Nasir Kassamali: Design Lives

In 1979, Nasir Kassamali, co-founder of furniture showroom Luminaire, started a talk series with designers as a way to eliminate the barriers between designers, their furniture, and the consumers. Over thirty years later, he is still working on generating conversation with newly debuted Design Lives, a series of talks with manufacturers to get “the story behind the story.” The first talk, held on November 8 with Benjamin A. Pardo, the current executive vice president and design director of Knoll, and Jeffrey Osborne, the creative director of Knoll from 1976-1986. Dwell catches up with Kassamali to learn more about Design Lives and what’s next at Luminaire.

Benjamin Pardo and Jeffrey Osborne talk onstage.
Benjamin Pardo and Jeffrey Osborne talk onstage while Nasir Kassamali listens from the the first row.

Luminaire has a history of giving talks, how did that start?

When my wife and I started Luminaire 38 years ago, I would make it a point to tell customers about the pieces rather than sell them the pieces. I told them who the designers were, what the pieces were about, and the inspirations behind them. I share information by telling stories: it is the easiest and most humble way of making people understand.

Then, in 1979 I started interacting with universities who wanted me to talk to their students and I started inviting designers to come talk as well. Since then, I have had some of the most important designers give talks. Jasper Morrison came 20 years ago when no one knew who he was, the Bouroullec brothers gave their first US exhibition at our space, and Konstantin Grcic gave his first US lecture here too. 

How did this evolve into Design Lives? 

Well, I always bring in designers, but it takes two people to make these pieces happen. The designer comes up with the idea, but the manufacturer has to take the risk to make it happen. We will continue to have designers give lectures, but now we can show both sides. I also wanted a more forum-like discussion, not like our 400-person lectures for the designers. This event only had about 120 people and we just put two chairs on the stage, which made it feel more casual and intimate. 

Pardo onstage with Knoll founder, Hans G. Knoll, on the screen behind him.
Pardo talks onstage with Knoll founder, Hans G. Knoll, projected on the screen behind him.
Why did you pick Knoll? 

The first company I thought of was Knoll because Florence Knoll was one of the first designers I met. I knew her very well and through her I met all the other design directors. So, I called Benjamin when he was in Milan and asked him if he would do this talk and he said yes, he didn’t even have to think about it. We also asked Jeffery because he was the design director for so long, and he agreed instantly, too. The storytelling between the two of them was fascinating.

Who will talk at the next Design Lives?

I want to ask Herman Miller, but I haven’t called yet so I can’t say anything for certain. I would love to have Vitra or B&B Italia too.

Why do you think these talks have been and continue to be so effective? 

I am so lucky because I get to go behind-the-scenes, to the factories, and I get to meet all of these young, passionate people. If the client or the consumer also understands what goes on behind good design, then they will buy good design, because good design changes people’s lives.

To see previous designer talks at Luminaire, check out their video archive

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