The Chicago Athenaeum's Good Design awards are a good thing. But maybe too much so.
A few good men created the awards back in 1950: the architects Eero Saarinen and Charles and Ray Eames, along with budding architecture historian Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. Their mandate -- to recognize designers and manufacturers for visionary, innovative product concepts for everything "from the spoon to the city" -- would suggest a short list of true industry leaders.
Not so any more. The awards are being doled out like candy, by the hundreds each year. The program tends toward inclusiveness and equivalence, which doesn't advance the cause.
It's not just the sheer numbers, though the pile of winning products is staggering: (The 2011 winners, announced New Year's eve, amount to more than 500 industrial items from 38 nations, including 91 in electronics alone.)
More than that, it's the terribly ordinary quality of so many winners.
Let's look at things that architects might use. Two tile products are noteworthy only because they are slightly dimensional, including a ceramic from Heath and a glass tile from Mosaico+. The ComfortLink thermostats by Trane are an incremental advance we've seen elsewhere. Philips Ledalite's Jump pendant is filled with LEDs and quite pretty, but how does it beat a universe of other great LED fixtures?
An elevator touch panel by TL Jones gets a nod. Touch-enabled displays are already boring. Is it commendable that it's hung in an elevator cab? Acme Steel's System 50 glass wall has an elegant floor detail. So?
And really -- linoleum flooring from Amstrong?
Even its name, Marmorette, is deliciously retro. Saarinen might have spec'ed this sucker in the early 1950s.
In other categories, the bar was perhaps lower. How do Hewlett-Packard and Eastman Kodak win multiple awards for everyday tweaks to commonplace printers and digital cameras? Inexplicably, Microsoft took honors -- again -- for not one but two ideas for the computer mouse. These and other hailed advances are so incremental as to be almost imperceptible.
Forgive my rhetorical questions and whining. But if you really love great design (or the Chicago Athenaeum), it's all a bit disappointing.
But you can't blame the 2011 Los Angeles jury, which included the brilliant Santa Monica architect Patrick Tighe. The judging criteria hold well, too. The museum's president, Christian K. Narkiewicz-Laine, has said the brief goes beyond aesthetic merit to uncover "other designs forces of utility, functionality, durability, and today’s emphasis on sustainability.” These are the same specifications, he explains, that Eames and crew laid out for the original jury.
Close the door faster
No, I think the problem is simply that the door is held open too long. When 500 designers flood the gates, you know many of them won't be world-class. Many will pass through simply because we recognize their fancy eyewear or homemade suits. Winning is like having a LEED AP on staff: a nice thing, proof you exceed the minimum barrier to market entry.
The Good Design awards send a diluted, mushy message. The pedestal for good design is so large it's indistinguishable from the floor. Kind of like some kids' sports programs today: Everyone gets a ribbon so no one goes home unhappy.
Here's an idea for 2012 (deadline in July): After the first cut, let's invite a second jury in. This unofficial cabal will nominate "The Best of Good Design Awards." They choose one winner per category, and maybe one or two honorable mentions.
The Best of Good Design would be a fitting tribute to a name like Saarinen. More important, the final cut would represent what truly belongs in a fine institution like the Chicago Athenaeum.