Creating without Constraints

Tim Miller | MFA 19 Furniture Design

Ever since the luxury auto brand Lexus opened a Manhattan restaurant/retail space called Intersect in November, visitors have been welcomed by an elegantly playful commission courtesy of Furniture Design grad student Tim Miller MFA 19 FD. Based on his Coil Bench—a first-semester studio project that attracted worldwide attention—the commission allowed him to explore his interest in biomimicry in an unexpected, high-profile context. Here the native of Muncie, IN talks about translating his studio work to a high-end commercial venue and how his process has evolved since he began studying at RISD.

How long had you been running your own studio before coming to RISD?
I started Tim Miller Studio in 2015 after graduating from Taylor University [in Upland, IN] with a BA in Sculpture. For my senior exhibition I developed a small line of furniture that got some interest from buyers, so I decided to jump in fully. I set up in my dad’s woodshop and took whatever work came my way. In between commissions I’d build prototypes of my own designs and little by little developed a portfolio of furniture pieces. But I quickly grew tired of being seen as a fabricator rather than a designer, so after two years of designing and making on my own, I came to RISD to begin the MFA program in Furniture Design.

How has being here changed your practice?
At RISD I've had the freedom to pursue ideas that I’m passionate about… and to work without constraints. Many of my greatest discoveries here never would have surfaced if I was still focusing primarily on commissioned work. I also have a better understanding of what I need in order to make my best work. I know what parameters help or hinder me and am continuing to develop a personal approach to design.

“At RISD I’ve had the freedom to pursue ideas that I’m passionate about... and to work without constraints.”

What do you enjoy most about the Furniture Design department?
One of my favorite things is the interaction between graduate and undergraduate students, who all share the same shop space and machine room. This has been such a source of inspiration. I’ve received some of the best advice from undergrads and am constantly blown away by their creativity. Being around such fantastic work has pushed me to make things I wouldn’t otherwise dare to consider.

How did you land the Intersect by Lexus commission?
I created the Coil Bench for my first graduate studio at RISD. I was excited about the design so I posted a video to my Instagram page that took off. After Design Milk featured the Coil Bench last February, Milk Agency [no affiliation] contacted me.... They were gathering proposals—mostly from NYC-based design studios—but lumped me into that group after seeing the video.

They accidentally cc’d all the other designers on the initial email, so I almost didn’t pursue the commission after seeing who else they had contacted. I figured there was no chance I would get it... and it would be a massive time commitment at the height of spring semester. But [Furniture Design Graduate Program Director] Patty Johnson convinced me to give it a shot—and I’m eternally grateful for that.

What did you actually make—from concept to the final product?
Lexus wanted a seating installation for the first-floor “garage” space where they often display a concept car. The piece needed to engage and draw people in from other areas of the space and align with the brand’s design philosophy. The Coil Bench draws inspiration from natural structures and aquatic organisms, making it match up nicely with Lexus’ aesthetics. It’s interactive, eye-catching and has a clear formal relationship to an automobile that was a significant draw for the client.

Determining what scale and materials would be the best fit for the space took time. I explored a variety of materials and finishes before deciding on a dark grey finish with inlaid brass and Lexus leather. Since I had to start in April while classes were running, I hired a local fabricator for much of the production work. He built and painted all of the frames and then delivered them to my studio space on campus so I could do all of the inlay work.

The Furniture Design faculty was incredibly helpful through all of this. They granted me access to a large studio space over the summer and Patty also helped me finalize a design proposal, create a budget and develop a detailed contract—all of which helped make this commission a reality.

“I’ve developed a design philosophy that gives me the confidence to take on projects like this a decade sooner than I ever could have dreamed.”

How has this experience impacted what you're currently making at RISD?
A great deal of my work here has revolved around kinetic or interchangeable components in furniture: design that is ever-changing and lets viewers create their own compositions. Intersect by Lexus gave me the opportunity to explore this interest in a different kind of space and hopefully will serve as a tool for testing ideas that intrigue me.

Learning to defend my studio work at the deepest level also prepared me to engage with this commission in a way I never could have before. I’ve developed a design philosophy that gives me the confidence to take on projects like this a decade sooner than I ever could have dreamed.

What are your plans after you graduate this spring?
That’s the million-dollar question. I would love to start up my own studio again but for now I think the best move is to work for someone else for a few years. I gained a lot of experience by starting my own business before grad school, but I still have so much more to learn about running a successful studio. By seeing how someone else manages theirs, I’ll be in a much better position to build my own.

That said, I want to continue designing and making my own work on the side. I’m hoping to create a small collection of furniture and other objects so that when I eventually start out on my own again, I won’t be picking up from scratch.

Robert Albanese