An Interview with Mr. Roger Schneeman, Furniture Designer

An Interview with Mr. Roger Schneeman, Furniture Designer

With over 40 years of design experience, Roger Schneeman is the Vice President / President Elect of the American Society of Furniture Designers. He has also served on the Board of Directors of the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) and has been nominated this year for Vice President of ISDA's Midwest District.

A graduate of Industrial Design from the University of Cincinnati's College of Design Architecture, Art and Planning, Mr. Schneeman worked for 34 years as a furniture design manager and principal designer for RCA-GE-Thomson Consumer Electronics, where he gained experience in the design of wood-case goods, home entertainment and home theater cabinetry, juvenile products, occasional furniture and consumer electronic products.

Presently, he freelances his furniture designs, works as a consultant, and is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Design at Purdue University's Art and Design Division.

Roger Schneeman & His Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Education Information & Advice   |   Job Information & Advice   |   Industry Trends


ROGER SCHNEEMAN AND HIS CAREER How did you discover you had a talent for furniture design?

RS: I always liked making things of wood. I took wood working in high school. While studying engineering at the University if Cincinnati, I discovered the field of Industrial Design. After completing the first year of engineering I transferred to the College of Design Architecture, Art and Planning to study Industrial Design. In the major creative classes, I tended to solve assignments in terms of a furniture design. Creative furniture design gives the opportunity to combine materials, structure and aesthetics in unique ways.

How did your career unfold?

The University of Cincinnati is the only design school with a five-year co-op program. The major course teacher recognized I had an interest in furniture design and obtained for me a co-op job with a furniture company in Chattanooga, Tennessee. After graduation, I remained working for them. I liked designing contemporary furniture but not traditional-style furniture. Four years later, I went to work for a company which manufactured steel juvenile furniture, strollers, occasional furniture and other house wares. I began to miss working in wood. I missed the more complete involvement that the wood furniture designers have in all phases of conceiving, developing, manufacturing and bringing their designs to market. However, I still had a drive to be in the mainstream of Industrial Design. In 1964 I went to work for RCA. I thought I would be designing electronic products. I did not realize that they hired me because of my furniture talents. I went to work designing the wood cabinets for television and stereo products. Later, I was made manager of the 9-member team designing these products.

What has been your key to success?

Management style… Another manager once defined management as getting things done through other people. I disagree strongly! Management, for me, is enabling and helping others achieve a goal beneficial to all concerned, the consumer, the company and all involved.

What do you enjoy most about your job, your career?

I enjoy the total involvement in all phases of conceiving ideas, engineering and developing products, solving manufacturing problems, working with marketing and sales people, and working with the creative people throughout the whole process. I now enjoy teaching at Purdue University.

What was your greatest success and biggest setback?

I would say my success must be seen as my whole body of work over more than 40 years as a designer. I worked not only in furniture, but also in other non-furniture products and space planning.

I don't think that I could say I had any setbacks other than wishing that I could have encouraged manufacturers to be adventurous in their product offerings.

Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?

Of course, one must say all of the founders of the modern movement, the great teachers of the Bauhaus, Charles Renne Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, etc. But the personal mentors were Jim Alexander, FIDSA, teacher at the University of Cincinnati and Tucker Madawick, FIDSA, who was Vice President of Design at RCA.

Note, Fellow Industrial Designers Society of America (FIDSA)



What are the key responsibilities of a furniture design professional?

Ideally, a furniture designer should be seen as a key person in the success of a furniture company. The designer must conceive products with the consumer, the manufacturer, and the marketing and sales system in mind. Unfortunately, some companies see the designer as subservient, working under the direction of sales, or other executives. The responsibility of any designer is to conceive and help develop products, taking into consideration all "stake holders."

Describe a typical day of work for you.

All days are different. A day might include:

  • If you are a freelance designer, you will have to spend time seeking and meeting with clients.
  • If a corporate designer, you will meet with members of management.
  • All designers will spend time sketching ideas. I call this "ideation" or divergent thinking.
  • You will make by hand or on a computer application, realistic images or renderings of designs.
  • Once a design is selected (or your recommendation accepted) you will make full size "engineering" drawings by hand or do it in a computer application such as Auto-Cad. A designer must work within cost perimeters and work with cost estimators. One must know manufacturing and be able to go on to the factory floor and help solve production questions. One must keep in touch with market and style trends by reading current magazines and attending trade shows and markets.

Are there specialty software programs for furniture design professionals? If so, what are they and what do they do?

Auto Cad is most often used by both furniture designers and by engineers. Auto-Cad is available in 2D and 3D versions and is a drafting and modeling system. Other systems used include Ashler Vellum, a system preferred by some over Auto Cad, Macromedia Freehand, Illustrator and PhotoShop, and others for photo realistic rendering. At large institutional furniture markets and in Industrial Design, Pro Engineer, SDRC, and Alias Wavefront are key tools.

What are some of the professional organizations for furniture design professionals?

The American Society of Furniture Designers (ASFD) is the professional organization for home furniture and furnishings designers.

The Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) is an organization to which many in institutional furniture designers belong. Some home furniture designers belong to both. I am an officer in both.

Is it important to collaborate with your furniture design colleagues? How have your professional collaborations benefited your career?

Absolutely! One cannot design without being aware of developments in societal trends and new technologies. Being involved with colleagues and professional societies and participating in meetings is the best way to keep up to date and promote your ongoing education.

What are some common myths about furniture design professionals?

I am not sure there are any myths, but there are misconceptions. Some furniture company executives don't understand the great value of a good designer and resent paying them royalties.



What is your degree in? What did you like and dislike about your furniture design-related education?

My degree is a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Design from the University of Cincinnati. The curriculum consisted of fine arts, liberal arts courses and technical and design courses. It is the only school with a five-year, all year around, co-op program.

How does a prospective art student assess their skill and aptitude for furniture design?

I would not think of all prospects for furniture design as only "art" students. I find that design students in college are ones that have a wide variety of aptitudes and interests. They like making things with their hands. They like technology and exploring how things work and go together. They are intrigued with how things look. Often they are not the "best" art students. To do well in design school and in the design profession one must combine many courses of study. A designer must be an artist, but few of us are good enough to earn a living painting portraits. We must know much about engineering, but we usually don't have engineering degrees. We must understand business, but don't have MBAs. We must know much about many things in general. Our talent is in being sensitive to how people live and respond to the made environment. We use this ability to design things to enhance people's lives.

What are the relevant art-related specialties? What types of degrees can one get that will lead to a career in furniture design?

To be a furniture designer requires artistic ability, knowledge of engineering and manufacturing methods, understanding of historic styles, and for free lance designers, business ability. Actually one can be a furniture designer without a degree. Most furniture designers do have degrees. Surveying the education credentials of members of the ASFD reveals members with degrees in various majors from about 50 different universities and colleges from around the world.

Interior Design is closely related. Many states require licensing to be a fully-accredited Interior Designer.

Some furniture designers produce "art" furniture or custom furniture in their own shops.

One of the main showplaces for this is the Contemporary Furniture Shows in New York and other metropolitan cities.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious furniture design schools, departments or programs?

Speaking strictly of furniture design, Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids is outstanding. North Carolina State University also produces fine furniture designers.

My recommendation to students interested in furniture design is to get a good general design education. IDSA lists over 50 schools with design courses accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. I am sure many have courses in furniture design.

What factors should prospective students consider when choosing a school? Are there any different considerations for those who know that they want to specialize in furniture design?

The most important is the school's reputation with professionals. In furniture design, Kendall and NC State are clearly recognized. Many of the accredited schools listed by IDSA are excellent for design education. The University of Cincinnati has the only really effective five-year co-op program. Other schools have summer internship opportunities. It is vital to get real world work experience in design while in school.


Who are three of the most renowned furniture design professionals in the world right now? How did they get to the top?

I can't answer this with specific names. There are many home furnishings designers doing fine work. There is outstanding work in institutional or office furniture coming from companies such as Steelcase, Hayworth and Herman Miller. In the past, there were names such as Meis van de Roe, George Nakashima, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others - mostly architects. There are names which are promoted by manufacturers. Often these are names from the fashion apparel industry who give various amounts of direction to staff designers.

What is the average salary for furniture design professionals in the US? What are people at the top of this profession paid?

This question has been asked of the ASFD. It is difficult to tell. Corporate furniture designer's salaries, I am guessing, range from $30,000 to perhaps over $100,000 for principal designers. Freelance designer's run between "struggling" to "magnificent."

What are the best ways to get a job in the field of furniture design?

  1. Get a co-op job or internship while in school if possible.
  2. Assemble a good portfolio of work and ideas.
  3. Make a job search: Compile names of companies, corporations and independent designers you want to consider. Do research on the firms; Internet, networking, professional societies.
  4. Send selected companies a letter, resume and "mini portfolio" (inexpensive reproductions of some of your work, nicely organized)
  5. Follow up with a phone call asking for an interview and opportunity to show your portfolio.
  6. Present your self as a mature, articulate, creative person.
  7. Ask for the job if you want it. Don't wait for them to offer it.
  8. Negotiate compensation and benefits only after they show real interest in you.

Describe your ideal job and your nightmare job.

The ideal job is one in which designers are respected and looked to as a vital contributor to company success. The wrong place for a designer is one in which designers are looked on with condescendence. There are such places.

How available are internships in this field?

I believe schools such as Kendall and NCState arrange them in furniture design. Other schools have intern programs and I am sure there are some in furniture design.

How is the job market now for the furniture design industry? What do you think it will be in 5 years?

Home furnishings are continuing to take a shrinking share of the consumer's expenditure. I can only assume that companies have stiff competition and are struggling financially. Good companies, in this situation realize the importance of design to increase market share. Poor companies cut back wherever possible; some neglect design. To prosper as a designer you need to be good. In the future, generation X-ers will be coming into their "mature" purchasing age. They are a significantly smaller population with lower wealth. Companies will need really good design and designers to sustain their business.

Right now, Industrial designers are in high demand. Graduates just out of school are commanding salaries as high as $65,000. I don't predict this kind of demand for furniture designers. However, there is always a place for talented people.



What are some of the trends that you see in the field of furniture design which could help students plan for the future?

Home furnishings is a traditional industry with low capitalization. It sees trends strictly in terms of short-term style. I love the home furnishings design, but one must realize the nature of the industry. I recommend to students to get a good general design education, possibly in Industrial Design, go in to furniture design and work to be successful. Today, people in other fields will work in 3 or 4 different fields in their lifetime. Many designers will be able to work in design their whole life, but they must be ready to change specialties.

How has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

The furniture industry is attempting to promote and sell on the Internet. Designers use the Internet to do competitive design research.

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