Jonathan Ive and Apple Win Again

It's no surprise Cooper-Hewitt honored the doyen of computer design, but some 2007 National Design Awards did go to lesser-known talents

With buzz about the iPhone's imminent launch growing more deafening, it would have been easy to miss the recent announcement that Apple's (AAPL) senior vice-president of industrial design just won the 2007 National Design Award for product design. "Jonathan Ive's streamlined design aesthetic, combined with a strong knowledge of the engineering process, has brought design into the public consciousness in an unprecedented way," read the announcement from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the organization behind the awards. (see also, 9/25/2006, "Who Is Jonathan Ive?")

Ive will receive the award at a swanky gala event in October, along with nine other winners in categories including architecture, fashion design, and corporate achievement. The winners—selected by a seven-member jury of leading figures in design—including Caterina Fake, co-founder of Flickr, and interior designer Michael Gabellini, principal of Gabellini Sheppard Associates—aren't recognized for a specific project so much as for a body of work that demonstrates design excellence, pushes the boundaries of their disciplines, and makes a positive impact on public life.

Ive clearly lives up to the criteria, as do the other two finalists in the product design category. You may not have heard of Smart Design, but chances are you know its work, the most famous being the ever-growing line of black, rubber-handled kitchen gadgets for OXO.

Karim Rashid, whose clients include Umbra, Dirt Devil, and packaging for Issey Miyake and Estee Lauder (EL), has brought his distinctive, brightly colored, curvilinear style to such common objects as trash cans and plastic chairs. The portfolios of both finalists prove that breakthrough design doesn't require a fat wallet.

A Small Circle of Winners

The choice of Ive, one of the most celebrated designers working today, is hardly surprising. And in fact, cranky journalists and commentators have criticized Cooper-Hewitt juries in the past for always giving the awards to the boringly obvious candidate. It's also much muttered that the same names turn up year after year and that a finalist one year will invariably make it to the podium the next. (The 2005 communications design finalist, 2x4, won the award in 2006; spaceship designer Burt Rutan was a finalist in '04 and won in '05; both Ive and Alfred A. Knopf book designer Chip Kidd were finalists in their respective categories last year, winners this time around.)

"I go both ways on that insider factor," says Michael Rock, principal of 2x4, by phone from his Manhattan studio. "Design is a difficult profession to understand and a hierarchical system of evaluation means that good work can be recognized." In other words, practicing designers are best placed to judge what's truly interesting or important within these areas of design and to recognize the people at the forefront of their respective fields.

People's Design Award

"If you try to make it really broad and about what the layman thinks, the things that get awarded don't necessarily embody design ideals," Rock continues. "[The organizers] are trying to broadcast to the public that design matters, and that big important national organizations should take it as a serious subject." This way, Joe Public and non-designing chief executives alike can get the clearest sense of the true power of design.

Perhaps to counter the accusation of insider dealing, the awards' organizers are also keen to point out that initial nominations come from a committee of more than 800 designers, educators, journalists, and corporate leaders from every state in the U.S. Last year, it also introduced the "People's Design Award," where the general public can both nominate and vote for a design of their choice.

The winner was Marianne Cusato's Katrina Cottage, a small, permanent alternative to temporary emergency housing. Other nominees included both design icons (the Eames chair and the Empire State Building) and everyday objects (the zipper and the mousetrap), underlining Rock's point that laypeople might not have the same sense of what is driving an industry forward as professional practitioners.

Celebrating the Company

To its credit, this year's jury did deliver some surprises. The corporate achievement award, which has typically gone to design-savvy retailers and manufacturers such as Nike (NKE), Whirlpool (WHR), and Target (TGT), went to software maker Adobe Systems (ADBE). Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, and other Adobe programs have had an immeasurable impact on design.

What's surprising and refreshing about that choice is its celebration of a company involved in the process of design rather than the product. Likewise, this year's "Special Jury Commendation" went to Francis Ching, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and a much published author whose name is nonetheless not well known outside of architecture schools.

Another surprise was the architecture award itself, which went to the innovative Boston firm Office dA. Founded in 1991 by Monica Ponce de Leon and Nadar Tehrani, Office dA reflects the philosophy of an emerging generation of architects who are pushing the use of digital design and construction tools. The firm also defies the narrow definition of architecture, choosing to work across disciplinary boundaries by making forays into furniture design and urban planning. To date, their commissions have included a mixed-use building in Kuwait, an arts center in Beijing, a library for the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, and the residential, environmentally sensitive Macallen Building in Boston.

An Important Purpose

All in all, the awards create a congratulatory moment for the great, good, and powerful within the world of design. What effect they have beyond that is difficult to measure, though First Lady Laura Bush acts as Honorary Patron for the awards, guaranteeing at least nominal recognition for the industry of design within the political sphere.

And while Michael Rock and his partners at 2x4 caused what he describes as a "tempest in a teapot" last year, by refusing to attend the White House event honoring the winners, even Rock admits, "It's nice to have the recognition and it's gratifying to be compared to other people whose work we really respect." As for their broader influence, "it might take a while," he says. "But the awards are definitely growing, and they serve an important purpose—to cause people to think about design and have a positive image of it."

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