Will There Always Be Time For Luxury?

Passport in hand, armpits, and palms sweaty the costumes agent calls me inside the interrogation room. I hand out my documents through the small window opening while my hands are shaking and my heart is racing, she looks at my passport types something in her computer and aggressively asks: “why have you come to the United States?”, I answer her questions trying to stay calm and put my best non-threatening face. As an immigrant, I have been in this situation many times when entering the U.S., but every single time I get extremely anxious. The funny thing though is that on this occasion I’m not Colombian and I haven’t come here to study, I’m not even at JFK, this time I am role playing as a Chinese immigrant who is seeking asylum, and it’s visiting her uncle who lives in Queens. I’m at SVA’s Product of Design interactive exhibition TRIAGE presented at Wanted Design Manhattan 2017. As the students describe it, Triage is “an interactive exhibition that reframes contemporary urgencies through the lens of design.”. Besides from immigration, the exhibition touched on other five socio-political topics as media bias, identity, healthcare, environment, and education. For me, this experience was a punch of reality in a sea of luxury. It was wonderfully relevant to our current circumstances, something that I didn’t get from the beautiful furniture, lighting, and accessories being display alongside at the exhibition. 

It got me thinking how we as designers are always talking about making a positive impact on the world and changing things but somehow most of us end up focusing on creating luxury pieces or spaces. Why does this happen? Well, there are many reasons, the most obvious is that designers also need to make a living and working for a non-profit won’t make anyone rich, especially if living in NYC. But I was able to see that beyond this there is also a design culture where we praise beautiful objects above all. If we genuinely want to become agents of change, we need to start rethinking our design culture meaning opening possibilities, expectations and dreams for the new generation of designers. We need to dream beyond being prized best furniture piece at the Milan design fair. And by no means I want to obfuscate the hard work of many smart designers that put enormous efforts into making all these pieces, I more than anyone acknowledge it. But it is precisely because I see how talented they are and how hard they work that I would like to see them using their creativity for something that can last longer in the history of humanity.

 We need to dream beyond being prized best furniture piece at the Milan design fair.

If you are wondering about Wanted Design, it is one of the most important events of NYCxDESIGN New York city’s biggest celebration of design. According to Odile Hainaut & Claire Pijoulat Co-founders of Wanted Design, the event is “…. an open platform, ideal for fostering international dialogue, connection, the free exchange of knowledge, design thinking and community building.” Within Wanted Design, there are three main prizes given to the most prominent creative up-and-coming designers: The American Design Honors, Rado Star Prize U.S. and the Launch Pad, and although every award had its different criteria for choosing a winner all of them prized commercial and luxury pieces this year. I congratulate all the winners because their objects are stunning, but I couldn't help but wonder (that's my inner Carrie) what is the message we send to designers when we only prize this type of design? Is Wanted Design main focus on commercial/luxury design? Might this suggest that this type of design is the only one worth pursuing? Do we need to focus on luxury products to be recognized as successful designers?

Many believe that design can and should go beyond these traditional boundaries such as MoMA’s architecture and design senior curator Paola Antonelli who claims that “Design is so much more than cute chairs, that it is first and foremost everything that is around us in our life.”. Likewise, author Alice Rawsthorn in her book Hello World says that the elemental role of design is to act as an agent of change which help us understand our circumstances and use that information to our advantage. There is a huge divide in what design has been, what design is and will be in the future. It feels as if we are in the middle of an identity crisis. I believe that no one should dictate what design should or shouldn’t be, I would like for it to grow organically taking from its current circumstances and culture. But right now with climate change, environmental degradation, unstable political systems, armed conflict, so on and so forth, I wonder, will there always be time for luxury? I mean haven't they check Leo DiCaprio's Instagram?

Spaces such as Wanted Design should not only catapult and prize the classic high-end luxury design but the up-and-coming and unknown social innovation projects.

To be honest, I saw more freedom and creativity in student projects like SVA Triage or Pratt Institute showcase. I saw projects attempting to tackle issues such as sexual education with playdoh, humanizing Mars missions, several critics on Donald Trump, new architecture and urbanism for when sea levels rise and human rights posters to name a few. Spaces such as Wanted Design should not only catapult and prize the classic high-end luxury design but the up-and-coming and unknown social innovation projects. As long as we keep praising this kind of design, our design culture will never change, and we will continue to make things pretty for the world.

I want to thank Wanted Design for their fantastic job at creating this event which means so much for many designers around the world, and I would like especially to congratulate it for including pieces such as the SVA Triage and AIGA design for democracy talk. Then I would like to invite them to create a competition that acknowledges and prize this other type of design thinking, this design that will indeed shape our future as a society and as species. Many smart people are out there thinking, creating, being brave and trying to solve complicated issues and its time that we as design community acknowledge it.