Pure Genius

Q&A: Hilary Jay, founding director of DesignPhiladelphia

Q&A: Hilary Jay, founding director of DesignPhiladelphia

Posting in Architecture

In thinking about powerhouse design cities, Philadelphia might not spring to mind. But the City of Brotherly Love is home to "one of the most important design festivals in the country."

In thinking about powerhouse design cities, Philadelphia might not spring to mind. But the City of Brotherly Love is home to "one of the most important design festivals in the country," according to the National Endowment for the Arts design director. The DesignPhiladelphia Festival, starting Wednesday, features more than 120 (mostly free) public events highlighting the city's architecture, fashion, graphic design and other creative industries. From tours of open galleries to parties at private workshops, the festival is meant to raise awareness about design in our everyday lives.

The event is the brainchild of Hilary Jay, DesignPhiladelphia's founding director and a senior fellow at the University of the Arts, which is the festival's lead sponsor. We spoke last week about moving design outside the gallery, what design means for America's future and more. Below are excerpts from our interview.

You're a self-proclaimed "design evangelist" with this outlook: "Design is the single thread that runs through all things in life. It is as simple as a paper clip, as complex as an urban plan, and as political as a voting ballot." Where are your favorite everyday places to see great design at work?

You get up in the morning and you get into a shower, which is designed. You put on your clothes, which are designed. You get on public transportation, which is designed. You ride a bus that's designed with graphics. There's not a thing you touch that's not designed. People often think of design as fashion or products. We should be thinking about roadway systems and how they get designed.

Why is it important to move design outside gallery spaces?

There are an awful lot of people who didn't have the benefit of being exposed to cultural events growing up. They didn't go to museums. They didn't go to galleries. They didn't go to performances and cultural activities. I feel as though there's a large group of people who feel disenfranchised from the experience of just walking into a place. They don't feel invited necessarily. They don't feel that it belongs to them. But if we can get it out on the street, in front of them where they just happen upon it, then that's a very different experience. It's a wake-up call. It goes back to saying that design is as simple as a paper clip. It's helping people understand that you don't have to go to some invitational, costly event in order to have the experience of what design means and does in everyday life.

Why Philadelphia? Could you have started this movement in any other city?

I think there's this pervasive attitude that has overlooked for a number of years how strong the creative community really is here. My feeling is that we have opportunity to bring together the different design disciplines and put them all in a place for a few days where people can get a taste of what design means and what it means in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia's a case study. I don't think it necessarily matters what city we're in. You have to eliminate New York and Los Angeles and Milan and London, but those are different kinds of design events. They have a lot to do with promoting products to the public, whereas we're largely about education. We've lived in the shadow of other places for too long. There's an interesting conversation about design going on in Philadelphia. The creative economy in Philadelphia is much stronger than I think anybody recognizes. DesignPhiladelphia's festival attempts to make it clear that we're a burgeoning place of cultural vibrancy.

The DesignPhiladelphia Festival starts this week. What's new this year?

We took a survey last year at the end of the program. We got great feedback. People felt it'd be helpful if there were grouped events in areas, which we're now calling Design Districts, so you could go to that area and walk from place to place for different experiences. We've tried to take a few days and allocate them to Design Districts. We're trying to help develop places like East Passyunk, which is a growing area for design retail, urban planning and landscape architecture.

Last year, we did an opening night event in a funky location in Philadelphia. We were concerned no one would show up, but it turned out people love discovering new places. It was off the beaten track, but about 700 people attended. Because of that feedback, we've selected another place that's off the beaten track. Provenance is a 10,000-square-foot warehouse of architectural salvage. They do things like supply wood for the Barnes Foundation. They have an incredible stock of cool stuff. There will be exhibition of products largely from students and a socially-responsible fashion show. There will be an architectural building game, where it takes collaboration to put together an architectural tower. We're looking for ways to create interaction and experience for people across the board.

You started the festival eight years ago. How has awareness about design evolved in that time? What impact have you had?

Some of the participants this year include city agencies. The city is obviously seeing value in participating in a design event. We have a lot more collaborators this year. It's Mural Arts Month. The Mural Arts Program is doing a whole bunch of stuff for themselves, but they're promoting DesignPhiladelphia projects as well. These other nonprofit cultural institutions around the city are embracing DesignPhiladelphia as an important factor in their own promotion.

Also, more people show up for events. We cut down [the festival] to five days [from 11] because we thought it'd be easier for people to get around. We had 150 events last year and expected there would be far fewer this year. In fact, there are more than 120 events this year. It just feels like the creative community will not be held back. They have a lot to show off. They're proud of what they're doing. They want the platform to stand up and be counted.

You've said that design is important for the future of our country. Why?

All we have to do is look at Apple, at Nike, at Starbucks. Here we have situations where design is driving product sales. It was in the 1950s that the chairman of IBM said, "Good design is good business." It's taken us all these years to figure that out. America is no longer going to be known for manufacturing. We have to create opportunities for innovation. The companies that I mentioned are thriving. The Apple store is always packed, regardless of whether they've released a new phone. People are hungry for smart, intuitive ways of navigating our lives. We need more of that.

What's next for you and DesignPhiladelphia?

For the third year, we're doing a lecture series. This year it's on scarcity and lack of resources and how that can drive design innovation. That will take place [early next year]. We're looking at other ways of expressing the impact of design in our community.

We got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. We're working on vacant lots in Philadelphia. We got funding to do a competition and test pilot for a vacant lot on Broad Street that will hopefully be an example of what's possible with the other 40,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia.

Photo: Hilary Jay

Share this

Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure