Design Loves a Depression


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January 4, 2009
Design Loves a Depression

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.


Left, Tony Cenicola for The New York Times; right, Museum of Modern Art

MODERN COMFORTS The Eames chair, left, is an enduring classic; the Vermelha chair, by the Campana Brothers, right, is in MoMA.


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 Architects reported 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 is a former editor of the House & Home section of The Times and founder of

Can you ever forgive me?

When I was a kid, I read this lousy “unauthorized” biography of Esteé Lauder. I remember thinking it was poorly written and disorganized. I was maybe 11, so what did I know.

Turns out, the Lauder bio was written by a woman named Lee Israel. She was a fraud, a sham, and a liar — and apparently (though it didn’t show through in her “real” work) a pretty convincing author.

After Israel’s Lauder book failed, she took to forging letters from well known authors. She was eventually caught and convicted, but not after amassing quite a cache of letters from at least five different “authors.”

The letters are collected in the new book Can You Ever Forgive Me? out recently from Simon & Schuster [click here to see the book on Amazon], and reviewed in The New York Times [click here to read the review].

What’s particularly interesting about the book is that many of the letters hail from Rochester. 7 North Goodman Street, to be exact (above). The irony here is that there is no 7 North Goodman Street in Rochester, NY. She also used ZIP codes on letters dated before ZIP codes were in use. So, clever she may have been, but just not too clever.

Goodbye, My Friend.

Magda Cordell McHale

This is a difficult tribute to write. My good friend, Magda Cordell McHale passed away this evening.

Magda and I were an unlikely set. Separated by 50 years, we shared a great deal of time over the past 15 years. I enjoyed that time immeasurably. Though we were distant in chronological age, we connected. I know that inside throughout her life, Magda remained a vibrant, energetic, 25 year-old.

Magda was an avid smoker. One of her few indulgent habits, she smoked frequently, and everywhere. About 5 years ago, someone opened a door — into Magda — which caused a nasty break in her hip. On the floor, she waited for the ambulance. Obviously in great pain, she waited patiently until the medics secured he to the stretcher. Once outside and on her way to the ambulance, she exclaimed “STOP” (which, naturally, everyone did). In the silence that followed, she said, “Everyone must wait. I need to have a cigarette.” Naturally, everyone waited.

Magda was tough. Following emergency hip replacement, I visited Magda in the hospital the following morning at about 3am. She inquired as to how I had gotten in after hours, to which I replied, “I just walked in.” She loved that. We chatted about her new hip. I worried, and she argued that the new replacement hip would likely work much better than the 80-some-odd year-old one she had, and that it would be fine. I suspected she might be right, and less than 3 months later, she was back in the office as usual.Magda was a survivor. She gracefully overcame religious persecution, social prejudice, academic elitism, and age. Magda selflessly shared her unique perspectives and experience with generations of students, through her ability to weave disparate and seemingly wholly unrelated facts into monumental observations that forced one to reexamine the perspective through which the world is viewed. This is one trait of Magda’s that I have worked hard to emulate, and it shapes my career and research trajectories to this day.

Magda was unique. Everyone remembered Magda. Her accent, she confided, made her unique. People remembered it, and that made people remember her.

Magda very consistently offered frank and sage advice, about working, relationships, and food. Framed in 80-some years of experience, it was often difficult to debate the wisdom she offered. Through Magda, I learned a great deal about design, but more about life, and more about how to live. Importantly, I learned to focus on what matters, and let go of the things that don’t, and for that, I will always be in her debt.

Magda was a my close friend, and we spent a lot of time together. We would close our time together saying “goodbye, my friend.” Often, after walking away, I would wonder, what will I do when she’s gone? Who will I ask for advice? Who will chart out the things that are most obvious that I can’t seem to see? I always left our time together with a pang of sadness — wishing there was just a little more time to spend, and recognizing that our time was limited. I’ll miss Magda tremendously, and will remember her fondly as our time together now comes to an end.

Goodbye, My Friend.

Rochester Historical Biking Tour

Bike Tours


I just learned of a really cool new series of bike tours that are being run by the Obediah Dogberry folks. There are four tours (one a month between now and autumn) that will cover historical sites around Rochester. A very cool idea, and I’m sure (knowing the folks that will be leading the tours) a very worthwhile experience.

You can find out more information at the tour site, or print out a list of rides here.