What's wrong with American furniture design? That's the topic burning an image on the mind of Surface editor-in-chief Dan Rubinstein. "We're one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we make lots of furniture, we have lots of young designers, but there's something wrong and we don't know what it is," he says. On Thursday, January 13, the Rubinstein, working with the Museum of Art and Design in New York, will kick off the museum's newest public program titled The Home Front: American Furniture Now. Structured as five talks spread over four months (plus portfolio reviews and open studios), the series will examine how we as Americans make furniture and what we still need to learn to succeed. We spoke with Rubinstein as he was working to close an upcoming issue and prepare for the magazine's redesign and launch of its new website. Read more below.
How did you come to be involved with this lecture series?
The museum came to me through their education and public programming department in the summer of 2010. They had heard about a show I had done a couple years ago with Jen Renzi—who will be writing a column related to the topic of the programs for Fast Company—called InDisposed two years ago. We invited a dozen designers to create prototypes with materials that are meant to be disposed of and showed what can happen when you put them to new use.
This series is about bringing people to the museum. MAD is a relatively new institution in its newest form in its new home on Columbus Circle. It's interested in increasing its presence in the design community and taking part in the conversation. I suggested a few ideas and they really latched onto the idea of talking about American design, which I whittled down to American furniture.
"American furniture" is still a pretty big topic. What about it interests you most?
We'll be tackling it from different perspectives. Surface is going to tackle what it's like to sell furniture in America now and what it's like to sell American furniture now [In Stock: Why is American design such a hard sell? on January 13]. We'll have Jamie Gray from Matter who sells his own produced pieces that are very limited editions, Siamak Hakakian from DDC [Domus Design Collection] who is selling lots of Italian brands and high-end things, and also Stefan Lawrence from Twentieth with a mix of the two.
Jen Renzi will be interviewing a bunch of different designers about what it takes to make it as a designer in your own studio today, what the practical considerations are, how to finds space, where to find funding, how to structure a business, and so on. [Making It: Challenges facing the American designer on February 17]
Julie Iovine from The Architect's Newspaper will talk with architects about their role in because if anyone's going to benefit from having a really strong furniture culture, architects should be interested. [Drafted: The evolving role of architects in furniture design on March 10]
Another thing we'll be speaking about is the fact that we in New York have a lot of design students and then it seems that most of them vanish after a couple years after graduation. Where do they go? What do they do? What are their first steps out of school? We wanted to get Pratt [Institute] students in the furniture programs to talk to successful American designers who have their own ateliers then have a portfolio review and let the students get feedback and advice. How does Dror [Benshetrit, one of the speakers] survive? What were his first steps? What knowledge can he pass on? [After Class: The first steps of the American designer on March 24]
Finally we come to the American Design Club, which is a group of designers who are going to host open studios and have designers come in and create prototypes [American Design Club open studios April 18-22 and talk April 21]. They'll let visitors sit in on discussions and the creative process, and then we'll have the four prototypes on stage with the designers for the program.
The topics seem quite targeted toward aspiring furniture designers. Why should the general public take interest and attend the talks?
There are people who are curious about how designers go through the creative process. The different events cater to picking apart the question of what's wrong with American design. There's something wrong but we don't know what it is. We know there's great design out there and that it exists and those thoughts stem a lot of interesting conversations. At the Salone in Milan there are 300 booths but only two Americans. Why is that? That doesn't make sense. We're one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we make lots of furniture, we have lots of young designers, but there are no Americans there. When you look, though, almost everyone at the Salone is sent by their government or a nonprofit. Every developed nation has some sort of government-supported outlet for a designer to turn to except for the United States. There are so many other things that come up with what's wrong with American design that we'll talk about too.
What about The Home Front series are you most excited about?
Just to see everything together: to hear people like Michael Graves talk, to see the American Design Club and what they're going to be showing in their open studios. Visitors will be able to walk in, meet a designer, and see what their process is. They just get to stumble into this, which is kind of amazing. It's a great way of interacting with the design world.
What do you hope comes out of these discussions?
I hope it's just the beginning of a conversation. I didn't want it to be me on a soapbox but for everyone—Surface, The Architect's Newspaper, Fast Company, the American Design Club, the public—to be able to come together on neutral ground and talk design and share stories. Maybe the next step will be taking some kind of action.