“The fluffy stuff.” That’s what designers used to do. After everything important had been decided by the moneymen or the manufacturers, the designers could come in and choose the colors, perhaps parts of the shape or where the buttons went. It was fine-tuning at best. A business that wanted to make products that a) worked and b) sold would think twice about letting a designer loose on the scene.
Over the past decade or two, that old world has been systematically blown up by a series of design mavericks. Intent on being involved from the start and taken seriously as changemakers and entrepreneurs, designers are now not only leading big businesses from the very top, but they are taking the game into their own hands.
Take trailblazer Jony Ive, largely credited with turning around Apple’s astonishing fortunes; or Yves Béhar, who redesigned a laptop to be so cost-effective it could be distributed to children in the developing world, and then did the same with spectacles, while revolutionizing fitness trackers, wireless speakers and thermostats along the way. Marcel Wanders brought the fun back into furniture, as did Tom Dixon—who has created a lighting and furniture empire with his own (now household) name that shows no signs of slowing down. A visit to Milan’s annual furniture trade fair, Salone del Mobile, is a very different experience than it used to be. Once a showcase for venerable brands, it has been taken over by superstar designers.
Consumers of everything, from fashion to furniture, have become less interested in the manufacturer than in the creator, breaking down the wall between art and commerce. This year, Japanese design studio Nendo exhibited a one-year retrospective of more than 100 products it had designed for commercial brands at the Museo della Permanente. When designer Jaime Hayón created a fantastical urban installation of a play cityscape to showcase the carmaker Mini’s Citysurfer electric scooter, everyone came to see the 40-m-long marble table with gold road markings on it and handmade copper “street lamps” he had created—rather than the actual product.
There was a similar marriage between art and industry in Lee Broom’s faux department store in Milan, an installation he put together in abandoned shops to showcase his products. Meanwhile, Dixon has rethought the whole concept of retail with Multiplex, a monthlong multisensory shopping experiment in London’s Selfridges department store, and he’s moved into chocolates with Marcolini and soon into perfumes because, well … why not? “I think that design thrives with unexpected combinations and can’t exist in a void,” says Dixon. “It’s a broad concept that stretches through software, theater, fashion, product, systems and graphic design. It’s impossible to speak of it as one single thing.”
The new entrepreneurial design landscape is as diverse as it is complicated. As the boundaries between disciplines blur, the very term designer has become a catchall for a variety of creative forces. And as routes to market become more streamlined, there is more freedom to make, do and sell whatever a designer can dream. See Barber & Osgerby, who put their innovative mark on everything from school chairs to sound systems to gigantic spinning installations like the one they built inside the Victoria and Albert Museum last year. Or British designer Thomas Heatherwick, who could just as easily revolutionize a restaurant as he could a razor.
In a relatively short time, designers have gone from being nameless entities to established entrepreneurs. They have proved their ability to use creativity to change the world because it’s finally being acknowledged that things that work well and look good are not superficial—especially when they sell in big numbers. The result may have blurred the lines between business and art, but it is a very long way from fluffy stuff. —Henrietta Thompson