December 26, 2012

Hall of Fame 2012: Michael Vanderbyl

Michael Vanderbyl is thoroughly Californian. Born in Oakland, he was drawn to art and design for as long as he can remember. Public-school classes led him to the California College of the Arts, where he earned a bachelor’s in graphic design and is now, and for the past 26 years, the dean of design. “My high-school guidance counselor said I wasn’t smart enough to be an architect,” he recalls.

Or perhaps she meant Vanderbyl was too smart to be just one thing. He is the epitome of multidisciplinary: A designer and an ipso facto business consultant who is fluent in nearly all mediums. Graphic, interior, product, textile, and Web design as well as ad campaigns—he does them all under the auspices of Vanderbyl Design, the San Francisco studio he established in 1973. His clients are long-term and diverse: Teknion, McGuire Furniture, Janus et Cie, HBF, Bernhardt Furniture Company, and Luna Textiles are among those in the interiors world. He’s also done showrooms for Esprit, catalogs for mens wear label Robert Talbot, and graphics for an America’s Cup sailboat. His countless accolades include the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pacific Design Center; the AIGA Medal, the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ highest honor; and jury chair man for the 1992 National Endowment for the Arts Presidential Design Awards.

“Design permeates everything.” “Design must be about truth.” “Design is not a career, it’s a lifestyle.” These are among Vanderbyl’s interchangeable mantras. He’s formulated them from the admiration of his own design heroes, who include members of the Bauhaus, Charles and Ray Eames, and Lella and Massimo Vignelli, the latter couple sponsoring his membership to the prestigious Alliance Graphique Internationale.

A conversation about current-day influences leads to hosannas for Apple and the late Steve Jobs: “The best things to ever happen to the design world,” Vanderbyl says. Which brings up branding. “A term that’s overused and misused,” he attests. “Although that word and ‘corporate identity’ have been around forever, I hate them. But clients understand them.” With Vanderbyl’s guidance, clients discover their core, what makes their company unique. “They usually know the answer, it’s just not front of mind. I help bring it forward.”

Vanderbyl does so by designing products and advertisements that make a company competitive, global showrooms that are an oasis of understatement in deference to the merchandise, and message reinforcing exhibits, such as the Teknion booth for the 2009 IIDEX trade show that addressed sustainability without showing a stick of furniture. Another Teknion project he conceived was “Design Does Matter,” a collection of essays by different authors elaborating on what it takes to create an authentic brand.

Does Vanderbyl think in 2- or 3-D? Both: “I have attention deficit,” he laughs. “If I’m working on a poster and I get stuck, I’ll switch to furniture. Then I’ll go back.” Each discipline informs the other. A curve detail on a sofa’s arm, for instance, may come from a typeface, while layering, a graphics tenet, also informs showroom and retail spaces. He sees graphic design, the single discipline from which he branches out to “multi,” as ephemeral. “Unlike its counterparts,” he says, “it moves, changes, and is a reflection of the times.” Recent projects in that genre include labels and packaging for such boutique Napa Valley wineries as Checker board, Robert Pecota, and Barbour. All three are located near the small Craftsman he designed and shares with his wife, Luna Textiles founder Anna Hernandez. The city-country commute is a joy for Vanderbyl, a confessed “car guy” who has a small collection of luxury autos. Most days he takes his Ferrari—the California model, of course.

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