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JULY 31, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 4

The World is Wild About Fine Design
High style isn't highbrow. In fact, it's everywhere, for everyone, in everything from can openers to CD racks to cars

Back in 1960, an obscure Dutch cultural critic named Constant Nieuwenhuys predicted that someday we would all become architects. Stuck in a world where everything looked the same, we would, he suggested, be so alienated from our environment by technology that we would constantly redesign the space around us just to recover the joy of living.

Nieuwenhuys was wrong about only one thing. We are not alienated at all. Look at the Americans, roaring into the 21st century, powered by the longest economic boom in U.S. history, wired to the Web and to one another, thirstily consuming new technology even before they know how to use it. Look at prosperous Europe, a thriving cell-phone continent, pursuing e-commerce for all it's worth. Look at Asia, from New Delhi to Tokyo, where prosperity—even haunted by recent travails—is spurring people to re-create the space around them. They're snapping up translucent blueberry-tinted computers, bubbled cars and little chrome mobile phones as fast as they're produced. They may not be Internet billionaires, but they certainly want to look the part.

Nowhere is that lust for style stronger than in the U.S. In a land where can-do pragmatists once considered design vaguely precious, the province of the Elite, it's now available to all—from the crowd that shops at discount retailer Target to those aesthetes who can pick out an Enzo

Mari umbrella stand from 20 paces. If Americans learned anything from the barbaric, stock-boom-infected '80s, it was that more is not enough. They want better—or at least better looking.

So do people around the world. We're all rushing towards a "design economy"—a crossroads where prosperity and technology meet culture and marketing. These days efficient manufacturing and intense competition have made "commodity chic" not just affordable but also mandatory. The new middle classes are likely to appreciate style when they see it and demand it when they don't. "Design is being democratized," says Karim Rashid, designer of the Oh chair by Umbra and winner of a 1999 George Nelson award for breakthrough furniture design. "Our entire physical landscape has improved, and that makes people more critical as an audience." And more willing to be demanding. Says Mark Dziersk, president of the Industrial Designers Society of America: "This is the new Golden Age of design."

COVER: The Triumph of Style
We don't want more; we don't even want better. We want things whose looks can kill. A new generation of designers brings style to everything from toothbrushes to computers

JAPAN: Once Were Giants
A week after the fall of Sogo, the Seibu department store chain runs into financial trouble. The good news: Japan may finally have learned that propping up ailing behemoths is a bad idea
Spilled Milk: A food scare points to regulatory apathy

CHINA: Muzzle Defense
Spooked by rising social unrest, Beijing tries to silence critics
Hong Kong: Did the government lean on a pollster?

CINEMA: Show's Over
An era ends with the closing of the last Chinese movie theater in New York City's Chinatown



TRAVEL WATCH: How to See Paradise with the Help of a Paddle

Make that platinum, because design has become Big Business. Nobody is quite sure how big, but just consider that Americans alone spent some $6 trillion on goods and services last year, and roughly one-fifth of that went into buying stuff for their homes. The stunning success of the colorful (read: no more beige!) iMac, for instance, not only helped save Apple but has also inspired a raft of whimsically styled, low-cost personal computers from firms like Dell, Gateway, Compaq and Acer. The New Beetle rescued Volkswagen's image two years ago and became a catalyst for change in the auto business. That is leading carmakers from Detroit to Tokyo to put a premium on how their products look because they know that otherwise people won't want to buy them anymore.

So it is with makers of just about everything, all over the planet. "When industries are competing at equal price and functionality, design is the only differential that matters," says Dziersk, echoing the credo first spouted in the '30s by Raymond Loewy, one of the fathers of industrial design. Loewy was the man who gave the world the Lucky Strike cigarette pack and the sleek Greyhound bus. When he added a flourish to the Coldspot refrigerator, to make it look just a little more streamlined than its 1934 competitors, sales at Sears department stores skyrocketed.

Loewy used to say that the most beautiful curve was a rising sales graph, and that notion has driven design since he was in short pants. Good design married commerce during the Great Depression, and Loewy's career took off then because he made products irresistible at a time when nobody really wanted to pay for anything. In the '50s, Charles and Ray Eames led a cohort of Californians who used postwar manufacturing capacity to create sleek, efficient domestic environs. In the '60s, however, industrial design seemed to lose its way and end up in the mire of a consumer sensibility that simply wanted more products for less money. It wasn't until the '90s that this sensibility started to change again.

Now, instead of having one Raymond Loewy, the design world is humming with an eclectic mix of impresarios and entrepreneurs intent on earning a living from making the beautiful things in your life. There are big corporate players, like Sony and Ford Motor and Philips. There are architects and design gurus—iconoclasts like Paris's Philippe Starck and Tokyo's Teruo Kurosaki and young upstarts like London's Marc Newson.

If anyone believes the new appetite for design is spreading, it is Terence Conran, Britain's style impresario. After opening his first furniture store in London in 1964, Conran expanded into North America in the late '70s but eventually pulled out (the stateside Conran's chain folded in 1993). Now he's back, determined to catch the new wave. In December he opened a 2,100-sq-m store in Manhattan. Like its counterparts in London, Paris and Tokyo, the Terence Conran Shop is a design bazaar, with everything from $17 digital watches to $3,550 violet-colored setees. "I never quite understood why design didn't take off in America before," says Conran, who is tentatively optimistic this time around. "There really is a wind of change here now. America is about technology, being proud of achieving so much and confident about having a culture that reflects that."

Americans' appetite for design is flourishing at least partly because America is. The housing boom has reached historic proportions, and people need to fill those new homes with stuff that defines who they are. It used to confer status to have an expensive designer couch; now it's important to have something that's personal, whether it's from the flea market or a chic boutique. Such as the Mosquito Table, which looks like an aircraft wing. Or the Conrad (not Conran) chair, made from something called Bora Bora bark. "In this boom economy, people have a craving to express their individuality," says Bill Faust, Chief Operating Officer at Fitch, a design consultancy with offices from Columbus, Ohio, to Osaka, Japan.

Of course, like many pop culture fixations, the design boom didn't exactly originate in the U.S. The heartland of furniture design is Italy, and since the 1960s many of the great product designs have come out of Japan. Now, of course, entrepreneurs across the U.S. are thriving on everyone's design whims. The clothes may have made the man in ancient times, but now the man carries an iBook, a magnesium-encased Sony vaio or a sleek black Apple G3. It's in his tools too. Does he use the cool new Husqvarna mower or Fluke Corp.'s i410 clamp meter? And his bathroom: one of the hottest current pieces of furniture is the all-stainless-steel toilet (yes, including the seat) designed originally for use in prisons.

In New York City's SoHo district, retailer Murray Moss has built a very profitable little empire dealing in well-designed objects of every description. Working in Italy's fashion industry several years ago, he noticed that Europe had a lot of hot product designers too. So was born Moss, a museum-like shop that doesn't so much display merchandise as venerate it. There are flexible rubber vases, a light made of milk bottles and a $385 zinc-and-steel ironing board that folds as flat as a pancake.

Success? In five years Moss has quadrupled the size of his store, and he claims last year's inventory turned over 11 times (most retailers are happy to empty theirs four times). Moss's customers in large part are not fashion-obsessed Manhattanites but out-of-towners. "I presume they have toilet brushes in Minneapolis," Moss says. "So I'm guessing they find something special about the ones at my store."

Ironically, the design revolution has been given a leg up by not-so-special chain stores like America's Pottery Barn and Sweden's Ikea, which hit the suburban landscape in the mid-'90s. They began with the premise that you didn't have to be an aficionado or hire an interior designer to have a good-looking life. They made do-it-yourself decorating safe. "There was this disconnect in American culture," says Hilary Billings, a key product developer at Pottery Barn at the time, who now heads the online boutique RedEnvelope. "You could open these magazines that showed beautiful homes and interiors, but you couldn't have them."

Neither too expensive nor too outlandish, the new stores offered a way to dodge those thorny design decisions ("Can I like a black leather couch and Shaker armchairs?") and still have a space that wasn't bland. Chains like Pottery Barn, which accounted for two-thirds of parent Williams-Sonoma's sales growth last year, raised the bar on good design. If any fool could put together a stylish home at his local mall, what excuse could you have for owning such a lame-looking couch? More important, should a cool-looking couch cost so much?

The answer to that question is right down the road, at one of the new Target stores springing up around the U.S. The champion of America's new design democracy used to be style-blind. Then Target's executives recognized that competing just on price with the likes of Wal-Mart was a losing proposition. So the store was reinvented with a simple formula: get a big-name designer to do $20 knock-offs of the same stuff he or she designed for the SoHo sophisticates. Thus Michael Graves, known for his work for upscale design firms like Italy's Alessi, supplies Target with stainless-steel teakettles, blocky wood patio furniture and plump-handled spatulas. Ask Alberto Alessi if it bothers him that Graves is recycling his commissions for a fraction of the price, and he offers a wry shrug: "Our real goal should be to talk to the masses."

The American masses have delivered double-digit sales growth to Target since Graves' products debuted last year. "Customers respond to products that involve new thinking and connect with their souls," says former Target vice president Ron Johnson, who launched the Graves line before switching over to Apple's business-development team. Not surprisingly, the department store chain, based in Minneapolis, has become the talk of the advertising executives on Madison Avenue, not to mention the folks on Main Street. And this year, as Target nears the opening of its 1,000th store, Graves has been joined by the doyen of design, Philippe Starck, another Alessi regular, and the hot young design team Blu Dot. Says Dziersk of the Industrial Designers' Society of America: "This is the principle: everyone should have access to beautiful things."

We have technology to thank for that access. "We used to wish we had the technology to do things," says Ian Schrager, an American who pioneered the affordable-boutique-hotel trend. "Now technology is giving us things we don't even know how to use yet." Remember mood rings? Schrager has provided guests at his St. Martins Lane hotel in London with mood rooms—a bedside switch controls multicolored lights that can range from yellow to violet.

Computerization and new materials have made production of just about anything cheaper and more efficient, and quality easier to maintain. The combination means that form no longer has to follow function for a product to be profitable. Auto makers like Toyota can afford to gamble on an unusual-looking car like the new Echo, jam it with extras and sell it for less than $10,500. Sony miraculously rescued its personal-computer business by introducing the ultraslim vaio, a silver-and-purple machine that, when you come right down to it, does little more than any other laptop; it just looks and feels a lot better.

Nothing propels—and benefits from—the technological revolution more than plastics, long viewed as cheap and ugly. Not since the early-20th century popularity of Bakelite has plastic been so loved. Polypropylene, for instance, a plastic that has been around since the '50s, can be molded so smooth it is almost sensuous, and it takes dyes like silk. German design firms Authentics and Koziol have made much hay out of plastic's new pizazz. Koziol's spaghetti forks with a smiley face, ice-cream scoops with eyes and the "Tim" dish brush with legs are some of more than 300 "cutensils," as they're known, that are flying off shelves.

Shopping for household items is no longer dutiful; it's part of an articulation of personal style. Everything is an accessory. It could be coincidence that manufacturers started to think more about making household products fun not long after men started shouldering some of the burden around the home. It could be.

Corporate demand for these new design strategies is surging. Fitch's Faust says his design shop got so many big corporate clients that he went back to school to pick up a business degree. "Designers are being invited to the table more and given a voice in making business decisions," says Faust. "I wanted to give the executives more of a reason to consider a design than 'We think this is cool.'" Well, cool could be enough. Kodak has ditched the black-box camera. Swingline has streamlined its standard stapler. Any company without in-house talent is reaching for a hot design consultant. "Manufacturers recognize that consumers are looking for more than functional benefits," says Barry Shepard, co-founder of SHR Perceptual Management, the design consultancy that helped conceive the Volkswagen Beetle. "A product that matters needs to say something about the person who owns it."

And it doesn't have to say it for long. Buying a cool toothbrush is a way of expressing your personality without making a huge commitment other than to dental hygiene. Your sense of style changes, you buy a new toothbrush. Starck was one of the first to sense this with his translucent Brancusi-esque dollop of a toothbrush for Fluocaril in 1989. Now pharmaceutical companies have released all sorts of toothbrushes—ridged, twisted, tapered, with bands, dots and swirls. The same philosophy applies to dozens of products we used to regard as banal—garbage cans, toilet brushes and cheese graters. They're cute, they're cheap and they're disposable.

Cheap is O.K. by Starck, whose cheerful whimsy with juicers, bottle openers and hotel rooms did much to spark the current fling with design. He says he wants good design to be a commodity—but without being wasteful. He points out that every time he designs a chair, it's less expensive than the one he designed before. "I want everybody to have the best products for the price of anything in the grocery store," he says.

Inevitably, not all designs out there reflect an artist's sensibility, and even many that do are, well, dysfunctional. Example: the Lexon radio on the cover of this magazine; despite appearances, it's not waterproof. "Functionality has become more dimensional," says Susan Yelavich, assistant director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. "Function now embraces psychology and emotion." Or, as designer Karim Rashid puts it, "The more time we spend in front of computer screens, the more the look of our coffee cup takes on added importance."

The question now is whether the design economy can be sustained or whether, when the West's wave of prosperity recedes, everyone will edge back to plain-vanilla functionality. If he were around, Raymond Loewy would remind us that he got his start during the Great Depression, so perhaps the real design revolution is still to come. If so, Constant Nieuwenhuys is looking more prophetic than ever.

—With reporting by Julie Rawe/New York and Sheila Gribben/Chicago

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