When art meets engineering – The art of industrial design

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:22 pm

What would you do if you walked into a special exhibit at an out-of-town museum and saw that a product you helped design was on display?
Dan Matré was speechless — at least speechless when it comes to describing the moment when he saw the Buell RS1200 in the museum. The motorcycle was in Las Vegas and part of "The Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit that was traveling between the various Guggenheim museums located throughout the world. Matré contributed the styling and design of the bike at Erik Buell’s request.
"To me, that’s pretty cool," Matré said. "To have one of your pieces of work to be in the Guggenheim Museum on display — that was a highlight. It really was."
Matré is the president of Matré Design, Inc., a Milwaukee Third Ward industrial design firm that has made its reputation as a cost-effective team that understands a manufacturer’s environment.
But just what is industrial design?
"It still suffers from an obscurity and a lack of recognition and understanding," vice president Terry Mahon says. "I think when people say ‘engineer’ they understand what an engineer is. When people say ‘accountant’ they know what an accountant is. …
"Industrial designer? I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked that question," Mahon continued. "People say, ‘Oh, you design plant layouts? You design industries? What do you do? What does that mean?’ So it does suffer from some obscurity."
Some industrial designers point to Leonardo Da Vinci as the first industrial designer. [The "industrial" refers to the Industrial Revolution.] Da Vinci combined mechanical aptitude with the ability to sculpt and paint. Modern industrial designers point to Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss as the founding fathers of the profession because they were the first to consider appearance, human factors and the impact of product design on individuals and society.
"Industrial design is really the combining of two juxtaposed things," Matré says. "One is the romanticism of art, but then there’s the scientific logic in engineering on the other side. Usually in our culture, those two things battle each other and are opposed to each other. An industrial designer embraces both of those elements. We need to make something human and approachable and beautiful, yet there’s technology involved."

Brand loyalty
Harley-Davidson, Master Lock, Kohler and Culligan are just a few of the clients Matré Design works with in creating new products. And one of the keys for manufacturers to remain successful — especially in a rough economy — is new products, Matré says. And having a successful new product means that once the product’s life cycle is complete, customers replace the old product with the same brand.
It all comes down to how customers react when they use the product.
"If we address the seven ways that a person interacts with a product," Matré said, "if we truly are allowed to address all of those issues, people have a good experience and that, in turn, equates to what we call building brand loyalty."
Harley-Davidson, a company that could write a book on brand loyalty, has used Matré Design ever since Matré left Harley to start his firm 17 years ago.
Matré was a senior industrial designer in Harley’s styling department for eight years and worked alongside legendary designer Willie G. Davidson. According to Harley’s chief engineer of parts, accessories and custom vehicle operations Bob Farchione, Matré Design is the only outside industrial design firm Harley uses.
"The true advantage of Matré Design for us was the fact that he came from the inside," Farchione said. "The fact that he understood Harley-Davidson, understood our customers, understood our requirements, is a great asset to us."

Working in the shadows
Contributing to the profession’s obscurity is the fact that many design clients don’t like to trumpet the fact that they use an outside firm, fearing their competition will use that industrial designer, too. So, much of the satisfaction they get comes from a job well done and repeat business from the same clients.
"Commercial success of the products we work on, that they’re safe and they’re humane is the essence of what we do," Mahon said.
But in an effort to reap more of the rewards of their own designs, the firm designed a hand truck for office use made out of molded plastic and metal. The hand truck features an indentation in its body to accommodate 5-gallon water bottles, a bottom that flips up for storage in tight places and a forward-facing handle that alleviates pressure on the wrist.
And while this hand truck is considerably more expensive than the typical steel hand truck, it has what Matré calls content.
"You’ve met people who at first look are attractive, but then you get to know them and you realize, is this all there is?" Matré explained "It’s the same way with product. I guess new cars can be that way. You’re attracted to it at first, but you start using it and realize that it has flaws. The content is not there.
"This product has content."
And it fit well with Chicago-based manufacturer Iceberg Enterprises’ line of resin-based desking systems. After Iceberg’s Rich Gilbert agreed to manufacture and distribute the hand trucks, Gilbert turned around and asked Matré Design to help design a new partition system and a modular desking system for his company.
Iceberg has an internal design department, but uses Matré because "they understand design from a manufacturer’s standpoint," Gilbert said. "They’re not going to go down roads in the product development process unnecessarily that have a tendency to increase the cost of the project.
"… I’ve used a number of different firms in my business life, and I’ve found that the guys up at Dan’s place to be the most cost effective," Gilbert said. "I think their designs are very good, and they understand the customer before they dive into the project as well. They take time to learn who we are, what we do and how we do it before they just design something on a piece of paper that’s either not manufacturable or not exactly what we had in mind from a specification standpoint."
The hand truck is available now and Gilbert expects sales to take off by the middle of this year.
Who knows, someday the Matré Design hand truck could wind up in a museum exhibit called "The Art of Office Furniture."

March 1, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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