Why I Write About Design Now

"And how good an idea is a publication like GOOD magazine, which has an editorial mandate to deliver—I quote the description in the triennial’s catalog—only upbeat news to “young, educated readers seeking optimistic analysis of the world’s problems”? At this point, with the green movement deradicalized and sedated by marketing forces, skeptical questions about the relationship of design to the world’s problems are badly needed and in short supply."
—Holland Cotter, "Thinking Green: Function Over Form,"
The New York Times, May 14, 2010

New York City's Design Week officially kicked off yesterday, its physical heart encased within a barricade of European furniture at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, its arteries branching out into shelter stores throughout SoHo and the Meatpacking District and into a series of edgier satellite fairs scattered across Manhattan and Brooklyn like tiny, throbbing capillaries.

And up, way up, on East 91st Street, almost completely isolated from the rest of the Design Week bustle, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's Triennial Why Design Now? opened today. Physiologically, this would be the cerebral cortex. You might want to call this the brain of Design Week.

The disconnect between these two vital organs is a discrepancy that plays out every day in design publications. But it becomes increasingly apparent every three years when the Cooper-Hewitt opens its show on the Upper East Side. I like to call it the battle of Design versus The Chairs.

Solvatten Solar Safe-Water System by Petra Wadströn, Solvatten AB. Manufactured by Mälarplast AB. ABS plastic, acrylic. Photo: David Wadström

Not to pick on The Chairs. I like chairs. In fact, I'm using one right now. But the way that The Chairs have come to define and dominate every aspect of design coverage—especially during the one week denoted to New Yorkers as "design" week—is disheartening for a journalist who is supposed to be covering design. And the fact that all other activities during the United States's biggest design event must rally and cluster around this seemingly pointless moment—the Great Coming of The Chairs—makes me want to gouge my eyes out with the legs of an Italian laser-cut stool.

Because, really: Does the future of design lay in a $6,000 sofa sectional? Should it?

At the very least, we should start calling it what it really is: Furniture Week. (Doesn't have quite the same ring, does it?)

Vendor Power! by Candy Chang, Red Antenna. Client: Center for Urban Pedagogy. Offset lithograph. Photo: Center for Urban Pedagogy, The Street Vendor Project, Candy Chang

In the last ten years, the Cooper-Hewitt's exhibition has departed from the Chair-worship downtown, evolving from a U.S.-only, furniture- and gadget-fest to an extremely wide international survey of objects, products, and concepts that achieve goals far loftier than sales figures. It now includes projects that range from foundation-fueled grants lead by hulking NGOs to self-initiated campaigns by designers working at their kitchen tables. It addresses issues from energy to mobility to healthcare. There are, also, a few chairs.

Surveying the list of works, whose designers populated last night's opening at Andrew Carnegie's mansion, where the museum is housed, I was most impressed with the fact that most of the pieces are not even very pretty. They're hacked, DIY, scrappy, unpolished, good-enough, warts-and-all design. It's all about the idea, and how it can create the greatest impact. The fact that this is the design work being displayed in a museum—and one with a vast decorative arts program—is truly revolutionary, indeed. It's totally anti-Chair.

Adaptive Eyeglasses by Joshua Silver, Adaptive Eyecare Ltd. and Oxford Centre for Vision in the Developing World. Plastic tubing, aluminum rings, silicone fluid, polyester thin film, polycarbonate covers. Photo: Centre for Vision in the Developing World

Among the Cooper-Hewitt's honorees is this very publication you're reading now. I'm not speaking on behalf of anyone at GOOD, but as a member of the GOOD community and the person who writes the design column here, I think this is a great honor. As a contributor, that sweet spot between ideas and impact is exactly where I strive to be. I hope that GOOD's design coverage falls right into the same pocket as the philosophy of this Cooper-Hewitt exhibition because I think it makes a huge statement about how GOOD not only uses, but presents good design

The fact that most other places, designers, and design coverage is packed into a "Design Week" special, relegated to a "Style" or "Home" section of a newspaper or magazine, or wrapped into themed, glossy, once-a-year issue is the most concerning issue for the design industry. GOOD has always seemed very far away from succumbing to this, infusing design into every aspect of a general-interest publication without ever having to declare it. It is probably the only publication I know that covers design with any kind of rigor but has never, ever had one of those design slideshows. You know what I'm talking about: Chair Porn.

GOOD's installation hanging in the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition. Photo by Scott Stowell

Which brings me to Holland Cotter's review of the exhibition, which is excerpted at the beginning of this piece.

While I'm fairly certain it's nowhere in GOOD's editorial mandate to deliver "only upbeat news" (those are Cotter's words) Cotter needed only to look at GOOD's pieces that were included in the Triennial to know that the way we write about design is different. One of the most provocative and controversial magazine covers I've ever seen was right there on the wall: An image of an AK-47 asking, "Is there design this good that doesn't kill people?"

A visit to GOOD's website reveals critical debate about many of the products featured in the Triennial. The projects are filled with community-contributed design solutions for social challenges that are just as thought-provoking as some of the featured designs at the Cooper-Hewitt. And GOOD—like several other honorees, including The New York Times visualization and interaction projects—has even managed to transcend the reliance on the written word when discussing design and the world's problems, captivating a new audience with easy-to-understand infographics that interpret quite sobering facts.

But it's not just GOOD that's doing this, it's smart publications and writers and designers all over the world who don't treat responsible design as some kind of quirky novelty. These are the people who have realized that it's not about "green," it's not about a "movement," it's about something else entirely: doing what's right.

Learning Landscape, Project H Design. Client: Kutamba School for AIDS Orphans. Reclaimed tires, sand, lumber, chalk. Photo: Project H Design

Until all design publications agree that we're going to start devoting the same amount of space to discussing this kind of design as we do for glorifying The Chairs, well, I'm sorry to say I'm not feeling very "upbeat" at all. There are still too many people out there who continue to think that design is something you can sit on.

We can all keep asking skeptical questions about design's role in solving problems, sure, but I think I'm more interested in working hard to help some of these really great ideas actually get out there and solve them. That's why I write about design every day, and that's why I write about design now.

Top photo by Scott Stowell
via Collection of the New-York Historical Society / Wikimedia Commons

Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

At the age of 15, he was given to Thomas Auld, a cruel man who beat and starved his slaves and thwarted any opportunity for them to practice their faith or to learn to read or write.

Keep Reading Show less
via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

On April 20, 1889 at the Braunau am Inn, in Upper Austria Salzburger located at Vorstadt 15, Alois and Klara Hitler brought a son into the world. They named him Adolph.

Little did they know he would grow up to be one of the greatest forces of evil the world has ever known.

The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

For years it was owned by Gerlinde Pommer, a descendant of the original owners. The Austrian government made numerous attempts to purchase it from her, but to no avail. The building has served many purposes, a school, a library, and a makeshift museum.

In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

RELATED: 'High Castle' producers destroyed every swastika used on the show and the video is oh-so satisfying

In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

The show is loosely based on an alternative history novel by Philip K. Dick that postulates what would happen if Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan controlled the United States after being victorious in World War II.

Keep Reading Show less
via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

RELATED: The 1975's singer bravely kissed a man at a Dubai concert to protest anti-LGBT oppression

In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

RELATED: Alan Turing will appear on the 50-pound note nearly 70 years after being persecuted for his sexuality

Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?


Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

The Italian region of Veneto, which includes the city of Venice, is currently experiencing historic flooding. Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro has stated that the flooding is a direct result of climate change, with the tide measuring the highest level in 50 years. The city (which is actually a collection of 100 islands in a lagoon—hence its famous canal streets), is no stranger to regular flooding, but is currently on the brink of declaring a state of emergency as waters refuse to recede.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet