The Problem with Contemporary Design

I recently attended a dinner with a group of some of the greatest design minds in the city. The guest of honour was Stephen Burks, of Ready Made Projects, New York, who was here to speak at the IDEX conference. A few of us went for cocktails and of course discussed the state global design when Stephen posed the question: Why don’t we see more contemporary public spaces?

He went on to remark that in his travels to major urban centers around the world, there are typically very few truly contemporary spaces that invoke elements of unique or innovative contemporary design. He referenced an example of a truly contemporary space as being the London restaurant Coast, designed in 1995 by Marc Newson. The restaurant has since closed, but the chairs designed for the restaurant continue to be manufactured to this day.

We all agreed that doing truly contemporary spaces are risky as they generally overshadow the product or services that the business may offer. The danger in running a business in this sort of environment is that the initial buzz initially generated, because the space comes across as being different and innovative, usually tapers off fairly quickly. The one element that can add longevity is perhaps the celebrity cachet of the chef in the kitchen or a strong brand presence. The Prada store in New York (Rem Koolhaas, 2001) is an example of great design that continues to draw interest today, but it also came with an insane price tag of $40 million.

Our discussion basically concluded that a successful strategy hinges on the balance of form and material choice. I believe that use of “organic” materials such as stone and wood adds a comfortable connector point for visitors. I reference the McKinsey building and the new Royal Conservatory of Music as good examples of contemporary design that Toronto can be proud of. After all, why shouldn’t design be comfortable without being boring?

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Image courtesy of Ann Althouse.

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