Three Questions for: Michael Maharam
Adam Stêch, co-founder of the Czech design collective Okolo, has visited the office of New York-based textile producer Maharam. Located on the 14th, 15th and 16th floor of a typical New York high-rise, the Manhattan office space of Maharam is a wonderful showcase of textile design skills and design heritage in general. The pure minimalist office was designed by New York architects Fernlund and Logan and the interior is an example of efficient and practical design highlighting open spaces and clean surfaces. During the visit Adam talked to the company’s outgoing CEO Michael Maharam, who sold the brand to Herman Miller two years ago. As descendant of the founder family he told us about the Maharam heritage as well as his passion for collecting historical design objects, art and publishing books.
1. What can you tell us about the history of the brand, and its philosophy today?
Maharam was founded in 1902 by my great-grandfather Louis Maharam, a Russian immigrant. It was a modest storefront business on the Lower East Side of Manhattan selling textile remnants. At the onset of “talking pictures” his four sons initially sold acoustical batting and theatre curtains to movie theatres and ultimately took up textiles for costumes and theatre scenery in the 1930s. My father, Donald, was properly educated as a textile engineer in the 1950s and chose to apply his knowledge of technology as an early pioneer of performance-measured textiles for commercial interiors. Upon taking over the business in the late 1990s, my brother Stephen and I sought to pursue our personal interests by elevating the object value of textiles to reflect a fascination with design through the re-edition of iconic designs of the past, and collaboration with those of the present.
2. How important is collecting for you and for the company? What do you collect?
Collecting is a frame for a well-conceived business. It is both a point of visual tendency and reference, and a process of sorting. A business is a collection… foremost of people (hopefully talented), of tenets, guidelines and habits, of spaces, graphic design and of course, products. The latter is shaped by the former. Our visual tendencies and references ascribe the tangible aspects of our creativity – spaces, graphics, and products – as the process of sorting shapes the character of our collection and the organisational aspects of the way in which we present Maharam to our audience and the underlying infrastructure, which permits excellent service.
I collect both iconography and the everyday. I am a particular fan of Rietveld and Judd… they are philosophical markers for me. I also spend too much time on Ebay trolling for cheap and pretty anonymous ephemera. This is probably the best training for the eye – it’s not too difficult to buy expensive beautiful things at auctions. I’m always amused when an auction house congratulates me for “winning” a lot.
3. Why did you make Stories a section of your website and why do you publish books?
A website needs a homepage and most are awful… either a blur of visual clutter or some form of boring self-promotional product hype. We thought this unavoidable moment might offer an opportunity for a more profound expression and a chance to work with a broad range of friends and contributors, while creating a new sort of collection. Of course one could say it’s merely a blog, but we seek to elevate Stories through the choice of those who participate, the freedom of expression we permit them to pursue, and the quality and thoughtfulness of imagery and production.
Ironically, it seems that printed matter has become a status symbol among those in the digital world. To be in print somehow validates and memorialises presence on the web. We chose to create a publication of selected stories so we could work with Irma Boom, a good friend with whom we had long discussed a project, and because we felt the strong imagery and five hundred word format lent itself to print and would make for a pleasant and handy reading experience.
About books in general, as publishing in a digitally dominated era sorts itself out, the best content will warrant an investment in paper, and the rest will fall to the web. The book is among the noblest and most original of objects, and it is a pleasure to create, collect, and own books. In the past, we would make some sort of annual gesture to our clients, typically functional. Several years ago, we realised that we preferred to make books and that these, too, would provide another opportunity to create a collection over time.