Gentle Instigator

Susan Lyons brings both the keen sensibilities of a designer and an open and collaborative managerial style to her leadership role at Designtex.

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Designtex president Susan Lyons sits in front of the development board for the company’s ongoing collaboration with the Charley Harper estate. The upholstery samples are digitally printed to match the nuanced shades mandated in the late artist’s estate.

Portrait by Kyoko Hamada

Two years ago, industry insiders were surprised when Designtex hired Susan Lyons as its new president. She was a veteran designer, but she had little experience in sales, so she seemed an unlikely candidate to run one of the largest contract-textile companies in the United States, with around $70 million in annual sales. But lack of formal training has never prevented Lyons—former creative director for materials for Herman Miller—from forging into areas in which she knows little, and staying the course until her goals are realized.

Designtex’s eighth-floor New York studio is exactly what you’d expect a textile company owned by Steelcase, and run by a designer, to look like. It’s airy and bright, with sleek light fixtures, clean, bold furnishings, and white work tables. Light streams in through giant windows and the whole place glows like a patchwork spectrum made of fabric samples. There are big industrial spools of thread in every hue, and trays lined neatly with swatches whose textures range from sturdy, sound-absorbing, origami-like finery, to thick, gray felt and postconsumer polyester that is impervious to knives. This colorful lab is where Lyons and her team of collaborators create the fabrics of the future.

Although she directs a multidisciplinary team comprising architects, designers, weavers, artists, textile engineers, architectural historians, and even a poet, Lyons almost demurely avoids the spotlight. “I do think of myself as an instigator,” she says, straining to describe her approach to running the company. “Art director is not quite right. I’m introducing the possibility, nurturing the process. I like the notion of an ecosystem—interdependent parties working together to make something happen. Each project is different. Sometimes we provide the technical experience, sometimes the sourcing.”

"I like the notion of an ecosystem—interdependent parties working together to make something happen."

And sometimes it’s a technical framework, which is the case with Made to Measure, a new service Designtex will launch next week at NeoCon. Made to Measure is a digital-printing program that allows designers and architects to work with the company to customize imagery. About seven months before Lyons’s return to Designtex as president (she served as creative director from 1989– 2002), the company bought Portland Color, one of the best digital printers in the business. This ecologically sound “sandbox,” run and managed entirely by artists who were encouraged to do everything with the machines except break them, was the kind of place Lyons would have created if she didn’t come to it by choice. “Frankly, one of the reasons I came back to Designtex was because of that collaboration,” she says. The program introduces the idea of mass customization and “just in time” manufacturing, which means Designtex clients can now print fabrics as needed, rather than in the minimum quantities typically required in manufacturing, which more often than not end up on shelves or as waste.

Courtesy Christopher Barrett

´┐╝Designtex + Charley Harper

The Big Ladybug is from the Designtex + Charley Harper Collection of 12 wall-coverings and textiles, featuring playful images from the Harper archive. Lyons and Todd Oldham, who oversees the archive, hope the fabrics will bring Harper-induced smiles to patients in hospitals and wellness centers.

Lyons decided to kick-start Made to Measure by producing a line of wall-coverings with imagery from Charley Harper. Designer Todd Oldham, who befriended the modernist painter at the end of his life, is steward of Harper’s archive. Lyons picks up the biology book Oldham had as a schoolboy. Whimsical bird, bug, and otter illustrations by Harper seem to dance happily on the pages. In a micro-to-macro collaboration, Lyons teamed up with Oldham to produce Designtex + Charley Harper, a cheery print collection primarily for hospitals and wellness facilities. “I met Todd when I was doing work for Herman Miller,” she says. “We bonded over our mutual admiration for the work of Alexander Girard and Charley Harper. When I returned to Designtex, I immediately called Todd to see if we could work with Charley’s archive. The work is so beautiful. It always made me smile, so I thought, ‘What would be better than developing products for health care using this extraordinary work?’”

But because this is a Lyons product, aesthetics were only step one. Printing on an environmentally friendly surface, Portland Color mixed each color individually until it matched—exactly—the colors Harper stipulated in his estate. “To be able to do a non-PVC vinyl that’s printable without color restrictions is remarkable,” Oldham says. “Before this, you could never do something like Charley, where there are 70 colors in one item—it was unheard of. Susan respected this. It also passes health-care standards and doesn’t wreck the planet.”

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