Detroit-native Michael Berman blends his California aesthetic with Detroit inspiration for a new design collection
Michael Berman moved from Michigan to California when he started college, but he regularly returns to browse the Woodward Dream Cruise. A car-design fan and vintage-car collector, he likes to see all kinds of vehicles as he walks along Woodward with his brother, Bill, who still lives in the area.
Berman returned to Michigan in October to celebrate a different family of designs — home furnishings — which make up the focus of his career. Through Michael Berman Ltd., the former Detroiter offers interior-design services as well as his own collection of furniture and room accessories.
Berman, branching out beyond his own firm, works with other manufacturers to come up with products for the home. Some of those are being spotlighted at the Michigan Design Center in Troy, where Berman has showcased his furniture line for Theodore Alexander — including pieces inspired by automotive creativity.
“Theodore Alexander just started in a new direction with products that are a little more upscale, and I have about 80 individual pieces called Califolio,” says Berman, whose work has been the subject of articles in magazines such as Architectural Digest, Elle Décor and House Beautiful.
“It’s a portfolio of California-inspired designs, comprised of really comfortable, generously proportioned upholstery as well as dining tables and chairs, end tables and coffee tables.
“California is where I’ve been designing for the last 30-plus years,” Berman adds. “The pieces have unique and original finishes that convey the coastal California lifestyle because they have somewhat dry and light wood. What’s happening in the industry in general is a direction away from what we call ‘brown wood.’ Now we’re seeing more textural wood finishes, gray tones and neutral tones mixed with some beautiful dark wood pieces.”
“My mother would swear that she had me, at 6 years old, selecting all the materials, countertops, wallpaper and paint for our new house.”
— Michael Berman
Berman, who calls his approach trans-modern as inspired by American modernists, remains proud that his products are made in America and can be quality tested. There is a “sit test” on chairs and sofas so that people with different types of anatomies try the furniture to ensure it’s all deep enough to be really comfortable, but not so deep that feet don’t touch the ground.
Other Berman designs include ceramic tile and stone for Walker Zanger, textiles for Kravet and plumbing fixtures for ROHL. He traces his interest in art and design to his very early years in Detroit and Oak Park.
“My [late] parents [Rowe and Jack Berman] bought a new house in the 1960s, and my mother would swear that she had me, at 6 years old, selecting all of the background material, countertop material, wallpaper and paint,” Berman recalls.
“My mom and dad knew early on that was a flair that I had, and I knew before going to [Berkley] high school that I wanted to go into the design industry, but didn’t know what kind of a fine art career I wanted.
“I went to [what is now known as] the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and I got an amazing opportunity to work for interior designer Angelo Donghia. He gave me a firsthand education — not just about how to create interiors but also the way to run a business and how to interact with employees. “
After working for Donghia for six years, Berman opened his own interior design business in the 1980s. His furniture company launched in the 1990s.
“Other designers and architects were seeing my work in national magazines, and they would call my office and ask where I got a particular chair or sofa, and I would say that I had made it,” Berman recalls.
“I realized my work was being sought by colleagues, and that was the impetus for the furniture company. From there, it grew to creating products for other companies. Every time I design, there’s continuity as I repeat my inspiration of American modernism, Art Deco and Mid-Century Modern.”
Berman, whose dominant design color is green, has a home in Los Angeles and a vacation home in Palm Springs. Both are Mid-Century Modern and allow him to experiment with ideas.
“I do extensive traveling with my partner, David Rubin, who has a company called David Travel,” Berman says. “I design environments, and he designs experiences. We go all over the world to select amazing objects, and I get inspiration and new ideas.”
Berman and Rubin stay connected to their religious roots by attending Temple Kol Ami in Los Angeles. Berman also sits on the board of the Jewish Healing Center of Los Angeles, which, he says, “provides spiritual healing and guidance for all people in need, whether in crisis or simply wanting to nurture the soul.”
Berman, who feels uplifted by driving cars from his collection around California, names his favorite as a 1954 Oldsmobile Starfire. In Michigan, he likes visiting with a group of friends who go back to his early school years and seeing all the development in Detroit.
“I’ve been connected to Downtown for years because my father started the Riverfront Festival that took place in the 1960s,” he says. “When I go Downtown, I love checking out the new restaurants, galleries and original architecture. I love what’s happening Downtown with the resurgence of energy,”