By  on October 18, 2007

To outsiders, design is an amorphous discipline, a familiar word that doesn't conjure up images of anything too concrete. But a handful of this year's National Design Awards winners gathered Tuesday to spell out some of the seemingly prismatic challenges they face and to size up contemporary design.

Given the spectrum of architects, landscape architects and industrial, graphic and fashion designers cross-pollinating and the media's increased coverage of their various collaborations, there's no question that design is becoming an ever-hotter topic. Even the evening's host, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, had to make adjustments — moving the event to an outdoor tent for the first time to accommodate the 280 attendees.

Cooper-Hewitt curatorial director Cara McCarty chatted with NDA winners Rick Owens, Office dA's Nader Tehrani, LTL's Mark Tsurumaki and David Lewis and PWP Landscape Architecture's Peter Walker about inspiration, innovation, shared authorship, sustainability and other elements of their work.

In the U.S. for the first time in five years, Paris-based Owens said that, early on in his career, he wanted to be an artist. "To tell you the truth, that seemed like a lot of work," he said. "I liked clothes and I thought, I will make a living designing clothes, so I went to patternmaking school to learn and worked for five years with other companies. Then I decided to go out on my own and be broke if need be. And I'm not."

Definitely someone who thinks in 3-D, Owens said he always carries an index card in his back pocket to jot things down and, usually when he is at the gym or traveling, he comes up with shapes or lines on a body. Not a fan of clothes that suggest the wearer's bust should be smaller or their waist is too big, Owens said he is a big believer in clothes that suggest "you're good enough and don't need to be manipulated."

On another front, Owens said he is flattered that the Philippe Jousse gallery has taken on his signature furniture collection, which is inspired in part by Le Corbusier, Jo Colombo and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. All in all, the designer seemed to be at ease in the City of Light. "It's very pleasant to be a guest in Paris. It's nice to have a little sense of alienation in a foreign country. I don't think I'm going to leave France too soon," said Owens, this year's NDA winner for fashion.Instead of divvying up creative and business responsibilities or various projects, Lewis and Tsurumaki of LTL, the interior design firm, said everything they tackle with their other partner, Paul Lewis, is rooted in collaboration. "For us, strength comes from having three designers," said David Lewis. Beyond allowing the trio to handle more work and upping the intensity involved with any one project, the setup enables them to be critical of each other's work, to expand individual ideas and to play off each other's strengths, he said. As a result, LTL opts for projects that are as difficult as possible and unlike previous ones.

Relaying a vision to others is also essential. "How do you ask a New York City contractor to stick 120,000 bamboo skewers into the ceiling?" said Tsurumaki, referring to one of LTL's interiors.

Walker, whose firm is at work on the grounds surrounding the World Trade Center Memorial, said, "When you deal with architects, they're stubborn. They will hold onto an idea sometimes for five or six years and that's how those marvelous ideas get made." And, rather than delegate tasks, they often do things themselves, he added.

Tehrani and his partner, Monica Ponce de Leon, use a different tactic, often laying responsibilities on junior-level staffers, which speeds up the learning curve and gives Office dA's partners more time to play around with ideas. "Monica and I become their employees," he said.

In truth, the founders get clients involved with the design process from the word go — so much so that they "inhabit their family," Tehrani said. This approach also has a psychological edge, since diminishing the role of the architect empowers clients to embrace more radical proposals. "We can come up with something potentially fantastic and when we leave the room they say, 'Oh, well, I designed it.'"

Office dA's futuristic-looking BP gas station in Los Angeles is an example of how the firm aims to change the way people think about buildings. The former British Petroleum, which has been rebranded BP with the tag line Beyond Petroleum, actually uses the station as a living lab that regularly welcomes schoolchildren to discuss energy-related and sustainability issues. Like Renzo Piano and Norman Foster, Tehrani said he favors holistic designs.Panelists also delved into environmentally friendly and sustainability issues. As cities become overdeveloped and public plazas grow more scarce, roofs are becoming popular for fresh-air escapes, Walker said. They also can be more affordable. While sizing up a rooftop transportation center project in San Francisco, he determined a grass roof would cost $200 a foot to build, whereas a glass one would be $400 a foot.

Tehrani said, "Too often sustainability is talked about and seen as something that is applied to a project instead of being a catalyst for how a project is approached."

Tsurumaki added, "It simply needs to be a moral obligation that has to be assumed the way one builds today....It's kind of a fantastic opportunity for architects, and that's the way it needs to be seen."

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