Kevin Stark Retires
Last week HNI Corporation announced that Kevin Stark is retiring from his position as Vice President of Design for the Contract Furniture Group comprising Allsteel, Gunlocke, Paoli and HBF. Mr. Stark had held that position for the last three years after serving as President of HBF brand since 2011 and Vice President of Design there since 1994. His career at HBF, including the last three years when he was officially “upstairs” at the HNI Contract Furniture Group spanned 30 years, primarily concerned with product design and development.
Mr. Stark’s retirement marks the departure of one of the good guys of the industry. His passion for excellence in furniture design and his always pleasant, upbeat personality have made him a favorite of the many people he’s worked with over the course of his career, including many who haven’t worked directly with him but have come to know and appreciate him.
Upon receiving the announcement of Mr. Stark’s retirement, I jumped on the opportunity to call him to discuss highlights of his career, his thoughts about retirement and future plans.
Bob Beck (BB): In the press release I read that you personally designed 25 products while at HBF, with six winning Best of NeoCon Awards. That’s a great record.
Kevin Stark (KS): “It’s a record I’m really proud of, but one of the most rewarding aspects of my career has been the opportunity it has afforded me to collaborate with great outside designers. When you include all the products designed by others that I was fortunate enough to help develop, (and present to the Best of NeoCon jury) the number of Best of NeoCon awards goes to more than 40.”
BB: Who were some of those talents you enjoyed working with?
KS: “I can truthfully say I’ve enjoyed the relationships I’ve developed with all of those I’ve worked with; it’s like a “Who’s Who” of American furniture design. Just to name a few and without intent to hurt anyone’s feelings by not mentioning them, I’ve had the distinct honor and pleasure to work with Barbara Barry, Yves Behar, Lella and Massimo Vignelli, Robert A.M. Stern, The Gensler group out of Chicago, Ayse Birsel and Bibi Seck, John Hutton, Mario Ruiz, Emanuela Frattini Magnusson, Laurinda Spear from Aquitectonica, Todd Bracher, Orlando Diaz Azcuy, Margaret McCurry, Clodagh, Davis Allen and of course Michael Vanderbyl.
In terms of design and brand impact on HBF, Michael Vanderbyl and Barbara Barry have been hugely important. Back in the 90’s Michael’s design for a table and seating collection was a major milestone for the company when it won “Best of Competition” at NeoCon, and his impact through both graphic design and product design has been fundamental to the success of the company. Then to bring the collaboration full circle Michael asked me to present the Conexus Chair to HBF that was introduced and won a Best of NeoCon award just this past year.
HBF was the first commercial company that Barbara Barry designed furniture for and her output has been tremendous. To this day Barbara has around 20 product lines – ranging from collections to singular pieces, but product lines, not just individual products – actively selling in the HBF catalog. The sophistication and simple elegance of Barbara’s many designs have probably more than any other defined the aesthetic HBF is known for. And you know, for me one of the most rewarding aspects is that as I’ve worked with Barbara and many of the others over the course of 10 years – 20 years, the relationships that started out as business relationships have grown into some of my most valued and important personal friendships. They become your best friends and confidants.
Also, since the announcement went out internally I’ve been touched by the many kind greetings and best wishes I have received from so many colleagues and team members at HNI. It has been really rewarding to get such nice feedback from upholsterers and woodworkers to field sales people and even from competitors.
BB: What’s next for you?
KS: “Well, I definitely want to stay connected to the industry. It’s a great industry with great people. But the most important thing on my bucket list is that I want to design a product series with my daughter, Lauren. She’s an architect and we’ve been collaborating on a project and I’ve quickly come to learn that she’s a better designer than I am.
And I’m looking forward to spending more time at home. We live on an island in the Lowcountry of South Carolina with dolphins, gators, and bald eagles and natural beauty all around, so it will be nice to cut way down on the travel.
But before I go I just want to say what a pleasure it has been to work for HNI. It purchased HBF in 2008 and the company has just been great. The people I’ve worked with and for are wonderful people. They’re not about flash but about integrity, dignity and loyalty. They’ve had my back and supported me every step of the way and it has been a great experience. In some ways I wish they’d have bought HBF earlier so I would have had more time to learn from those guys.”
And it would appear the sentiment is returned. In the press release announcing Mr. Stark’s retirement Jeffrey Lorenger, Executive Vice President and President of HNI Contract Furniture Group said, “Kevin was a major reason why we purchased HBF. By bringing him to HNI, we gained access to one of the most gifted furniture designers and design-team leaders of his generation. He not only brought a comprehensive portfolio of superbly realized HBF furniture with him, but also provided all our group brands with his unrivaled experience in the development of new products and the art of recruiting and retaining first-rate design partners, be they seasoned veterans or emerging talents. We will sorely miss day-to-day contact with his ceaseless creativity, sage counsel and quiet authority.”