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Design Insight: Q+A with Oren Sherman

23rd February 2016

Oren Sherman has created exclusive artwork for a variety of clients including Steuben Glass, U.S. Postal Service, VISA, Hermés, Disney, Pepsi Co, and many more. Oren’s style is crisp, confident and sophisticated. Alluring color and dynamic compositions draw us in, while the powerfully nostalgic scenes reference our collective American past. Oren’s interest in storytelling and design history has provided over three decades of widely diverse success. It’s no wonder the newest creation, BLOKWERK, circles back to the roots of his identity as a designer-storyteller.

The De Stijl movement was critical to the development of graphic design and for a century inspired artists and architects across the globe. We sat down with Oren Sherman to learn about what his story brings to Axminster, his interest in the De Stijl movement, and the birth of our latest collaboration, BLOKWERK. 

Q: Give us a little background: childhood experiences, family ties, early design memories? 

A: I was born in Boston in1956, which ironically makes me mid-century modern. My mom was a landscape designer and artist, she’s 93 and very definite in her tastes, we’re still disagreeing. It’s my earliest memory, drawing and making patterns in color was my first language. We were visiting museums before I could walk. As a child I remember visiting the Gropius house, Corbusier’s Carpenter Center and the best modern architecture that was the new style in Cambridge at that time. Utopian and very glamorous! 

Q: You’re an alumnus and professor at one of the most prestigious design schools in the United States. Tell us about your experiences being submerged in the thriving creative environment of the Rhode Island School of Design.

A: It was my dream to go there from junior high, when I was accepted I withdrew my applications to other schools, and never told my parents. I returned to teach part-time 15 years after I graduated. Being around the best of the best, of all different disciplines is a continual education. The students and faculty, the RISD Museum, The Fleet library, are a constantly inspiring and humbling experience.

Q: The majority of your work, both the Oren Sherman Limited Edition posters and your commercial commissions have been based in storytelling. There’s been a drastic jump in style from your narrative based illustrations to the cool abstractions of your textile designs. What happened between then and now? Is it the medium or the consumer that changes your design decisions?

A: No one has ever asked me this. I became interested in historical pattern as a student, RISD was originally a textiles college and they have an amazing rare book collection. My name is still on the cards from when the books circulated. The design archive at Brintons has many of the same books, when I visited there it was like seeing my old friends. I was not a textile major; I came to a fascination with pattern from color exploration. There is something so satisfying about systems of organization. I tend to see pattern not as flat repeats but as 3-D space.

Q: With your past work being strongly influenced by various historical narratives, has it been difficult moving away from naturalism into the abstract realm of pattern? Or are your patterns just more elusive stories?

A: Pattern is all about story; it’s just a different deliverable. The arrangement of shapes and colors on the page is to create the illusion of 3-D space. My work in pattern is very similar; it’s just a leap off narrative into design. The first artwork I designed that was not dependent on narrative as a subject was a shock to everyone but me.

Q: What do you find most challenging about the creating for the hospitality industry?

A: As a designer, the first question I ask myself is “what problem is this solving?” I have been working in hospitality for some time; designing wall covering, bedding, and carpet collections so I understand the needs of this world. Along with RISD, I work at the amazing Elkus Manfredi Architects in Boston. I am surrounded by the best designers I have ever worked with. Being there has been hugely helpful in my understanding of how my work integrates into the overall design scheme, and solves needs of the client. Corridors are a challenging design problem; how do we engage a guest to travel down an endless corridor with only a 12’ repeat? That was the ah- ha moment! The transformation from an overlooked space, generally with no natural light, to a dynamic and engaging experience. The next revelation was seeing that patterns could implement as full bleeds that could be cropped and pieced at any juncture. That was the engineering miracle; no waste.

Q: What goes on in the day-to-day throws of the working designer?

A: Fast deadlines, problem solving that requires teamwork. Combining intellectual skills and design sensibility to make innovative work that integrates with and elevates the client’s brand.

Q: Your designs for BLOKWERK are obviously steeped in the philosophies of the De Stijl movement, which has developed the basis for the graphic design movement as well as greatly influenced mid century architects around the world. What is your personal connection with the De Stijl movement? How does that influence your design decisions today?

A: It was the system of organization that moved from textiles, to painting, to furniture, fashion and architecture. I love “movements” that sweep the design world, a historically rare series of events that has everything to do with sociology, politics, production innovations and original thought.

Q: How did your design process for BLOKWERK begin? Develop? End?

A: It was on a visit to Berlin, Hansavietel, a landmarked mid-century neighborhood that has architecture from the best international architects in of the day. It was one of my most inspiring design adventures. Color blocked exteriors, fantastic!

Q: From birth, how has BLOKWERK changed through the creative process of collaboration?

A: I could envision it, see how it would work. I knew Brintons’ Axminister to be the most beautiful woven carpet. It was all there but corridors have very specific engineering challenges. Brintons and I worked together for over a year, I am sure I drove them crazy. I’m not a carpet designer; I simply wanted to transform the floors into woven art.

Q: Do you have a design mantra?

A: “Come from forever and you will go everywhere.” - Arthur Rimbaud

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