On Oct. 18, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum opened the doors of its mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side and rolled out the red carpet for what's often described as the Oscars of the design world: the National Design Awards gala ceremony. (Click here for Bruce Nussbaum's firsthand account of the night's activities.)
Although most of the attendees aren't recognizable by sight—could you pick Michael Bierut out of a lineup?—the event draws some impressive names from the design world and beyond. In past years, Martha Stewart, Senator Chuck Schumer, and Lou Reed have all put in an appearance. And the honorees—both the winners and the finalists—include some of the most respected names and promising talents in the world of design, writ large. This year's class includes the late Bill Stumpf, the designer of the Aeron chair; Nike, for corporate achievement; and Syd Mead, whose concept designs for Blade Runner and Aliens raised the bar for science-fiction sets.
Cooper-Hewitt, which now honors designers in 11 categories, inaugurated the program in 2000 with the stated goal of recognizing, celebrating, and promoting outstanding contributions to design, as well as raising national awareness of the role of design in our lives. And ever since the Chrysler Design Awards lost its eponymous sponsor and fizzled, the NDA has been the only such event dedicated to U.S.-based designers. That makes it the most prestigious event in the U.S. design world. Yet it's also a program that's generated derision and even boycotts.
In design circles, one consistent complaint has been the Oscar-style tradition of pre-announcing the finalists and revealing the winner only at the gala event in the fall. "Designers are bigger divas than actors," says one former winner.
AND THE AWARDS GO TO…
"It's important to find ways to celebrate the best of the best, but it's not right to hurt talented designers in order to celebrate just one," said another critic. "Just decide whom you want to celebrate and give them the award."
And this year, the awards organizers took a step in that direction. Just one month after the finalists were announced last spring, the 11 winners were revealed. In addition to Stumpf, Nike, and Mead, the jury recognized Paolo Soleri, the Italian-born architect and a pioneer of environmentally sensitive urban planning, with a Lifetime Achievement award. Soleri began developing Arcosanti, a prototype town in Arizona based on ecological principles, long before green architecture became trendy.
Paola Antonelli, a curator in the Architecture and Design Dept. at New York's Museum of Modern Art, won the award for Design Mind. The award for Design Patron went to Craig Robins, the developer responsible for putting Miami back on the design and art map. And the Architecture Design award went to Pritzker Prize winner Thom Mayne, whose recent works include the San Francisco Federal Building and the NYC2012 Olympic Village, part of New York's Olympic bid.
WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA?
Pre-announcing the winners solved the problem of sensitive egos. But it doesn't solve a larger problem with the National Design Awards: What are the criteria? How do the jurors decide the winners? The answer is that each year's jury, to a large extent, sets its own criteria, which creates a certain inconsistency. And that inconsistency hampers the larger goal of the program to educate the public about the role of design in our lives.
Take last year's Communication Design category: The award went to Stefan Sagmeister, the Austrian-born designer whose body of work—including many CD covers for Lou Reed, the Talking Heads, and others—is striking, sometimes sensational, often witty, and always original. He has pushed the boundaries of both medium and message. In what is, among designers at least, a famous project, he was asked to create the promotional poster for a lecture he was giving for the AIGA.
He had an assistant write the details of the event on his chest with an X-Acto knife and photograph the result.
Few would argue that Sagmeister didn't deserve a National Design Award. What isn't so obvious is why Sagmeister won the award over the other two finalists, Pentagram partner Paula Scher and the rising stars at the New York firm 2x4. One could argue that, as the designer of Jon Stewart's America: The Book and one of the designers involved in the sparkling new Bloomberg headquarters in Manhattan, Scher deserved the 2005 prize. Or that 2x4's cross-disciplinary work should be celebrated as the leading edge of communication design—and, indeed, the firm won this year's award. How do you compare the stellar careers of three groundbreaking graphic designers from the same area code?
The Product Design category suffers from the same apples-to-oranges problem. Last year's winner was Burt Rutan, the X Prize-winning aerospace designer who is the "Wright Brothers" of commercial space flight. Rutan won over finalists Bill Stumpf, the pioneer of ergonomic design whose Aeron chair is the best-selling office chair of all time; and Constantin and Laurene Boym, the chiefs of a small New York firm with big-name clients and products in the Museum of Modern Art that is known for its experimental, edgy style.
This year's Product Design finalists reflected the same pattern of two designers whose impact is unquestionable and one promising-but-younger firm: Stumpf (again); Apple's vice-president of design, Jonathan Ive; and Antenna Design, the small shop that designed the MetroCard kiosks for the New York City subway and the check-in kiosks for JetBlue Airways. This year's award went posthumously to Stumpf, who died in September. Rather than helping the public understand what makes great design, these decisions leave you scratching your head. What criteria do you use to judge such disparate accomplishments?
Just in its seventh year, the National Design Awards program is still evolving, tweaking its process, and deciding whether it wants to recognize the obvious designers—established names like Stumpf and Sagmeister—or younger, edgier designers like Antenna or Local Projects, nominated in the Communication Design category this year. The truth is that the program can do both: recognizing luminaries with the Lifetime Achievement awards and the Special Jury Commendations, and focusing on younger designers in the category-specific awards or with a new emerging-talent recognition. It could also create a category to recognize a designer who has made a significant impact in the previous year.
With more well-defined criteria, the jury's decisions would seem less capricious, and the National Design Awards would fulfill its important mission of celebrating greatness in and raising public awareness of design. The glitz of the awards ceremony aside, the NDA is something that all designers know well: a work in progress.