Award-winning designer Cameron Smith talks about the Czinger chair

Cameron Smith, award-winning designer and Seattle Polo Club owner spoke to us about product design, his project with Alcantara and Czinger, and the game of polo.

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Cameron Smith talks about the Czinger deck chair.

Image: Cameron Smith

I know you as the Seattle Polo Club guy, the owner of the club, and an enthusiastic polo player. Tell us about Cameron, the designer.

Sure. I went to college for art school. I realized at an early age that I could draw, and paint, and was pretty decent that way. I used my art as a gateway to get into a good school. Early on, I realized I could also do the engineering and enjoyed physics and things like that. So I went down two tracks where I went through art school and engineering school simultaneously. It was shortly after that I found industrial design and product design as a way to blend the two disciplines. And so all through design school and engineering school, I was focused on design. After undergrad, I got my first job designing office furniture. After a couple years of getting work experience, I went to Stanford and got my master's in product design.

I'm pretty much trained as a person that makes stuff, but I've always had an affinity towards furniture for some reason. My undergrad design professors were heavy into furniture and came from the architecture side. It wasn't forced on me to design furniture, but whenever I was given project briefs in college, I would always gravitate toward designing furniture or environments. My master's thesis at Stanford was on cordless environments, and I ended up creating a curved work-surface desk. It's the desk that I still use today.

So, who should we consider Cameron Smith as? A polo player or a furniture designer?

No, polo is my hobby. I mean, it's a unique hobby, but I am really a designer through and through. I enjoy the competition and the culture of polo, but if I hang up polo, I'm no longer a polo player, but I'll always be a designer.

Good design can be subjective. How would you define good design?

I believe good design evokes an emotional response with the user, obviously a positive emotional response. We have so many products in our lives every day that we don't pay attention to, but there are certain products that people have that they value. Many times, the cost of the item is high so they have a monetary value on it which relates to quality and longevity. But many times the usability and function is new and fresh and they value that. I always look for things that improve people's lives and the way they're doing things. I'm not much into textures and patterns and trying to create cool things purely visually. I prefer more to focus on the form and the function of a product; how we can innovate through those two things in order to create new products for people.

Cameron Smith talks about the Czinger deck chair.

Image: Cameron Smith

Have you designed other things besides furniture?

I run a design consulting firm and I started with a partner 25 years ago. We focus on design and engineering, and most of the products we work on are MedTech or life science devices. My day job is running the product design group that works on medical devices for some of the big medical companies in the world. Furniture design is [one of the] things that I've done kind of on the side. I've got an entrepreneurial spirit and I always want to create something new. The furniture actually came about after I got to the point as the consulting firm grew, they moved me out of designing and doing the work and project managing. I was just running the company, which is not what my passions are and what I went to school and trained as.

Me focusing on furniture design actually came about through a polo injury. I had herniated a couple discs in my neck and needed to have surgery to get a couple of disc replacements in my neck. And so I'm like, you know, what am I going to do in the two months? I've got my neck in a brace and I can't work and do anything. And so I got a sketchbook and I literally, for the first couple months, I decided that I was just going to start sketching and get back to the things that I was passionate about.

I've got good talents and skills that I wanted to explore again and I wanted to come out of the neck surgery better than how I went into it. Not only physically but also mentally. And first thing's I got my sketchbook. I started drawing chairs based on designs I had done at Stanford and never built. I'd do these Sunday meditation days with one of my buddies and we'd find a place in Santa Monica and hang out for the day. I just started drawing chairs and sketching different stuff. I did that probably for a year or two before I decided to even make my first chair.

There are stereotypes about designers out there. Which do you consider to be the worst one?

Design as an industry in the last 20 to 30 years has really, really changed. When I was in design school, it was all about creating cool and interesting products, but really it didn't have the user in mind. So, with most of the products, the user had to adapt to using the product. Now we've seen a resurgence of usability and that has become a lot more prevalent. Designers are a lot more aware of how people use products so that the products that the designers are designing are more aligned to the way people live and work. When I started my design career, there wasn't a big push on usability. In fact, it was not even a discipline really.

Cameron Smith talks about the Czinger deck chair.

Image: Cameron Smith

Now human factors, ergonomics, and usability are their own discipline that spread from the hardware world even into software world. So I think with the usability aspect, designers have become more approachable. They're not the people dressed in black turtleneck sweaters that design things and say, "You need to use these things. Our designs are good." Now, there's a lot more humility in design where there's sympathy in the way people use products. If somebody uses a product wrong, it's not the person's fault anymore, it's the designer's fault because they didn't foresee and they didn't understand how people actually use the things.

So what you're saying is the stereotype about designers being arrogant was a real trait?

It was. It was. When I started my career, designers had more knowledge and insight about what people needed than designers knew about the way people worked.

You've talked a little bit about how you approach design. You mentioned usability and trying to fulfill a need. When you're designing furniture specifically, what's the approach? How do you go about that? What factors do you consider when you design a chair?

I always want to do something that's new and innovative, and a lot of my designs are inspired either through events or conversation or watching the world. I take that inspiration and try to create new and interesting forms and functions. Not everything I have functions. Obviously, a chair could be static and you can't say that the function is any different than another chair, but the form can be a lot different. And how you approach the chair and things like that can be a lot different.

For instance, in the form and the function and trying to create something new, I designed a folding dining chair. Most folding chairs are lightweight and portable and I'm like, well, why not make one that's not lightweight and not portable? I mean, I have a dining table at my loft that extends from six people to 10. So what do I do with the extra four chairs? Why can't my normal, everyday chair have the ability to fold away? If I want to move apartments or if I want to move from one room to another, I can just easily fold up a chair and take it with me. It doesn't necessarily have to be a lightweight stacking wedding chair, but I didn't see any reason why all this attention is put into creating dining tables that extend and expand, but then nothing has been done with the actual chairs that go around it.

Fair point. So you were in Como, Italy recently, I think that was last year, to receive awards for your designs. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Sure. I've actually been fairly successful in a lot of these design competitions. There are different groups and organizations and different locations around the world have design awards for architecture, interior design, furniture, product, and other areas. My first four chairs won a design award out of Como, Italy. I went to the award ceremony, which I'd never been to Milan or Como, and Milan is kind of a big hotspot for design. And I wanted to go study design when I was in college, but I was also doing engineering at the same time and trying to get through that. It's one of the kind of things I regret.

Now, I'm full circle where I'm like, now I'm going to spend more time in Milan and focus on the design aspect. It's an amazing experience going and meeting people throughout the world. I met two people from the US that were there and the rest were all from Israel, the Middle East, from Poland, from Europe, from Asia, people all over the world. You get to stand in line to receive your award with all the bronze winners from all over the world. It’s an amazing experience.

Cameron Smith talks about the Czinger deck chair.

Image: Cameron Smith

Everybody talks about their work and we show each other pictures of the things we've done. It was just a pretty amazing atmosphere to be surrounded by other people. The awards ceremony was in a classic opera house in Como. It was pretty incredible. The reception included a gallery with some of the winning product designs. It's pretty amazing to socialize with people that are kind of aligned in your design thinking and also at the top of their game.

Let's shift gears a little bit. Let's talk about Czinger. How did you get involved with the company?

Cameron Smith talks about the Czinger deck chair.

Image: Cameron Smith

While we were at Carmel, California, at the Blackbird event, we looked at the chair, you pulled the pieces apart and talked about the different parts. Tell us a little bit about the components that went into the chair.

The philosophy of the chair is to have a chaise lounge that appears very light and floating. In order to get a chair that appears light, the edge of the chair needs to be very thin. The frame of the chair is cast aluminum and the edge of the chair by the pad is like a quarter of an inch. So it looks like it's a very thin reveal around and then the pads are less than an inch thick. I wanted a very thin profile of the chair. Obviously, the chair has some substantial depth for the structure and everything, but the whole chaise lounge is suspended from the seat area by the legs. The chaise lounge frame needed to be very strong, so it has a steel internal frame that's sand cast over which carries most of the weight. The whole chair is 125 pounds of cast aluminum so it's a very substantial and heavy chair yet it appears very lightweight. People grab it and they say, "Whoa, this is a lot heavier than I thought it would be."

The pads are removable so they can be cleaned or replaced with a different color or style. When I did the design, I wanted to have a very clean, simple design. I didn't want to have stitching disrupt the leather. I wanted to have smooth and clean edges. We developed a method of wet forming the leather, and then tucking the leather in and gluing it to a backer. We found that the backer had to be incredibly rigid or the seams would pull apart and the tucking that we have on the bends of the pads would not align very well. We tried a couple of different things and ended up with carbon fiber as our solution to create a backer. The beauty of using carbon fiber is I can embed the magnets inside. So the pads are all held onto the chair by magnets so you can pull the pads off and replace the pads easily. I envision people ordering the chair with multiple pads so they can change the look of the chair. They can get an Alcantara covered pad or various colored leather pads. They can do different versions if they want and swap them out really easily.

What do you think of the 21C and how Czinger plans to change the way cars are designed and built?

I was able to tour Czinger and see their facility, and the way that they're approaching manufacturing is phenomenal. I think it's the innovation that we need. Being a product designer and working through products that get manufactured, the cost of new products can be crippling. We call it NPI, the new product introduction. The cost of tooling and getting through the manufacturing is really substantial for a lot of products. A lot of good products that I think are very innovative have a very difficult time reaching the market because the manufacturing step is so big. Using the 3D printing technology, it gives Czinger the ability and the designers the ability to produce parts.

Cameron Smith talks about the Czinger deck chair.

Image: Cameron Smith

The parts may be more expensive, but the overhead and the time to get to market is so much less, and it also gives them the ability to make iterations and changes on the fly. If you create tooling for parts and want to make design changes, you have to go and adjust the tooling and test the parts. With 3D printing, you can just redesign the part and print a new one. It’s easy to iterate and make changes to a part. Ultimately, that leads to better designs and a lot cheaper manufacturing which allows products to get to market quicker.

Outside of the car industry, the 3D printing industry has been growing substantially and we're seeing furniture and entire houses that are 3D printed. When carbon fiber first came out and they started using it in the automotive industry, there were companies that were hesitant to start using carbon fiber. Now, everybody's making cars out of carbon fiber. I think the 3D printing industry is the next step in manufacturing evolution.

They've proven with the car that it changes the way people design. The designers that they have that are building the Czinger car are approaching it differently than designers and engineers that are designing for traditional manufacturing techniques.

Back to the Czinger chair, if you're not planning to buy a 21C or 21C Blackbird, where can you find the Czinger chair or something similar?

Right now, I'm doing everything through [the] Furniture Smith website. I've basically worked on creating my chair designs. I've got four finished designs that have been prototyped and are in various stages of manufacturing readiness. I have three more designs that I'm currently prototyping. My goal the rest of the year is to focus on the manufacturing to iron out where these are going to be made, so that I can get into production and start focusing on sales. For the Czinger chair, I have an order with a foundry that is going to be cast in the next couple of months and I started working with Alcantara on custom designs for the pads. I'm going to do a couple of versions for Lamborghini. I'm going to do a couple of versions obviously for Czinger. I want to do some real inspirational designs with the designers at Alcantara. I'm excited to go to Milan and work with them and try to create some cool fabrics and stuff that really emphasize the chair.

Cameron Smith talks about the Czinger deck chair.

Image: FORTLOC/Khalid Bari

That's cool. I didn't even realize they were based in Milan. I never looked them up, so I guess the material itself is way more popular than the company.

Everybody knows in the automotive industry and they do Alcantara for wall covering and they do it for a lot of furniture and stuff.

Have you designed any other complimentary pieces besides the Czinger chair?

I've not done an auto specific chair. I did a folding yacht chair. One of my friends is into boating, and we were sitting there and having brunch and he's like, "There are no good folding chairs that are high-quality chairs for yachts. People have all these chairs in their yachts and anything that's on the deck has to be moved before it goes ocean bound." And he's like, "They use these plastic chairs because there's not really much else out there." So I designed a high-quality folding chair for that purpose. Obviously, it can be used for a lot of other purposes and stuff, but I haven't done anything specifically based on automotive stuff.

Well, you did mention that you're going to build a chair for Lamborghini though.

Yeah, I'm going to do a version of that Good Day chaise, which is the Czinger. The Czinger will have a custom 3D printed leg so it'll be unique to that car company. But the style and everything has a lot of the design cues that Lamborghini uses. And so I'm working with Alcantara to do some interesting patterns and color schemes that kind of align with the Lamborghini theme. I've got a couple of Lamborghini dealers that want the chair.

Last question. So I'm a polo fan, but I'm not going to try to play polo because I got spooked by some videos of polo accidents. What would you consider to be the ultimate chair for watching polo for a fan like me?

My first thought is a director's chair is really aligned to the sport of polo. It's portable so you can take it tailgating, but it also has an element of class. The one thing I'll say is just don't get a camping chair. It's better to sit on the ground and watch the game than one of those multi-folding little camping chairs.

I was going to say those things are not the best to sit on if you're going to be on it for a while.

No, there is an element of class in polo, and so you're going to want a director's type chair.


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