New (Green) House

August 24, 2007
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TALLMADGE TOWNSHIP — Roughly two miles north of the Grand Rapids border in Ottawa County, the Newhouse residence is carved into a foliage-covered hill overlooking a preserved wetland. With a driveway leading directly into the hill, the home that industrial designer Tom Newhouse built by hand in 1978 is what a Hobbit hollow might have looked like if designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Perhaps one of the first green buildings in the West Michigan region, the two-story home and studio is insulated by the earth itself, which remains a constant 65 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. On the inverted southwest corner of the hill, where the home is exposed to the valley below, a long row of windows on the lower level of the south-facing wall reveals an interior black concrete wall. When the blinds are open, this wall acts as a passive-solar heating system, absorbing the sun’s heat and warming the air around it. The warmth is then circulated throughout the structure. On the west-facing wall, a sunroom is cooled by the winds that rise up from the valley.

“Building this house was pretty radical stuff in 1978,” recalled Newhouse. “Back then we were called tree huggers, eco-design freaks. The ’70s were a very liberal time — I was very liberal and my wife was extremely liberal. But industry didn’t catch on for some time after that.”

A junior designer at Herman Miller Inc. in Zeeland for six years before leaving to build his home, Newhouse was introduced to environmental stewardship as a student of Finnish-born industrial design professor Aare Lahti at the University of Michigan. His interest actually predated Herman Miller’s by a decade, generally recognized as the first large corporation in the region to embrace sustainability. When the office furniture maker integrated environmentalism into its business model, Newhouse played a significant role — as an independent consultant, he designed the company’s first 100-percent recyclable chair, the Limerick seating system, among other eco-friendly offerings.

Environmental sustainability is one of four core values on which Newhouse has built his practice. He wears these principles on his sleeve — or more literally, on his business card, which reads: “Aesthetics, Sustainability, Ergonomics and Economy.” In turn, he has been a vocal advocate of each, starting with aesthetics, which is the basic role of an industrial designer.

“Not many people really understand what an industrial designer is,” explained Newhouse. “It’s a relatively small profession — couple tens of thousands compared to millions of engineers — but we’re the ones that have a regard for the beauty of the environment. We are the artists of industry.”

Both art and industrial design have been lifelong passions for Newhouse. At the age of 2, he could draw in perspective, or so he was told. His mother was a commercial artist, his father an engineer, and the young Newhouse would fall squarely in between the two professions. When he was in sixth grade, the family was introduced to industrial design by a teacher at Shawmut Hills Elementary School, Bob DeMaagd, who recognized Newhouse’s talent.

“He had a brother who was an industrial designer, and he told my parents that ‘this kid has to be an industrial designer,’” Newhouse said. “We didn’t know what it was, but after he explained it, I thought that was exactly what I wanted to do, and I haven’t looked back since.”

At Union High School, Newhouse took all the drafting classes he could, and built and designed all the theater stage sets. At U-M he learned many of the principles on which he would later base his work. But his real education didn’t begin until he started at Herman Miller in 1972. Originally tasked with designing showrooms and tradeshow exhibits, Newhouse was brought in as a junior member of the product design team under Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson and Robert Probst. He worked directly with Probst, the designer of the Action Office, for the better part of three years.

After leaving the company to build his home, Newhouse was asked to return as a junior member of a design team with Don Chadwick, based in Los Angeles, and Wisconsin-based Bill Stumpf. A decade before the duo invented the blockbuster Aeron chair, Herman Miller contracted them to create an alternative to the Action Office. The panel system had become incredibly popular in the U.S. during the late 1970s, leading to immense growth at manufacturers such as Herman Miller and Haworth, while providing the cornerstone for the cubicle culture.

“The company didn’t want all their eggs in the same basket,” Newhouse said. “In Europe, panel systems have never been popular and aren’t today. We were working on a desk-based alternative.”

With neither of the senior designers able to move to the United Kingdom, home of Herman Miller’s European design center, Newhouse locked up his five-month-old house and relocated his family across the sea. The product line never made it to market, although some aspects of it became the foundation for other products, such as the Equa chair, the precursor to the Aeron.

Newhouse returned to West Michigan in 1983. His breakout launch came with the award-winning Newhouse Group line of linked-table desks in 1987, and he received headlines for his involvement in Herman Miller’s “Office of the Future” concept in 1991 and the TD Collection in 1994, both in partnership with co-designer Bob Shephard. Later Herman Miller work included the Avian and Limerick chairs, the M Collection, the Compass filing system and the Ethospace full-height walls and filing system. Many of his designs were part of offerings in Herman Miller’s wildly successful, but since discontinued, SQA brand, a stand-alone middle-market division.

Although Newhouse still works on designs for Herman Miller — including this year’s height-adjustable Next table, produced in partnership with Baker Manufacturing — he now also does work for a long list of furniture makers. Many of these have forwarded distinctly Newhouse concepts such as adjustable height/sit-to-stand and sustainability, including SmartMoves for Hekman Contract, My Spot for Worden Co., and the Quin Collection for Harden Contract, which Newhouse believes is his most sustainable product to date.

“Harden is a totally integrated company,” said Newhouse of the upstate New York manufacturer. “They own their own forests. They have their own foresters, their own trucks. Everything is done right there.”

Oddly enough, while Newhouse is most often thought of as a furniture designer, his largest account today is Viking Range Corp., for which he designs steel-faced cabinets, ranges and other appliances.

“The founder, Fred Carl, studied D.J. Depree at Mississippi State,” said Newhouse, who actually designed the office of the late Herman Miller founder in the 1970s. “He had promised himself that if he ever had his own business, he would run it like Depree.”

Part of that commitment was recruiting Herman Miller’s industrial designers, and 15 years ago Newhouse received a call from Carl with a design request. The relationship has prospered in the years since.

Going forward, Newhouse is very excited about the changing technology in another market he is working in: lighting. He has designed lights for Herman Miller, Light Corp., Garcy Systems and Steelcase, this year introducing the 10-watt Kast through the company’s Details brand.

“I want to do more lighting,” he said. “It’s a large energy user and there is tremendous opportunity for aesthetic, uniqueness and durability. It’s really just a sculpture. And LED technology is moving so quickly — first I did 13 watts, then that became 10 watts this year. Next I want to take it even lower.”

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