Radical Craft, or Why Designers Make my Heart Beat Faster

I have a jones for architects.

Well, I could modify that. I could say,

I have a frank for architects.

After all, there are two iconic "franks" in architecture (Gehry and Lloyd Wright) and no "jones" that I know of (ok, I know I'll hear from a thousand architects by the name of Jones).

Erin McKean, lexicographer and self-styled "dictionary evangelist" who wowed the hard-to-impress crowd at the Radical Craft Design Conference at Art Center College in Pasadena this weekend would say that you can't have a "frank" for somebody until it's been used in "running text" (like this blog and other written works) and that it's balanced (by its context).

But Erin says she's "not a curator of a word museum" (she's editor of the Oxford American Dictionary): when you're trying to convince her to get a word into the dictionary corpus (or database), which is a "living toolbox for writers and readers", you shouldn't "reference your personal savior".

But ever since I worked at the Museum of Modern Art during the "Italy: the New Domestic Landscape" show which brought hundreds of Italian architects and designers to New York in the seventies, I have thought that architects (and their kissin' cousins, designers) represented the very best combination of artists and businessmen and I thought that this, very possibly, was the way around being the good Jewish girl and having to marry a doctor or a lawyer.

In those days, architects weren't starchitects even if some had reputations, they were shared by the cognoscenti--the clients and curators who represented a very small circle of admirers.

My first job out of college was to help host parties at the Museum and I was overwhelmed by the charm, the sense of style and the talent of the visiting designers. Of course I developed a crush on one of them and it says everything about our relationship that the only Italian that he taught me to supplement my one year of college level study was "Cosa devo fare per essere perdonata" which means "What must I do to be forgiven". Last summer in Paris when I came upon a drawing of his at the Pompidou Center, the crazy angles on the graph paper bought his charming Florentine bullshit back with a rush.

All this whooshed through my mind as I entered the former wind tunnel now South Campus of the Art Center College for this weekend's conference. Land-based architects, space architects, graphic designers, product designers, car designers, web designers, human rights activists, writers, poets and the lexicographer got together for the third annual schmoozefest which explored the notion that thinking radically about their craft could help designers innovate and problem solve in their own practice. Erin probably got plenty of balance for her corpus as she listened to designers who do often think of themselves as personal saviors (of the past) and guardians (of the future) but during these two days, they seemed eager to get tips on how other innovators are preserving (craft) and moving forward (radical) at the same time.

Some presenters were better at spinning this potentially oxymoronic theme (the notion of hearth-meets-high tech) and tying it in with their work; others gave over to the packaged show-and-tell they must give to anybody who asks,
"Well, what does an inventor or human rights activist do, anyway?" As always, the better presenters made their intersection with the design world more compelling.

This, however, was my third design conference and though I wasn't jaded, I must cop to a certain mindset about designers. They will say anything they need to have their way. And say it craftily. The first conference I attended was one I organized for WNET in NY when I was trying to stay close to designers even though I had theoretically left the art world for public television. It was call "Design with a small d". I had a notion (definitely radical) that PBS should be exploring this craft in a multi-part series that would make design and architecture accessible and interesting to the average ptv viewer. It was my way of turning architects into household names that would eventually be parentally-approved, and of course, like many of my ideas to sex PBS up, it never got out of the ground (still hasn't). But the names of my some of my conferees will send thrills up the spine of any design junkie: George Nelson, Henry Wolf, Ivan Chermayeff.

A few years later, I covered the Aspen Design Conference that Ivan and his wife Jane organized around the theme of children for Connoisseur Magazine. I brought my kids and we made cities out of hay bales under the tutelage of architect Harry Teague and attended a hot air balloon (alternative transportation anyone?) be-in. It was a real effort to connect design with the boomers and we all had a great time, but I was told it marked the beginning of dissension in the Aspen design firmament. Since then, the Aspen Design Conference, the Daddy of all design conferences which was held every year in late June, has been erratic. Though Paola Antonelli, the MOMA design curator, ran one a few years ago, the old guard has moved on (in some cases, to the Bucky Fuller dome in the sky).

Richard Saul Wurman, who organized the high tech TED conferences in San Francisco has also all but retired from that gig despite a small effort at the Skirball Museum a few weeks ago.

So into the design conference void on his Quidditch stick rode Richard Koshalek, former MOCA director, now mover and shaker of all things architectural in Pasadena, and captured the Snitch, (which he promptly offered to have redesigned by Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaus for the final book in the Harry Potter series). Richard and his colleague Chee Pearlman have wrangled some of the best design minds and MacArthur genius type thinkers into the wind tunnel and this year was no exception. It had been transformed into a kind of humongous disco, with black shaggy rugs and black leather club chairs, high metal bar tables and stools and a fashion island of wi fi. The stage had three hanging panels and lava lamp style objets and jetsons wallpaper to serve as background for three enormous screens which brought the presenters into personal space with every last conferee, even those on their way to the bathrooms.

Among the highlights:

David Gallo, director of Special Projects at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute unveiled his radical seacraft 'Abe" and "Alvin", vehicles that explore the topography of the underworld up to four miles below the surface of the ocean. He and his team are mobilizing (and trying to get a tv series launched too) to prevent climate change from depleting our most precious disappearing resource, water.

Martin Fisher, CEO of KickStart who has figured out how to make entrepreneurs of starving farmers in sub Saharan Africa with two, radically crafted, hand-and-foot driven irrigation pumps that are generating a new way out of poverty. One looks like a low-tech Stairmaster and the other like a Hoover--both guaranteed to help you stay slim and trim as you arroser les fleurs.

His counterpart, Jane Olsen, at Human Rights Watch who made knitting and sewing a way for women to subvert war crimes victimhood in Bosnia.

Stefan Sagmeister, the meister of all things graphic, who took a year off of work because he was burned out, went back to keeping a diary, culled from that diary about twenty of the most important lessons he had learned, and made a fortune selling them off, one by one, as ad campaigns, to his clients over the next years. (Blogmeisters take note....maybe we CAN make a buck out of all this one of these days!)

Danny Hillis, inventor, who demonstrated his new radical high tech topographical map, now just beginning to be utilized by emergency services but sure to one day be in demand to replace the authoritarian Miss Marple types( "Now, make a left") that currently rule the GPS devices in cars.

Isaac Mizrahi, who turned the disco into a revival tent as he went up and down the aisles taking questions from his devoted fans (this was the one bonafide celebrity moment at the conference--and it showed that designers are right to use Oprah, not public television, as an outlet, if they really to really become household words). In Isaac, (as Harold Koda , curator of the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute suggested about Coco Chanel), aspiration has met its price point. Isaac says design is like a bodily function and radical craft is "really getting the meds right".

Erin McKean: aforementioned rock star of lexicography who matched the wallpaper with her fifties puff dress and yellow sweater.

Billy Collins, our former US Poet Laureate and current NY state poet, who won converts to the craft of reading aloud what you have written down on a page to a live audience(how radically nostalgic), with his poems that answer the following questions:
"What do women want" (they want similies),
How do you pay your mother back for a lifetime of devotion (make her a lanyard) and
How do you answer Paul Valery's contention that poems are never finished, they are abandoned (personify an abandoned poem as a Parisian nymphet whom you "finish" by ravishing her sexually in your garret and then have a smoke.)

Of course, the designers were less wowed by one of their own ranks: Wolf Prix, of Coop Himmelb(l)au , the only starchitect presenter who took the air right out of the tunnel. The massive, torqued, computer-generated designs and slick, expensive marketing film for the board of trustees of BMW seemed out of step with much of the previous rhetoric about pending environmental Armageddon. Are the days of the starchitects numbered as clients and users realize their buildings are more about the starchitects than about them?

There weren't any politicians in evidence; but many presenters alluded to having to be well versed in political navigation in order to get their projects through and told students this skill was part of being a designer.

Among the conferee highlights: the guy in the Dennis Rodman-style leopard buzz cut, the lady in the striped pajamas, gold slippers and silver Elvis-do, the guy with the booty of about twenty earrings strung from ONE hole in his left ear, you know who you are.

I came away invigorated and exhausted, the usual twins of post-conference detumescence.

In the interest of full disclosure and for future generations of young women, I did, dear reader, marry an architect. I am also stepmother to yet another as well as to a graphic designer and mother to an environmental studies major.

Despite growing up to my theory of the perfect profession, at least one son has rebelled and and is working in the movie business as an assistant to an agent. They are teaching him that ( unlike the designer hybrid) if you don't separate out the craft from the business, things can get, well, really radical.