Designing for a Better World

Article by Sue Snively

Local Artists – May 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

“The people who give form to our mass produced products have fallen into a visual habit of cubic shapes, chrome trim, and dark-tinted plexiglass to solve all imaginable design dilemmas. The modern office, for example is tantamount to a sensory deprivation chamber with its beige panels, electronic boxes, and even lighting.

“At a time when technology is getting more pervasive and more inscrutable, product designers should live up to their mission as humanizers of the technological environment. We all need more character in our daily surroundings to offset the trend toward miniaturization and electronic tyranny in our homes and work places.”

Mike and Cathy McCoy
Mike and Cathy McCoy

Such were the words in a guest editorial in the May 31, 1987. edition of the Los Angeles Times. That editorial was by world renowned interior, furniture and industrial designer Michael McCoy, who is currently a full time resident of Buena Vista, Colorado and a partner, with his wife Kathy, in the design firm McCoy and McCoy.

Mike wrote those words at a time when technological advancements were in the process of drastically changing the American and interna4tional workplace. And this trend continues today as electronic products transform the way we live in the workplace and in our homes.

The designs of Michael and Kathy McCoy echo the sentiments he expressed in that Los Angeles Times editorial. They like to “push the boundaries” in the world of design. Their work is frequently experimental, with some of it seemingly “radical.” They constantly strive to advance the state of the art. But the end products also show the attention they pay to function and practicality.

The guiding principle behind what they call “interpretive design,” is to make the design simple and understandable. Take complexity and simplify it. Do things that engage people’s interpretive powers and give meaning and function to their lives.

Kathy is predominantly the “graphic” part of the partnership. She designs brochures, signs, books and posters which convey information in a very “user friendly” way that’s also artistically pleasing. Kathy’s major clients include the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in Salida and Canon City.

John Nahomic (Nomi) of the local BLM office and Mike Sugaski of the USFS speak well of her work. The maps Kathy creates for brochures are clear and concise. Her designs incorporate appropriate photographs into the text in an esthetically pleasing manner and communicate the magic of the landscapes described. A trails brochure for the Fourmile Travel Management Area east of Buena Vista includes Kathy’s own design for the “Friends of Four Mile” symbol and a detailed trail map created by her. Photographs taken by Buena Vistan Alan Robinson are also part of the brochure.

MIKE MCCOY, the chief industrial designer in their partnership, concentrates on product designs for office work spaces and public places.

The McCoys' Trout Creek reisdence.
The McCoys' Trout Creek reisdence.

If you have ever traveled on Continental Airlines and visited certain cities, you may have lounged on the furniture Mike designed for the waiting areas. He designs seating for public places in Paris and New York City, and office furniture which sells internationally and in the United States. Mike’s office designs reveal his ingenuity, innovation, and passion for the practical. There is the Quadrio seating designed by Mike, who thinks of large pieces of furniture as “small scale architecture.” The Quadrio refers to architecture, with its columns supporting the end cushions, which resemble the architrave1 of a building. It’s a sofa that can be reconfigured easily to two individual seats by simply moving the arms and supports to the center and pushing the bottom cushions to the outside.

The “Bulldog” office chair, which looks very simple in structure, actually has 200 parts, but it’s very functional and flexible. The chair’s many moving parts can be adjusted and adapted to offer comfort and optimum back support to the individual office workers who use it. It is a complex ergonomic machine that has a simple, elegant look. Over a million of these chairs have been produced and sold since Mike got the patent and licensed Knoll, an office furniture company, to make them.

Another example of Mike and Kathy’s “simplify and make functional” concept is the office and work space that they designed for the president of the Formica Corporation for his office at company headquarters in Warren, New Jersey. His original office was filled with wood paneling and the usual wooden chairs and desks. But the executive had back problems, which made sitting difficult for him, and thus he liked to work standing up. In the McCoy’s new interior design, all of the wood was replaced by innovative furnishings which incorporated Formica products.

THE CONVENTIONAL DESKS and chairs were replaced by work station counters at appropriate heights for standing and moving as well as sitting. The executive’s computer equipment was enclosed in a computer garage, and the interior design capitalized on the building’s spectacular views of the New Jersey hills and forests.

Trembling Aspen sign, one of their designs.
Trembling Aspen sign, one of their designs.

In addition to her work with the local Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service, Kathy designs informational material for many other local, state, national and international markets. A striking poster she designed for the 2001 World Fair Expo in Hannover, Germany shows a satellite image of the earth rising over the horizon of the early village of Hannover with its landmark tower. The wordplay on the poster compares a “fair” weather forecast with the future. Kathy also designed the architectural sign for the Chicago Bears Training Headquarters at 1000 Football Drive in metropolitan Chicago.

On the homefront, her artistic signage serves the Trembling Aspen Gallery in Buena Vista, and her creative talents enrich Geology Guidebook to the Goldbelt Byway, for which she designed the cover, all interior pages, and the book’s definitive geologic diagrams.

A new group of brochures for the Denver Art Museum show Kathy’s expertise in the art of graphic design. This commissioned work was particularly fulfilling for her, because Daniel Libeskind, the architect for the museum’s new addition, was a teaching colleague, neighbor, and good friend at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art.

CURRENTLY, KATHY is working on a book, Chaffee County Wildflower Hikes. Two years ago she designed the cover and formulated interpretive illustrations for Kay Danielson’s book, Chaffee County: The first 125 Years, which is on sale at many local outlets.

The McCoys’ professional training and background plus their natural talent, enable them to create outstanding pieces of work and to enjoy success in design, consulting and teaching ventures. They have been Distinguished Visiting Professors at the Royal College of Art in London and on the faculty of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design in Chicago.

They spent 24 years heading the design department at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan; this prestigious graduate school teaches its students to stay connected with the real problems of the world, while honing their skills in the functional, but experimental world of graphic, industrial and interior design.

The McCoys have been the recipients of over 200 prestigious design awards over the years. In 1999, Kathy was awarded the medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Mike’s products have received an Industrial Designers Society of America (IDEA) Gold award and prestigious awards from The Industrial Design Magazine and The Interiors Magazine. Together, for their influence on design and design education, they have received the Chrysler Award and the Industrial Designers Society of America Educators Award. They have Honorary Doctorates from Kansas City Art Institute. Last fall at a gala celebrity filled celebration in New York City, The National Design Awards Society awarded the McCoys the Smithsonian’s first ever Design Minds Award.

Fourmile brochure, a McCoy design.
Fourmile brochure, a McCoy design.

Kathy is a fellow and past president of the Industrial Design Society of America and was vice president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts for two terms She has served on a design panel for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mike and Kathy’s work has been exhibited in many museums around the world, including the National Design Museum in New York, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the British Design Museum in England.

The McCoys continue to teach from here in Chaffee County. Every summer in their combined home and studio near Trout Creek Pass they conduct design summits called The High Ground Design for a group of colleagues. This helps them maintain a relationship with former students and other experts in their fields. From their studio, they also plan professional design conferences and workshops which are staged in Denver, Chicago and other venues.

Their home speaks for their profession. The house includes a huge area for studios and workshops and is aesthetic by nature, blending with the environment of pinion pine and granite rock outcroppings — and the location includes a spectacular view of the Sawatch range from Mt. Shavano to Mt. Columbia.

Their home is on land they purchased in 1972, and camped on for 10 years. Then the McCoys built the first part of their house as a vacation cabin, never dreaming that it would be possible to pursue their design careers in Chaffee County. But soon the living room was filled with drawing boards and eventually computers; so they added a studio and began to work there through the summers. After leaving the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1995, they spent seven years teaching at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design before moving permanently to Chaffee County and their “Trout Creek” residence.

ADVANCED COMMUNICATIONS and technology enable the McCoys to continue their design ventures from our region. And being relatively close to the Denver metropolitan area and its excellent airport helps. The McCoys have noticed a growing number of professionals and small business operators who now work from the Upper Arkansas Valley, and they hope that this trend will grow into a strong new economic base for the region while retaining its traditional Western rural character, which is what first attracted them to the area in 1966 when Kathy was an Adventure Unlimited camp counselor.

Their furniture, interiors, products and graphic designs were recently exhibited at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Lakewood where the McCoys are Directors of Professional Programs. As might be expected, Kathy designed the announcement card for the exhibition, which featured a chair designed by Mike, which he calls “the door chair.” It’s a miniature door that becomes a chair when opened.

The numerous designs and products they have developed, plus their business and teaching expertise show that the McCoys are exceptionally talented. With their expertise, enthusiasm and creativity, they have had and are having a great impact on the design milieu, Central Colorado and the world in general.

Sue Snively writes from Buena Vista, and is a frequent contributor to Colorado Central.

Bulldog office chair, a McCoy design.
Bulldog office chair, a McCoy design.

1) Webster’s: “In architecture, the lower part of a structure which rests on support columns, e.g. a chief beam.”