H. Krueger & Associates looks back on a decorated history
To navigate a business through 45 years of economic squalls is a remarkable accomplishment no matter who you are, but to do it in the often fickle, always changing world of interior design is doubly impressive.
For Harry Krueger, whose H. Krueger & Associates Interior Designers is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, success came with plenty of panache and even more down-to-earth dedication.
So what’s the secret to longevity in business?
“I’ve often thought of writing a book called So You Want to Be a Decorator. And then I thought, ‘Harry, if you ever did that, you’d have to leave town in a hurry.’” — Harry Krueger
“I think it’s being, to quote someone more famous, like a single eye looking neither to the right or the left,” said Krueger. “That is, to stay focused on your goals, and I think that’s what happened to us. And also I think it’s realized by the fact that my employees … shared the same goals that I do, and that is that we do the very best possible job no matter what size it is and treat everyone with dignity and with consideration.”
Taking an egalitarian approach to one’s clients may seem like the kind of thing you preach but don’t necessarily practice, but Krueger has certainly landed some big fish, and the temptation might have been to massage their egos while tossing scraps (and attitude) to the rest. Among the clients the company has done work for are Epic Systems and Oscar Mayer, two of the heaviest heavyweights in the Greater Madison area.
But the world of high-end interior office design has been more or less mainstreamed over the last 50 or so years, and it’s clearly not just for business icons anymore.
“At one point when I first started in the business 50 some years ago, it was, I think, generally regarded as sort of a plaything of the rich,” said Krueger, “and now I think businesses have realized that it’s wise to use interior designers. There are a lot more of them and they are more highly trained than they ever were in years past.”
Krueger says he is now “semi-retired” (“depending on how the weather is”). It’s been a smooth succession, with the day-to-day duties now falling to his son, Andrew, a company VP.
But as the company moves forward — “going better than I would have imagined,” he says — Krueger has had time to reflect on a 50-plus-year career in interior design.
He studied at the Layton School of Art & Design (now the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design) under instructors who had been students at Germany’s famous Bauhaus.
You can hear that influence in the familiar mantra “form follows function,” which trips effortlessly off his tongue, and the fondness he still feels for his teachers and the influential movement that nurtured them is palpable.
Krueger’s career started in Milwaukee, but he moved to Madison for work as a young man, always assuming he’d find his way back to his hometown. But he soon found that Madison had an unforeseen allure.
“I’ve done work all over the United States, and I think the thing that I like most about Madison is I’ve found it to be a very open-minded community,” said Krueger. “Whether I was doing a residential or business interior, the people here don’t have as many hard-edged, preconceived ideas about what they have to have. They’re willing to listen to you and they come to you with an open mind. I think Milwaukee is coming along with that, but having been a young practitioner in Milwaukee, I found that they’re a little more conservative to say the least than Madison would be.”
Along the way, he’s seen radical changes in the industry — most notably in the technologies that have allowed designers to toss out their cumbersome drawings in favor of computerized 3-D blueprints.
But to Krueger, the same principles still apply when you’re putting together a functional and visually satisfying space.
“Well, you’re talking to an old horse, you know, and it’s hard to teach me a new gait,” said Krueger. “The idea is that simplicity is a prerequisite of good design. However, ornamentation can be used as a playful advantage in many cases. You have to have a sense of humor as you do this because, after all, interior design isn’t exactly brain surgery. On the other hand, it’s making people comfortable and amusing them depending on what their situation is and what the function of a particular interior is.”
Above all, though, Krueger cautions his business and residential clients to avoid fad and fashion — items like black marble in reception areas or kitchen countertops — noting that good design principles never go out of style.
“[Many fads and fashions] are designed to sell someone on the idea that we need to have something new because what we have is old-fashioned and therefore it’s outdated,” said Krueger. “But quality is never outdated, and that’s proved by the perseverance of designs from the ’30s and ’40s and perhaps even earlier. And the ’50s, what I call the golden age of design, where all these new products were coming out. But they’re pretty much in my mind variations of the old designs that employ simple materials used appropriately.”
But even as Krueger looks back, he’s not opposed to looking forward and imagining what business spaces might look like in both the immediate and far future.
“One area that I see neglected at this point, but it’s coming into its own, is lighting. The technology of lighting is changing so quickly. In years past, it was, well, you put a certain number of lamps, footcandles, into a space and that’s it. Today we have so many different kinds of lighting. The technology is changing. In my time we’ve gone from incandescent bulbs to fluorescent to halogens to light-emitting diodes, and God only knows what’s coming up next.
“Marianne Willisch, who was one of my instructors from the Bauhaus, used to say that ideally some day we will have lighting without a source. And so we may eventually have fabrics and walls that glow. And what that light source is, I don’t know, but I think there are things to come in lighting that are just beginning to scratch the surface.”
A career to remember
In 50-plus years in the business, Krueger has seen plenty go on within the confines of four walls. So does he have any interesting stories?
“None that you can print,” he says, laughing. “I’ve often thought of writing a book called So You Want to Be a Decorator. And then I thought, ‘Harry, if you ever did that, you’d have to leave town in a hurry.’ I could tell you a lot of stories. All I can say is that I have met through the profession many wonderful people at many levels of government and business, and I wouldn’t change it for the world because they’re all wonderful people. I appreciate all of them, and many of them have become dear and cherished friends.”
But when asked for his proudest moments, Krueger doesn’t hesitate. It goes all the way back to the beginning of his days in Madison.
“I can tell you that when I first came to Madison, I was entrusted with doing a house for my very first clients, who happened to be Mr. and Mrs. Roy McCormick, who went on then with Paisan’s and Porta Bella. They trusted me as an unknown designer in Madison with their home and their businesses, and so that was how I really got started in Madison. But there have been so many. I’ve done houses and vacation places in Montana and Madison and all over the place quite frankly. So it’s just been a fun experience.”
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