Before becoming managing editor at AIGA, I worked for years as a freelance design writer covering, among other things, the various design weeks of the world—from the big (London, Milan) and medium-sized shows (Berlin, Tokyo), to the smallest efforts (Tel Aviv, Sofia). And, of course, I covered design week in New York. As anyone who’s even tangentially related to design media can tell you, mid May is an exciting time to be in New York City. I don’t care how many design shows you’ve already traipsed through this year, there’s something electrifying about how every May, a gaggle of design presentations, parties, pop-ups, and panel discussions converge all over town, bringing designers, buyers, manufacturers, press, and the public together to collectively ooh and ahh over design.
For designers, this is one of the few times in the year they can freely interact with the public and reach an international audience. But one group is conspicuously absent: graphic designers.
This isn’t only the case in New York; design week shows the world over cater to industrial designers and now, increasingly, architects. Other fields have their own dedicated time to shine each year: fashion, automotive, and interior design immediately come to mind. But a graphic designer or art director looking for something relevant to his or her profession will be sadly disappointed by the offerings at NYCxDESIGN. Unless, of course, they’re interested in furniture, lighting, or products. Which gets me to my second point: Why aren’t more graphic designers interested in more areas of design?
To find an answer, let’s consider the current design week model, and how it is slowly, but surely, changing. Thanks to efforts by some of the smaller shows now taking part in design week, NYCxDESIGN is shedding its old reputation as ICFF—the massive International Contemporary Furniture Fair that dominated New York’s design week offerings for as long as anyone can remember. The event is bigger than ever this year, with 700 exhibitors spread over two floors, and it’s the reason retailers, manufacturers, press, and designers drag themselves to the halogen-lit hull of the Javits Center—despite the misery of trekking to its inconvenient location, which is only compounded by the prospect of spending the day in the canned air of a convention center when the city is in full bloom.
Unfortunately, ICFF’s high cost of renting and outfitting a few square feet of booth space has kept out much of the city’s most exciting young talent, largely rendering it into a warehouse of the latest in kitchens, bathrooms, and offerings from big name furniture retailers—not exactly a juicy scoop for a design writer, nor, I’d bet, a very exciting Saturday afternoon for design lovers.
And this still leaves a large and growing group out of the spotlight, which creates a real problem for a city that wants to present not just the biggest brand names it can attract, but a true showing of what the local talent has to offer. But then again, ICFF was never intended for public consumption (that’s a spin the city is trying to give it). ICFF began its life as a trade show that was established pre-internet, before buyers could place orders with manufacturers or scope out new products online. But now that retailers are changing the way they buy product, ICFF is becoming less of a venue for transacting business and more of a mega-showroom.
But ICFF understands the value of appealing to a wider audience, and to stay relevant it’s trying to turn a few new tricks—it’s just not turning them fast enough to keep up with its swifter, savvier satellite show competition. The only standout I can see from ICFF’s weekend line-up comes from Bernhardt Design, which is providing the faintest of silver linings by picking up the slack on the emerging designer front with ICFF Studio, a competition to bring 11 designs to market. But 11 out of 700 total exhibitors? Let’s hope they don’t get swallowed up whole.
But if there’s one thing designers can do it’s solve a problem, hence the proliferation of aforementioned satellite shows organized by designers, writers, and curators that have become so bloggable now they’ve even managed to persuade some of ICFF’s major players to decamp, lest they appear out of touch with the burgeoning design scene. Now we have WantedDesign, OFFSITE, Designjunction, Collective Design, BKLYN DESIGNS, and a smattering of other offerings—some design week-related and some merely circumstantial—NYCxDESIGN has culled into its calendar, even going as far as co-opting the happy scheduling accident of Frieze New York and bringing it in under the NYCxDESIGN umbrella of events.
Navigating the growing itinerary might be a little confusing, but as New York City tries to establish itself as a competitor to Paris’ Maison & Objet, Milan’s Salone del Mobile, and the London Design Festival, more is definitely better. For starters, you’ll have noticed that like fashion, design is now officially showing in Brooklyn. It makes perfect sense; it’s where most young designers live and work anyway. The Brooklyn events themselves, however, have some catching up to do to be on par with the shows on the main island.
While there’s a lot to like at BKLYN DESIGNS, for example, it won’t do much to convince people the borough has more to offer than reclaimed wood and Edison bulbs. What the show does have going for it, however, is an excellent lineup of speakers and panel discussions (something NYCxDESIGN has been lacking on the whole) and a diverse showing that includes architecture—a heretofore underrepresented category at design week.
And then there’s graphic design, that other underrepresented field I’ve been harping on about. On the one hand, why should designers, illustrators, or art directors care about New York City’s concerted effort to spread the awareness of design if that effort doesn’t include them? The only illustration I saw this past weekend at BKLYN DESIGNS was on a tea towel, and the only instance of graphic design beyond the business cards I collected was a booth for the arts journal, CLOG, which felt very much alone amongst a sea of home wares and women’s jewelry.
But I see it as a two-way street: if graphic designers want to be part of the biggest design celebration in their city, they’ll have to take the first step. Just as the designers who risked forsaking the guaranteed industry exposure of ICFF by striking out on their own—and striking a chord with an international design audience in the process—there’s nothing stopping graphic designers from stepping out of the shadows and taking part. Just imagine the impression an NYCxDESIGN visitor is getting right now if they go to all the design week events and aren’t exposed to any graphic design—it’s as if a major piece of the current design conversation missing.
There are a few bright spots on the upcoming agenda, though. WantedDesign is hosting a talk about Polish Graphic Design moderated by Ellen Lupton, Cooper-Hewitt’s got that poster design exhibition, and OFFSITE’s showing is usually exciting enough to transcend the boundaries of product; the fact that multi-disciplinary design studio RoAndCo is showing there is kind of a big deal (here’s hoping it sparks a trend).
It’s a small start, to be sure. And if I discover anything else as the shows really kick off this weekend, you’ll be reading about it here. But if we expect to see graphic designers take a seat at the design week table, we can’t wait for an engraved invitation; we have to hungrily pull up a chair.