How does a rough-around-the-edges, Midwestern kid with no artistic pedigree end up as one of today’s most sought after artist? In a word, risk. There is something to be said for the person who tries what others wouldn’t dare. Taking risks can end up badly, but this artist would argue it is more dangerous to breathe the stale air of the comfort zone. Who is it? Just ask the International Design firm B&B Italia, who rarely if ever, commissions American designers, except for one, Jeffrey Bernett.
Bernett is the founder of Consultants for Design Strategy, and is quickly becoming a first call at some of the largest design firms in the world. In Bernett, one has a designer who creates everything from upscale residential lighting, to modern furniture collections, and in-flight seating for airline passengers. It is this broad ability that has enabled him to garner clients in the transportation, fashion, furniture, graphic design and architectural industries. He simply tries it all, and succeeds at much of it.
Bernett’s story is a simply one. Born in Champaign, Illinois in 1964, he grew up racing motorcycles. He studied business at Northwestern University, and considered a career in finance prior to witnessing the market crash of 1987. After a chance meeting with a visiting professor in Aspen, Colorado, Bernett decided to pursue design at Parnham College in England. To say his skills or interests are diverse is terribly non-descriptive. As a kid, he worked in a machine shop and gained valuable insight into motors and the inner workings of basic mechanics. Once he had a firm grasp of formalized business and its principles he became an even more valuable commodity. His understanding of efficient manufacturing during a time when Green is gold, has served to further escalate demand for his services.
Like many modern architects, Bernett has a commitment to function and simplicity. His formal introduction to the design community was made in 1996 when he was a presenter at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF). As a result of his innovative umbrella holding product, Bernett received the Editors Award for “Best of Show.” This launched his career and brought a throng of admirers to his creations including Knoll, Bernhardt, B&B Italia, Boffi, Cappellini, Ligne Roset and Michael Kors.
Few realize that the highly visible Daisy doormat that sits in front of millions of residential doors was designed by Bernett, or that the Tulip chair that graces interiors of the finest modern hotels is one of his creations. He is a complicated renaissance designer with seemingly no restraints on his imagination.
Unfortunately, diverse talents can be an asset and a liability. Bernett suffers, and benefits from his many cultivated skills. On one hand, the industry admires his many products, on the other there isn’t a signature style or product one can truly point to as his calling card.
However, there is one standard that Bernett doesn’t tweak; it is his rejection of designing for the now, for consumer emotion, or current popular fads. He prefers, instead to seek durability, and functionality. He studies how people think, behave, interact and live. In his words, “The product’s aesthetic values, proportion, scale, balance, gesture, honesty and rightness in context must also be humane. Collectively these qualities are an object’s “spirit and integrity.”
What is his inspiration to remain innovative? Bernett has three passions: sports, speed and problem solving. This may give logic to why his current aspiration is to design an athletic line of equipment. He has had more than a run in with sports. An avid outdoorsman and skier, Bernett broke his back while skiing in Colorado during the early nineties. If it weren’t for this accident, he would have never met that visiting professor who encouraged him to enroll in the England design school while recovering from the injury. A lover of adventure, Bernett travels every year to somewhere he has never been in an effort to absorb another culture, another environment.
The global market for design is only expanding as electronic communication quickens the pace of productivity. Bernett has taken full advantage of this and has been the first of few American designers to work with several of his European clients.
A partial client list includes: Authentics, Dune, Esteé Lauder, Hidde/sdb, and Troy. Publications that have featured his work include: Abitare, Design Diffusion News, Domus, Elle Decor, House & Garden, Interni, Intramuros, Metropolitan Home, The New York Times, Ottagono and 50 Products, 50 Beds, both by Mel Byars.
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