Let Us Now Praise Famous Design

The Urban Center Galleries resembled a veritable “Oscars” night on January 29, when a packed house attended “Design in New York: 2002 in Review.” The event, organized by the Municipal Art Society and sponsored by DESIGNnewyork, the publisher of a new source book by the same name, brought together representatives from the fields of architecture, fashion, and graphic, interior, and product design to discuss their favorites of the past year.

If the genealogy that created the event seems complicated, its participants’ task was quite simple. According to moderator Paul Warwick Thompson, director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, these editors and critics were to “pick three examples of a noteworthy design work, within the five boroughs of the city.” Here are some highlights.

Metropolis senior editor Paul Makovsky chose not to pick three products for his presentation. Instead, he presented three themes for 2002: the popularity of craft and customization in product design; smart technologies and new materials; and new retail environments and experiences. On closer inspection, these themes aren’t relegated to industrial design alone.

In the first two categories, some standout products included customizable Nike Shox (Makovsky bought a pair) and Marcel Wanders’ Murano Bag, in which two layers of textile are laminated around a foam core, without a mold. James Dyson’s bag-free vacuum cleaner and Peter Testa’s experimentation with carbon fiber (see “Carbon Fiber Future,” February 2003) as building material represent forays in all things smart.

As for new retail environments, Makovsky noted Lindy Roy’s design for the Vitra showroom, which allows users to experience the brand in different ways on each of the store’s three levels: office workers use the furniture on the second floor, retail is at grade, and Vitra’s place in design history is made clear in the gallery below. Diesel Denim Gallery in SoHo also enhances the experience of shopping by exhibiting and identifying with contemporary art.

Although both of these retail environments echo some of the themes of experience and high-culture identity that we saw in Rem Koolhaas’ one-year-old Prada Epicenter, also in SoHo, they contrast with what Martin Filler, an editor at The New Republic, said about that $40 million space: “It is so September 10. Here, Koolhaas went to theoretical extremes, and I think this is a pure monument to that.”

Filler went on to call the World Trade Center design study “a marvelous thing for architecture. It certainly has brought to a wider audience a discourse about architecture.” He then provided some commentary on each of the seven teams involved in the competition-that-wasn’t-a-competition, calling the Peterson Littenberg scheme “retrograde,” THINK’s latticework World Cultural Center “idealistic,” and the proposal by Richard Meier, et al. “rather lifeless and static” that “I suspect shows a lack of synergy.”

Departing from works high-profile, Filler as well as Architectural Record’s Suzanne Stephens praised recent buildings that could be classified as strong but silent types. Filler waxed poetic about Todd Williams’ and Billie Tsien’s design for the American Folk Art Museum—its strong modern lines tempered by its small size, sculptural materials, and
skillful handling of very real, everyday concerns, such as daylight.

“The marvelous façade of this white bronze alloy is a wonderful signifier of the craftsmanship within this building,” Fuller said. Inside, its “vertical development and interpenetration of skylights I find absolutely compelling.”

Stephens, meanwhile, said that minimalist architect Annabelle Selldorf “has become an invisible architect” in the case of restoring the Neue Galerie, the Carrere & Hastings mansion cum museum dedicated to twentieth-century German and Austrian art. The New York Public Library’s South Court, designed by Davis Brody Bond, is even more invisible because, simply put, “you have to go into the library to find it.”

Vogue’s Sally Singer introduced New York fashion with an overarching insight. Here, she said, “runway shows don’t tend to establish new paradigms or subversions in New York. They offer more insight into how we consume fashion.” Both she and Museum at FIT curator Valerie Steele claimed Narcisco Rodriguez and Marc Jacobs for “best of” honors. “We’re at a moment in fashion when the red carpet is extremely important—to good and bad effect,” Singer said.

In contrast to a “parade of ill-fitting prom dresses,” however, Rodriguez’s camera-ready designs reference the 1950s with minimal lines and a New York palette that makes them “directional, modern, and smart.” Marc Jacobs’ echoes retro fashions more explicitly, but in a way that appeals across generations.

Singer also made mention of Project Alabama. Founded in 2000, the design house “took old T-shirts to quilting circles in rural Alabama and remade them into works of art.” Not only is the art of appropriation and redefinition in high gear here, but Project Alabama also expresses a “commitment to ethical production in the U.S., and they brought back high-quality skilled work to a region that originally supplied cotton garments.”

And speaking of designers recently starting out, Steele noted Zac Posen’s rise to wunderkind status in 2002. However, as the fashion world leaps on “young genius designers,” she said, these designers can just as quickly drop off the radar.

In the field of graphic design, Joyce Rutter Kaye, an editor at Print magazine, lauded both the typography and content of Paula Scher’s new book, Make It Bigger, as well as her lifetime of “ironic, bold, and attention-getting” projects that the book references. Kaye also rose to the defense of the Irish Hunger Memorial. Looking past the sometimes-maligned work of Brian Tolle and 1100 Architects, Kaye appreciates the memorial’s typographic strategy. Piscatella Design Center used many fonts to demonstrate that famine has many different voices. The text is also removable, and so narratives about ongoing world hunger can be inserted to show the problem’s continued relevance.

Laetitia Wolff of Graphis spotlighted Jelly’s imagination-friendly business cards, the craftsmanship of Takashimaya’s catalogs, in which graphic design is “as delicate and incredibly produced” as the products, and the covers of The Village Voice. “The works are as diverse as the topics are,” she said. “Bringing illustration onto the covers is another way to force the alternative viewpoint.” Wolff’s comments about the downtown newspaper echoed Kaye’s comments about Scher: graphic design, like all brands of design, can have political implications.

Suzanne Slesin, who is perhaps as ubiquitous as The Village Voice, took the audience on an interior design magic carpet ride. David Ling’s redesign of dim sum restaurant Ed, as well as a renovation of an East Side penthouse by 1100 Architects and Ingrao, Inc. demonstrate “a sense of originality that can really be called chutzpah.” Both projects recreate an idealized sense of time and place. Ling takes a page from the neon grit of Hong Kong, and Ingrao a highly polished, yet over-the-top, version of the swinging ’60s. Or, as Slesin put it, “if Austin Powers were an art collector, this is what his place would look like.”

Surprisingly, both projects in Slesin’s presentation achieved these ends with budgets at opposite ends of the spectrum. Ling had only $40,000 to play with. As for the penthouse, it combined two former Vanderbilt-era ballrooms, so it can only be presumed that the purse strings for that project were knotted very loosely, if at all (a fact that sparked some politically minded comment from audience members in a Q&A afterward).

Julie Lasky, of I.D., delighted in Metrocard machines’ “great interface,” as well as their indestructibility, usefulness, and not to mention, their ADA compliance. The Aphrodite rug, designed by Laurene and Constantine Boym, leans more toward the high-minded. Aphrodite’s hair is not tacked on, but rather extruded from the rug’s fibers. That a buyer should have a naked goddess lying on his or her floor, too, has more than its fair share of “semiotic value,” Lasky said.

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