International Interior Design Association Ambassador

NeoCon June 2009
Winning Essay on How 2010 will Launch The Decade of Design

I’ve always wondered if you can feel history in the making.

At any point marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. did someone briefly hesitate to freeze that moment in time? Or give himself a quick pinch during Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Star Spangled’ ballad at Woodstock?

Call it a passive twenty-five years, but in my lifetime I could probably count on one hand the events that warrant recounting in our grandchildren’s history classes. Up until now.

In the past year we have seen a female and minority candidate in the final showdown for the presidency, a total housing meltdown, a rapid push to environmental sustainability, and the most enveloping and pervasive economic turmoil in most of our lives. It has been a whirlwind of progression, surprise, humility. Our long-lived comfortable and privileged norm is being turned on its head. It eerily feels a little like history in the making.

In times of economic and political change of this magnitude, cultural shifts invariably follow, spilling big implications into the world of design. With our First Lady famously donning the ultra-attainable clothing of Ann Taylor, and dual environmental and economic forces driving us to renew old resources, 2010 and the decade to follow will need to answer to new demands of practicality.

The role of interior designer must shift accordingly, moving from a luxurious entity to a necessity. With shrinking corporate budgets and a nearly stalling housing market, the temptation to push off design is undeniable. It seems an obvious second to basic infrastructural necessities. But it’s a dangerous game to ignore design. I’ve always thought the power of design is best summed up by New York City’s notorious tactic used to clean up the crime-ridden subways of the 1980’s.

Passengers commuted in dismal graffiti-covered subway cars among pick-pocketers and drug dealers. Tourists stayed away. The subways were generally feared and avoided. For decades, the New York City police sought in vain to stop the criminals who had acquired de facto control over the subways.

Eventually, the impetus to restore order in the subways drove the city to a new and totally unfounded approach: to tackle crime from the design up. The city laid out a simple but firm mandate: each and every subway car must be kept clean of graffiti. It was a simple move, but one that effectively tackled the slippery slope of perception – one where graffiti equaled rebels, rebels equaled chaos, chaos equaled crime, and crime kept passengers away. By taking out the graffiti, the far-removed but connected act of crime was taken out too. In short time the stations were almost completely free of crime. A tactic as simple as cleaning up the stations had proved its ability to change a perception strong enough to cement change.

In the current global atmosphere, the role of designer exponentially grows in importance. We must dutifully advocate the need to push forward with progressive design. We are the ones who must convey the need for work places to remain stimulating, residences comfortable, and public places commanding and orderly. For all intent and purposes, we will need to become the protectors of design.

But with every challenge, of course lies opportunity. Just as the change in the social tide will call for greater efforts to procure design progression, it presents an equal opportunity for innovation. It was, after all, the decade of civil rights and JFK that moved us away from neutral wood interiors to bright bold colors and the iconic furniture of Verner Panton. It was the air of rebellion against Vietnam and Nixon that paralleled the introduction of the ball chair, shag carpeting and all things transcendental.

Society and design are deeply intermingled units thriving in osmosis. Just as the world of design reaps the benefit of stimulating societal change, society reaps the benefit of stimulating design. History is most definitely in the making for the design world in the decade to come.

Return to PRESS