Beyond Buildings


OK American Design

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I am grateful for the fact that wherever I travel in the United States, I can usually find a hotel to stay that will provide me with the kind of generically modern environment that lets me take off my sunglasses when I walk into my mass-produced temporary shelter. It is nice that I can usually open the window rather than rely on air conditioning. I am glad that, if I stain my shirt, I can walk into an equally modernist store and buy a generic replacement. I am grateful that my Ford Fusion rental car will have a slightly retro, but clean and simple, instrument panel. But do I believe that this represents great American design? Apparently, the jury of the 2010 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards believed so, because they have given their top prizes to work that is mostly pleasant and perfectly fine but, in my opinion, not great.


It'snot nice to be critical about work that has just been recognized and that therefore will, we all hope, show the public that good design is possible, but, hey, what else is the Internet for? So ... I am perfectly pleased by the work of Kieran Timberlake, which was the best architecture the jury could find, but I find little there that contributes to a rethinking and reevaluation of the designed environment. I marvel at the accoutrements in Gucci and Tom Ford shops, but is the work of William Sofield really anything but nice set dressing? Certainly Jane Thompson and Ralph Caplan, both former ID Magazine editors, have contributed to our knowledge about design over the years, but have they done so in the critical manner of the truly great ID editor Chee Pearlman or MOMA Curator Paola Antonelli? And as for Smart Design, the people who gave us that Fusion instrument cluster, have they really made the world better beyond giving us OXO Good Grips? To me, these winners all represent the kind of generic modernist OK-ness I associate with W Hotels, Banana Republic, and Dwell magazine.


I get some of the choices, such as Lisa Strausfeld for Interactive Design, and James Corner for Landscape Design. Both have helped transform their field, have contributed to a theoretical understanding of their areas, and do work that just flat-out amazes. But that is about it. I fail to see why the USGBC, which has saddled us with the fake grail of LEED standards, should receive an award beyond the fact that getting anything done of this sort is apparently a miracle. I will refrain from discussing Rodarte, the California clothing company whose work to me seems highly derivative of things I saw in Japan and Belgium a decade ago, but that my fashion maven friends think is truly original.


Obviously, I was not on the jury, so I was not part of the discussions and evaluations, and perhaps this group, of which three work for J. Crew, General Electric, and Nike, saw brilliance in this work. I am reminded, however, of last year's winners: the Walker Art Center, Lincoln Center, ShOP, Walter Hood, Constantine Boym. Now there is a short list of design greatness.


So, I congratulate the winners. I acknowledge that it is important to make nice things, and to work through corporate and institutional structures to make the world a little better and a little prettier, or at least simpler and easier to use. I realize that it is important that we do the right thing in terms of the environment, and that this should be one of the central, if not the central, criteria for evaluating design. I know that many people have been fighting the good fight for decades. But please, I do hope that next year the Cooper-Hewitt will not just present good design, but will again make us realize that we need to fundamentally redesign our world, for both environmental and social reasons; that this is a more serious pursuit that I see evidenced in most of this work; and that it would be nice if design would blow your mind, rather than be bland enough not to mind it.


Comments (3 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:55 AM Wednesday, June 30, 2010

    It appears that his understanding of what people do and have done to redsign the world as well as the diverse design professions are as mannered and superficial as his opinions of the award themselves. He is a headline chaser -- only today's news has its(15 minute) meaning. After all, that is how designs get into print, followed by wrters who need something new to write about. DOMAGE.

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  • Posted by: Charrisse | Time: 10:44 PM Friday, June 25, 2010

    To the contrary - Betsky is a rarity that tells it like it is when the rest of us are admiring the emperor's new clothes. Keep it coming, Aaron!

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 4:18 PM Friday, June 25, 2010

    wow, i cannot believe i actually wasted my time once agian reading this guy's dribble. when am i going to learn he has nothing to offer?

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.