Michael Vanderbyl: Multimedia Communicator, Design Advocate

A profile on Michael Vanderbyl, principal of Vanderbyl Design and president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA).

Michael Vanderbyl, principal of Vanderbyl Design and president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), characterizes the graphic designer as a sprinter. The furious pace of managing numerous projects keeps one’s design muscles active and the work fresh, he claims. Architects, on the other hand, are long-distance runners who must sustain energy over a period of time.

Based in San Francisco, Vanderbyl Design is a multi-disciplinary firm whose work ranges from graphics and packaging to interiors, showrooms, furniture, textiles, and even boats. Vanderbyl’s engagement in multiple design fields is fueled by his core expertise in graphics. “To be multi-disciplinary, you have to have a point of view that informs the way you look at other disciplines,” he says. “Immersed in one sensibility and process, you can apply that knowledge to other forms and disciplines.”

Every object in the material world speaks to Vanderbyl. “Communication is the basis of everything. Every object has a message, carrying information,” he says. “Take an ergonomic chair, a stool, or a wingback—they all perform the same function, but each conveys a different meaning. For designers, it is a question of understanding the inherent messages in materials and forms.”

When Vanderbyl designs a showroom, he thinks of it as brochure. “I start with the showroom space, then continue building chapters up to the conclusion. A showroom is more about the product than the architecture of the space.”

For example, there is a showroom Vanderbyl designed for his long-term client Teknion, the international manufacturer of office systems and furniture. In 2002, Teknion was launching a desk system at Orgatec, the annual business environments trade fair held in Cologne, Germany.

“Our challenge was to open up the narrow, funneled booths prevalent in Europe,” says Vanderbyl. “We created an island that was accessible from any direction, allowing people to address the product from a point of interest to them, not squeezing them into the space.” Setting off the space were sweeping walls of frosted, green-cast glass. The open booth made a huge impression.

Considering his experience with exhibition design, it is of little surprise that Vanderbyl also creates award-winning furniture. His Archetype Collection for McGuire Furniture, for instance, won the 2000 Pinnacle Design Achievement Award from the American Society of Furniture Designers. A lifelong love of the sea inspired Vanderbyl to use teak in a geometric grid pattern, similar to the deck on sailboats, as the main design element in chairs and sofas.

Vanderbyl injects notes of irony and warmth into his designs. For the Robert Talbott Store, a men’s clothier in Manhattan, Vanderbyl designed a brochure with a single pair of glasses, a tie, and the word “ritual” on the cover. He created huge, playful cones as shoe displays in Esprit’s showroom in New York. He invents compelling, peculiar characters—a scientist with a jet propulsion pack, a man with an architectural construction for a head—and uses them as the focal point in client ads and stationery.

Despite being an internationally acclaimed graphic artist, juror, and advocate of design, Vanderbyl is most fond of his role as educator. Dean of Design at the California College of the Arts, his alma mater, he is learning from his students. “For the first time in years, concept—and not style—is important to students,” he says. “They are concerned about making a change in the world, and the issues of ecology and lifestyle play significantly in their investigations. They view graphic design as one of the methodologies for change. Being exposed to television 24 hours a day, they also have seen so much. They feel they have to create something of their own, find their own language.”

Having bestowed a wealth of design upon the world, Vanderbyl is himself the recipient of universal accolades. In 2000, he received the highest honor from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the AIGA Medal; his printed work is part of the permanent collections of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Library of Congress, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

As for upcoming projects, Vanderbyl is designing Luna Textiles’ booth for ICFF 2004 and HBF Textiles’ showroom for NeoCon 2004; repositioning Henredon Furniture and creating prototype stores for the company’s products; and designing a new school catalogue for the California College of the Arts.

This piece is a preview of a new section on inter-disciplinary design that will soon launch on MetropolisMag. Keep watching for further details!

Categories: Design