NEW YORK – Daunting as it might sound, a handful of designers well-versed in fashion, architecture and industrial design tackled the elusive subject of what makes a design vibrant. Clearly, the subject is open to interpretation, but panelists agreed that as design goes more mass, the essential thing is to have the freedom to take risks in creating objects that stand out.
Art Center College of Design’s executive vice president and chief academic officer, Nate Young, who served as moderator, opened things up with, “This is the age of design where all these collisions are happening around us.”
He tossed around ideas with Karim Rashid, Nobu Matsuhisa, David Rockwell, Vivienne Tam and Infiniti designers Shiro Nakamura and Koji Nagano – all of whom were willing to joke about the occasional unwelcome reaction to their work. Wearing one of her blouses covered with images of Mao Zedong that she created around 1995, Tam said she decided to use images of the leader, who is generally seen as such “a serious icon.” To some degree, her Mao-inspired collection was similar to the way some Americans make fun of presidents, she said.
But the irony was lost on a few Vivienne Tam shoppers. “When I was selling the collection, some people didn’t know who he was,” Tam said. “One woman asked, ‘Is that your father?'”
Asked about early influences on their work, Rashid singled out his father, a painter and designer for film and TV, who had a hankering for rearranging all the furniture in their house on Sunday mornings, often finessed oil paintings until dawn and liked to spend his Saturdays sketching and sewing a dress for his wife to wear out that night. Rashid also singled out Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, whose futuristic geodesic dome at the 1967 World Expo in Montreal left a lasting impression on him.
“Post 2000, there is a new spirit of enlightenment in the notion of futurism,” he said.
Rockwell said his first immersion into design occurred at the age of nine, when his family moved from Chicago to the Jersey Shore “to this idyllic place – so we thought,” where his vaudeville-trained mother started a community theater. But it was a day trip to Manhattan that really left him mesmerized. Dining at home was a competitive sport for him and his four brothers; they abandoned that practice during lunch at Schraft’s. “I couldn’t believe the transformation of our group,” Rockwell laughed. Even more transfixing was Boris Aronson’s set design for “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Imperial Theater.
“Both of those experiences have been seared in our memories as communal, and design is the link that seals that experience.”
Matsuhisa, who owns Nobu Fifty Seven where the event hosted by Infiniti and the Condé Nast Media Group was held last month, said his brother’s taking him to a sushi restaurant at the age of 11 or 12 changed his life. “I thought, ‘I’ve found my job. This is it.'”
“So if he took you for a hamburger, you’d have a whole different life?” Rashid laughed.
On a more serious note, Rashid said, “It is getting harder and harder to have a novel experience. I like to call it the Holiday Inn Phenomenon – a home away from home. Every city is starting to look the same.”
With the Internet and robotic technology, Rashid questioned why there aren’t more customized products such as shampoo, jeans and automobiles. The latter was of particular interest due to his lanky frame. Aside from suggesting cars be designed with customized seats, he suggested letting consumers select their cars’ colors. “We’re starting to lose our uniform. We are all starting to express ourselves as individuals. This may be happening because of the shrinking world, race or creed. The only thing that differentiates us from one another is our fingerprints.”
Rashid, who designs a breadth of products, said at this stage he does not want to dive into a new category unless he can innovate on some minor level. “Design is really about trying to evolve us to get everyone to have a greater experience.”
A former associate professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Rashid used to have his students count how many objects they touched during the course of a day, and 600-plus was routinely the tally. “For the first time, they realized all of these things have a phenomenal effect on our well-being or they are obstacles. And technology has given us a kind of equality or democracy so we can all participate.”
The global experience can heighten design, said Matsuhisa, noting that Nobu Fifty Seven’s banquettes were made in Malaysia and assembled here. More than anything, he wants diners to enjoy the experience, because then they will come back.
The trick to creating good design is finding new ways to look at things to reposition them, said Rockwell, the architect behind Nobu Fifty Seven. At work on JetBlue’s new terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, Rockwell said one of the greatest challenges of the design process is managing the terminal’s traffic flow – 20 million people coming and going. So he brought in a choreographer for assistance.
His own departure from the Vibrant Design event was delayed. Dissatisfied with how a heavy curtain hung inside Nobu Fifty Seven’s main entrance, ineffectively shielding the winter wind, Rockwell was heard telling an employee, “It would work better if…”