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One of Heatherwick’s ‘sculptural thingummies for public plazas’: Vents (2000) in Paternoster Square, near St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Photograph: David Balhuizen

How can one question the nation’s most engaging designer without seeming a curmudgeon? How can one express any doubt whatsoever about someone beloved by Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Sir Terence Conran, the last of whom has called him “a Leonardo da Vinci of our times”?

How can one criticise work as adorable as Thomas Heatherwick’s without seeming, metaphorically speaking, to punch a puppy in the face? And why would you want to?

I ask these questions because there is no doubting Heatherwick’s talent and appeal, yet he prompts a nagging sense that somehow, somewhere, something is lacking.

People smile when they get into his Spun chairs, objects like spinning tops that make you feel as if they’re about to tip you out, but never do. At the Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum an assistant cranks a handle that makes a model of a bridge curl up and uncurl, and the assembled press burst into applause. He has an ability to do unusual things with materials and objects, such as make buildings that look hairy, and long benches formed of aluminium that has been squeezed out of a machine like toothpaste out of a tube.

Always opposed to the boundaries between design, architecture and art, he now applies his skills to very large projects – a park in Abu Dhabi, a biomass power station in Teesside, a colossal hotel in Doha, a shopping mall in Hong Kong – as well as to tables, bowls, Christmas cards and sculptural thingummies in public plazas. One of his most notable recent designs is the new version of the London routemaster double-decker bus.


Rowan Moore


‘Adorned with endangered or extinct species in denominations such as $6.66, the real value of $10 with environmental costs factored in.’ By Jonathan Franzen (Photograph: Joseph Sohm/Jonathan Franzen)

Global economic meltdown, the euro crisis and Occupy protests – this year has been dominated by financial issues. But what is money anyway? We invited writers and artists including Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood and Naomi Klein to invent new currencies and banknotes for a changed

View images here


Steve Jobs … the Apple CEO shows an image of the new storage centre for iCloud at the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco, June 2011. Photograph: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

Perhaps the funniest passage in Walter Isaacson’s monumental book about Steve Jobs comes three quarters of the way through. It is 2009 and Jobs is recovering from a liver transplant and pneumonia. At one point the pulmonologist tries to put a mask over his face when he is deeply sedated. Jobs rips it off and mumbles that he hates the design and refuses to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he orders them to bring five different options for the mask so that he can pick a design he likes. Even in the depths of his hallucinations, Jobs was a control-freak and a rude sod to boot. Imagine what he was like in the pink of health. As it happens, you don’t need to: every discoverable fact about how Jobs, ahem, coaxed excellence from his co-workers is here.

As Isaacson makes clear, Jobs wasn’t a visionary or even a particularly talented electronic engineer. But he was a businessman of astonishing flair and focus, a marketing genius, and – when he was getting it right, which wasn’t always – had an intuitive sense of what the customer would want before the customer had any idea. He was obsessed with the products, rather than with the money: happily, as he discovered, if you get the products right, the money will come.

Isaacson’s book is studded with moments that make you go “wow”. There’s the Apple flotation, which made the 25-year-old Jobs $256m in the days when that was a lot of money. There’s his turnaround of the company after he returned as CEO in 1997: in the previous fiscal year the company lost $1.04bn, but he returned it to profit in his first quarter. There’s the launch of the iTunes store: expected to sell a million songs in six months, it sold a million songs in six days.


Sam Leith

Whenever I think of sustainable design, I think of the opening sentence of Victor Papanek’s book Design for the Real World. It goes: “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.” Papanek, a designer himself, went on to call designers “dangerous”, the producers of “garbage”. And that was in 1972.

These days, designers have a rather different role as societal problem-solvers, leading the way to a cleaner, better future. But I suspect Papanek is still right. Notwithstanding this new conscientious breed, there is no getting over the fact that the majority of product designers earn their living supplying growth-dependent economies with novelties for our ever-more-insatiable appetites. Increasingly, many of those objects are being presented as sustainable. Perhaps packaged in brown cardboard with little green arrows on it.

“Sustainability”. I have never much liked the word. “Sustainable” is not an adjective you would use to describe something you love. To sustain something is to keep it alive, pure and simple – more of a duty than a passion. Once, we aspired to reach the moon; now, we just hope to hold on to what we’ve got. Sustainability suggests the flatlining of human ambition. So I did a double-take when I saw a new book called Sustainism Is the New Modernism. If sustainability is boring, “sustainism” is just grammatically freaky (adding “ism” to a verb?). As you’ll already have worked out, it yields the word “sustainity” (as in, from here to sustainity). Oh, and “sustainist”.


Justin McGuirk

Giles Miller photographed in his East London studio. Photograph: Richard Saker

Cardboard boxes contain many intrinsic ecological plus points. Made from cellulose fibres, cardboard can be easily recycled. At the end of its useful life it can even be composted. But because cardboard is lightweight and seemingly plentiful it’s often tossed on the rubbish heap prematurely; its ubiquity has made it seem worthless. Designer Giles Miller thinks we’re missing a trick.

“It’s a brilliant material,” he says, and admits to “falling in love” with cardboard when the strap broke on a laptop shoulder bag he was carrying and the computer was damaged. “I began experimenting with making a laptop bag in cardboard, and after alternating the direction of the corrugation I constructed something that could take the force of the blow.”

His efforts to elevate cardboard as a material for design were given a boost when he made the infrastructure for Stella McCartney’s pop-up shop at Galeries Lafayette in Paris last year. “We have a responsibility as designers to acknowledge the impact and the lifespan of the products we put out there,” says Miller. ‘”Why not use a material we know can be recycled easily and why not also address why something that has such structural integrity and potential is always thought of as having a short lifespan?”


Lucy Siegle


“Usefulness is inversely proportional to status,” Deyan Sudjic writes in his new book “The Language of Things: Understanding the World of Desirable Objects.” “The more useless an object is, the more highly valued it will be.”

The author is referring to the relative value of art versus industrial design – but the observation can be applied equally well to cities such as San Francisco.

Think about it: The physical need to occupy a specific patch of earth has never been less important to one’s success. Everything we might acquire can be tracked down online; most culture we seek can be procured through a handheld device.

Our 21st century equivalent of an office tower turns out to be a cafe with free Wi-Fi.

All this should signal a death knell to the traditional core. Instead – recession aside – marquee hubs such as San Francisco stand more desirable than ever. It’s not that we need to be here. But the center serves as a stage set, the spotlit focus for people who use urbanity to define themselves and their tribe.

Cities aren’t the focus of Sudjic’s book, a well-tailored provocation that both explores why the best design work is timeless and decries how it can be debased for status or show. Thomas Chippendale and his 18th century furniture are explored as a precursor to Ikea – “a pioneer in brand creation” – and the ever-shinier line of Apple products is contrasted with the demise of the fountain pen as status symbol (“the basic concept has lost its relevance”).

The underlying theme: the quest among designers and clients for “emotional resonance,” the design of a watch or a laptop computer that connotes something beyond what it does: “to provide us with a reminder of the world beyond utility.”


John King
SF Gate (San Francisco Chronicle)

Plans for the new Grand Paris should not smother classic street life, like this in the Marais. Photograph: William Albert Allard/Getty

Is Paris immune from destruction? History suggests that the French capital has been one of the most charmed, or lucky, cities of all times. It was occupied for long years by the perfidious English during the 15th century. It was the backdrop to the gory St Bartholomew’s Massacre of 1572, the Revolution of 1789 and the guillotine-driven terror that followed. It was surrendered to the Prussians in 1871 and to Adolf Hitler in 1940. As Allied troops drew close to Paris in 1944, Hitler ordered the city’s destruction. The German military governor, General Dietrich von Choltitz, ignored his commander-in-chief and surrendered the city at Gare Montparnasse to Free French forces, letting it come through the war more or less unscathed.

Destruction came only after the second world war, and then it was at the hands of politicians, technocrats, planners, big business and architects armed with big plans. Baron Haussmann’s mighty efforts to rebuild Paris for Napoleon IIIin the mid-19th Century changed the face of much of the city.Yet, they seem almost modest compared with the aggressive modernisation programmes that witnessed the destruction of Les Halles (the legendary food market fondly known as the “belly of Paris”), the construction of brutal arterial roads, and the creation of suburbs so hideous that they make London’s most banal outposts seem chic. Even Le Corbusier’s madly idealistic plan to demolish half of the city centre and replace it with high-quality, high-rise apartment blocks set in a new urban parkland look charming in comparison.

In the 1980s, I remember watching with genuine shock as the mass-produced, neo-classical concrete apartment blocks designed by Ricardo Bofill were piling high at St Quentin-en-Yvelines and Marne-la-Vallée. These outer suburbs were, in theory, to have been a kind of Versailles for the People, yet in reality they were monumentally scary places. These were the most urbane – if not the best– of the new Parisian suburbia created over the past twenty-five years.

Given the wretched divide between the Paris of our collective dreams and the Paris of underprivileged, excluded suburban sprawl, it’s hardly surprising that President Sarkozy and Mayor Delanoë wish to be seen to be doing something about a problem that can only cause ever more problems for Paris and France. They have asked for architects – ten of them, and big names – for grand plans. This is often said to be the Parisian way.

It’s here, I can’t help thinking, that Paris should be careful. There is a place in the city for modern grandeur and spectacle, as Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano proved with the design of the eye-boggling Pompidou Centre in the 1970s. But surely what is needed is a way not just of improving the look of the poor parts of the city, and linking them to the centre with parks and green avenues, but also of creating and nurturing the education, the jobs, the businesses and the ways of life that will allow Paris to develop humanely while enhancing its character at the same time.

Recent plans for the city, championed by both Sarkozy and Delanoë, have been to bling the city up with a new generation of wilfully crass skyscrapers spelling the names of Global Brands and Big Business in letters that make the illuminated signs of Times Square look as demure as candles in a Surrey church.

Big plans mustn’t be allowed to smother Paris. No single architect can ever right the city’s wrongs, or come up with ideal, universal solutions. Plans on anything like a big scale will need the involvement of many different people and sectors of Parisian society if they are to have a chance of working. They need to be matched by hundreds of small plans that will allow the streets of Paris from the Marais to Marne-la-Vallée to flourish in a way that is all their own.

Jonathan Glancey

(Photo courtesy Of Matthew Carter)

It used to be that when Matthew Carter told people that he was a type designer, they stared back at him slack-jawed and said they thought all type designers had died.

Today, though, strangers in this Internet age at least know what a font is, and they might even know the names of some of them.

“I’ve had some comical conversations where people say things like: ‘Well, we’ve all been told we have to use this font called Verdana at work. Have you heard of it?’ ”

Has he heard of it? He designed it.

Carter, 71, is the creator of Georgia, Verdana, Galliard and 70 other typeface families during his 53 years in the field, and the Design Museum in London hails him as “the most important typography designer of our time.” On Monday, he will speak at the Corcoran Gallery of Art about some of the typefaces he has created and explain why people are still designing new ones. (One reason: Fonts that are legible on such small hand-held devices as iPhones, BlackBerrys and Kindle e-book readers.)

Carter, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and grew up in London, says he has created type by every means historically possible. His father, Harry Carter, was a typographer and a type historian. He never pressured his son to enter the family trade, but when Matthew Carter needed a job after graduating from high school, his father helped him get an apprenticeship at a type foundry in the Netherlands.

He carved letters into the end of a steel rod in a process called punch-cutting, which was already on its way to becoming obsolete. He could finish about one letter a day.

He still sees himself as a type “founder,” an anachronistic term for someone who makes type, even though today he’s pushing pixels rather than pounding metal. He also classifies his job under industrial design because he is perfecting a product — the English alphabet — that must perform a specific task for many people.

“All industrial designers have constraints, but they are particularly severe in type design,” he says. “Typefaces have to be readable and useable . . . and on the other hand, you have this impulse to bring some tiny measure of innovation into what you’re doing. The options are very limited. I can’t decide one morning I’m tired of the letter B and I’m going to redesign it from scratch. There’s frustration and fascination. If you’re going to serve a life sentence as a type designer — which I seem to be doing — you have to find the fascination greater than the frustration.”

When Carter designs a typeface, he typically starts with a lowercase h. It has an ascender (the stroke going up on the left), but it also reveals a lot about the character of the typeface. From a lowercase h, he explains, you can tell what a lowercase l, m and n will look like. Graphic designers, however, usually identify typefaces by more flamboyant letters of the alphabet, such as a capital “Q” or a lowercase “g.” The fact that Carter is more of a lowercase h guy says much about his design style.

He creates “the fonts that do the heavy lifting as opposed to being flashy,” says New York-based type designer Jonathan Hoefler, whom Carter points to as one of his favorite talents in the business.

Carter is best known for creating text typefaces that can be read for long periods of time. In the mid-’70s, he designed Bell Centennial for AT&T; the company still uses it in many phone books. Publications such as Sports Illustrated, Wired and the New York Times also have commissioned Carter to customize typefaces for them. In 1998, Carter created the font for most of the headlines in The Washington Post by reworking Bodoni. He named it Postoni.

For design inspiration, Carter often turns to old books. Galliard, his 1978 typeface, is a revival of a 16th-century design. Hoefler raves: “It’s not necessarily just a nice font but an entire approach to design.”

“If you imagine a type designer as a colorist — colorists talk about the amazing blue they saw or the green of their bathroom — Matthew is the guy who invented brown, then 20 years later invented orange,” Hoefler says.

Three of Carter’s best-known typefaces are Georgia, Tahoma and Verdana because they are all available in Microsoft programs. Microsoft commissioned him to create these fonts in 1994, because the fonts that work well in ink don’t necessarily look great on low-resolution computer screens.

Hoefler’s business partner, Tobias Frere-Jones, helped Carter finish the Verdana bold italic font. Frere-Jones, 38, first met Carter in 1991, when Frere-Jones was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. At his professor’s urging, Frere-Jones took the train to Cambridge to show Carter a typeface he was designing for an independent-study class.

“It was sort of like going to see the pope to show him some thing you’ve been doodling,” Frere-Jones says. “It was more than a little intimidating.”

Carter gave him some tips for his project, which became a typeface called Hightower. Carter delivered his feedback in his typically relaxed manner — “he has the basis to be kind of haughty or elitist, but that never occurs to him,” Frere-Jones says. They have kept in touch ever since and they now teach a class together at Yale, where Carter has taught type design since 1976.

His students today are entering a more democratic type design field. When Carter started cutting punches in the Dutch foundry in 1955, it was an austere business, hard to get into for technical reasons. Today, anyone with a computer and Fontlab software can give it a go.

“I’m eternally grateful I survived into the digital era,” he says. “I’m glad to experience the previous technologies, but am very glad to have left them behind.”

Rachel Saslow
Washington Post

The Eames chair, left, is an enduring classic; the Vermelha chair, by the Campana Brothers, right, is in MoMA. Left, Tony Cenicola for The New York Times; right, Museum of Modern Art

Few of the arts benefited from the late economic boom more than design. After all, when the wealth is flowing, people don’t covet the concerts you see or the books you read. They covet the couch you bought, and then they buy a cooler one.

In the recent giddy years, signature architects and designers came to be known by their first names — Rem, Philippe, Zaha — and they were photographed as prolifically as Bono in new design hotbeds like Miami and Dubai. Brooklyn designers became the apotheosis of indie cool (thin portfolios notwithstanding), and the British collective Established & Sons and other skilled maneuverers learned to breed their self-conscious furniture selectively into limited editions that sold for the kind of prices more often found in the art world. All of which was chronicled in self-celebratory books like “S, M, L, XL” by Rem Koolhaas, a 1,300-page monograph as lush as glazed fruit and weighty as firewood.

Looking back, those of us with front-row seats might have known that this design surge would not sustain itself. Two years ago, at the Milan furniture fair, Marcel Wanders, a Dutch designer known for arty provocations, held a thumping party to show off his 15-foot-high lamps and other furniture of distorted Alice-in-Wonderland scale. Never mind that his work was upstaged by his girlfriend, Nanine Linning, who hung upside down half-naked while mixing vodka drinks from bottles affixed to a chandelier. Form followed frivolity. Function was left off the guest list.

Now, given that all those slick Miami condos are sitting empty in the sky, designers like the Campana Brothers, with their $8,910 Corallo chair, and Hella Jongerius, with her $10,615 Ponder sofa, might have a harder time selling their wares. Already designers are biting their knuckles over the damage reports. The American Institute of Architectsreported that last month’s billings index, a gauge of nonresidential construction, reached its lowest level since it began collecting data in 1995.

The pain of layoffs notwithstanding, the design world could stand to come down a notch or two — and might actually find a new sense of relevance in the process. That was the case during the Great Depression, when an early wave of modernism flourished in the United States, partly because it efficiently addressed the middle-class need for a pared-down life without servants and other Victorian trappings.

“American designers took the Depression as a call to arms,” said Kristina Wilson, author of “Livable Modernism: Interior Decorating and Design During the Great Depression” and an assistant professor of art history at Clark University. “It was a chance to make good on the Modernist promise to make affordable, intelligent design for a broad audience.”

The most popular American designer of that era was probably Russel Wright, who acted as the Depression’s Martha Stewart, turning out a warmed-up, affordable version of European modern furniture, tableware and linens for a new kind of informal home life. A bentwood armchair cost $19.95. “They were not just cheap, they were beautiful, and that was a powerful combination,” Ms. Wilson said.

Design tends to thrive in hard times. In the scarcity of the 1940s, Charles and Ray Eames produced furniture and other products of enduring appeal from cheap materials like plastic, resin and plywood, and Italian design flowered in the aftermath of World War II.

Will today’s designers rise to the occasion? “What designers do really well is work within constraints, work with what they have,” said Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art. “This might be the time when designers can really do their job, and do it in a humanistic spirit.”
In the lean years ahead, “there will be less design, but much better design,” Ms. Antonelli predicted.

There is a reason she and others are optimistic: however dark the economic picture, it will most likely cause designers to shift their attention from consumer products to the more pressing needs of infrastructure, housing, city planning, transit and energy. Designers are good at coming up with new ways of looking at complex problems, and if President-elect Barack Obama delivers anything like a W.P.A, we could be “standing on the brink of one of the most productive periods of design ever,” said Reed Kroloff, director of Cranbrook Academy of Art.

On the other hand, the design community talked up its role in safeguarding the world after 9/11, with little result.

Modernism’s great ambition was to democratize design. Ikea and Target have shown that the battle for cheap design can be won. The emphasis will most likely shift to greater quality at affordable prices. This time around it will be the designer’s job to discourage consumers from regarding that $30 Ikea side table as a throwaway item.

If household furnishings are to avoid landfills, says Julie Lasky, editor in chief of I.D. magazine, they must be capable of withstanding the vicissitudes of fashion — like the Aalto stool, but at a fifth of the price. “It will be about finding the sweet spot between affordability and durability,” Ms. Lasky said. This kind of innovation means rethinking the economy of production and distribution so that goods are made cheaply closer to home (or in the home, if the most radical ideas are to be taken seriously).

One way or another, design will focus less on styling consumer objects with laser-cut patterns and colored resin and more on the intelligent reworking of current conditions. Expect to hear a lot more about open-source design, and cradle-to-cradle, a concept developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart that calls for cars, packaging and other everyday objects to be designed specifically for recycling so that their parts and materials are used and reused without waste.

The old paradigm — epitomized by shelter magazines like Architectural Digest and Dwell — that found romance in single-family homes, each with its own lawn, detached garage and septic system, may crumble under the weight of its wastefulness. One challenge will be for designers to coax us to a more efficient way of living, as the architect Lorcan O’Herlihy is doing with his light and airy schemes for multifamily dwellings in Los Angeles, a city where backyards and driveways are all but a birthright. Fewer buildings will go up, and the stock of mid-century buildings nearing the end of their lifespan will be thoughtfully reworked to make them efficient and in keeping with principles of sustainability.

If Ms. Linning’s dangling from the ceiling was a cultural moment now passed, we can look forward to others for an age in which beauty and austerity go together.

Michael Cannell
New York Times


Many a critical stone has been cast since it opened last year, but this week the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the Royal Ontario Museum got a very big boost when Condé Nast Traveler magazine named architect Daniel Libeskind’s controversial creation one of the “new seven wonders of the world.”

With a paid monthly circulation of 800,000, Condé Nast Traveler is a highly influential magazine. And by giving the Crystal the full-colour double-page treatment along with the six other artificial “wonders” – they include the 160-storey Burj Dubai complex in the United Arab Emirates, Manhattan’s New Museum and the rebuilt Wembley Stadium in London – “it puts it into a global context,” a delighted ROM president William Thorsell said yesterday.

The article, in the magazine’s April issue, acknowledges that the $135-million Crystal and its jagged thrusts of steel, glass and aluminum have “received mixed reviews from the locals – and that’s putting it mildly.” But it goes on to suggest that “the aggressively deconstructionist addition is just the shock of the new that this slow-to-change city needs.”

Mr. Thorsell said he had “heard a rumour that [the article] was coming but I didn’t know until Tuesday that they’d done it.” The approbation of Condé Nast Traveler, to his mind, is “a real tribute to Libeskind,” the Polish-born, New York-based architect whose now-famous yarn of drawing the first iteration of the Crystal on a cocktail napkin is dutifully repeated in the article. “It’s really nice to see that kind of notice.”

Asked if it was also a vindication of his own unstinting devotion to the Crystal, Mr. Thorsell demurred somewhat. “A lot of people think the Crystal was built in the face of all this public opposition. But if you go back to the actual selection process [in 2001-2002], when we had the exhibitions, the lectures and all that, he was the favourite” among the three finalists, Mr. Thorsell said. “That was a very open process and the people of Toronto did not come out and say, ‘Don’t do the Crystal.’ I think if we’d announced something ordinary, there would have been a great sense of disappointment in the city. So I think it’s a tribute to the city; the city embraced it by the end of the selection process, for the most part.”

Late last year The Globe and Mail’s architecture critic Lisa Rochon named the Crystal as “the building most likely to come down in the next 20 years.” Wednesday Mr. Thorsell was begging to differ.

“Over time, I think it will prevail.”

Condé Nast Traveler, in the meantime, already thinks it’s one for the ages.

James Adams
Globe and Mail