Charles and Ray Eames

Charles and Ray Eames were intended only to be the starting point for “Design Entrepreneurs: The Next Generation,” the conference organized by Metropolis and sponsored by Nokia on May 19 at ICFF 2003. But the designing couple’s presence resonated throughout the day, as the new generation of design entrepreneurs showed its work and talked about the business of running a studio and/or a manufacturing and marketing program. And finally, a dozen hopeful designers submitted their prototypes or finished products to be critiqued by a panel composed of established practitioners in such varied fields as industrial design, architecture, manufacturing, marketing, and retailing. All of which made sense for a day that set out to explore the many different ways of being a creative entrepreneur in the twenty-first century.

John Berry—a marketer for Herman Miller, the producers of Eames and Nelson furniture—put the proceedings into a historic context. “As entrepreneurs, Charles and Ray did not wait to be commissioned for work. They sought out problems to solve,” Berry said. “They were certainly influenced by their education in architecture and painting, but for them there was no significant difference between design disciplines. There was only the importance of applying good skills and thinking to a shared understanding of a common problem.”

Charles and Ray Eames also put a high value on the ephemera of everyday life. All the information they needed to do their legendary work they found in ordinary things like Mexican pots, seashells, cigarette packs; from a study of toy tops came an eloquent presentation of the physics of motion and spin; from the circus, a creative way to organize creative people.”

Jeffrey Bernett, of Studio B in New York, echoed that creative respect for the everyday when he observed, “Everything that surrounds us is designed for helping us live—tools, products, objects, artifacts designed for sale and marketed around functional needs.” It was this recognition and appreciation of the everyday that percolated so consistently throughout the conference, which created an energy field on the trade-show floor that emitted a sense of possibility and a spirit of generosity, as when Von Robinson recalled Bernett’s unselfish advice when the younger designer first set up his studio.

The conference spilled into the surrounding aisles with their hundreds of new products brought there by design entrepreneurs. A crowd of people jostled to get a view of the Power Point presentations, listen to the experiences of designers both successful and starting out, and watch slides and films on the Eameses, George Nelson, and Alvar Aalto. After the formal presentations, there was the more tactile experience of young designers toting, pushing, pulling, and otherwise finding ways to get their prototypes onto the stage to be evaluated by experts.

What all these design entrepreneurs shared most was an inclusive way of thinking, an engagement with the rhythms and patterns and materials and wisdom of everyday life. Consider, for example, a contemporary piece of ephemera, the pizza box. Recalling the origins of Blu Dot, the company he started with two partners in Minneapolis in 1997, John Christakos said, “Everything we liked we couldn’t afford.” The partners, he added, “were naive enough to think we could do something about that” and established a company devoted to making modern design both affordable and accessible through existing retail channels. Their ongoing search for ideas included the ordinary stuff around them. “We were circling around how to do something with a continuous sheet of material and eliminate the need for a joint or a complicated part to put two pieces together,” Christakos remembered as he looked at a pizza box. “Pizza boxes are sort of perforated, which makes the folding and bending easy. And we started to think about how we could do that with steel.” What they could do, it turned out, was design a line of small accessories, 2D-3D, in which the steel components can be bent by hand while remaining stiff enough to hold their form.

Charles Eames was once asked, “To whom does design address itself: to the greatest number, to the specialist of an enlightened matter, to a privileged social class?” His response was, “Design addresses itself to the need.” Just such a need was the genesis of Blu Dot’s flip-top table. Christakos and his partners, all with small children, recognized the necessity for dining tables that could also function for kids at work with crayons and Play-Doh. The flip-top table they subsequently designed has a laminate surface on one side, wood veneer on the other. And when he had trouble figuring out the mechanism with which the surfaces could be flipped, Christakos listened to his wife. “What about the way those Wheel of Fortune letters spin?” she asked. Subsequently he and his partners found a way to use metal pins. This philosophy of connecting with popular culture is also reflected in Blu Dot’s marketing and promotion methods. For example, one year they sent a Christmas present that was a wheel of cheddar cheese with a big blue dot on it; another year it was a bottle of blue M&Ms.

If Blu Dot furniture and accessories are material expressions of an inclusive approach to the design process, Tung Chiang, principal of Ah Tung Design, articulated this approach poetically by suggesting that a single designer could—and should—view experience from multiple perspectives. “Something that shapes our work as designers is personal experience,” he said. “In my life I experience tremendous change, moving from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, from one person to the next, from advertising to design; my roles change every minute of the day. This minute I’m a friend, next minute I’ll be a son. I can be an employer or an employee at the same time. Human experiences are multidimensional, and in my work I would like to reflect that.”

This willingness, indeed insistence, to draw from the well of personal experience is something all these designers seemed to share. Angela Adams established her design studio in Portland, Maine, to produce knotted rugs, a New England tradition. Today her eponymous company has grown to produce furniture, fabrics, and accessories. In the early days as she was looking to establish her business, Adams knew her market was not local but a more sophisticated urban clientele. Yet as her business grew, Adams realized that the rural coast of Maine held a certain appeal to urban markets, so she took her paintings of rug patterns to New York interior designers, who proved to be an enthusiastic audience. The Maine-crafted rugs’ appeal was subsequently incorporated into her company’s identity. Likewise, when she got married, Adams marked the occasion by designing a handmade rug using images and motifs from her own courtship. From this emerged a line of custom rugs, introduced this year at the ICFF, that clients can specify to reflect their own unique experiences. For Adams “keeping it personal and keeping it real” dovetailed neatly into the contemporary market for customization.

Which is not to suggest that all young designers are inclined to stay local. No landscape was off-limits to the Eameses, and throughout their lives they creatively co-opted the arts and crafts of India, Mexico, and Japan. Architect Eero Koivisto engaged in a similar cross-cultural play. A partner of the Swedish firm Claesson Koivisto Rune, he spoke plaintively of the seating used with tatami mats in Japan. “I always wanted to buy one, but every time I was in Japan and going home, I wondered where I should put a chair without legs.” When finally commissioned by the Japanese manufacturer E&Y to “design something Scandinavian for the Japanese,” Koivisto didn’t hesitate to adopt, twist, and otherwise subvert the traditions and forms of one culture and apply them to another. His Dodo chair is an upholstered circular swivel seat in bright colors, without legs but with a back that extends to include a small shelf just large enough to accommodate an iBook.

In his book The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski reproduced a 1526 engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Erasmus, in which the Renaissance humanist is using scraps of paper as bookmarks. Petroski points out that it took another 450 years for an engineer at 3M to fine-tune this arrangement by making one end of the marker just slightly sticky, ultimately producing the Post-it note. It took more than four centuries, but ordinary need and circumstance prevailed, allowing a scrap of paper to become a ubiquitous and indispensable accessory of the modern workplace. That good design is often not about invention but about the transformation of the ordinary was reflected in PAPCoRN, a line of compostable utensils and dinnerware by Danish designers Anne Bannick and Lene Vad Jensen. Made from the reconstituted plant fibers of such vegetables as carrots, cabbages, and beets, the dinnerware is environmentally friendly. More to the point, the designers explained, the shape, material, and functionality of the utensils all reflect the changing culture of food. As our eating habits change, and as we move from the dinner table to eating on the run, such disposable biodegradable utensils address cultural and planetary concerns, the women pointed out.

Throughout the afternoon, emerging designers submitted their work to a panel of experts from the industry for evaluation and advice. In keeping with the spirit of the day, the panel—industrial designer Niels Diffrient, architect Lauren Crahan of Freecell, marketer Adrienne McNicholas of KLINIK; from the manufacturing side, Jackie Maze (marketer) and Mike Keilhauer, both of Keilhauer; retailers Rob Forbes of Design Within Reach and Lena Simonssen-Berge of IKEA; and Metropolis senior editor Paul Makovsky—provided a kind of reality check. They talked about the producibility and marketability of such varied products as wallpaper, a one-of-a-kind felt chaise, sustainable shoes, lighting, and furniture.

The tone ranged from the aesthetic (“I think that it feels resolved in terms of the scale and the simplicity of the materials,” Mike Keilhauer said of a coffee table); to the practical (“How are you going to clean the cracks?” Lena Simonssen-Berge asked about the sections making up the top of another coffee table); to the world-weary (“No matter how successfully you test it, the average person is going to destroy it,” Niels Diffrient said of a shelving system); to the comic (“I think it needs to be bigger to hold more alcohol,” Paul Makovsky said of a vase meant to conceal alcohol). It was a broad-ranging, energetic, and extemporaneous critique that managed to convey the multifaceted concerns aspiring design entrepreneurs face every day. The interactive nature of the critique underscored that design is itself an interactive process, an ongoing dialogue between designer, manufacturer, marketer, and user. Questions came hard and fast, emphasizing the multiple skills it takes to give form to an idea, produce it, and take it to market.

Appropriately enough, the day ended with a short film, Making Aalto’s Furniture, that documents the production of architect Alvar Aalto’s now iconic chairs, stools, and tables at a small factory in southwestern Finland. By taking the viewer from the rough planes of silver-barked birch to finished product, the film highlighted the simple components—the inverted L-shaped leg, the elegant fan-shaped joint, the laminated bent frames—that were designed some seven decades ago to make production easy and efficient. No less important, as the narrator pointed out, was “the intimate involvement of the workers themselves” and their skill, assurance, and pride. The film was as concise and elegant as the furniture it documented. It confirmed that simplicity, economy, and strength are qualities that apply to product and process alike. And it seemed a fitting message to end the series of afternoon evaluations.

Earlier in the day Toronto-based architect Johnson Chou, whose studio now designs retail and residential spaces as well as furniture, labeled his presentation “Serendipity, or How I Learned to Love My Life.” It was a title that could have been used by any of the participating designers. Indeed all these entrepreneurs are producing a kind of reality-based design in which the people and places and things that compose their ordinary lives are essential.

In speaking of the legacies of the Eameses and Nelson, John Berry remarked on “their deep interest in and understanding of the meaning of design in society.” The implication was that such interest and understanding can only come from full engagement. It was clear that this new generation of designers understands the need for such engagement—with the objects of daily life, with the landscapes in which they are situated, with their time and culture. They show an appreciation of the local and global at once. And what they seem to share most is not simply a respect for the everyday—whether it is a rocky coastal landscape, tatami mats, or a pizza box—but an urgency to integrate it into their work.

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