America has lost its design identity
by Nora Sobich | Jul 13, 2009
Stefane Barbeau and Duane Smith

America's designers have long since ceased to be as innovative and experimental as they were in the mid twentieth century. But things are changing, not in California, New York or Chicago: "Vessel" the design company set up by the Canadians Stefane Barbeau and Duane Smith, has its head office on the outskirts of Boston's China Town.

Stefane Barbeau, early in 2000 you and your partner Duane Smith set up the company "Vessel". Is Boston a good place to be creative?
Stefane Barbeau: Yes. Actually we came here because we wanted a vacation and immediately thought it was paradise: you have a city and in one-and-a-half hours you are on the Atlantic sea-board. Following Silicon Valley, Boston is the second most important place for product design in the United States. Many people don't know that. Boston has a large, creative and flourishing footwear design industry, but also medical design and consumer electronics. However, not much is happening in household goods and furniture, in other words the things we do.

But Boston doesn't have an exciting sub-culture ...
Barbeau: That is the only disadvantage. Boston does not have the raw quality of Berlin nor does it have the pioneering role and energy of New York. It is a city deeply rooted in history with a conservative lifestyle and huge family traditions. A There is no squatter culture here that gives birth to creativity.

Do you notice that America's educational elite - that is, Harvard and the MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology- lives right here in the city?
Barbeau: There are lots of intelligent people. As a result things are looked at somewhat differently. The design business is not so much trend-oriented but more geared towards innovation and function.

How does Boston's design community?

Barbeau: In the area of corporate design a lot happens behind closed doors. As we have regular exhibitions we would like to break through the barriers to corporate design and say to initiate an exhibition that showcases the everyday projects of Boston's corporate designers alongside their freelance work.

Freelancing as designers and operating two stores stocked with your own designs together with those of European design firms like Authentics or Vitra does not seem to be the typical career designers pursue in the United States. Is that right?
Barbeau: It is indeed rather unusual for a relatively small design firm to produce and sell its own creations. It is a dream but it is also tiring. Today, we spend much less time actually designing than we do managing deliveries, the cash flow and customer service.

Your rechargeable luminaire "Candela", that you launched in 2002, has been an enormous success. You sold "Candela" to the New York consumer durables firm Oxo. Is it normal in America to sell fully developed product lines to companies?
Barbeau: Typically, designers approach firms and say something like: "We have an idea for a new mango peeler ... ." Then if the firms are interested in it the designers develop the peeler themselves. Design firms don't generally pay in advance. Designers get a certain percentage of the sales. I think it's a good model because it hinges on a product's success, and it means you have closer contact to the consumers even if the model requires designers to finance the product development stage themselves. Previously I worked in design consulting, and you got paid a flat rate. There were times when I felt guilty about getting thousands of dollars without knowing what had become of my design.

Why is it there are no products in your stores from the Arts and Crafts Movement, which is still relatively popular here?
Barbeau: Well, such things just would not fit in with our program. I also doubt that designers would be happy if you described their creations as arts and crafts. Many designers start off like that simply because they have no other options. You produce luminaires or jewelry in small amounts until you realize that it does not pay off economically. A good friend of ours from Boston started off by producing his kitchen knives himself and then moved to the mass market which considerably cut the production costs.

What do you think about limited editions?

Barbeau: The idea of one-offs and studio pieces has extended the limits of design once again. Although I have worked as a designer for years I still have no clear definition for what constitutes design except that it is a process. The term is increasingly bandied about in public and increasingly claimed by discount stores like Target and gets overused.

Michael Graves and Philippe Starck also design for America's giant, Target ...
Barbeau: True, but alongside a kitchen appliance by Michael Grave you will also find toothbrushes from China. O.K., that is also design, but there is more to design than that.

American design already has a strong affinity to the mass market and marketing. You no longer find outstanding figures like Raymond Loewy or Russel Wright today. Many large corporations have lost their innovative flair. Success stories such as that of Apple contrast with sorry tales like that of General Motors. How do you see things?
Barbeau: Yes, at some point the strong innovative well dried up. In the late sixties and early seventies. Other nations have overtaken America as regards innovation in design ...

...and discovered their national design potential as a competitive marketing tool - an instrumentalization that America should be real experts at?
Barbeau: Yes, America really has lost its design identity. It was created with designers like Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen and George Nelson. I am not a historian but I it seems to me that America's large corporations have taken everything upon themselves that was previously accepted as an independent culture by the name of design and was not only used as a sales argument.

What role in all this does the gap between America's enthusiasm for arts and crafts and the poor interest in experimental and creative industrial design play?
Barbeau: A good example of what you are saying is New England. The test of a good chair here is: Is it good to sit on? Is it comfortable? The chances of approaching the thing any other way are virtually zilch. Perhaps one reason for this is the fact that Americans are not taught to sufficiently appreciate aesthetic aspects during their education. But the main reason is their strong sense for practical things. And given the economic crisis many people do without and consider very carefully what they can get for their money. Few people feel like spending more on a rubbish bin just because of the design.

In the 1940 and 1950s firms like Herman Miller and Knoll played a key role. Some people miss such promoters of creative design today. Do they still exist?
Barbeau: Blu Dot is a fantastic firm that really helps revive America's furniture tradition.

Talking in the New York Times magazine Alice Rawsthorn argued the reason why there are no Americans amongst the international star designers had to do with design education, which largely takes place in art academies in America. Do you have any connections to design schools?
Barbeau: Yes, we are regularly invited to criticize works. Say at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence or Mass College of Arts in Boston, which recently altered its name to Mass College of Arts and Design. In Boston the design education does not seem to attuned to corporate design level, at any rate most firms hire their staff from schools elsewhere, say from the Arts Center California, from Canada, Europe or the RISD.

You see Vessel not only as a platform within Boston but also for other design approaches...
Barbeau: Several years ago we teamed up with several other designers on Release 1, a project for concept design, to initiate products that make a social and societal statement, a kind of forum, which brings designers together. We will do that more in future.

Stefane Barbeau and Duane Smith