NEW YORK — “Design or die” might sound a bit severe, but the reality isn’t that far from what shoppers want, provided they have a laugh or two along the way.

This story first appeared in the November 4, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

That was the consensus among design experts at “Design or Die: Why Design Is the Soul of the New Enterprise,” a recent panel discussion at Bloomberg’s offices here.

Barneys New York’s creative director Simon Doonan, Kate Spade president and creative director Andy Spade, author and business guru Tom Peters, architect Rafael Pelli, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum curator Ellen Lupton, and Paul Darrah, Bloomberg’s global director of architecture and design, talked about the future of design in corporate culture and at retail. Julie Lasky, editor in chief of I.D. Magazine, served as moderator.

Panelists credited Target, Kmart, Ikea and Pottery Barn with helping everyday consumers take a sharper look at what they buy. Breaking from typical chain store formulas, they said these retailers had the smarts to feature big names like Michael Graves, Philippe Starck, Martha Stewart and Isaac Mizrahi to further the cause.

Peters, author of “Re-Imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age,” said, “Everyone is talking about creating an experience. We’re really just starting this process. Two months ago, I made the pilgrimage to mecca, otherwise known as Bentonville, Ark. [home of Wal-Mart.] I told them they spent the last 10 years beating their vendors on cost and asked them, ‘What if you used that same muscle with design?’”

He noted that if Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s chief executive, told the 400 Procter & Gamble employees who live in Bentonville to design “awesomely cool stuff that would surprise us fundamentally,” they would do so — no questions asked.

Like several of the other panelists, Peters credited Target with raising the bar on design and helping designers to look more closely at that element of their wares.

“If you don’t have the opportunity to do stuff you’re proud of, why the hell get up in the morning, if that’s not fundamentally the point?” Peters said.

He also took issue with major retailers’ matrix systems. “One thing that unnerves me at retail is that the buyer has no incentive for risk-taking. The only incentive is cover your tail and do what everyone else is doing,” Peters said.

Doonan of Barneys said he was on the fence about the importance of design, but more than anything, consumers want to have a good time. Case in point: Doonan described his recent visit to the Ocean Club in the Bahamas, where Christian Liaigre furniture accents the rooms and Enya-type music streams through the halls. But half-a-mile up the beach at the overbuilt Atlantis, “Everyone has mullets and tattoos of their children’s faces on their backs” and they’re blasting by on Jet Skis and shooting down a gigantic water slide that passes by sharks enclosed in tanks.

“Who is having more fun, the people with the good taste or the people with the mullets?” Doonan said.

“The very nature of retail is not just reaching out [to consumers] but grasping them and tearing their gizzards out. You have to know who your customer is, what tweaks his or her imagination,” he added. “Barneys is a very groovy store designed by various people, including Peter Marino. But there’s also a guy named Taylor who greets you when you walk in and will remember your name.”

Bloomberg’s Darrah agreed. Before designing the media giant’s Park Avenue offices, the company’s founder borrowed from his trading floor experience, where visibility is essential. To that end, the space is open to encourage workers to communicate. TV monitors and other screens are displayed to try to keep things current. Even the spiral staircases were deliberately designed to ensure workers would bump into each other to “force people to collaborate,” Darrah said. “The outcome is that it’s very aesthetically pleasing, and 4,000 employees across 35 floors feel good about coming to work.”

A similar formula is being used for Bloomberg’s new London office, which will be in a building with 1.2 million square feet.

Spade offered a different take. He said he and his wife did not set out to create a fashion company but “people demanded newness.” He also said design direction is sometimes wrongfully dictated by retailers. Henri Bendel once “insisted” that Kate Spade design neon-colored mohair bags to merchandise with some wigs the retailer was selling. When they bombed, the Spades wound up buying them back.

Similarly, the company logo was initially stitched on the bags to lend a design element. Initially, Barneys did not go for the change and asked for bags without labels. When they didn’t sell, the retailer requested ones with labels.

“At least we didn’t have matching wigs,” Doonan quipped.

Despite the ups and downs of design, Spade emphasized the importance of maintaining a personal edge.

“Consistency is important, but we believe personality is more important. We believe the bigger we get, the more personal we have to get,” he said.

Lupton also touched upon the importance of personalizing design, praising Ikea for naming every item it produces. “It may be a chair called ‘Fart’ or a lamp called ‘Belch’ or a weird Swedish name with seven consonants. But that humanizes the process and says that everything was designed by someone who got credit for it. Think about what a tiny country Sweden is and how many people work in design there,” Lupton said. “As long as someone puts a name on it, people will have someone to complain to, and it gives it authorship.”

Referring to the debate about Ground Zero proposals, renowned architect Pelli said, “One unintended value of this is it has put the value of architectural design high again [in New York].”

Besides the general public’s increased interest in design, more than anything design must serve a purpose, he said. “You have to allow life to take place. Architecture is not all about shape and design. It’s about the quality of a space and how you move through it,” Pelli said.

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