The best design stories ever

I would like to ask you to please share your favorite examples of design stories of the critical kind. We accept all forms, paper, web, tv, radio, soapbox extemporaries. We also accept all forms of design, paper, web, product, and yes, even fashion. We exclude architecture because architecture does not need our help.
If possible, I would like to keep us focused on the WIDE public–no scholars’ ruminations allowed.
Please provide either links or bibliographic indications. I am afraid that anything else would be a copyright no-no. Unless you are posting your own work, which is perfectly allowed and welcome.
Please also spare a few words on the reasons for your selection.
Thank you in advance for what could become a memorable design anthology.

Alright, my fellow panelists, let me break the ice with one story that thrice connects to the topic that we discussed in the first thread because 1) it is by one of our panelists, John Seabrook; 2) it is about a person, a designer on the edge of stardom and 3) it is from the New Yorker, and it is therefore mostly narrative, with hardly any visuals.
John, sorry if I put you on the spot. I think you piece is great to start this critical anthology. I am going to go dig into everybody’s production, I promise.
It does not have a direct link, so please go to:
then ‘stories’
and down at the bottom, under design, the title is “Plastic Man.”
I am looking forward to your comments.

Paola - one recently - unfortunate, but well written and touching design story - was Julie Iovine’s piece in the New York Times on Michael Graves. By noting what he has done for Disney and Target - she made it accessible to those not in the design “in crowd”. And then did not resort to a sympathy piece - but told of his recent illness and highlighted he as a man - and humanized him. I just feel not everything has to be critiqued. There’s room and need for that - of course. But to get design to have a wider reach into our culture - we need to bring it to more people. And, I agree with many on the panel - it is everywhere. The guy who speaks about how his car looks - is talking design; the person complaining about the seats on the airplane - is talking design. I can’t help but feel that most design writers I know - assume that everyone who reads their pieces knows all the background. I think we need to make it more human.


The ones I think of first are anecdotes that haven’t necessarily appeared in print, online, on screen or anywhere else.

1 George Nelson and another architect were walking and came on a crowd watching the work at a construction site. They joined the onlookers for a few minutes, after which George said, “Has anyone ever seen a building as beautiful as a hole in the ground?”

A one-semester course in architecture could be based on that remark.

2 In the early days of the computer, Charles and Ray Eames were invited to India as consultants to Prime Minister Indira Ghandi. In their travels they spent some time in a city renowned for crafts—Ahmedabad, I think, but I’m not sure. Later at a meeting one of the Prime Minister’s staff turned to the Eameses and said, "With our problems, what we need is a computer. Could you get IBM to help?

“What you need,” Charles countered, " is a paper computer. We’ve seen craftsman at (WHEREVER IT WAS) who can make anything of paper. Have them copy an IBM machine exactly, so that a programmer couldn’t tell the difference. IBM probably would lend you programmers. Now, it’s a matter of record that sixty percent of a problem must be solved before it can be programmed for a computer. Give the programmers a list of your major problems, and have them prepare the first one for the computer. Then the next one, and the next, and so on. When they’ve gone through the list, you’ll have solved sixty percent of India’s major problems. Any nation should be satisfied with that.

Come to think of it, that story does exist in written form, or did. I wrote a version for an IBM exhibit. I doubt that it’s findable now by them or me.

A magazine article I would include in this category is Malcolm Gladwell’s
“The Pitchman,” about Ron Popeil, who designs kitchen appliances and stars in the infomercials that sell them. The piece apeared in The New Yorker issue of October 30, 2000. Gladwell’s articles are consistently
relevant to design, whatever they’re about.

Hi – I’m back (from Egypt) so I guess I’m in the proper frame of mind to think about Karim.

That Karim piece was my effort to squeeze a piece about a designer into the New Yorker’s style issue. It suffered from the usual problems of writing for an audience that was ignorant of who KR was while hopefully not being too tiresome for people who knew about him only too well. But leaving my manifest sins on that fromt aside, what I found most interesting in the reporting of that piece was going to Salone Mobile in Milano, where I had never been before, although I had been to the fashion shows in Milano many times. As all of you probably know, if you’ve been to both, the presentation of design both forums could not possibly be more different. Salone is full of ideas and conversations and young impassioned intellectuals from many different countries, with lots of earnest conversation about improving the world, and very little emphasis on commercialism; the fashion shows in milano are full of beautiful lying sychophants and the emphasis is all on surface and show; ideas are mere wallpaper, and if, as Holly says, you have anything negative to say about MR. Armani, you literally whisper it.

Afterwards I spent a long time thinking about whether interior and industrial design was better or worse served by clinging to the high road. Karim is an industrial designer who has gone the lowroad of celebrity and has suffered accordingly in his own mileau for it. But if you want coverage in the mainstream press you do need stars. Because magazines in particular have pretty much adapted totally to the star system. It’s what editors understand, and maybe it’s what readers understand too. It isn’t much fun for the writers – because stars have less time for you, and pat answers, and are by definition overexposed. But if designers of lighting or furntiure or cars or computers want more coverage, then I think they have to be stars – which is what like him or not Karim is.

This year it’s 1992
But not for everyone.
For the Muslims its 1412
For the Jews it’s 5752
For David Duke it’s 1952
For Shirley MacLaine it’s hard to say
For Phillipe Starck it’s 1987.
For Robert A.M. Stern it’s whatever year the client wants it to be.
For Prince it will always be 1999.
Any excuse for a party.

That’s the beginning of “The End,” my all-time favorite essay on design. Karrie Jacobs and Tibor Kalman wrote it for the for the Cooper Hewitt’s 1992 conference, “The Edge of the Millennium.” The pre-millennium moment feels like a forever ago, but ideas in this in this essay—what design is, what it does—stand. There are many excellent essays collected in “The Edge of the Millennium, An International Critique of Architecture, Product and Communication Design” ( ), but for, me “The End” is most memorable.

We recently “pitched” our client, Humanscale, to Forbes magazine. See this week’s issue! It was kind of a “david and goliath” piece about a small (under $100 million) company going up against the “big three” and with design - gaining market share and attention. The writer knew nothing about design - but thought the story interesting. When he started investigating, he became more and more fascinated by the design process of Niels Diffrient and how design was the key to getting this company where it is today. I’d like to see more of that. More of these business and general interest magazines making the connection between the fact that products that are designed well - help make the company sell more. Make the designer more “human” - I’m on that kick again. We need to get design “out of the closet” - This writer took the time to learn more about design and its impact on business. Also, being part of the marketing for I.C.F.F. - I found the non-design magazines and TV stations, just looking for what was weird or odd - to promote. We need to find those more interested in what’s good - well designed - making it better for all to use.

There’s another story on my website, which just got put up, that I wrote about Chuck Hoberman, who came up with a great toy, the Hoberman Sphere . It’s called “Child’s Play,” and you’ll find it under the Design heading. I certainly dont offer it as anything approaching the best design story or anything remotely like that. It’s not really about the process of design at all, but rather about the problems that a designer faces when he or she has some success with a product and finds himself in the business world, and is tempted to make some aesthethic compromises. One of the things that draws me to design as a subject is that it is in the middle between art and business – I can’t think of any other field that is so perfectly positioned between those two often mutually repulisive poles. Design stories are interesting because they’re about artists having to confront business realities and businessmen having to learn the value of beauty. The story is more about character than design, but design is an excellent mechancism for revealing character.

Thanks for your reading suggestions. I loved all those stories. What they have in common is that they are all about, first and foremost, people. To quote Julie Lasky, “People who read about people (and who read PEOPLE, apparently) are the happiest people in Barnes & Noble.” Let me experiment and see if I can find any that are about objects only, and yet equally gripping. I doubt it’ll work, and it might bring us to some axiom…
Let’s then move on to the much discussed–among us twenty true maniacs, at least–“Consumed” column in the New York Times Magazine. A former student of mine, Jennifer Dunlop, has posted–via me–a reply in the comments board that also refers to it. She considers it completely acritical. For those of you who do not get the Times, THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 3-14-04: CONSUMED; Odyssey 2-Ball Putter - The New York Times
After the first week-end of happiness thinking that finally design would find a place, I am disappointed. On the other hand, the column does what it said it would do, it talks about whatever can be consumed, not about (good) design. What do you all think?

Paola, I’m in cahoots with Jennifer. As a matter of fact my first post to our roundtable addressed a critically questionable piece in “Consumed” about a “hip” cleaning supply company in S.F. who hired a design star to design a line of products. The end result: Form will change the world, even if it’s disconnected from any material or functional remanants of everday life and will sell tons of products. All participants are happy and successful. The end.

Critical writing in a mass market publication about design? I don’t think so. But, again, there is always hope. Just the fact that the NY Times is devoting a page a week to design is a start, and the fact that there are journalists + reporters committed to writing about design is a start. It’s time to create depth.

Because, as Kurt and John have said, design is a collection of activities rather than a single industry, it is hard for the media (or anyone else) to see it clearly. But I think design treatment in the media suffers as well from limiting what we mean by design to the kinds of things professional designers do. It’s true that just about everything we encounter in the built environment is designed, and laypeople are often amazed when this is pointed out to them. But the near ubiquity of design is not confined to the making and arrangement of objects or to communications, but includes academic curricula, politics and foreign policy and sales strategy.

I don’t really think designers need “humanizing,” but I think the process of design does. It is important to show what’s behind the faceless mechanization that produces goods. I was impressed with the first Copco cookware I ever saw because when you turned a pot or pan over, you found “Designed by Michael Lax” printed on the bottom. This was not an attempt to exploit a famous name. Michael was not well known at the time, and never became famous. But putting anyone’s name on a product implies that someone cared about it. “Designed by Edmund Smirch” would have had the same welcoming effect. It is of course easy to do that with products — like pots, pans, and chairs — that can, however unfairly, be attributed to a single person. James Dyson can say concincingly that he designed his vacuum cleaner, but it is harder to attach design credit to a Miele or an Electrolux.

The question of stars and names in the media gets all wound up with credits. If Bush’s parodic victory landing were a Hollywood production (which it was in every respect but its release) Karl Rove would have been credited, along with a multitude of gaffers, best boys, accountants, hairdressers, caterers and haberdashers.

There aren’t many designers whose fame edures long enough to make them household names, but then households don’t last as long as they used to either. Paula mentioned Michael Graves, Phillipe Starck, and Rashid as the only stars that come to mind, but I’m not sure Rashid is much known outside the design community, despite John Seabrook’s revealing piece on him. When Raymond Loewy hired Betty Reese as his press agent, she asked him, in the manner of all consultants, what he wanted to achieve. “I want my picture on the cover of Time,” he said. “It will take ten years,” she said, and it did.

I like Laurene’s emphasis on depth. Coverage is easier to come by. I think Patty Brown’s front-page piece in this morning’s NY Times treats Walter Hood’s work in as much depth as we have any right to expect from a feature story. She does these articles on design-related phenomena all over the country, and they’re excellent. But there’s still no one I know of in
the general media who writes about design in the depth that, say, Dinitia Smith brings to books or Elvis Mitchell to movies. Maybe that gets into Paula’s promised next topic — reporting and criticism.