Are Americans Getting Hip To Design?

by on Nov 6, 2006


Immigrants, expatriates, and airline-stewardesses have known it for a long time: there’s a startling gap between American and European attitudes toward design. Entering the U.S. after spending any length of time in Europe (or, for that matter, practically anywhere else) is eye-opening. Everything looks bigger, more imposing, like the world has been outlined with a black marker. Even the buildings look like they could have all-wheel drive.

It’s a generaliation, of course – it’s a big country, every place is different – but coming home from abroad brings those generalizations forward. Suddenly you notice how many restaurants are indistinguishable from each other, how many coffee shops happen to have the exact same pattern of carpet and tile. Surely the Europeans notice a similar thing when returning home after a trip to the states, right?

Probably not. There’s no question that there is an abundance of good American design. But, according to Carl Alviani, “despite a robust and often brilliant design history, and the most dynamic production culture of the 20th century, the concept of ‘American Design’ has never much caught on as a selling point, either in the US or abroad.”

In American Design, Anyone?, Alviani contends that Americans’ attachment to European design is a sentiment not usually returned by the Europeans. Americans have long “placed a cachet on Eurpean design,” but Europeans often view American design as corporate, dull or “rough around the edges.”

But the future of American design is looking brighter. At Design Miami Basel, an ultra high-end design fair where this year 15 galleries did $7 million in business over three days, the American design aesthetic has found a place for its pioneers. According to show organizer Ambra Medda, exhibitions like Design Miami Basel aren’t just for those who can afford $300,000 chairs; in the same way the haute-couture envelope-pushers enventually influence mainstream fashion trends, designs shown (and bought) at Design Miami Basel trickle down to the mass market.

In Fast Company’s The Future of Design, Museum of Modern Art architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli says, “In Europe, people have always had an appreciation for design. Not in the sense of contemplating a chair for three hours, but as a normal part of everyday life.”

But Americans are catching up. Again, from Fast Company:

Design Within Reach examples - furniture“Some would argue that Americans in general are becoming more discriminating … When he first came to the States in 1989 from Italy, Luini says, he had a tough time finding a decent cup of coffee. Now, he says, great coffee is everywhere, along with better clothes, better restaurants, and better furniture: ‘In recent years, Americans have learned to live better.’

Credit Martha Stewart, if you must, or Michael Graves’s willingness to put his talent to work on toilet-brush holders, but once Americans learned to appreciate the joy of a well-turned egg timer, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to a George Nelson lamp. ‘We can lay a lot of the credit for that side of the business on the DWR effect,’ says Moroso’s Watson, referring to Design Within Reach. ‘They took the mystique out of contemporary furnishings, made them easy to purchase, and made pricing transparent. That brought in a lot of consumers who had been on the fringe of interest.’