Design Icon Brian Graham’s Saber Dance

Brian Graham is describing his kind of nirvana: “It’s like that acrobatic act that happened on the old Ed Sullivan show – to the tune of the Saber Dance.”

City Hall side chair, Geiger. Design by Brian Graham. Photo courtesy of Geiger.

He hums a few insistent bars. Ta dah, dah dah dah dah. Ta-dah dah dah dah. “I have plates spinning on sticks in the air. One here. Another there. And another the. Oh oh, the first one’s wobbling…”

“Three plates,” I say. “You only have two hands.”

He smiles. An eminent furniture designer — Graham has received awards from the  American Institute of Architects, the Institute of Business Designers, the International Interior Design Association, and the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture & Design, among others — he’s nonetheless a very approachable, witty, and refreshingly unaffected man.

Last fall, just prior to the NeoCon interior design show in Chicago, Graham’s saber dance involved balancing three high-profile projects: 1) Reff Profiles for Knoll furniture, 2) seating for Martin Brattrud, and 3) the City Hall and Advocate side chairs for Geiger. “I loved balancing the three projects,” he says. “They were all so different; each for a different area of interest, each a different scale, each for a different design culture.”

Brian Graham in his San Francisco studio.

The understated beauty of Graham’s design shines through each of these projects, but my favorite is the City Hall side chair, shown above. Its angular arms and legs are in counterpoint to the gentle curve of the back, and the interplay of positive and negative spacial planes creates a spare elegance. The composition works because the weights, the ratios and lines are just right. As Graham put it, “with a wood side chair, there’s no place to hide.”

The Bandon swivel chair Graham designed for Martin Brattrud captured a silver award at NeoCon, a laurel that celebrated not only good design, but also an enduring relationship. More than two decades ago, Brattrud’s response to Graham’s ideas opened the doors to Graham’s furniture design career. At the time, Graham, a humble graduate of Cal State Long Beach, was working at Gensler design in a role that he describes as “low man on the totem pole.”

Brian's sketch in Nicolette's notebook

The task at hand was the design of some custom banquettes for a law firm. Graham knocked out some informal sketches; he shows me what they looked like by making a couple drawings in my notebook. Soon, Brian suggested that Brattrud produce its own lounge chairs with the firm’s name on them.

Currently, Graham has designed the Bandon, Dominique, Earl, Homestead, Keating, Nancy, Raymond and Wynand line for Martin Brattrud, and today, 26 years after his original collaboration, a couple of the orginal banquettes he designed are still in the Brattrud catalog.

Graham’s first design job was for a small husband-and-wife remodeling firm, and it was there he first started drawing furniture. He was also sent out in the field to help a guy named Wayne install window blinds, much to his distaste at the time. “I was working with all those small metal fittings. Realizing that ‘this thing is too close to the end and can’t be installed without scratching the window’ caused me to design differently,” he said. “Today, I want to see the guys installing my furniture, because if it’s taking too long to install the overhead, I know I need to change it.”

Brian Graham's business card reclining on a furniture model.

Graham next worked at Gensler for nine years, then worked in partnership with John L. Thiele, AIA for another six years before starting his own studio, Graham Design. Today, Graham designs furniture and related products for firms such as Knoll, Halcon, and Decca, and for clients such as Apple Computer, Collins & Aikman and U.S. Trust.

Graham did not grow up in a design-oriented family. “No one in my family was in the arts or in design. The only one who remotely understood my desire to draw was my grandfather. He was in advertising in L.A”

“My father said I should be a cartoonist. Fast forward 20-some years and in a way I am, except that most of the things that I draw are made of metal and wood.”

Since I too have been in the advertising business, and Brian and I are really interviewing one another — he’s kindly agreed to give me some advice about me career and I have volunteered to write about his — he asks about what job I have liked most. When I mention the three years I worked for Dailey and Associates in San Francisco, he says, “Is that related to Dailey and Associates in L.A.?” Yes, it was.

Models in Brian Graham's office

Turns out that our networks overlap. At a long-ago Christmas party, the Creative Director of San Francisco’s Dailey and Associates, John MacDaniels — still my favorite all-time boss — once introduced me to his Los Angeles’ opposite number, Cliff Einstein. Einstein, I learn, was a client and friend of Graham’s father. I think I was probably so over-awed by Einstein and MacDaniels, two towering ad men, that I was tongue-tied at the time.

But I have had no trouble talking to Graham, who’s now a renowned figure himself. Brian and I talked our way through two cups of coffee, and at least a demitasse of design philosophy.

One Graham’s design heroes is Florence Knoll, who would design pieces because she couldn’t find them. She designed what she called “fill-in” pieces that would complement, rather than compete with, a building’s architecture.

Reff Profile office group from Knoll. Photo courtesy of Knoll.

Brian Graham’s approach is similar. “My specialty is about understanding the market,” he says. “I consider myself first an interior designer, and I’m concerned with how someone is going to use a chair, or a desk, or table in an overall space and project. I find that lots of products need to be quiet and understated, and not shout for attention.”

The oxymoron that comes with this minimalist approach is that it often produces designs of such elegance that they not only stand beautifully on their own, but have also stood the test of time. This is certainly true of Florence Knoll’s work, and I think it will also prove true of many of Brian Graham’s designs.


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