A Designer's Sense of Scale

Carol Catalano has a shelf of awards, but fame won't induce her firm to grow beyond its comfort zone

Catalano Design is a very small design firm with some very big clients -- Herman Miller (MLHR), Boston Acoustic, and RadioShack (RHS) to name just a few. And that's just the way award-winning designer Carol Catalano, who is known for innovations in high-end audio speakers, consumer electronics, seating, and cutlery, likes it.

Working out of a Boston loft space that she shares with her husband's architecture firm, Catalano says that although she started out "without a master plan," she has over time cultivated a slow-growth strategy. It has enabled her to build long-term, intimate relationships with clients -- and do so without compromising her core design philosophy, which she describes as "a balance of art, craft, and science."

For years, the Rhode Island School of Design graduate worked at a number of large companies such as Boston's Digital Equipment and design houses like Gregory Fossella Associates in Boston and Robert P. Gersin Associates in New York, where she designed a spectrum of products from keyboard layouts to luggage. After she was laid off in 1987 from Fossella Associates, Catalano lit out on her own as a freelancer.


  Initially, she worked from home, consulting for some of the companies that had asked her to do projects, such as Boston Acoustic. Her clientele grew slowly and steadily. "We had enough work to pay the rent and that was what mattered."

As her business expanded in the early 1990s, she subcontracted parts of projects, but remained a solo business. When the field moved to designing with the CAT software program, she took out a small-business loan to buy computers and equipment. After only a few months in business, Catalano decided to take an office of her own when her husband started his own outfit in a Fort Point Channel loft.

Catalano's first major breakthrough came when her Capelli Stool, which consists of two molded interlocking plywood pieces that resemble a Japanese puzzle box, won Silver Prize at the International Furniture Design Competition in Asahikawa, Japan in 1999.

"The stool definitely gave me credibility," she says. As a result, Catalano was approached by a number of Japanese firms as well as British designer and retailer Terrence Conran about manufacturing the simple, easily stored stool.


  Eventually, Catalano partnered with Zeeland (Mich.) -based Herman Miller to manufacture the Capelli Stool. That was the beginning of an ongoing relationship. Barb Herman, senior design integration manager at Herman Miller, calls Catalano's design aesthetic minimalist, clean, and honest. "There is nothing more than what is needed," Herman says of her work.

Catalano says that from the beginning, she has strived to work with companies that explicitly care about design. "I really feel that I want to understand my clients' needs and be able to offer the best service that I can." While she has attempted to drum up business in the past through marketing and cold calling, Catalano stopped when she found the best pipeline to new projects was word-of-mouth. "I feel that relationships are the most important thing," she says.

After spending the first few years establishing herself, Catalano says it wasn't until her fifth year running her own firm that she saw growth of between 5% and 10%. In the 1990s, growth was running at 15% to 20% annually until 2001, when September 11 impacted the economy. In the past few years, however, sales have rebounded, and annual growth is 15% to 20%. Profits only matter so much to her, however. "What is important to me," she insists, "is the caliber of projects that I am working on while remaining profitable."


  The firm has five designers including Catalano. They work on three to five projects at any given time. Catalano has deliberately managed the scale of her firm and its projects. "I don't want to get bigger," she says. "I really enjoy being hands-on. It's a priority for me to maintain a work-life balance."

Catalano discovered her interest in art and design when she was seven. Sick in bed with rheumatic fever for six weeks, her father gave her drawing books. "I got really interested in using my hands," she says. "I was always in science fairs, and at one point I built a steam engine." When it came time to choose a profession there was no question what it would be: "I knew I wanted to earn a living as an artist."

Since getting her start, Catalano says what is considered good design has changed. "When I started 25 years ago, it was more about an object or a product. Today, it's about the experience that you have using a product." Much of her work reflects that shift. In 2002, she created the ergonomic Mambo Chair (it won the Universal Office Chair competition sponsored by Peabody Office Furniture Competition, Knoll, and Adaptive Environment), for an active working style. It tilts 15 degrees in every direction and the chair back can be removed, converting the piece to a stool.


  More recently, Catalano, who calls Albert Einstein and Charles and Ray Eames her primary design influences, applied her talents to the V-lo Knife line for Southbridge (Mass.)-based cutlery firm Dexter Russel. After spending time researching the various users of food preparation, Catalano came up with a new Monoprene grip handle that took into account the changing demographics in professional kitchens, where increasing numbers of women prefer implements tht suit their smaller hands. It was selected as a finalist in the 2006 Housewares Design Awards.

Catalano is at work on a new line of knives, focused on people with arthritis. She is also creating a polymer-dispensing gun for filling teeth and a new head lamp for dentists. "I am committed to quality," she says. "I want to do the best job I can for every project that I take on, and its nice to have a partner cares about same thing." Bigger, it seems, doesn't always have to mean better.

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