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Designer Talks: Hugh Biber

For Hugh Biber, product design was never on his radar. But as a young graduate in search of work he jumped at the opportunity to give it a shot, spearheading a career that's led him to open his own design firm and consult for some of the world's top brands.

How did you get started?

I studied design and illustration at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. I focused on three-dimensional work and enjoyed conceptual forms and varied media and materials.

One of my first jobs was at a company called Sigma, a great home and giftware company. It was sort of a baptism by fire experience. I was designing collections of ceramic giftware and home decor pieces on my first day there. I haven't looked back since.

I then worked at Avon Products in their home and gift division. I designed everything from kids' toys and apparel to Christmas decor and dinnerware before I worked at the Knobler Company in NYC, a small family-owned import company. I was responsible for everything from product design and packaging to sourcing and importing. I spent many years traveling throughout Asia and Europe getting the products produced. I worked in the factories and trading companies trying to develop new and different product.

I started Hugh Biber Design in the early 90s. We grew into a full service design resource working with retailers, wholesalers, factories and designers. The focus was within the home industry and predominantly hard goods, dinnerware, accessories, flatware, glassware, crystal, home decor, food prep and cutlery. We also did work with bedding, textiles, kids' toys, plush and more.

I then became the Global Design Director for the Tabletop division at Lifetime Brands, overseeing all design and development for dinnerware, glass, crystal, gifts and bridal product assortments. I was with Lifetime for almost 10 years.

I am now working as a design consultant for various companies in the home industry.

Was there a defining moment in your career? If so, how did it shape you as a designer?

Defining moments often go unnoticed at the time they occur. I was out of school and looking for a job when a friend of mine called me and said they needed a product designer at the company he was working at. It sounded great although I had no idea what a product designer was. I got the job at Sigma and my career was launched. Looking back, I realize that first job set me in the direction I would follow for my career.

What is the basis of your design strategy?

I am a constant student of design. I see design in everything. I live surrounded by beautiful objects and give a lot of thought to my environment. I truly believe that all things can be designed to be functional and great looking. I always start my design process by trying to create something that works better and is beautiful, as well. This is incredibly challenging and it doesn't always pan out, but it is a solid foundation to start with.

How do you know when to stick it out and when to let go of an idea?

I try to be objective. Sometimes you are designing into someone else's vision, like a design brief or another designer's idea. As a creative, you often have to find a way to get to that design objective. It is not always what the client had in mind, but a modified, often better version of the original thought. There have been many times when you start out with a really great idea and go through the entire process only to realize it's a real stinker. And the opposite has happened, as well: A half-baked concept ends up being an amazing success. You don't really ever know when to let go of an idea. I have revisited abandoned concepts later on and they became great products. And of course, the success of any project or product is in the execution.

The trends definitely come and go. You have your long arcing trends and your quick fads but good design is a constant.

Is it difficult to strike a balance between your personal design aesthetic and the objective for commercial success?

I have been designing for the mass market for a long time. You have to table your personal taste in order to have a broad view of the various tastes out there. Personally, I am not aesthetically "traditional" in my design view, but I have designed a lot of traditional product as this is an ever-popular theme. You have to be an educated designer and have knowledge of various looks and trends. This knowledge is applied to the creative process to solve the design challenges set forth by any project's parameters.

Outside of design, what things inspire you and influence your work?

The amazing patterns found in nature inspire me a lot. The structures of trees and plants, as well as, textures in all natural things are incorporated into many of my designs. I think most good designers glean inspiration from all that is around them.

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If you were not a designer, is there another career path that intrigues you?

I considered other careers early on but was drawn toward design. It is what I have always done. I originally went to school for business. That obviously did not stick.

Is there one person who you admire or consider to be your greatest mentor or design inspiration?

I have great admiration for many designers and have been inspired by them, as well. I did have the privilege of working with Sam and John Farber on various projects over the years. Sam and John created OXO, the amazing kitchen gadget company. Sam was a firm believer in creating design that was functional and beautiful - these are not mutually exclusive characteristics in a design or product. I have always tried to integrate these attributes into whatever I am designing and I thank Sam and John for their guidance over the years.

Is there anything else you would like to share regarding design and your career as a designer?

The trends definitely come and go. You have your long arcing trends and your quick fads but good design is a constant.

What advice would you give to young designers who are just starting out in a commercial marketplace?

• Scale and context are key.

• Less is more.

• It's all in the execution.

• Cheap is expensive.

• Be nice. Have fun!