Brave new design
Steven Gyford, engineer and designer, creates cutting-edge furniture right here in Reno
In the mid-1940s, designer George Nelson created a stir with “Storagewall,” the first modular storage system that would have a lasting impact on post-war furniture design. The revolutionary concept landed Nelson a contract with a major furniture manufacturer, Herman Miller Co., and a story in Life magazine.
Fast forward to 2003: In walks Steven Gyford, a Reno-based inventor, designer and sci-fi buff aiming to push modular systems to the next level—component systems.
“I’m always coming up with new ideas,” says the 55-year-old Gyford, who sports a thick English accent and safety goggles. “I don’t like recycling from the past.”
Gyford gives the impression of materializing in, rather than entering, a room. He moves with the speed and distracted quality of a man pulled five directions at once. And he is. Gyford Productions’ new industrial 16,000-square-foot headquarters houses five departments, all under one vaulted 20-foot ceiling criss-crossed with a system of exposed silver heating and ventilation ducts. The shipping department, retail showroom, wood shop, machine shop and print shop are manned by a 22-person staff.
It’s a far cry from Gyford’s past, which at one time entailed working out of his garage.
Gyford’s in the machine shop, where high-tech equipment whirls around him, spitting out aluminum parts with molecularly bonded finishes. These 250-plus pieces (called “standoffs” in the industry) resemble the parts of a giant Erector set, ready to be built to spec.
Next door, in the wood shop, a scaled-down log cabin is in the works for a California trade show exhibit, and a dry-docked motor boat, looking oddly out of place, stands in line, waiting to be refurbished.
“Wait till it’s done,” says Gyford. “It will look like new.”
Starting as a journeyman in England at age 15, Gyford has collected and honed trades from New Zealand to South Africa. He built cabinets and kitchen interiors—which he still does—then moved on to houses. From there, he was introduced to the exhibit industry.
It didn’t stop there, though. Packing up his family of four and putting them on a plane, Gyford landed in California in 1979 and started designing museum displays and interiors. By this time, his range of styles was across the board, including everything from traditional to ultra-modern.
After 10 years, Gyford traded in traffic jams and the 20th century’s burgeoning mecca-state of design for Reno. Why? Quality of life—and, after years of working for someone else, the opportunity to pursue his own ideas.
That was 14 years ago, when casinos ruled the day. Once in Reno, Gyford turned everything that had come before—all the years, styles, and places, as well his intricate understanding of woodworking, cabinetry, architecture, exhibition and museum design—into his own product line.
Cut off from such design centers as New York, Los Angeles, London, Cologne and Antwerp, Gyford has, in a way, already defied the odds. His standoff line, appropriately named Standoff Systems, managed to find its way out of the Biggest Little City and into the Smithsonian, CNBC’s War Room, Porsche dealerships, GM, Nike and NASA.
Gyford smiles broadly, “The people working on the space station approached us about using our product.” Another untapped market.
Not surprisingly, it was the building blocks of Gyford’s furniture line, StructureLite, that raised eyebrows at this year’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. The launch is new, but the components have been 12 years in the making.
“People are always doing things in the same way, but there are different ways of doing things,” explains Gyford. “Components.”
He designed his first standoff in 1991, striving to keep his lines cleaner and simpler than the competition’s. Wire and rod systems followed.
“You could almost say that we’re the industry standard for standoffs,” Gyford says. “Anything that’s followed, people have copied.” Basic standoffs include caps, edge grips and barrels.
Rather than culling inspirations from the past, Gyford’s furniture line “evolved,” as he puts it, systematically. When most people look at a display case or a shelf, they see a display case or a shelf; Gyford sees a table, or maybe even a chair. Then again, he’s not your typical furniture designer.
With an exacting mind and the weighted vocabulary of an engineer, Gyford operates at the intersection where logic meets design. Studying new applications for three integrated suspension systems he’d developed, he crossed disciplines last year to design and manufacture StructureLite Furniture. His engineering plus design work results in a high-tech machine aesthetic that’s almost mathematical. Bringing laser-like precision to Standoff Systems’ newest spin-offs, such as tables, desks, chairs and screens, the effect is industrial, airy and minimalistic, with a futuristic spin.
Like every ergonomics-conscious designer, Gyford makes desks that swivel and adjust for both height and angle; seating is adjustable, as are the entertainment centers. The real innovation of Gyford’s components is that the designs themselves are adjustable—from the conceptual stage to the end product—while still using pre-fab parts.
“In the componentry, people call in, and if we don’t have something in our catalog, they can actually send us a blueprint, whether it’s kindergarten stick-drawing or a full-fledged CAD drawing, and our guys will help them build and manufacture it,” says Gyford’s first employee and wife, Valerie.
Constructed from aircraft-grade aluminum, the line combines a variety of materials, such as acrylic, metal, glass, wood, colorful laminates and fabric. Gyford is also experimenting with incorporating light-emitting devices (LED) into his system.
“I have to push myself; I work under pressure. The ‘creative thing’ doesn’t always flow,” admits Gyford, a major multi-tasker, who is simultaneously starting up an in-house graphics department and print shop to put out signs.
Over the next year, he plans to add 20 pieces to the collection, which retails out of his new showroom, through trade shows, from a catalog and over the Internet (www.standoffsystems.com).
“I’m so busy at times, it’s hard to keep up,” Gyford says.
“He never sleeps,” says Valerie. Her husband’s always thinking of something new and sketching.
Walking through StructureLite’s flagship showroom, which is now open but won’t be fully up and operational for a few months, Gyford takes a moment to pause and point out a sleek red chair called the “tripod lounger.”
“Three of those can be strung together to make a couch,” he says. “But, I haven’t gotten around to making them yet. It’s all just a matter of time.”
Price tags are on the high end of the Reno market, but because Gyford can both design and manufacture his own work, he is competitive—even with the big boys like Herman Miller, whom he just beat out on a bid.