Decoding Design

Are American architecture and product design stagnant?

Posting in Architecture

A provocative essay in "Vanity Fair" argues that for the first time in a century, U.S. design hasn't refreshed within a 20-year cycle. Should designers be worried they're losing an innovative edge?

The Aeron chair: a symbol of innovative U.S design 20 years ago...and today?

Is American design--from buildings to cars--at a disturbing creative standstill, even as technology advances? Such an observation seems paradoxical. And it's the core of a provocative essay in the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair by Kurt Andersen.

In the piece, Andersen, a former Time magazine architecture critic, trustee of the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and the host of Public Radio International's Studio 360 (among numerous other high-profile roles in the cultural world), points out that in most 20-year-periods within the 20th century, American design had typically undergone radical shifts. But U.S. design of the last two decades is virtually indistinguishable from that of today, he argues. Many business leaders still sit in Aeron chairs from Herman Miller, for instance, the iconic symbol of success from the tech boom of the 1990s--and the 2010s. Is there such a design icon--one that boasts ergonomic or engineering or even stylistic innovation--that is the Aeron's equivalent today?

In the print version of the story, to boost Andersen's point, a sidebar compares the Beaux Arts style of New York's Grand Central Station, built in the 1910s, and the dramatically different Art Deco Chrysler Building, also in Manhattan, built in the 1930s, and then contrasts the difference of these two edifices with the striking similarity of the sleek, streamlined silhouettes of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, built in the 1990s, and the Cooper Union's 41 Cooper Square, in New York.

41 Cooper Square in New York City, built in the 2000s: too similar to buildings of the 1990s?

Another side bar illustrates how the design of a 1950s cherry red Cadillac Coupe de Ville, with its elongated, elegant tail fins, is divergent from a more compact, hard-edged, lime green 1970s Dodge Dart--then compares these with nearly interchangeable images of an Audi A4 from the 1990s and a Ford Taurus from the 2000s, both with bland gray exteriors and with gently rounded edges.

"There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992," Andersen writes, offering other examples. And then he offers why he believes design is in a rut: the lack of design creativity is "a reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts." We have reached our capacity for freshness, in other words. So designers are producing, and audiences are craving, familiarity, in buildings, cars, furniture, clothing, and other products.

Another reason could be, Andersen theorizes, is that instant and easy access to online and other digital archives of past literature, music, movies, images, and other information makes designers--and consumers--nostalgic for the past.  As a result, designers are able to emulate or incorporate historical design elements into products more efficiently than designers did in earlier generations, when design research was much more challenging.

Finally, Andersen argues, "the other part of the explanation is economic: like any lucrative capitalist sector, our massively scaled-up new style industry naturally seeks stability and predictability. Rapid and radical shifts in taste make it more expensive to do business and can even threaten the existence of an enterprise." Cars have looked the same for two decades simply because the industry has been suffering, and re-designs can be costly and risky, in terms of alienating potential buyers.

But is it fair to measure 21st-century design inventiveness against 20th century examples? Certainly, interface design for the Web and mobile device apps, as well as the design of mobile devices themselves, for example, mark new types of truly innovative thinking in the 21st century.

Still, Andersen's piece makes a wise, cogent argument that can serve as a wake-up call to designers who hope to play a role in boosting American innovation in architecture and product design in decades to come.

Images: Badudoy/ Wikimedia Commons, JohnRH4/ Flickr

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure