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Drawing on Experience

Beautiful, functional design is Paul Henninge’s product

by Liz Schick

Paul Henninge of Henninge Inc. at 5 Lawson Lane in Burlington is an award-winning industrial designer who chose Burlington over 332 other cities as his home base in 1989. Known and used the world over, his work includes products as diverse as wood stoves, bars of soap, snowboard bindings, baby-changing tables and lunch boxes.

Paul Henninge came to Burlington by design in 1989. He knew he wanted to leave Boston where he was design director at Product Genesis, a product-development company. He had received the Frog Junior Design Award in 1986, and was a frequent guest lecturer at the Harvard School of Design.

To help him find somewhere conducive to the creative life he wanted to live, Henninge bought a book, Places Rated Almanac: Your Guide to Finding the Best Places to Live in America. “Of all 333 metropolitan areas listed, Burlington appealed the most,” he says, “although I didn’t know what I was going to do once I got there.”

Once here, Henninge wasn’t having much luck finding a job. He went to a temp agency, which, he says, forced him to do something he hadn’t been smart enough to do on his own: make a list of his priorities.

“Once I focused on things that were important to me, like working with different individuals and being stimulated by different types of work — and realizing that job security and health insurance weren’t terribly important — I came away with a clear sense that I was going to be an industrial design consultant.”

A local design professional told Henninge the key to success in Burlington was to “diversify or die.” He finds that as true today as ever. In his Vermont career, he has designed everything from a website and an exhibit at the ECHO Center, to bars of soap, toilets and wood stoves. He holds design and mechanical patents for products ranging from wood stoves to baby-changing tables. In 1998, his award-winning recumbent exercise cycle was selected for exhibit by the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City.

Originally from Worthington, Ohio, Henninge received his bachelor of science in industrial design from Ohio State University. His father was a civil engineer and his mother, a quilter, and he credits this background with helping to infuse his artistic designs with the practical ability of being able to make sure they’ll work, in addition to being elegant.

HearthStone Quality Home Heating Products in Morrisville became his first account when he was hired to create new handles for its wood stove doors. He also acted as a draftsman for the company until computer programs filled that need. “I’m glad I don’t have to do that anymore,” he says, while confessing it enabled him to support himself in the early years when he was working from his home.

Throughout the 1990s, Henninge was able to couple his interest in outdoor sports with commissions for projects such as designing a ski pole handle for Skis Dynastar and bindings for various snowboard companies across the country, including nearby Burton and Original Sin, a division of Skis Dynastar. Although he didn’t earn a lot of money doing any of this, he insists that “the jobs were fun and epitomized the enthusiasm of that time.”

Henninge realizes that it’s not just the business environment that changes, but “your interests and strengths. When you’re young, you don’t always have the depth of knowledge or interest to design things which require you to stand back and look at a bigger picture of history, as you need to do for home products. The winter sports industry moves so rapidly, products are gone in a year or two.”

photoThe image on the screen is a pellet stove Paul Henninge is designing for a company in Vancouver, British Columbia. He holds design and mechanical patents for products ranging from wood stoves to baby-changing tables.

Possibly his greatest understanding about business came in the people arena. “Business is about building relationships with people, so even with long-standing clients I’ve had to sell myself multiple times, as the people change.” As a prime example, he cites HearthStone, which has had four presidents since he has been working with the company.

That, however, hasn’t been a problem for the last 11 years, ever since Dave Kuhfahl joined HearthStone. He became president a year and a half ago. They had worked together when Kuhfahl was at Twincraft and Henninge was designing bars of soap for the company.

Kuhfahl describes Henninge as “a very mellow guy. He never takes the position of, ‘I’m the expert, you paid me and this is what I came up with so it must be perfect,’” says Kuhfahl. “He not only doesn’t take a sense of ownership of his creative work, but he is always open to feedback that will help him understand how to make a design better or why something else is needed. He’ll shred the paper, revise and remodel and try to come up with a design that is agreeable to everyone. Henninge understands the psychology of having everyone feel a sense of ownership in the product, and always tries to walk away from new designs with us saying it’s ours.”

Over the years, Henninge has worked with HearthStone and its parent company in Spain, Hergom Industries, in many capacities, from tweaking existing products to helping the company develop specific markets. He’s done everything from making life-size models to setting up consumer focus groups to aid with new product development.

Hearthstone considers Henninge part of its family. He attends trade shows and dealer meetings and has developed such a reputation in the industry he has designed for many of the companies that make up the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association.

In 2001 Henninge met Cheryl Hanna, a professor at Vermont Law school and a commentator on Vermont Public Radio. He was sitting, he says, outside the open window, and she and a business associate were inside. They began talking.

photoThis design was a concept created for American Standard, elements of which the company used in several products.

Now she is his wife and the mother of Samira, age 3, and Elias, age 1. They live on South Winooski Avenue in Burlington and are at the top of Henninge’s priorities list.

He continues to expand his Vermont design clientele, which also includes companies such as Gardener’s Supply and Country Home Products.

Country Home Products invited three design firms to submit sketches to redesign its all-terrain DR Field and Brush Mower and ended up awarding the contract to Henninge, says Carl Eickenberg, senior product manager.

“We built very few fences around the project,” says Eickenberg, “which allowed him to use his creativity and imagination, and he succeeded extremely well. Even more important, he is a good communicator. He was readily able to grasp the concepts we were trying to incorporate in the design and was knowledgeable enough so that he was able to guide us through that process. He certainly added his own original ideas and suggestions.” The project went so well, another project manger invited Henninge to redesign the DR Wood Splitter.

Henninge had outgrown his home office after a couple of years, finding space in Burlington on Main Street and then King Street before moving to 5 Lawson Lane in 1996. He couldn’t afford the rent for the entire building, he says, so he rounded up his creative friends and sublet space to them.

The tenants maintained an informal working relationship that they dubbed “Powerhouse,” although they never formalized it. The name reflected the large smokestack on the top of the building, which was built in 1890. “We worked together often on each other’s projects,” says Henninge.

He bought the building in 2003, and still rents space to other members of the creative community such as advertising agencies Methodikal and Moondyne, and Rent-A-Geek, because “it’s always important to have IT experts around when your computer crashes.”

When he’s not designing, Henninge is tinkering or playing league soccer, either indoors in Shelburne or outdoors in pickup games at Red Rocks Park or Starr Farm. Tinkering is what he loves most. He bought an old Porsche, and after four years of tinkering, it is, he says, “perfect.” He admits that, now that he has small children, it’s more difficult to take on these kinds of big projects, so he uses 5 Lawson Lane as tinkering headquarters and does much of the construction work on the building himself. “I try to keep the building in the character intended by Bill Henderson, the architect.”

Although Henninge is taking solo time to work by himself, he has employed people in the past. “I worked with several young designers and took two or three of them under my wing for three- to five-year periods,” he says. Two of those long-term ex-employees have gone on to do “some really neat work,” Henninge says. He mentions two with whom he developed an apprentice relationship: Scott Waters, now head of design at Segway, the people transporters company, and Travis Vogel, who is working for HearthStone’s parent company in Spain.

Cheryl maintains that Henninge is happier when he’s working alone; he sort of agrees. “I love to manage design, but I do like doing the design work myself. When my mind is busy, I relax. I guess my design for success has been successful: I’m working with a diverse mix of clients and projects and I’m happy.” •