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So What Do You Do, Allison Arieff?

The former editor of Dwell opens up on design, sustainability -- and her 'cool' new job

By Alissa Walker - June 27, 2007
Allison_arieff_062607.jpgWhen we last asked Allison Arieff "So What Do You Do?" way back in 2003, she was editor-in-chief of a three-year-old magazine named Dwell, the little shelter publication that went on to become a hit with a growing design-crazy audience. But after citing differences with the magazine's mission in August of last year, Arieff left her position for a role as senior content lead at multidisciplinary design firm IDEO. Leaving Dwell also opened up other opportunities for Arieff: She currently writes a TimesSelect blog and will begin writing the regular "Living Design" column for the Op-Ed section of the New York Times in September. The author of the books Prefab, Spa, and Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America talks to us about life after Dwell, what's exciting about design today, and why the prefab industry is like organized crime.

Name: Allison Arieff
Position: Senior content lead
Company: IDEO
Education: B.A. in History, UCLA; M.A. in Art History, UC-Davis; Ph.D coursework in American Studies, NYU
Hometown: Fort Hood, Texas
First job: Valet parking attendant
Resume: Editor-in-chief (2002-2006) and senior editor (2000-2002) at Dwell; editor, Chronicle Books; assistant editor, Oxford University Press
Birthdate: October 29, 1966
Marital status: Married, one child
Favorite TV show: "Invariably the quality drama that gets cancelled."
Last book read: No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
Most interesting media story right now: "Maybe the media itself and what's happening to it -- and of course the '08 campaign."
Guilty pleasure: "The Project Runway/Top Chef/Top Design genre on Bravo."

You've made a pretty unique career move: You were an editor-in-chief of a magazine covering design, and now you're working at headline-making design firm IDEO. How does it feel to be on the other side?
It feels great. After seven years spent writing about design, I'm now able to take part in the process rather than just reporting on the finished result. And that process part is what I've always been most intrigued. I feel like I can get in at the ground level, so to speak, and help influence the way design (of buildings, services, environments) is thought about and executed on from the beginning. I'm working on projects related to affordable housing, sustainability, and community-building right now. These are exactly the kinds of things on which I want to be focusing my energy. It's a luxury to have the time to research and think about this stuff -- that doesn't really happen when you have to produce 140 pages of magazine content every four or five weeks.

What's it like working at IDEO? As cool as we think it is?
Yes, I think it probably is. There is such a fascinating mix of people with different talents and backgrounds. All the work is hugely inter- and multi-disciplinary. You could find yourself working on a project with a team consisting of an anthropologist, an architect and an MBA. That diversity of knowledge and perspective truly brings new thinking to old problems, and makes for lots of interesting conversation in the lunchroom.

You seem to have your own diversity of knowledge and perspective from having three very different degrees: a B.A. in History, an M.A. in Art History and a Ph.D in American Studies. How have these areas of study come together to inform your career?
I just kept pursuing what was interesting to me. I guess I was, naively perhaps, not thinking too hard about the practical applications. I was attracted to NYU's American Studies program, for example, because it was completely interdisciplinary; I could take classes in film, art history, performance studies, anthropology. For a variety of reasons, I was getting frustrated with academia and I didn't end up doing my dissertation. A year and a half into my Ph.D program I attended a panel at the College Art Association called "If Not Teaching, What?" -- five incredibly interesting people who'd received their Ph.Ds in art history but were not teaching told the story of their respective career trajectories. One woman had moved to Spain, worked as an art critic, married a bullfighter, and had then gone on to become a museum director. It was an inspirational moment -- I realized I could leave grad school and still be OK.

I got a job with Random House and started at the absolute bottom of the ladder there but all the interests I'd cultivated and the skills I'd acquired over the years really seemed to come together at that time. Editing just made sense -- and in just about five years I moved from editorial assistant there to editor-in-chief of Dwell. Though all the paths I took seemed quite disparate at the time, it feels like everything I've learned along the way resurfaces just when I need it.

And you were also at Dwell from the very beginning, which started an incredibly interesting chapter not only for shelter and architecture magazines but also for design and sustainability in the U.S. What was it like? Could you feel the country start to warm up to the Dwell message?
I was part of such a super-smart and amazingly talented creative team -- the chemistry just worked. We were just so excited to have this opportunity. The fact that most of us had almost zero magazine experience, I think resulted in a far more creative endeavor as no one had deeply ingrained ideas about what a magazine should be or how it should be done. We each brought our particular strengths and quirks to the table and pretty much made it all up as we went along.

In the beginning, I think architects and designers appreciated the kind of unslick-ness of Dwell, and really responded to our interest in not just showing stuff but in telling the story behind the design process. Dwell's growth felt (and was) gradual -- first it seemed no one had ever heard of the magazine. But then, I'd get on an airplane and see someone reading a copy and feel very excited to be a part of it all. When the media became interested in the whole prefab thing, I could most definitely feel the country start to respond to Dwell and it was pretty great. And the fact that the magazine really began to expand the larger conversation about things like prefab and sustainability has been super exciting -- certainly more than I could have hoped for.

"Prefab has become like the mafia for me."

You've been writing about design for the Times, too. Has explaining design to a more mainstream audience helped you to see it in a different way than you did at Dwell?
With the Living Design column I can write about any and all aspects of design. It's a great opportunity to show how integral design is to our daily lives. The more research I do, the more and more fascinating interconnectedness of things emerges -- such as how might the introduction of agricultural parks into "shrinking cities" like Detroit help not only in urban renewal but also in fighting the obesity epidemic? Though that may not initially seem like a design issue, it involves landscape architecture, urban planning, systems design, the whole localism movement, etc. Also, because Living Design is part of the Op/Ed section, it means that people who don't normally read about this stuff may read about it here -- and that only expands the audience for good design.

You wrote a book, Prefab, which came out in 2002, way before the industry was transformed by the current boom of consumer demand. Almost five years later, what changes have you seen in the way prefab is perceived? Will there be a Prefab II?
Prefab has become like the mafia for me -- I try to step out and they keep pulling me back in! But seriously, I could never in a million years have anticipated the interest this topic would generate. It's been a pleasant surprise to say the least. Food + Wine even did a prefab issue a couple of years ago. So I think it is safe to say that the perception of prefab has changed quite dramatically.

But it hasn't changed for everyone. The majority of prefab houses are just as cookie-cutter now as they were five, 10, 20 years ago. There is indeed a great interest in prefab; however, the transformation you mention in the industry has not really occurred, and the number of modern prefab homes actually built remains quite small. The housing industry is not the most innovative or groundbreaking -- I mean really, how much have houses changed in the last 50 years? They've just gotten bigger!

Change can happen, but it isn't happening as fast as anyone would like. I remain optimistic about the future of prefab though I am perhaps a bit more realistic about what is possible and how fast. The Museum of Modern Art in New York is organizing a prefab exhibit, which is very exciting. As for a Prefab II, I'd like to wait and see what emerges from the fascinating work being done with digital prefabrication and rapid prototyping.

You mention two areas of technology that are really going to change the way designers work. What designers and architects, or maybe even bigger trends, are exciting to you at the moment?
Sustainability -- the interest in which I hope is not a trend but a paradigm shift. Not long ago, it still felt like people were just paying lip service to it, but now real change and innovation seems to be happening. I recently wrote an article for Travel + Leisure on green hotels (June 2007), and it was great to discover how much proactive change is taking place even by the major hotel chains. I am also particularly interested in the notion of community -- to what extent can community be designed/created? -- and to that end am looking at a lot of work and research on self-sustaining neighborhoods, innovative multi-family housing structures, and the like. This may not be trendy, but it is very exciting to me.

Are these two of the concepts you'll be looking at through your work at IDEO?
We've just finished a project with developers of affordable housing and have a number of other housing-related projects in the pipeline. I'm also doing a lot of work/research connected to sustainability and media.

Here's the one question that I'm sure everyone wants to ask of a design maven, former Dwell editor and prefab expert: What's your own house like?
A few years ago I wrote my editor's note in Dwell about how much I liked living in my Edwardian apartment. Several readers wrote in to express the betrayal they felt upon learning that I didn't live in a modern home. I moved in 2005, but those same readers would still be disappointed because now I live in a 100-year-old house!

[Alissa Walker is editor of's design blog UnBeige.]

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