NEW YORK — Guests attending the National Design Awards at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum merely had to look up at the chandeliers made of Slinkys to get a sense of where design is heading.
Whether using everyday objects in an offbeat way, blending high and low levels of culture or executing experimental urban planning, the idea of using design to dress up people's lives purely for a quick smile or for more practical reasons was celebrated on Wednesday night. The Museum of Modern Art's Paola Antonelli, this year's Design Mind award winner, discussed the need to make design a larger part of the public's consciousness — something that easily could be furthered by clueing in policy makers to design and encouraging newspapers to hire design critics. So that "we might be able to walk through life as if we were watching a movie" — even walking into the occasional lamppost because we are so interested in how beautiful a traffic light can be, she said.
In its seventh year, the NDA has become the design's industry Oscar Night of sorts, a chance to toast groundbreaking architects and designers in a variety of disciplines. The late Bill Stumpf's ergonomical Aeron chair, Paolo Soleri's prototype town Arcosanti, Maria Cornejo's sculptural clothes, Martha Schwartz's lush landscape design in city settings and interior designer Michael Gabellini's influence on Top of the Rock were among the works of this year's winners that were singled out.
Isaac Mizrahi turned up at the Target-backed event to hand over the first People's Choice Design award to Marianne Cusato, the creator of the Katrina Cottages, quaint affordable housing for some displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The token celebrity quota was met by Robert Downey Jr., who awarded his friend and Miami-based retailer Craig Robins with the Design Patron Award, and Spike Lee, who honored Nike with the corporate achievement award but still managed to praise himself.
The evening's host, Yves Béhar, founder of Fuseproject, had sounder things to say. "In order to be relevant in what we do, we can't just be part of change — we need to be ahead of it."
After accepting the Communications Design Award for his firm 2x4, which he started with Susan Sellers and Georgie Stout, Michael Rock also had a message for the crowd. On behalf of the trio, which lists Prada, Rem Koolhaas and Richard Gluckman among its collaborators, Rock said: "We started our business on the premise that words can mean something. That's something that's important now more than ever."Cornejo picked up her prize from Diane von Furstenberg and bested Thom Browne and Peter Som in doing so. As incoming president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, von Furstenberg said: "Fashion gets all kind of raps these days. Some people say it's only about marketing. The truth is, the winner of this award is all about excellency and substance and today she has proved that."
Cornejo, the designer behind the Zero label, was clearly humbled by her co-winners. "I really feel like a kid at school."
Perhaps the most insightful words, if not pragmatic, were delivered posthumously by Bill Stumpf, who was featured in a video. The designer died last month. "I don't dwell too much on what is. I spend much more of my time in the what isn't — the thing you're looking for that isn't."
To get there, the industrial designer often started with himself. "I know this sounds terribly self-serving, but I design for myself. Someone once told me to design for somebody you love," he said in the video. "I can't tell you when you sit in that chair if your butt feels good, but I know when mine does."
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