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NEW YORK-Industrial designer Neil Cohen, artist and principal of the firm productnv, has created products for many tabletop companies. His company, based in Long Island City, N.Y., works with what Cohen calls an "XYZ concept," or tabletop objects that accentuate their three-dimensional qualities.

Cohen is convinced consumers instinctively respond to how a product is made. He shared his thoughts on the tabletop industry, the future of design and the retailing process with HFN.

HFN: What, exactly, do you do?

NC: I run a three-dimensional design business called productnv. We focus on consumer products, things that would be bought at retail. Our emphasis is on three-dimensional concept development, something that has an actual form to it that is not necessarily made of paper.

HFN: What tabletop projects are you working on now?

NC: I'm working on a flatware project in 18/8 stainless steel for a contemporary manufacturer of gift and tabletop. The [flatware] concept is derived from working with wrapping and ribbon-like materials that transition from one plane to another plane, creating a sculptural effect without superfluous detail. It's a tool and, at the same time, a beautiful structure.

HFN: Who is on your client list?

NC: We work with Dansk, Hoya, Nambe, Crayola, Corning, Kohler [a bath fixture company]. These companies come to us for a very specific reason. The client doesn't always have a problem; they may need new things.

HFN: Can you describe the work you did for Nambe?

NC: It's a range of work, from lighting to serveware to picture frames to other tabletop items. Our approach has been different in that we are looking at them with a three-dimensional approach. The end result is we're creating a group of things -- including crystal -- that doesn't bear a resemblance to foundry-cast items or blown-glass items.

The fun of working with both metals and crystal is to tie them together with some unity without falling back on the traditional manufacturing method. That happens to be the biggest uphill climb. It's difficult to get companies to make a leap into a new way of doing things.

My theory is: How you make something is the way a product expresses itself. The design work involved and the method that creates the product end up being an issue in that, when it comes to market, the consumer perceives a product based on the way it's made. The method chosen is imbued in how the product is perceived.

HFN: What tabletop manufacturer would you would really like to work with?

NC: There are a couple of tabletop people . . . One of the areas, and I will call it tabletop, is someone like Dixie. They're in the business of making plastic tabletop for the restaurant trade. That industry is so lacking in good design, even in throw-away. It's awfully ugly; it doesn't come from any values other than how little plastic can be used to make a fork, knife and spoon. When you're making injection-molded plastic, the objective is to make something great because it reaches everybody. I think this is an opportunity missed by most. You can make beautiful things inexpensively. Why cheap and ugly have to go together is infuriating.

HFN: What is your design philosophy?

NC: Part of it is very much related to an ego that says your first guess is your best guess. You want to be right from the beginning. When you have a vision that is strong, you lock into that, and you have to be convincing. If the designer shows a client many, many things, it means the designer doesn't know [what to do]. I like to think, ego aside, that we know. Our job can be very simple if we have a client that believes in us knowing [what we're doing].

I don't think design is the only facet the designer brings to a client or consumer. We straddle a lot of responsibilities. You're asked to source parts or source completed products. The consultant has to do the engineering, the sourcing and negotiate the pricing. The consultant may even have to deliver the product. I think designers have always been liaisons, but now it's in many more areas. The consultant has been engaged more to help promote sales. That Michael Graves is attached to selling toasters is case in point of how the designer is being asked to wear another hat.

HFN: What designers, or designed products, do you admire?

NC: I thought Sasaki did some beautiful things in flatware. I think Dansk has done some beautiful things in dinnerware. Some of the work done for Calvin Klein in dinnerware was nice, but not flatware. I truly believe the work at Nambe is some of the most elegant stuff. Hoya is doing extraordinary things.

HFN: What is the future of tabletop design?

NC: The future has two paths -- a continual scraping away of contemporary work, giving way to traditional work. That's bad for me. The future also holds niches and pockets for some new work. There are always splinter consumer groups; there are definitely a lot of people looking for contemporary product.

There will be more traditional work done. That market grows and grows. Martha Stewart is an industry, not a person. People are intrigued by that; people are clawing at the past in order to go forward. They're very much afraid. [Adaptation to the millennium is] not moving as quickly as we'd like to think.
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Article Details
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Author:Zisko, Allison
Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 28, 1999

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