pentax Cameras, and concept designs for a partnership between Visteon and Bang & Olufsen. He has also designed biking products for Trek and Saris, along with automotive related products for Goodyear and Somner Allibert.

Beginning on March 20th and running through June 6th the Saginaw Art Museum will be staging an expansive display tracing the 40-year evolution of Kaloustian’s work in a special exhibition titled Living With Design: The World of John Kaloustian.

Kaloustian's designs have numerous "Best of Neocon" Gold and Silver awards attached to them, with pieces for Bernhardt Design, Coalesse, and Harter.  His product and furniture designs have also obtained many design and utility patents.

After earning his BFA degree from the College for Creative Studies in 1979, it was during college that John’s  professional experience began with designing corporate aircraft interiors for Rockwell International. After graduating he began as a member of the Steelcase design staff. Just over a year later he established his independent design consulting practice, where he has designed contract furnishings.

Kaloustian has guest lectured at numerous design and interior design related venues, including, Cranbrook Academy of Arts and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and he currently is a full time Associate Professor of Product Design at the College for Creative Studies, where he has periodically been an adjunct professor since 1984.

“Artful objects of utility surround us in our daily lives, whether it's at home or work,” he states. “These items often reflect our taste and attitudes that describe us as individuals.  As a designer, I look at solving problems through a list of criteria, based first on how an object functions.  The sculpture portion of a design will often support the function, but it is poetic simplicity that makes a design appealing.  I consider a hierarchy of elements, as to not over design, but express a dominant design element supported by smaller subordinate details.  I thoroughly go over a piece many times to refine the harmony of details in order to achieve simplicity.”

“I travel to broaden my awareness to bring a more progressive fashion and function to my work that is not just limited to my daily environment,” he continues.  “I like to combine materials and processes of the 21st century that may mix and relate with traditional materials.  While I design a variety of objects, the chair is considered one of the most difficult of expressions to achieve.  A paramount design must offer a fresh personality that is supported by the performance of comfort and function based on the product application.” 

According to the Saginaw Art Museums Curatorial Assistant, Ben Quinno, the Living with Design exhibition will feature around 100 pieces of John’s work, with a nice representation between 3-dimensional and 2-dimensional prints, accompanied by John’s artwork to show not only the evolution of his design, but also his personal evolution as an artist and how the two things impact one another.

“We’ll feature everything from preliminary sketches to small scale models to actual pieces that show the way the process of product design works,” he adds. “The floor will also be laid out in sections representing different rooms in a home or office, so we can see how each of John’s pieces pays attention to its surroundings.”

According to Saginaw Art Museum director, Mike Kolleth, “One of the things we try do in our Sargent Exhibition Wing is expose people to a variety of media. With our recent Addams exhibition we featured drawing, and in the past we’ve featured photography, painting, glass, and numerous other media. One reason for this particular exhibition is that whenever you have an opportunity to get such a high caliber of a designer like John  to be a part of an exhibition, you take it; but on a more fundamental level, it’s important for people to stand back and look at the role design plays in their everyday life.  John’s work is both beautiful and represents the highest level of design in everyday life; and I hope people will reflect on why they might want a beautiful toaster, or why a car is designed in a particular way. Through John’s work people can evaluate the role an impact products play in their everyday life.”

The first significant evolution in John’s perspective came after graduation when he secured a position with Steelcase. “The personal computer was coming of age and I loved fine art when I first went to design school, but I also liked engineering and the industrial arts, which is why I went into industrial design - it encompassed a nice blending of art and engineering. At the time I had a full ride scholarship to go into painting, but I turned it down to pursue this avenue.”

After working with Steelcase, John traveled to Europe and secured a job with Phillips. “However, when the economy went soft in 1980, they backed out of that position, but he landed a design job with Hayworth as a freelance client.  At the time they were just a small furniture company and I was basically the design department in the beginning; but as the company grew so did my breadbasket of clients, which range from furniture to eyewear to exhibits and cameras for Pentax.”

When asked what designers influenced his early work, John says he has always loved Mid-Century modern designers.  “One of my early pieces was the Verona chair, which won an award for Bernhardt Design,” he reminisces. “It paid homage to mid-century design values and was one of the first contemporary pieces doing that at the time.  Today you see the mid-century influence design in a lot of pieces because it fits well in homes because of its light smaller scale. A lot of furniture from past periods is too large to fit in smaller rooms, but the contract furnishing tend to run a little smaller.”

“The evolution of design from the 1950s to the 1960s saw furniture becoming much more decorative,” continues John. “Then in the 1980s a lot of firms chose to move to large scale designs because homes were growing bigger and it became desirable to find furniture pieces large enough to fill these big rooms.”

Today Kaloustian’s most recent work has focused upon designing pieces for Grand Rapids Chair Company that focus upon seating for dining areas that can accommodate cafeterias or restaurants. “This has been a different area for me to work in,” he reflects. “Previously I’ve designed seating primary for office or hotels; more recently the seating I designed for them can be seen in major restaurants such as Whole Foods, or other dining areas on a more national level."

“Seating can be a tedious process,” he notes. “There are many details involved and you need to marry your design with comfort. “First, you need to cultivate a relationship with the client. Once you get a design concept that works it can take a year to three years of development for the initial design idea to design to reach manufacturing, depending upon the scope of the project. Typically, a project will average two years.”

As for the question of where John sees the future of design going, he says this is something all designers are trying to figure out. “With the office environment of today for most people their computer has become a telephone,” he notes. “People don’t use laptops as much as they once did, so one has to support that trend. We more recent have seen ‘stand’ offices coming into play because people spend so much time sitting nowadays.”

Another intriguing vista for product design is that of the automobile. “With advancing autonomy becoming integrated through ‘smart cars’ a new paradigm is happening in the auto industry,” notes John. “This early stage is where design really matters. Interiors are changing and we may have personal computers integrated into cars. Certain individuals may want to game or party or study, so the focus will shift from designing a car built for drivers to a car built for riders.”

Is John also witnessing a generational shift between 20-year-olds looking for something different in terms of design for their living spaces?  “It’s definitely shifting,” he reflects. “Younger people are much more apt to buy vintage clothing or furniture and they also like simplicity in terms of their surroundings. The idea of owning as much stuff as possible is reducing.”

Sustainability is also fitting more into design considerations. “That’s been a real thrust for us, which goes along with individuals seeing the impact of climate change and summers becoming warms with winters generating odd weather.  Companies are looking more at how their products are made from cradle to cradle. When MSU or the University of Michigan order furnishings they look at the carbon content produced by the production of the product and how it might be renewed.  We talk a lot about materials and the lifestyle of the design and product congruity. You can’t create a cool product that lasts for only a year or two. It needs to have physical and visual endurance.”

“Companies are using recyclable plastics and content as much as they can. Some products require fresh stock or virgin material, but with plastics such as polypropylene you can put a lot more recycled content into the product.”

“We are very fortunate in Michigan to have a higher level and caliber of industrial designers, more than any other state in the country,” concludes John. “From Whirlpool to the automotive industry to furniture and even the work of Alden B. Dow, industrial design is part of our heritage.”

“It’s also been interesting for me as a professor at the College for Creative Studies teaching future designers. I’ve had numerous students  that  went on to become Vice Presidents for companies such as FCA, Mattel, Whirlpool, Harley Davidson, Nissan, Dassault Systems, and Directors for Ford & Cadillac design.   It’s fascinating and rewarding  to see so many young people doing so well professionally.”

“Basically, we have two primary goals with this exhibition,” sums up Mike Kolleth. “One is to showcase John and his career and the second is to challenge people and change their perspective on things. The goal is to use John’s work as a conduit to get people to look at design in their everyday life - from choosing a pair of eye glasses to coffee cups or the type of chair they sit in - and realize how things they may not put a lot of thought into actually impact their daily lives because they are living it with it every day.”




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