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Innovation & Design

All the World's a Fair

Are design fairs really effective in drumming up business, boosting education, and promoting awareness of tomorrow's next design capitals?

Required: one capacious totebag for brochures, with bonus points if it rolls, levitates, or otherwise spares your back. Two pairs of shoes, one comfortable, one shamelessly frivolous. Annotated conference schedule; no detours! Your favorite pens for note-taking—better yet, a fully charged cell-phone cam. Protein-heavy snacks, ample patience, business cards, and a stopwatch.

Roger, check, check. You're now equipped to tour the world's growing number of design fairs.

Design fairs make big promises to participants and visitors alike: creative rejuvenation, intelligent debate, matchmaking for employees and partners, convenience for major buyers, a boon to design education, and for tourists, fun. Design fairs represent a new wave in how designers promote themselves. In the past three years, Europe has gone from the twin hegemony of London's 100% Design and Milan's Saloni Internazionale del Mobile—both furniture fairs—to a calendar thick with inclusive design events, many in the EU's emerging member states. As governments, sponsors, universities, and designers pour funds into these events, it's worth asking: Do they really work? What are they even aiming for?

The Rolling Wheel of Commerce

Even well past teatime, London Design Festival director Ben Evans is still buzzed. "In 2003 when we started, there weren't more than three or four comparable events around the world. Since then, we've seen at least 15 or 20 new events internationally." Evans predicts 50 design fairs within the next 10 to 20 years. "Just as every city has its own film festival, they now need a design festival, too."

The annual London Design Festival holds the crown as one of Europe's, if not the world's, largest design fairs. At 300,000 visitors from 32 countries and 208 projects exhibited in 2006—a three- and fourfold-plus increase over 2003—the September festival's size alone is a draw. Evans lists three of the festival's advantages for the industry: communication muscle, intensified networking, and developing new audiences, both upmarket and down. "London had all these great events happening, but they existed in little silos," Evans says. "Creating this platform made everyone's voices louder." The festival devotes most of its £420,000 (US $812,000) budget to publicity. (The federal and city government pay half; the rest comes from sponsorships and booth and ticket revenue.) Publicity is also its chief measurable ROI: Last year's 400+ media clips represent £2.5 million (US $4.84 million) in U.K. press value alone.

Evans is clearly delighted by the potential of new audiences. He's seeking to convert not just IKEA graduates but also the high-end market. "The top end of design is now attracting art prices," Evans continues. He sees design as the approachable alternative to contemporary art for ordinary Brits, too: "We've all got a sofa. It may be lumpy and feel like crap, but you can aspire to something better."

As the design world's commercial clearinghouse, London tracks surprisingly few hard ROI metrics. Evans cites participants' reluctance to share sales figures, but it's equally likely everyone rolls forward on faith. Like many of his sponsors and cohorts, Evans subscribes to economist Richard Florida's popular "creative class" theory: Cities that attract creative workers will benefit economically from the entrepreneurial wave that follows them. Critics contend that Florida confuses correlation with causation. Repeat attendance, Evans counters, proves designers think the fair works.

Metrics or no, the London event provides some clear commercial benefits: a coordinated, screened opportunity to transact business efficiently, hire and partner with others, and lure consumers, on a scale that guarantees press coverage. In other words, being the 800-pound gorilla counts for a lot.

Talk Will Bind Us Together

It's not all about the Benjamins. Idea exchange and education provide Dutch Design Week's core catalyst: "Our aim is to bring designers together to talk about their work," says John Lippinkhof, general manager of Design Platform Eindhoven, organizers of Dutch Design Week every October. "It's not a commercial event. We ask designers to think about the design process... [and] the public gets invited into the kitchen." This self-organized event grew from a designers-only klatch 10 years ago to a weeklong public event in 2003, to 50,000 mostly Dutch participants in 2006, split equally among designers, the public, and industry groups like manufacturers and distributors. Sixty percent of the event's €1 million (US $1.3 million) in funding comes from the Dutch government, the city of Eindhoven, and the EU, with 40 percent coming from sponsors.

It's tough to quantify the value of dialogue, but the chance to gather consumer feedback must be useful. "People are curious: What's the input of the designer?" says Lippinkhof. "Design is a process [that's] unknown to the general public, also to most of the industry." The so-called Dutch Living Rooms project revealed process directly by inviting designers to move their offices to the fairgrounds and work in a fishbowl. In the collaborative GreyTones project, graphic design firm Volle-Kracht worked onsite with spatial designers to create "The Human Freakshow," a blending of photography, graphic arts, and special effects. "We're the only event working on content," adds Lippinkhof. "Others will discover quite soon it's an attractive niche."

He's dead-on there. Budapest's three-year-old September design fair invites participants to hop an old Ikarus-model bus to take nine design-studio tours encompassing themes from jewelry to textiles to furniture. Another tramcar roves the city hosting an impromptu exhibit on a particular design focus. Eva Medgyes, curator of Budapest's Design Week, believes firmly that the free-of-charge Design Tours provide the crucial link between the public, designers, and the city itself. "The idea is to show people where designers ‘hide,'" says Medgyes, noting that many bus riders "return . . . as customers and commission-givers." About 1,500 of the event's 36,500 visitors last year took the tours, accompanied by multilingual guides.

Tamás Futó seconds Medgyes's assertion. As chairman of the Association of Hungarian Graphic Design Studios (MGSE), he exhibits winners of the annual Golden Thumbtack Prize at the Budapest Design Week. (Each year, the MGSE culls the best in Hungarian graphic design, awarding an old-fashioned gold thumbtack, which passes like a trophy from winner to winner.) "This exhibition of ‘everyday art' is interesting for everybody," Futó avers, citing as proof the 10,000 visitors last year to his mini-event.

Please Do Feed the Tourists

Budapest's approach suggests a more implicit economic driver behind the design week explosion: cultural tourism. As design grows increasingly synonymous with creativity and affluence, tourism departments have taken notice. Although Medgyes receives only logistical support from Budapest's tourism board—her 16 million HUF (US $84,000) budget comes from the Hungarian Patent Office, the Hungarian Design Council, and media sponsors—she plans to hitch her event to tourism trends that are bringing Budapest back into vogue. "Design spots and events are... a new target for incentive tourism all over the world," Medgyes says. Whether design events truly drove Prague's or Berlin's tourism (or simply symbolized their arrival to Western European standards) is up for grabs.

Mining a location connects designers with tourist-customers and can enrich the event's thematic relevance, too. Istanbul Design Week takes its cues from its majestic backdrop: the Old Galata Bridge spanning the Golden Horn's waters. Perfectly positioned between Sultanahmet and the Blue Mosque in the old city and the Galata Tower and its beautifully crammed environs in the new, the place is steeped in centuries of craft, yet open to both Europe and Asia.

Arhan Kayar, co-founder of Istanbul's two-year-old June event, clearly warms to the locale as a creative wellspring: "What attracts me is . . . discussing ideas about the future on such a century-old bridge. It excites me that this has become a city project, embraced by all public segments." Kayar's studio Dream Design Factory (dDf) uses the setting as a springboard for the event's identity as well: The fair website lets users navigate a photo of the bridge's underbelly; each steel girder brings users to a new aspect of the fair.

The fair's events are suffused with place, too: fashion shows housed in seaweed-strewn ferry terminals, water-themed industrial design exhibits, even a floating pavilion for workshops. Graphic designer Ayse Çelim is generally skeptical of design fairs' effectiveness for graphic designers, but praised Istanbul's event as a great venue for peddling her T-shirts. "I was very happy with the attention," Çelim says. "We had a live interview with CNN the very first day." Like the fair itself, Çelim's exhibition centered on street art from various world capitals, along with T-shirts for fans of Helvetica, New York, and Garamond. "If [you] think of this event as not ‘just another design event' but a ‘city event,' [and] build a good and proper relationship with the city, that's success," Kayar says. At the outer limits of Europe, Istanbul is banking on its centrality and open atmosphere to become a design port.

Redesigning the Bubble

But what if your city is struggling and damaged, like, say, Belgrade? The Belgrade Design Week springs from, and capitalizes on, location in a wholly different way. "This region is still a little exotic; people are curious—especially designers," says program director Maja Vidakovic. The inaugural event testifies to the power of audacity and scrappiness. After dictator Slobodan Milosevic fell from power in 2000, Vidakovic and partners Nina Babic and Jovan Jelovac returned to their native Belgrade to find a city with, as Vidakovic puts it, "zero infrastructure." Working still with former colleagues from New York, London, and Germany, the trio realized that few younger Serbian designers enjoyed their interconnected advantages. By starting (and self-funding) a design fair, these designers hope to motivate manufacturers, expose young designers to design greats, promote design to policy wonks as an economic driver to develop consumers, elevate designers' incomes, and establish Serbia as a regional hub for graphic arts. It's exhilarating to think a design fair could push forward such an agenda.

Last year's event starred Karim Rashid, Peter Saville, Gaetano Pesce, Ross Lovegrove, Luigi Colani, and fellow Serb Konstantin Grcic. "The funny thing about Serbian media is that you can yell about some Serbian designer for a hundred years—and nothing," laughs Vidakovic. "But tell them about a foreign guy who's really famous, they give you all the coverage." That coverage proved eye-opening for local government, manufacturers, and consumers—and yielded badly needed international contacts for local designers.

Vidakovic won't share budgetary figures, but the results are promising: 12,000 attendees, solid press coverage, sufficient curiosity to power another megawatt speakers' list, not to mention nibbles from local manufacturers and government. "After Design Week, [manufacturers and printers realized] that design was... something to help their businesses," Vidakovic notes. "Before, there was no sense that hiring someone creative should have value." The Ghost Project exhibit—a rolling slide show of promising, but unrealized, projects by Serbian designers—makes this deficiency plain.

Illuminating a forgotten corner of the world offers the most moving reason to hold a fair. "We've lived in isolation for so many years," Vidakovic continues. "Young people who are now 20, 22, the best years when you put on a backpack and travel—they've never left the country. It's probably hard to understand from New York, where everything's happening in front of you, [but] every single professional they can see in the flesh, talk to, get contact information from, start internships—it's heartbreaking. It's a matter of life or death for these kids." Adds partner Nina Babic: "You have to be aware of this country's disastrous background to understand the significance of this project and why we have such crazy commitment to it... People are re-learning that life isn't only about surviving great drama, wars, political persecutions... but about the small stuff, that it's okay to be happy. That's a great motivator for me."

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