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The Redesigning of America

13 minute read

Back in 1960, an obscure Dutch cultural critic named Constant Nieuwenhuys predicted that someday we would all become architects. Stuck in a world where everything looked the same, he suggested, we would be so alienated from our environment by technology that we would constantly redesign the space around us just to recover the joy of living. Nieuwenhuys was wrong about only one thing. Americans are not alienated at all. Here they are, roaring into the 21st century, powered by the longest economic boom in U.S. history, wired to the Web and to one another, thirstily consuming new technology even before they know how to use it. Amid this frenzy they want to re-create the space around them, not as their only joy but because they can. They’re snapping up translucent blueberry-tinted computers, bubbled cars and little chrome cell phones as fast as they’re produced. They are fully employed, and want something to show for it, even if they aren’t Internet billionaires. So where design used to be considered vaguely precious, the province of the Sub-Zero industrial refrigerator-owning elite, it’s now available to all from the crowd that shops at discount retailer Target to those aesthetes who can pick out an Enzo Mari from 20 paces. If Americans learned anything from the barbaric old ’80s, they learned that more is not enough. They want better or at least better-looking. Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the design economy. It is the crossroads where prosperity and technology meet culture and marketing. These days efficient manufacturing and intense competition have made “commodity chic” not just affordable but mandatory. North Americans are likely to appreciate style when they see it and demand it when they don’t. “Design is being democratized,” says Karim Rashid, designer of the Oh chair by Umbra and winner of a 1999 George Nelson award for breakthrough furniture design. “Our entire physical landscape has improved, and that makes people more critical as an audience.” And more willing. Says Mark Dziersk, president of the Industrial Designers Society of America: “This is the new Golden Age of design.”

Make that platinum, because design has become big Big Business. Nobody is quite sure how big, but just consider that Americans spent some $6 trillion on goods and services last year, and roughly one-fifth of it went into buying stuff for their homes. The stunning success of the colorful iMac, for instance, not only helped save Apple but has also inspired a raft of whimsically styled, low-cost personal computers from firms like Dell, Gateway and Compaq. The New Beetle rescued Volkswagen’s image two years ago and became a catalyst for change in the auto business. Carmakers are finally putting a premium on how their products look because they know that otherwise we won’t buy them anymore.

So it is with makers of just about everything. “When industries are competing at equal price and functionality, design is the only differential that matters,” says Dziersk, echoing the credo first spouted in the ’30s by Raymond Loewy, father of industrial design. Loewy was the man who gave America the Lucky Strike cigarette pack and the sleek Greyhound bus, and when he added a flourish to the Coldspot refrigerator, to make it look just a little more streamlined than its 1934 competitors, sales at the department store Sears skyrocketed.

Loewy used to say that the most beautiful curve was a rising sales graph, and that notion has driven design since he was in shorts. Good design married commerce during the Great Depression, and Loewy’s career took off then because he made products irresistible at a time when nobody really wanted to pay for anything. In the ’50s, Charles and Ray Eames led a cohort of Californians who used postwar manufacturing capacity to create sleek, efficient domestic environs. In the ’60s, however, industrial design seemed to lose its way and end up in the mire of an American consumer sensibility that simply wanted more products for less money, from which it began to emerge only in the ’90s.

Now, instead of one Raymond Loewy, the design world is humming with an eclectic mix of impresarios and entrepreneurs intent on earning a living from making the beautiful things in your life. There are big corporate players, like Sony and Ford and Philips, the European electronics consortium. There are architects and designers iconoclasts like Philippe Starck and young upstarts like Jasper Morrison or Marc Newson. And of course there’s lifestyle guru Martha Stewart, who has parlayed her sense of style into a multidimensional billion-dollar role as America’s spokeswoman for taste. Martha’s line of home furnishings helped wipe the red ink off the bottom line of the discount department chain K Mart.

If anyone believes in America’s new appetite for design it is Terence Conran, Britain’s style impresario. Twenty years ago, Conran launched in the U.S. a chain of furniture stores in his name, but he jumped ship early in the ’90s. Now he’s back to catch the new wave. In December he opened a 2,100-sq-m store in Manhattan. Like its counterparts in London, Paris and Tokyo, the Terence Conran Shop is a design bazaar, with everything from $17 digital watches to $3,550 violet-colored lounges. Says Conran: “There really is a wind of change here now. America is about technology, being proud of achieving so much and confident about having a culture that reflects that.”

Americans’ appetite for design is flourishing at least partly because America is. The housing-construction boom has reached historic proportions, and people need to fill those new homes with stuff that defines who they are. It used to confer status to have an expensive designer couch; now it’s important to have something that’s personal, whether it’s from the flea market or a chic boutique like B&B Italia. Like the Mosquito Table, which looks like an aircraft wing. Or the Conrad (not Conran) chair, made from something called Bora Bora bark.

Entrepreneurs across the U.S. are thriving on people’s design whims. The clothes may have made the man in ancient times, but now the man carries an iBook, a magnesium-encased Sony Vaio or a sleek black Apple G3. It’s in his tools too. Does he use the cool new Husqvarna mower or Fluke Corp.’s i410 clamp meter? And his bathroom: currently a hot piece of furniture is the all-stainless-steel toilet (yes, including the seat) designed originally for prisons.

In New York City’s SoHo district, retailer Murray Moss has built a very profitable little empire dealing in well-designed objects of every description. Working in Italy’s fashion industry several years ago, he noticed that Europe had a lot of hot product designers too. So was born Moss, a museum-like shop that doesn’t so much display merchandise as venerate it. There are flexible rubber vases, a light made of milk bottles and a $385 zinc-and-steel ironing board that folds as flat as a pancake. Success? In five years Moss has quadrupled the size of his store, and he claims last year’s inventory turned over 11 times (most retailers are happy if they empty theirs four times).

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Ironically, the design revolution has been given a leg up by not so special chain stores like Pottery Barn and Ikea, which descended on Middle America in the mid-’90s. They began with the premise that you didn’t have to be an aficionado or hire an interior designer to have a good-looking life. They made do-it-yourself decorating safe. “There was this disconnect in American culture,” says Hilary Billings, a key product developer at Pottery Barn at the time, who now heads the online boutique RedEnvelope. “You could open these magazines that showed beautiful homes and interiors, but you couldn’t have them.”

Neither too expensive nor too outlandish, these stores offered a way to dodge thorny design decisions (“Can I like a black leather couch and Shaker armchairs?”) and still have a space that wasn’t bland. Chains like Pottery Barn, which accounted for two-thirds of upscale parent Williams-Sonoma’s sales growth last year, raised the bar on good design. If any fool could put together a stylish home at his local mall, what excuse could you have for owning such a lame-looking couch? More important, should a cool-looking couch cost so much?

The answer is right down the road, at one of the new Target stores springing up around the U.S. The champion of America’s new design democracy used to be style-blind. Then Target’s executives recognized that competing just on price with the likes of Wal-Mart was a losing proposition. So the store was reinvented with a simple formula: get a big-name designer to do $20 knock-offs of the same stuff he or she designed for the SoHo sophisticates. Thus Michael Graves, known for his work for upscale design firms like Italy’s Alessi, supplies Target with stainless steel teakettles, blocky wood patio furniture and plump-handled spatulas. Ask Alberto Alessi if it bothers him that Graves is recycling his commissions for a fraction of the price, and he shrugs: “Our real goal should be to talk to the masses.”

The American masses have delivered for Target, with double-digit sales growth since Graves’ products hit the store last year. “Customers really respond to products that involve new thinking and connect with their souls,” says Target vice president Ron Johnson, who launched the Graves line before switching over to Apple’s business-development team. Not surprisingly, the department-store chain has become the talk of the advertising executives on Madison Avenue, not to mention the folks on Main Street. And this year, as Target nears the opening of its 1,000th store, Graves has been joined by the doyen of design, Philippe Starck, another Alessi regular, and the hot young design team Blu Dot. Says Dziersk: “This is the principle that began with the Bauhaus: everyone should have access to beautiful things.”

We have technology to thank for that access. “We used to wish we had the technology to do things,” says Ian Schrager, the man who pioneered the affordable-boutique-hotel trend. “Now technology is giving us things we don’t even know how to use yet.” London hotel guests in Schrager’s St. Martin’s Lane can alter the color scheme of their room simply by adjusting a knob next to the bed. Computerization and new materials have made production of just about anything cheaper and more efficient, and quality easier to maintain.

The combination means that form no longer has to follow function for a product to be profitable. Carmakers like Toyota can afford to gamble on a quirky-looking car like the new Echo, jam it with extras and sell it for less than $10,500. Sony miraculously rescued its personal-computer business by introducing the ultraslim Vaio, a silver-and-purple machine that, when you come right down to it, does little more than any other laptop; it just looks and feels a lot better.

Nothing underscores the technological revolution better than plastics, long viewed as cheap and ugly. Not since the early 20th century popularity of Bakelite has plastic been so loved. Polypropylene, for instance, the plastic that has been around since the ’50s, can be molded so smooth it is almost sensuous, and it takes dyes like silk. German design firms Authentics and Koziol have made much hay out of plastic’s new pizazz. Koziol’s spaghetti forks with a smiley face, ice-cream scoops with eyes and the “Tim” dish brush with legs are some of more than 300 “cutensils,” as they’re known, that flew off shelves of American stores last year.

“I had no doubt these would sell in Chicago, New York and Boston,” says Elliott Zivin, president of Koziol’s U.S. distributor, Majestic. “But they’re selling like crazy in Bogalusa, La., and west Texas.” So much so that Zivin is bringing in 100 more plastic “blobjects” another nickname this year. Shopping for household items is no longer dutiful; it’s part of a person’s articulation of his or her personal style. Everything is an accessory. It could be coincidence that manufacturers started to think more about making household products fun not long after men started shouldering some of the burden around the home. It could be.

Corporate demand for these new design strategies is surging. Fitch’s Bill Faust says his design shop got so many big corporate clients that he went back to school to pick up a business degree. “Designers are being invited to the table more and given a voice in making business decisions,” says Faust. “I wanted to give the executives more of a reason to consider a design than ‘We think this is cool.'” Well, cool could be enough. Kodak has ditched the black-box camera. Swingline has streamlined its standard stapler. Any company without inhouse talent is reaching for a hot design consultant. “Manufacturers recognize that consumers are looking for more than functional benefits,” says Barry Shepard, co-founder of SHR Perceptual Management, the design consultancy that helped conceive the Volkswagen Beetle. “A product that matters needs to say something about the person who owns it.”

And it doesn’t have to say it for long. Buying a cool toothbrush is a way of expressing your personality without making a huge commitment other than to dental hygiene. Starck was one of the first to sense this with his translucent Brancusi-esque dollop of a toothbrush for Fluocaril in 1989. Now pharmaceutical companies have released a plethora of toothbrushes ridged, twisted, tapered, with bands, dots and swirls. The same philosophy applies to dozens of products we used to regard as banal garbage cans, toilet brushes and cheese graters. They’re cute, they’re cheap and they’re disposable.

Cheap is O.K. by Starck, whose cheerful whimsy with juicers, bottle openers and hotel rooms did much to spark America’s current fling with design. He says he wants good design to be a commodity but without being wasteful. He points out that every time he designs a chair, it’s less expensive than the one he designed before. “I want everybody to have the best products for the price of any bulls___ in the grocery store,” he says.

Inevitably, not all the design efforts out there reflect the sensibility of an artist, and even many that do are downright, well, dysfunctional, like the Lexon radio on the cover of this magazine, which despite appearances is not waterproof. “Functionality has become more dimensional,” says Susan Yelavich, assistant director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, which opened its first National Design Triennial in March. “Function now embraces psychology and emotion.” Or, as Karim Rashid puts it, “The more time we spend in front of computer screens, the more the look of our coffee cup takes on added importance.”

The question now is whether the design economy can be sustained or whether, when America’s wave of prosperity recedes, they’ll all edge back to plain-vanilla functionality. If he were around, Raymond Loewy would remind us that he got his start during the Great Depression, so perhaps the real design revolution is still to come. If so, Constant Nieuwenhuys is looking more prophetic than ever.

With reporting by Sheila Gribben/Chicago and Julie Rawe/New York

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