Totally Radical pix
California's Art Center Design Conference on "radical craft" stoked the creative fires
Judith Gura -- Interior Design, 7/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
Takaaki Matsumoto's logo on banners for the conference, held at the Art Center College of Design's satellite campus in Pasadena.
A General Electric Company–sponsored exhibit about wind energy, appropriately housed in the nose cone of a turbine.
A presentation by graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister.
Lunch in the hospitality tent, outfitted with chairs from conference sponsor Ethos Design.
Scientist-artist Theo Jansen and one of his wind-propelled PVC beasts.
What can interior designers learn from listening to a designer of outer-space environments, an underwater explorer, a cartoon editor? Quite a lot, as it turns out. During a thought-provoking conference at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, a roster of prominent theorists and practitioners in diverse and unrelated disciplines provided an unusual glimpse into the workings of the creative mind.
The college's Wind Tunnel, a 1940's aircraft test facility, was a suitably striking environment for the Art Center Design Conference's adventurous program. Under the direction of Richard Koshalek, the school's president, and Erica Clark, who handles international initiatives, guest program director Chee Pearlman put together a dense schedule of 28 presentations on the ambiguous but provocative theme of "radical craft." Talks and visuals explored challenges, strategies, and results in a broad spectrum of fields, ingeniously mixing sober with sprightly and conventional with curious—for a weekend of nonstop stimulation. As moderator and resident gadfly, TV and print journalist John Hockenberry pulled everything together with brilliantly witty commentary.
Some presenters dealt with subjects familiar to interior designers. Jim Hackett, president of conference sponsor Steelcase, discussed research into interactive offices; Coop Himmelb(l)au cofounder Wolf D. Prix showed some of his firm's convention-flouting architecture; graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister talked about his ads and posters that use aphorisms in place of sales copy. Some territory was less familiar: NASA architect Constance Adams, who spoke about living in space; former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, who read his pungent and provocative verses; the Oxford University Press editor in chief for American dictionaries, Erin McKean, who explained the intricacies of collecting words.
Some presenters dealt with the arcane—take Theo Jansen, a scientist turned artist who fabricates wind-propelled creatures from discarded PVC tubes. Other presenters represented disciplines that can be only loosely categorized as craft: sleight-of-hand expert Ricky Jay, satirist Andy Borowitz, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff.
In most cases, the word design could have supplanted the word craft. Many speakers, in fact, made more references to designers than to craftsmen. The presentations also provided an opportunity for laughter—in professions that sometimes take themselves too seriously.
During the weekend, I jotted down a few memorable quotes, both witty and wise. Idealab founder Bill Gross, paraphrasing Thomas Edison: "I haven't failed. I've just found 10,000 processes that don't work." Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution director of special projects David Gallo: "We're not destroying the earth, but we're making it difficult to live as we do." Applied Minds cofounder Danny Hillis: "Craft is the moment when an idea is pushed by imagination and pulled by reality."
With my brain in high gear, I left Pasadena energized as well as entertained. And I imagine that the majority of the 800 attendees left with a greater regard for their own potential, not to mention greater expectations of it. The typical response was not, "Why didn't I think of that?" Rather, people asked, "Why don't I think like that?" Which reinforces the point that, despite the risk of failure, the only way to move forward is to take chances.
What did all this have to do with interiors? As the college's Erica Clark explains, "We host a conference like this every two years in part because we believe that design must engage with the larger world on many fronts. Today's social, technological, and demographic changes must of necessity influence the design of the home and office."
Just as important: Interior designers, like busy practitioners in many fields, often become overly involved in the mechanics of the craft. (That word again!) It's easier to pursue workaday activities—space planning, selecting furnishings according to a project manager's directives—and consequently lose sight of adventurous ideas and expression, the very things that make young people choose the profession.
Interior designers sometimes need to be reminded that imagination is their most precious asset. They should underestimate neither their own ability to do things differently than they've been done before nor a client's ability to accept something other than what he asked for. Conferences, of course, can provide those reminders.
There are also other options that offer some of the same stimulus, if not the same ambience. As a professor of design history and theory at the New York School of Interior Design, I'm always encouraging my students to visit museums, galleries, and auction houses and to keep abreast of events in all areas of the arts. Even a design association's standard meetings, receptions, and tours can be opportunities to exchange ideas along with the pleasantries.
Whether you snatch half an hour out of your schedule to attend a local event or travel across the country to attend PowerPoint presentations in a high-tech aviation facility, the most important lesson is the same: Designing, though certainly a serious business, can also be fun. How often do designers stop to think about that?
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