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Erudite Design, Mass in Mind

NEW YORK — With the exception of Whirlpool and Geoffrey Beene, this year’s National Design Award winners were not exactly household names.<br><br>In that regard, the nine prize winners epitomized the mission of modern design — to...

NEW YORK — With the exception of Whirlpool and Geoffrey Beene, this year’s National Design Award winners were not exactly household names.

In that regard, the nine prize winners epitomized the mission of modern design — to take artistry to the masses through everyday objects and experiences.

What else would unite hotelier André Balazs, the New York City Housing Authority, landscape architect Dan Kiley, graphic artist and professor Lucille Tenazas, ergonomic design pioneer Niels Diffrient, architect Stephen Holl and James Carpenter, the champion of modern glass design?

“Design is not something to be possessed by the elite,” said Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker’s architecture critic, who hosted the winners at a dinner Tuesday on the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s lawn. “It should stem from the edges of American life to the masses.”

That sentiment was echoed by many of the recipients — even Beene, whose architecturally influenced designs and scholarly approach to fashion would not exactly be described as accessible. Before picking up the American Original award, Beene said fashion designers need to be more tuned into the masses who seek more affordable, wearable clothes.

“It’s too free. There’s very little discipline. A little discipline is very good for anything and anyone,” he said. “It’s good to please the masses, as well as the specialized public. The whole point of design is to make people feel better about themselves. Fashion is one of the professions that accomplishes that. Medicine, acting and psychiatry do also.”

As a young man, Beene studied at Tulane University’s medical school, where he often was thrown out of lectures for sketching images of Joan Crawford. But anatomy class did him in.

“Twenty-one cadavers in one room was the moment of truth for me,” he said. “But the thing I hated the most wound up being the basis of my career — the body.”

Murray Moss, co-chair of the event, recalled an examination of a different kind. In his previous life on Seventh Avenue at the now defunct Shamask sportswear company, he would buy Beene’s designs, rip the clothes apart and “study and dissect them, as one would with an insect, to understand them better.”

Design patron winner Balazs, the force behind The Mercer Hotel, Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont and other dimly lit destinations, cast the design process in a different light. He said, “It’s like an old-style Hollywood production [that has to be put on and taken down by people each day].”

That’s a concept already being worked on by architect design honoree Rick Joy. He’s involved with a “phantom restaurant” in Arizona, which will be held in different locations with different chefs without a set schedule. Joy said he was inspired by Robert Irwins’ “Homage to the Square” installation. Diners will have to be in the know to book a reservation and pay online for the art installation-inspired dining experience.

“When you have to pay at the end of the night, it sort of ruins the whole experience,” Joy said. “I’ve been to a few restaurants lately where you pay online in advance and you wind up having a really nice, relaxed dinner.”