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Design Boom or Bust: What People Are Talking About Now

What is “good” design? Ah, the eternal question debated by designers and their critics since at least the 1930s (with the advent of industrial design in the wake of the last Great Depression), if not before (we’d imagine the Académie des Beaux-Arts has a few opinions on the subject). This week alone we’ve gobbled up the latest issue of Metropolis, entirely dedicated to the question of good design, and attended three panels about creativity and — you guessed it — good design.

So why all the fuss? And what did we learn?

The aforementioned Metropolis invited ten writers to explore their ideas of what makes design good and relate each concept to a specific product or designer. Enzo Mari takes the “enduring” prize, while Jasper Morrison and Naota Fukasawa get a nod for “well-made.” (We would add Roy McMakin to that list, thankyouverymuch.) Rounding out the issue are arguments for sustainable, accessible, affordable, beautiful, and functional design. While it’s difficult to contest any of these tenets, there is something so utterly correct about deceptively simple, unfussy, and masterful craftsmanship: Mari’s Sof Sof chair makes the grade, Starck’s ERO/S chair is, in the parlance of our times, a fail. (See: image above.)

MUJI is a another harbinger of what is to come in the world of design. The non-brand embodies the Japanese value wabi, an emptiness with “austere beauty” and “elegant rusticity.” But let’s not get too fancy here. MUJI is a positive sign for designers working in a recession, because it fills a need for great design in everyday life. Though someone somewhere craves a 14-foot chandelier with blown glass, knitted socks, and bicycle wheels, many more could use an unobtrusive umbrella stand, a notebook with smooth paper, a simplified extension cord system, or a perfectly-proportioned set of bowls.

And what do the designers have to say?

Slate hosted a panel discussion on Thursday called (all together now!) “What is Good Design?”; mediator Adam Gopnik, an erudite though neophyte design commentator, chatted with Pentagram partner Paula Scher, architect Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami, and freewheelin’ interior design one-man-band Jonathan Adler. As Gopnik pointed out, design is one of the most omnipresent and invisible facets of our culture, which spurred talk of early design influences (Scher is a South Pacific fan, and Adler fondly recalls his neighbor’s “giant ceramic leopard of dubious taste”), when design goes bad (ahem, Tropicana), and the direction that design will take in a poor economy. Again, we see a common exultation of simplified luxury — not luxury in the sense of expensive materials and scale, but luxury of time, and setting a “program” of living adapted to modern use. Sardar-Afkhami’s ultimate example? Richard Neutra’s colony of homes in Silver Lake, California.

Pecha Kucha New York was a more informal affair, gathering eleven designers of all stripes — environmental, artistic, graphic, fashion — to present 20 slides for 20 seconds each. The crowd of 700 people, including our favorite-est New York artsy couple Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, heard the history of the New York Hardcore “brand” mark, MoMA’s Web site revamp, Swiss everyday design, and Emeco designer collaborations. Emeco VP Dan Fogelson relayed some juicy tidbits about the company’s recent projects with starchitect Frank Gehry: the first prototype is pretty but breakable, the second will cost a whopping $250,000. Thanks, Dan, for proving our thesis that good design should be gimmick-free. For the record, we think your original Navy chair would qualify.

Rounding out our week of everloving design chatter, LVHRD hosted a non-conference entitled WRK/PLY on Saturday in New York. On the docket were illustrator Chris Rubino, clothing designer Rebecca Turbow of Safe Clothes, and design studio Dress Code, among others. The afternoon-long event boasted copious amounts of free Dewars and a gorgeous, sun-soaked venue. Want to guess where we had the most fun?

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