Mid-century furniture, watches, cuff links, cookbooks. Gensler’s Todd Michael Heiser collects lots of things, but what he’s most passionate about is letters, particularly T, M, and H. Does that make this Chicago-based principal and design director the supreme egotist? Not a bit.
“My fascination with objects is connected to my love of architecture, especially hard-edged minimalism. Collecting is a way of adding color, texture, and materiality,” he explains. “And I love the letters’ orthogonality.”
That’s a designer’s precision speaking. But there’s an emotional connection, too. There have been Michaels in his family for generations. Even his mother is named Michaeline, not coincidentally.
He finds each letter by serendipity—none are specially commissioned. “These are objects I’ve met for a reason, castoffs from which I can create something new,” he says, adding that the search is a way to layer delight onto his nonstop business trips. “The first thing I do when I find out I’m going somewhere is to chart out where the flea market is.” In London, that ended up being Portobello Road, where he found the coveted trio of initials on ceramic buttons. Paris’s Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen yielded a large gilt H.
When he was just starting out at Gensler a decade ago, he took a lunchtime stroll down an alley in the Loop and hit pay dirt. Peeking out from a Dumpster was a huge letter from a theater’s disassembled marquee: an H with its colored bulbs intact.