Don Chadwick isn't one of those designers who say that their "real" studio is in their mind. Chadwick's real studio is in Santa Monica, thank you, and anyway, he prefers to call it "an experimental lab."
"We're set up to get dirty and take chances," he says.
His lab apparatus includes saws and grinders, lathes and drill presses and vises—and not one computer-numerically-controlled anything. Computer technology, Chadwick allows, is great for some things, but when he hears someone suggest that a new chair could have just as effectively been designed by computer, he says, politely, "You're out of your mind!"
"The only way to be sure a chair is comfortable is to actually sit in it and make changes along the way," Chadwick says. "A computer can't deal with the subtleties of chair design. Good chairs are too complex."
Too complex? Yes, and not just for computers.
"Most industrial designers don't take furniture design seriously," he says. "They're not trained to get into that kind of detail. It's too personal, too much like surgery. And besides, you have to be in love with this kind of work."
Chadwick's love for furniture design goes back to his childhood, when his cabinetmaker grandfather taught him how to use the tools of the trade—hand tools that required skill, precision, and patience. Later, unlike the other industrial design students at UCLA in the mid-1950s, he focused on furniture. And after hearing a Charles and Ray Eames lecture there, Chadwick was convinced: Furniture offered designers, even industrial designers, the chance to use materials in new, innovative ways—and to make a "real difference" in people's lives.
He attributes at least some of this optimism to the "LA recklessness" he's experienced as a lifelong resident of Southern California. "There's less fear of failure out here, so people are more apt to take risks. It's fertile ground for innovation."
For over two decades now, Chadwick has had a partner in recklessness. "Herman Miller isn't afraid to take chances on new ideas. That's why the company's been successful for so long, and that's one reason why it's challenging to work for them."
The Santa Monica-Zeeland connection continues, the experimental lab whirling with the sounds of belt sanders and power saws. That, after all, is what real design studios do.