JULY 31, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 4
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
By FRANK GIBNEY JR. and BELINDA LUSCOMBE
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 prosperityeven
haunted by recent travailsis 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
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 allfrom 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 betteror 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."
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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.
edition's table of contents
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 gurusiconoclasts 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 roomsa
bedside switch controls multicolored lights that can range from yellow
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 propelsand benefits fromthe 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
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 toothbrushesridged, twisted, tapered,
with bands, dots and swirls. The same philosophy applies to dozens of
products we used to regard as banalgarbage 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 commoditybut 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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