When Design Within Reach asked Jennifer Morla to be its creative director in 2005, it was a match made in design heaven. DWR, launched in 1999, had already evolved into a market leader in the retailing of premium-design furniture and products; Morla, meanwhile, had established herself as one of the design world's brightest stars. Her early work with Levi's (where she famously collaborated with Andy Warhol and other top artists on a memorably artful campaign for classic 501 jeans) helped provide the momentum for the launch of Morla's own design firm, Morla Design, back in 1984. This San Francisco-based multidisciplinary design group has since worked with everyone from Apple to Swatch to MTV, and along the way Jennifer has earned more than 300 design awards. Today, she continues to run Morla Design, working primarily with non-profits and arts organizations, while at the same time spearheading the marketing effort at DWR, which now has 70 studio locations worldwide and is about to significantly expand its product offerings. The following is distilled from an interview Morla recently did with one.design.
Pursuing an opportunity
Early on, I met Rob Forbes when he was founding Design Within Reach, and I worked with him to establish the look and feel of the brand, and then worked with him on specific projects over the years. Then about two-and-a-half years ago, he requested that I become the creative director here. There was a large opportunity that I saw to make some changes that were needed. And it was a good fit—Morla Design is multidisciplinary, and that's also the approach needed at Design Within Reach. You have the studio environment (which is the store environment); you have the catalog or "book" environment, and you have the interactive environment. And you also have the advertising environment, which was not even existent back then. Through all of these environments, the need was to create a robust and consistent language.
Sharpening the focus
I have a creative and marketing staff of about 25 and everything's done in-house. We handle the design of the studio environment; some product design, all of the books. But most importantly, what I did from a marketing standpoint with the company was to look at who our audience was, and looked at how we were talking to them. To some extent, we were talking to people that are not our audience (which catalog people love to do, that's called prospecting). We went from about a million catalogs with each drop down to 500,000. Our audience is luxury; it's an urban environment, it's people who travel. Most of all, it's people who have an interest and a hunger for more knowledge about design.
Telling the story of design
The design business is really changing. First of all, the general public knows design much more than they did a few years ago. It's on TV wherever you turn—Apple sitting in a Saarinen chair in their commercials. People understand more about product design, and a bit more about graphic design. And with that base of knowledge there, we're now saying, 'Okay, let's talk to the people that we know would like to be a part of this audience, and that have this want of knowledge.' That is why with our books, and our website, and even with our ads, we are really trying to educate. And by that I mean, really give a history lesson—what is good design, who designed this piece and what is the significance of it—but to do so with wit and verve and relevance. We want to tell the complete story of design, and do this in a way that makes people think about it in a different way.
Creating a dialogue
But we're not just trying to provide answers to questions about design, we're also trying to
create opportunities for a dialogue. Our newest catalog is a 160-page perfect bound book that
addresses the subject, ‘What is green?' On the front cover is a piece of turf, and on the back cover is a piece of Astroturf. As a design company, we're really encouraged by the increasing number of these environmentally-smart design solutions out there, but we know that not all items fit into every category of ecological perfection. And we know that there are a lot of questions. Sustainable, eco-friendly, cradle to cradle—what are all those things, really? We'll be addressing that in the book. And then, in our August book, we'll address the question, ‘What is modern?' What makes Philippe Starck's Louis Ghost Chair modern vis a vis the Eames plywood lounge chair? The look is not necessarily what defines what is modern, there's much more to it than that.
A new look and a new mix
Originally, Pentagram designed the first catalogs for Design Within Reach, and they were really nice. But as I came in, I wanted to bring the look back to the cleanness, authenticity, honesty, and accessibility that design can convey. The catalog doesn't look or feel or smell like the old one anymore. At the same time, the studio is evolving, too: We're expanding into a new whole new platform of products, starting in late May. And in doing so, we will give as much notoriety to the quintessential object like a paper clip and a post-it note as to a $10,000 lamp.
The designer as outsider
I have become thoroughly immersed in the culture of Design Within Reach. But I remain a designer foremost, and as a designer you are always an outsider. One of the important aspects of design is that we are learning at the same time we are doing. We cannot possibly know our clients' business as well as they do, and it's our job to learn about that—so that we can communicate and create a narrative in some way that makes that information accessible.
Why dichotomy works
The best design surprises first, and then educates. But it has to start by entertaining in a way that we haven't seen before. And that's why dichotomy works so well. By juxtaposing things in an unexpected way—historical with vernacular, the rough with the refined—you can surprise people and that is probably one of the most powerful tools we have. It works with book design, environmental design or just about any kind of design. And it's a great way to reach beyond your natural constituency.
Listening and sketching
A good designer is a great listener. The answer, 99 percent of the time, is right there, sometimes even in that first meeting with a client. But you have to make it an intensive session and really listen to what people are saying. And then, even if you think you've heard the answers, you don't limit yourself. You explore possibilities. I easily come up with 50 to 100 ideas for every project I have. I rely on sketching—sometimes the stupidest little sketches. I find that extremely informative to clients. I was once working with a major bank, a very conservative client, and the guy was trying so hard to describe something and I finally gave him my pencil and said, ‘Just sketch it for me.' And it was so intimidating to this person to even touch a pencil in that way! It was sort of like the great equalizer. I said, ‘Go on, use stick figures, it's perfectly fine.' I encourage people to do that—it's a great form of communication, because drawing makes things real, and it tends to make problems and solutions evident.
Why designers get better with age
The reason why is that you have more experiences to draw upon. Everything that feeds into us, through the years, then influences our designs. People sometimes feel pressure to think of a completely original idea, but it doesn't really work that way. When I'm designing, I never say to myself, ‘I have to think about an original idea.' I think about an idea, that's all—and really, there are no original ideas because everything you think of has been influenced by something else. But it's how you put it together in new ways, that's how things progress.
For more of Morla's thoughts on design—as summed up in her manifesto of "33 Designisms," visit her website at www.morladesign.com