Sounding Off

As if we needed further proof that architects really are the new rock stars, along comes a radio show devoted entirely to the discussion of design and architecture. DnA—a half-hour program hosted by British expat and New York Times writer Frances Anderton (also a former Metropolis contributor)—debuted on Los Angeles public radio station KCRW last April to high praise from the design community. With guests like highbrow heavyweight Peter Cook (founder of Archigram) and design maven Simon Doonan lending their voices and viewpoints on everything from sacred spaces to shopping malls, the idea behind DnA is to create a forum that will appeal not just to designers but anyone interested in urbanism.

And so far it has. With just ten shows under its belt, DnA has sparked so much interest that in January it began airing twice a month (rather than just once). Anderton recently sat down with Metropolis contributor Madelynn Amalfitano in her Santa Monica home (designed, of course, by Frank Gehry) to talk about DnA, the challenges of doing a radio show about design and architecture, and the public’s renewed interest in both.

Why did you want to do a radio show about design?
I think that with the emergence of publications like Wallpaper, what had been discussed within the design community was now filtering out into the broader public. And it seemed that radio—this wonderful medium that is particularly important in Los Angeles, where everybody drives around—was the place to continue the public discussion about the design world that to some extent was happening in newspapers and magazines. Since I’ve been at KCRW [producing the current-affairs show Which Way LA?], whenever there’s been a major design story, I’ve pushed for us to cover it—with limited success. But then we reached this critical mass of design talk when Rem Koolhaas was chosen as the architect for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA], so I hosted an episode about the project for another KCRW show called Politics of Culture. And we had people on arguing and yelling at each other about whether the building should be torn down. It was a very fiery show, so Ruth [Seymour, KCRW’s general manager] realized that radio could work as a forum for design and that I would be capable of doing it.

I’m actually surprised a radio show about design didn’t happen sooner in Los Angeles, given its rich design and architectural history.
Well, so am I. [Laughs.] I think there’s this feeling that you can’t do architecture and design on the radio, which is a total fallacy. If you can do film, if you can do theater and dance, if you can do any number of the arts, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to do design. Nonetheless, the challenge of the program is figuring out what this show is about. Because it’s not a magazine and it doesn’t have pictures of objects in front of you, it has to be about ideas.

So how do you deal with that challenge of talking about a visual art form in a completely nonvisual medium?
I never lose sight of the central point, which is to talk about design, but I’m doing it in a way where you’re coming at it without pictures, so I always get my designer guests to describe what they’ve done. But I’m also trying to draw people into a discussion that they might not otherwise have, something that might be intriguing to them or they haven’t thought about. Take the show I did on democratic design. I had Philippe Starck on the show, and I didn’t say, Well, now we’re going to talk about Starck and describe every single product he’s ever designed for Target. I took the theme of democratic design as a starting point and then raised the question, Is there such a thing as democratic design? What does that really mean? Is it possible for design to be democratic, and how does one translate that concept into a cheap product at Target? And Starck—who is hilarious—talked about his sexy baby bottles. He explained how important it was for mothers to feel sexy after they have a baby, and how all the baby products are so ugly—but in his collection there is a beautiful baby bottle. So there was a mix of description, getting Starck to explain how he created a baby bottle that would make you feel sexy, plus exploring the notion of making design egalitarian and available to all.

Why do you think design and architecture have become so central to the public dialogue again?
Well, it’s been sixty years since a world war and seventy years since the depression, so we’ve moved into a period of affluence—and with affluence comes disposable income. And I think in the last thirty years we’ve seen a change in the landscape of architecture, which brought forth Pompidou and Bilbao, and all sorts of things that have made architecture more a part of the national conversation. I think computers have made a big difference. Not only in terms of design, but also with the proliferation of design magazines that have shown how design is integral to life and self-image. So architecture has become much more accessible, and people have become much more interested in it.

Recently LACMA scrapped plans for its new building, and so did the Guggenheim. Do you think this could be the end of this design-and-architecture renaissance?
On one hand you’ve got these architecture projects being put on hold or dropped, and on the other you’ve got Vitra, Design Within Reach, and Boffi all opening stores in Santa Monica. So while the economy’s very shaky, there’s still money going into the home. And while the cognoscenti have been keen on design, it’s only in the last two or three years that it’s become available to the broader public. So I don’t think we’re on the verge of collapse just yet by any stretch. The economy obviously affects all of it, but the smaller-ticket items are what you end up actually being able to afford. So design in its broadest sense is not going to be going anywhere. And there are still plenty of things to talk about.

To hear DnA in Los Angeles, tune in to 89.9 FM on the first and third Tuesdays of each month, or visit KCRW’s Web site, www.kcrw.org.

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