On the first floor of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, many everyday objects and devices pose as art, lining up and down spare white shelves inside glass cases. A Braun alarm clock, a fax machine, a “historical range of calculators,” a Google Glass. For Bob Greenberg Selects, the R/GA CEO scoured the museum’s collection and donated quite a few items of his own to put together an exhibition of objects throughout time that sit at the intersection of design and technology, aesthetics and innovation.
Greenberg’s spent a lot of time in this Venn diagram of disciplines. As a visionary businessman, creative, and champion of connected environments and devices, he’s had quite an impact on it, too. Since founding R/GA with his brother Richard in the 1970s, the company has reinvented itself several times, working in everything from special effects to advertising to its current incarnation as a global interactive agency that claims clients like Verizon, Samsung, and Nike. R/GA also boasts a venture division that funds start-ups and grows new businesses internally.
One of those start-ups, an image recognition software called Clarifai, powers a custom app developed by R/GA especially for the Cooper Hewitt exhibition. By scanning a museum piece with their phones, visitors get an audio description of the work by the likes of Michael Bierut, Ellen Lupton, Paola Antonelli, and Debbie Millman. In that way, Greenberg’s exhibition is itself a connected environment, from the silent audio signal that allows visitors to watch an introductory video with their earphones, right down to the lighting.
On a recent afternoon, AIGA executive director, Julie Anixter, paid Bob Greenberg a visit in the R/GA offices in Manhattan. Clad in his trademark all-black uniform and a black beret, Greenberg talked through the early days of R/GA, his ambitions for the exhibition, and how “connected design” plays a role in everything the company does.
Julie Anixter: I really enjoyed the exhibition; it’s so seamless. Can you talk a bit about how it came about? How did you start working on it?
Bob Greenberg: I think Stefan [Golangco, communications manager at R/GA] had a connection to Caroline Baumann at the museum, and he was familiar with the Selects program. When he presented it to me I’m sure I said no. Then he started to show me more stuff and he worked me over until I agreed [laughs]. I took it on because I saw David Adjaye’s [Selects exhibition], and that made sense to me—that he’s an architect who has an interest in textiles, particularly African American ones, as it relates to the African American museum in DC. Ted Muehling’s was also fantastic.
After that I brought on [architect] Toshiko Mori [for the exhibition design], and things started to come together. I got into it, and one thing led to another. I’ve always been interested in product design; if I could be anyone else it would be Dieter Rams.
JA: When we met a couple of weeks ago you talked about the idea of “connected design.” It’s clearly a theme that has run through the exhibition as well. Can you talk more about the concept and its origins?
BG: First of all, you have to start with being inspired by good design. Design, as Richard Saul Wurman says, can take complicated things and make them understandable. My brother and I, when we started [R/GA], we were looking at really great print design. I got interested when I became part of AGI, which is an odd thing in itself. I flew to Cambridge to be inducted, but I didn’t know that there’s a chance you might not be inducted. What I saw there that was so interesting is the club was set up something like the Shakers. No one was good enough to get in, which meant that they would eventually die off. So they’re dying and dying, and these are the best designers who are doing one-sheet posters. But if they could do good one-sheet posters, then they never made the transition to album covers, like Paula Scher did. Which means they would never make the transition to CDs like Stefan Sagmeister did. Which means they wouldn’t make the transition to social media. You have somebody like Richard Saul Wurman, who created information architecture—he was very good with information graphics, but he never made the transition to cyber. It’s the same thing with Edward Tufte.
Back in the day—this was ’77, ’78—my brother and I were looking at great print and great photography. The only ones out there who were interested in motion design were Saul Bass and Charles Eames, both of whom offered jobs to my brother. He and I wanted to create the next thing, which would be motion graphics, so that’s what we went after—we built a great capability in motion graphics, I being the camera man and he being the designer.
It was just the two of us in a tiny apartment on 38th street between Park and Lexington. There are five buildings and they are only 20 feet deep and 20 feet wide. And they’re pre-Civil War. They were originally owned by a minister and all of his daughters, so they were connected on all the floors. We were in one and had this tiny staircase that went between the two floors. We brought in an animation camera; we built that and I computerized it, and I think it was the first fully computerized animation system. The combination of technology and design was what I was interested in.
JA: That’s what’s interesting about your Selects—it’s the most seamless experience I’ve had in a museum. The idea that you are able to connect all of those things you were interested in with R/GA, it seems like you distilled that into the exhibit.
BG: Even though we had such a small space in the museum, we became very critical about what we wanted to do. We started with Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles of Good Design, which is never a bad place to start. We have shelves there [to present the items in the show]. There’s a video screen, and then we used one of our startup accelerated companies, Lisnr, which triggers a silent audio signal so that you can hear the video through earphones.
JA: And you brought in the interactive app.
BG: Everything started here [at the R/GA offices]. We have one of the biggest self-taught, outsider art collections in the world here. We also have another startup called Clarifai. It’s thought of as one of the very best image recognition companies out there right now. Cooper Hewitt has the Pen, but we wanted to use Clarifai for an app for the exhibition. If you go to the MoMA, everybody is shooting photos of everything. The guard would have stopped you from using a camera 10 years ago. So it’s been something that you’re able to do, but nobody’s connected the database to anything else in the museum or elsewhere.
What I started to think about is, “Yes, we have an art app here that can recognize any of the artwork.” But I started to think about an interview with David Byrne. David Byrne calls me and he wants me to interview him for Surface magazine. I said David, I can barely speak. I can’t interview you. He said that’s perfect, and he came over and we did the interview. It was published. It read like I was on LSD or something. But I love him; he collects outsider art, too.
The idea I had after that was “What if David Byrne could help curate the exhibit?” That led to the idea [for the audio descriptions of the products in the app] that we get people like Michael Bierut, Ellen Lupton, Toshiko to narrate it. And then you come back around and it’s our own 10 principles. So it’s a completely connected, integrated experience that adds this other dimension. There’s no placards that tell you what you have to do through your phone.
That was an idea that hadn’t been done before. But what people don’t understand is that’s just the beginning. When you think about the app that we’re going to do—it’s every city tour, every architecture tour. Let’s say you want to tour a college with your kid. It’s really a much bigger thing.
I said [to Caroline Baumann] let’s put the app into our little show and you can see how it works and see if it might be appropriate for your museum. Or if it might be appropriate for the whole Smithsonian, which is 17 museums. Everything we make can scale; We wouldn’t do anything that’s for a single purpose.
We also have the Samsung display account which is all OLED. I made that decision because I wanted to sync up whatever Toshiko [the exhibition architect] introduced, because we work in collaboration, and this helps her. You can see where it goes. Everything is connected here.
JA: We had Rhea Combs, the curator of film and photography at the African American History Museum at the AIGA Design Conference, and she’s talking about curating in real time. So she’s going to the riots in Ferguson, for example, and taking pictures and incorporating them into the museum. I can see the app being useful there, too. Did your vision for the app inform the items you chose for Selects?
BG: When we started going through products, we were going through the extensive archives of the Cooper Hewitt. We started to think about what we really wanted to have in the show, and how we could tell a story. I could only add three pieces that I owned. But what if I bought things and donated them to the museum? So if you look at things in the catalog, nearly half of the things that are in there and in the exhibition were donated by me.
One of the items in the show that I found to be very important to me was the Walkman. The Walkman was particularly important because of Mr. [Akio] Morita [co-founder of Sony]. One time I was going to give a speech with [Silicon Valley entrepreneur and computer scientist] Jim Clark to 3,000 people in Tokyo. Jim helped me get started with things because I helped him with his company Silicon Graphics, which was one of the main computer manufacturers. He had showed me [the early web browser] Mosaic, which he started with Marc Andreessen, who I knew because my brother was at a supercomputing lab at the University of Illinois with him. Mosaic turned into Netscape, and when I saw Netscape I moved out of the special effects business because I could see what the internet would do for communications. So it’s all connected.
Anyways, back to the museum. The Walkman and Mr. Morita were really interesting, because at one point Morita was thought of as the new Edison. I met him on a plane; I said, “I know who you are because I’m a major, major fan of Glenn Gould.” And he said “Oh no, you’re going to ruin my trip” because he expected to work and not talk to anybody. We talked the whole way to Tokyo, and I got to know him pretty well. He was thought of as the next Edison, but if I went around here to our millennial staff, no one would know him. The fact that no one knows Morita, I bring up, because one day they may not know Jobs.