In 1981, Lenoir, North Carolina–based Bernhardt Furniture Company founded Bernhardt Design with a mission to focus more internationally and to cultivate a roster of established and new talent. Jerry Helling has been president and creative director of Bernhardt Design since 1991 and has established a number of initiatives, including an interdisciplinary course with the world-renowned ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena and ICFF Studio, a scholarship program that provides exposure for emerging designers. Helling and The Architect’s Newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief William Menking discuss Bernhardt Design’s past, present, and future.
The Architect’s Newspaper: You have been president and creative director of Bernhardt Design since 1991, and in that time it has become a company known to value good contemporary furniture design. Were you brought into the company to push design thinking, or did you come to realize its importance in the marketplace?
Jerry Helling: I’m usually accused of being ahead of the curve, which is probably accurate. I had a hard time understanding why the American market was still so rooted in historical reproductions when other countries were doing interesting contemporary design. I decided to change direction and see if we could find a market in America for well-designed contemporary furniture. It was a big risk and it took ten years to really catch on. Some of our best pieces were discontinued in the early 2000s because people didn’t understand them or want them at the time. You must remember this was before the re-emergence of the Eameses and the entire midcentury catalogue. Design Within Reach hadn’t opened yet in the mid-’90s, so it was difficult to educate an audience on the value of original design.
Do you see contemporary furniture becoming more appreciated by American consumers?
Yes, definitely—it is fashionable and it sells, so everyone is interested in it now. There are a number of reasons why this entire phenomenon has coalesced and it is hard to pinpoint a turning point.
Design became a business buzzword and many studies and books were written about design thinking in everything we do. The media started covering design in a major way and that brought it into the public consciousness, and Design Within Reach’s outreach to consumers helped too. The idea that everything goes in cycles also played a role; in America we were ready for a new modern design cycle, which the Europeans had adopted after the Second World War and continue to support. The interesting point of all this is that at first, you think it is driven by the younger generation, when in fact the baby boomers are fueling the demand. They are leaving their homes filled with family antiques and want to downsize with modern furniture and accessories. I find the younger generation more eclectic, combining modern furniture with flea market items, IKEA, and traditional furniture. They are less likely to be driven by trends.
You are well known for your support of design education and mentoring of young designers. What brought you to focus on education?
It was purely a matter of need. While design students receive a wonderful education in design, they don’t receive much guidance regarding what to do after they graduate. How do you present your ideas and concepts to manufacturers? How do you create designs that can be manufactured and that people want to buy? This has been the basis of our annual program with ArtCenter College of Design—striving to give students a real-life design experience before they graduate. From there we moved on to creating ICFF Studio, a platform to help young designers once they have graduated and need exposure to manufacturers, retail, and the press.
What initiatives are you working on at the moment that excite you?
I’m pleased that we are presenting the American Design Honors award to a wonderful couple from Oregon called Studio Gorm. They are doing interesting and exciting work and I Iook forward to people being introduced to them.
We are also doing a project under the title of “The Creatives.” It features actor Terry Crews, Grammy-nominated singer Tift Merritt, and Airbnb cofounder Joe Gebbia. People will have to visit ICFF to see what it is all about, but I can say their work is great and you won’t be disappointed!