Risky business *
Hazardous pursuits at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 10/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
Just months before September 11, 2001, Museum of Modern Art architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli presciently proposed a show on emergency equipment and response, examining objects from gas masks to fire trucks. The show was postponed—to be rescheduled for 2005—but the concept meanwhile became the germ of this year's International Design Conference in Aspen, organized by Antonelli, SHoP Architects partner Gregg Pasquarelli, and Dutch product designer Hella Jongerius. The conference's title, Safe: Design Takes on Risk, resonates with obvious global relevance, but it's worth noting that the institution is itself somewhat at risk.
As a rallying ground for the Good Design movement of the 1950's, Aspen became legendary for attracting designers George Nelson and Charles Eames, architect Louis Kahn, artist Robert Rauschenberg, feminist Gloria Steinem, and innumerable others. This cast of characters not only helped crystallize design's place in the constellation of larger ideas but also established the event as a place for design-world back-slapping, a feel-good affirmation of collective importance. The conference wasn't without fun, either. Veterans still talk of fire- works and free-flowing champagne. Even a few years ago, the idyllic landscaping, modernist outdoor sculpture, and International Style buildings of the 40-acre Colorado campus were attracting over 1,500 attendees.
Since 2001, however, scheduling conflicts have bumped the IDCA from its traditional June date to the less business-friendly month of August. And the economy has taken its toll as well. Only 400 attended this year's four-day program of lectures, panel discussions, and cocktail parties, yet the mood remained generally optimistic—both despite and because of the topic.
Design Takes on Risk is, after all, a double entendre that implies not only urgency but also eventual triumph. "We called the conference Safe because it's not as one-sided as, say, fear or emergency," Antonelli explains. "There's wanting to be safe—but sometimes being thrilled by fear and overcoming it."
Though airport security, terrorism, and the environment inevitably loomed large, they were only part of the discussion. Marc Sadler spoke about his prototypes for protective athletic gear. Made of carbon fiber, nylon mesh, Kevlar, and honeycomb aluminum, the designs address "risk" in the form of skiing and motorbiking, among other activities. And then there was the standing ovation for Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit dedicated to such projects as refugee housing and mobile AIDS clinics for Africa.
Questions of personal creative risk further broadened Antonelli's original proposition for MoMA. Take Stefan Sagmeister, the fearless graphic designer famous for announcing a lecture at the Cranbrook Academy of Art by carving the time and place into his naked body with a razor blade. Less extreme—but still radical—designer Matali Crasset presented work that questions typologies, from the idiosyncratic Soundstation radio she designed while working for Philippe Starck to the conceptually themed guest rooms at her Hi hotel in Nice, France.
A design scholar and curator of this year's triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Susan Yelavich took a historical perspective with an interiors emphasis. Her talk compellingly linked an architecture of imagination to the neuroses of insecurity, and she focused on idiosyncratic examples: Peter Eisenman's determinedly unfunctional House VI, Shigeru Ban's unsettlingly unprivate wall-less house. Her lesson, however, was fundamental. "Uncertainty has its virtues," she concluded. "It breeds iconoclasm, opening up space for the personal, the crafted, and—most thankfully in our paved-over world—the unpredictable."
Milan industrial designer Marc Sadler's sketch for his full-impact system of high-performance athletic gear.
A computer rendering of his back protector, which features pockets to absorb impact.
The Preston Scott Cohen house noted by speaker Susan Yelavich for its peeled-away walls and enclosure.