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National Design Awards Honor With Oscar-Like Glitz

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Maybe it’s because the festivities were graced by movie stars, but this year’s National Design Awards were every bit as glamorous as the ones with the little golden man. Party-crawler Louise Ma was there until the last Gloria Gaynor track faded into the early morning…

The Oscars, for Designers

Michael Bierut was right. The National Design Awards, concieved and held by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, is nothing short of a designers’ version of the Oscars. Like the museum itself, last night’s event was sharp, elegant and filled with a well-rounded group of attendees. The after-party, although rather compact, is truly the designers’ party in New York City, and is steadily attracting a variety of talented and sociable party animals. Designers, design patrons, and design connoisseurs have never looked so good gathered under one roof.

Cocktail pre-game
The crowd streamed in as soon as the pre-dinner cocktail party began, flecked with familiar faces. There was an abundance of slinky black dresses and black tuxedoes, but many personalities showed off their own take on the “black tie event.” Thom Browne, finalist for the Fashion Design Award, was very sharp in cropped pants over dress shoes with no socks. Georgianna Stout of 2×4, winners of the Communication Design Award, had on a subtle and charming black Prada dress. And as always, Chip Kidd looked like he walked right out of the 40′s with a silk champagne suit and thin black tie. Very nice. We also saw a kilt in the crowd.

Conversation was lively and the wine flowed freely as the evening kicked off to a warm start. Milton Glaser chatted quietly with an old friend in a corner, while William Drenttel and Ellen Lupton discussed an upcoming photo project.

With the White House breakfast in mind, we asked Georgianna, Susan, and Mike of 2×4 to elaborate on the incident. “Design is about provoking dialogue,” Georgianna explained. They were “very flattered to receive the award,” but the gesture was not meant to inspire controversy. Rather, it was a simple refusal to the “superficiality of the event,” and to become “a prop put on public display.”

Then again, for designers like 2×4, leaving their studios to attend an event like the National Design Awards is a rather surreal experience in itself.

Honoring inspiration and change
The awards ceremony began as soon as dinner was cleared away, and audiences not at the tables viewed a live feed in the party room in the basement. Yves Behar, one of the juries for this year’s awards, shyly hosted the evening. The emphasis on this year’s selection, Yves said, fell on design that was “about inspiration, design that leads to change.” This aspiration ranged from social to economic change, as is evident in the work of this year’s winners.

After a whimsical introductory film by Ellen Lupton, the ceremony began with the award for Design Patron. Craig Robins, a real estate developer from Miami, received his award from Robert Downey Jr., who is also his good friend. Spike Lee presented the award for Corporate Achievement to Richard Clark, a representative of Nike, who gave an achingly rigid business speech. Luckily, we were delighted with a wonderful message from Paola Antonelli, curator of Architecture and Design at the MoMA and recipient of this year’s Design Mind Award. “Design is my passion,” Paola said, after Richard Meier presented her award. “Design is where politics, empathy, and beauty meets.”

Marianne Cusato was the recipient of the People’s Design Award for the Katrina Cottage, and told us after the ceremony that she certainly preferred to have been chosen directly by the public. It signifies, Marianne said, that people like the design for its “larger concept.” “How we build influences how we live later on… [a design that] people accept is a kind of sustainability.”

Sustainability was a focal point this evening as a keystone of environmental change. The responsibility of the designer, as Paulo Kos of West Elm explained to us at the after-party, is to give sustainability momentum through raising demand and awareness. This sentiment is echoed in a short interview with Ellen Lupton before the ceremony, who pointed out that demand for social responsibility and collaboration between designer and client is rapidly growing. Sustainability, among all other types of change, “is needed in design more than ever.”

Of course, most moving of all the messages given at the ceremony was the memorial for designer Bill Stumpf, recipient of the Product Design Award. The short film was tender and quiet but strong, featuring only Bill’s own narration and footage. “I design for myself,” Bill said to the camera, “Design for someone you love, and not someone you don’t know.” “Good design is not gigantic, not fantastic, but just good.”

Now let’s party
Michael Bierut was right about another thing: designers generally have better taste than anyone else. This includes music. The air at the after-party throbbed with fail-proof Billboard hit singles, administered by DJs Michael Bierut and Kevin Smith. A healthy portion of both young and old were on the dance floor, and the entire room was jam packed with sharply-dressed attendees. Design blood pumped as dancers drawled the words to “Tainted Love” and “We Are Family.” The entire 2×4 group was going wild throughout the night, as were folks from The Architect’s Newspaper. Chip Kidd was also briefly seen bouncing to the beats amidst the crowd. What did he have to say about the evening? “Sexybig.”

Our thoughts exactly.

Louise Ma is a fourth year design student at The Cooper Union. All photos by Sascha Mombartz.

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