Ask the Experts
For Janine James and the Moderns, design is one of many, many answers
Judith Davidsen -- Interior Design, 5/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Depending on the client and the problem, the team of "solutionists" assembled by the Moderns might include an interior designer, an architect, a scientist, a health specialist, an environmentalist, an economist, and anyone else whose insights might unearth and develop the client's message. Founded by Janine James, the Moderns is a creative agency and think tank specializing in branding and marketing as well as multidisciplinary design.
Her more instantly recognizable have clients have included the IIDA, ASID, Herman Miller, ICF, Maharam, Steelcase, and Unika Vaev as well as Calvin Klein, AT&T, and American Express. For AmEx, she installed an Annie Leibovitz photography exhibit in the company's New York headquarters, near ground zero, shortly after 9/11. Designing William McDonough and Michael Braungart's book, Cradle to Cradle, Remaking the Way We Make Things, James used eco-conscious polypropylene pages. Currently working on ways to create economic and energy alternatives to oil wells in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she paused to her explain her mission.
Your Web site speaks of the New Bauhaus.
When I started the Moderns, I thought, What would the Bauhaus paradigm be now? And I decided it would go beyond "good design" to consider how the choices we make affect our social and environmental milieu. Evolved Bauhaus thinking is a beautiful marriage of the industrial revolution and the knowledge economy.
How does that incorporate society and the environment?
I don't think that triple bottom-line accounting—financial, social, environmental—is the answer totally. But all have an impact on a company's stock value. The perfect example is Apple. They design well, they market well, and they service well, but their low ranking on environmental issues is a vulnerability. They leave the door open for somebody to do something just as cool, only green.
How does the Moderns approach architecture and interiors?
We don't look at any discipline in isolation. We look at how they influence one another. To us, interior design is a means of communicating.
Long before we start actually designing, we strategize at the big-picture level. We look for market opportunities that might be missed. We look at who a client's target customer is. We develop total strategies for reaching that customer to gain market share. They're not hiring us for design—they're hiring us to develop a brand.
How does design participate in that process?
In two ways. We can decide that a temporary installation would be beneficial to the client, or we can decide that their permanent space should be branded. Then we either design it or put a strategy together to inform whatever firm is hired to do the space.
Could you give an example of an installation?
We convinced AmEx that, after 9/11, it made sense to develop a cultural experience that people could share, and we installed Annie Leibovitz's photography inside several translucent mesh pods that were illuminated by halogens fitted with filters to produce therapeutic colors. Merce Cunningham also choreographed a series of pieces that were performed there, and the Tribeca Film Festival used the lobby as its headquarters. We call that experiential branding.
Why is the experiential so important to your work?
A lot of branding and advertising agencies see traditional media failing at a rapid pace. TV commercials aren't hitting their target markets. Print ads don't have the impact they used to. We rerouted those dollars into that exhibit.
What about branded spaces?
Companies' spaces say something to the outside world, to employees, and to prospective employees. What makes you feel you're working for a top company? It's not about mission statements. It's about the experience. Architecture is a major, major piece of a brand. On many levels, coming to work should be just as exciting as going to a boutique hotel.
What does this mean for the future of design?
Not all firms familiar with three-dimensional environments are equipped to suddenly be experts at branding and advertising. It's been a complaint among corporations that some designers think you put the logos and tag lines around and frame some ads—and you've branded the space. Some companies even feel that a branding or advertising agency is more equipped to outfit a space, so the future could be that design firms are responding to an agency's direction. This may not be what we want to hear.
Do you have any requirements for prospective clients?
My only requirement is that they're trying to reinvent themselves. If they want to be at the top of their game, that opens the door to consider things like the environment. I don't judge, but I won't green-wash. If a client is looking at me as an alibi, I'll say right up front, "This is not going to serve you. What will serve you is innovating, so you have a real environmental story."