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In Praise of Real World Connection: A Design Conversation with Jerry Helling and Ini Archibong

In Praise of Real World Connection: A Design Conversation with Jerry Helling and Ini Archibong

We sat down with Jerry Helling, Creative Director of Bernhardt Design and designer Ini Archibong when they reunited at ICFF and WantedDesign Manhattan this past November at the Javits Center. Ini was discovered by Jerry as an ArtCenter student 9 years ago, winning ICFF Studio and presenting his first prototypes at WantedDesign thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. They shared stories of how their collaboration started, their view of the future of trade shows, and advice for emerging designers.

How Their Design Collaboration Started

When Ini Archibong was a student at ArtCenter College of Design in California, he attended a class with Bernhardt Design. He was part of a team that designed the Serif Table that ended up going into production. “I was such an obsessive kind of student that I would go days without coming home,” he reflected. “And I would just be at school working, working, working, working.”

Ini was so absorbed in his work, that he nearly missed his calling, in the form of a phone call from Jerry Helling. He remembered coming home one day and his mom mentioning that “some guy Jerry” left a message for him three days prior. It turned out to be Jerry asking to see more of his work. Laughing, he recreated the moment when he demanded, “Mom, why didn’t you find me to let me know that the president of Bernhardt Design wants to see my portfolio?”

The class, the phone call and the portfolio review eventually led to Ini being named Student Designer of the Year for the first Stylus + Bernhardt Design American Design Honors in 2010. It would be his first time coming to New York and seeing the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF). “Jerry believing in me at that moment actually helped to encourage me to shift the direction of my career,” said Ini. “I was planning to be an architect. And I came in, I saw this magic place, ICFF, I saw all the furniture. And I loved making the Serif Table and the process of sculpting that piece and going to North Carolina and learning how this stuff is made. And everything about making furniture, I realized, was actually where my passion lies.”

Jerry recalls that Ini had always been an overachiever. “I couldn’t be prouder of what’s happened in his career. What I saw glimpses of as a student all those years ago, are just amplified in everything he does. And I love to follow him because he’s always doing something new and interesting. And beautiful.”

Ini Archibong at ICFF + WantedDesign Manhattan talks, November 2021

On the Role of Trade Shows in the Design Industry

The November 2021 edition of ICFF + WantedDesign Manhattan was the first time the shows, now both owned by Emerald, had been under one roof at the Javits Center. It also marked a return to in-person trade shows for New York City and NYCxDESIGN.

“This ICFF is really special,” Jerry said. “Coming in, I thought it was going to be kind of a dress rehearsal, that we all get to come together, get back in the mode of being with one another presenting, talking. But I’ve just been really surprised how many people have attended this year. It’s just so wonderful for everyone to be together. So I can’t wait until May.”

Ini noted that moving forward, trade shows may very well be as much of a social moment as a business event. And having noticed how much networking and business gets done at Bar Basso in Milan and over drinks during NYCxDESIGN, we think he’s right. It’s why WantedDesign co-founders Odile Hainaut and Claire Pijoulat worked closely with designer Rodolfo Agrella to ensure there were multiple spaces for conversation and connection in the floor plan for WantedDesign Manhattan.

“I have a feeling that we might end up seeing trade shows becoming even more of a social gathering moment,” Ini said. “There’s trade that has to be done, but also post-pandemic, it’s really like, everybody’s excited to be out and seeing each other. And I think a lot of the trade shows probably would be smart to angle it toward just also being a social thing as well as trade.”

Jerry agreed, noting that trade shows are going through a renaissance. “It’s so important for us to come together as people and actually touch something.”

Pictures don’t do justice to furniture,” Ini echoed.

ICFF + WantedDesign Manhattan at the Javits Center

Getting Their Advice for Young Designers

We asked Ini for his advice for young designers, now that he’s more than a decade into an incredible career as an industrial designer, creative director and artist, including designing recent collections for Knoll. He now lives and works in Geneva, Switzerland, having added a MAS in Luxury Design and Craftsmanship at the École Cantonal d’art Lausanne (écal) in 2015 to his degree in Environmental Design from ArtCenter.

“It’s actually really simple,” he said of his words of wisdom for emerging designers. “I don’t think it’s changed: Work really hard and show up. It’s not easy. It’s competitive. And everybody wants to be the one whose furniture is being shown. You have to do really good stuff that’s uniquely you. And you need to show up when there’s an opportunity. I mean, Jerry can’t do much more than present you with an opportunity, right? And if you don’t show up with something good, then you’re not gonna make it. It’s really that simple, I think.”

Jerry agreed, saying “At the end of the day, you have to be visible. And you don’t know at what moment you’re going to get that opportunity. You don’t know who you’re going to meet.”

Both Jerry and Ini contended that there was no substitute for going to shows and events in person. In fact, Ini shared how when he was a student, he would spend his money budgeted for supplies on plane tickets to New York just to network. “I would skip class on Friday, fly to New York with my business cards, and just meet people! It served me so well. All those people that I met are still the people that have been supporting me along the way in my career. You literally have to show up.”

ICFF + WantedDesign Manhattan 2021 at the Javits Center

What are they excited about currently?

We asked Jerry and Ini what they’re excited about moving forward, heading into 2022 and beyond. For Ini, people being challenged to make their home and workspaces productive, and the resulting realizations are inspiring as he anticipates “that’s going to affect things in a tremendous way.”

“What is their home going to look like in order for them to be productive? I think a lot of people have realized that beauty and comfort are going to be an important part of your productivity. So whether you’re at home, or if you’re in the office, the things around you are probably going to need to be beautiful, somewhat animated, and enticing to spark your mind and your creativity. I think that’s exciting.”

Jerry shared that he looks forward to people emerging into the real world again. “I’m excited that I think people are starting to realize that their thumbs cannot do everything. We’ve been hiding behind screens. There’s so many people realizing we have to start interacting again. I think it’s a real challenge for people who’ve lived through this time where their entire life was involved around the screen. But I think it’ll be exciting, the more people realize [the importance of] bringing younger people into the real world rather than the virtual world.”

Thank you, Jerry and Ini, for sitting down with us at ICFF and WantedDesign Manhattan 2021. We look forward to seeing what’s next for Bernhardt Design and Ini Archibong in 2022, including at ICFF and WantedDesign Manhattan, May 15-17, 2022.

By contributing editor Charlene Lam