A redesigned DesignPhiladelphia has much to offer

"Not a Vacant Lot," an exhibition at last year's DesignPhiladelphia that reimagined the vacant lot at 313 S. Broad St. The 2012 festival begins Wednesday.
"Not a Vacant Lot," an exhibition at last year's DesignPhiladelphia that reimagined the vacant lot at 313 S. Broad St. The 2012 festival begins Wednesday. (KEVIN MONKO)
Posted: October 06, 2012

When Ben Evans cofounded the London Design Festival in 2003, there were only four or five others around to serve as models. At the beginning of last year's LDF, Evans and his staff counted around 85. Now, he estimates, there are more than a hundred. The trend has evolved into a movement.

If London is the international pioneer of the citywide design week, our own DesignPhiladelphia, launched in 2005, is the U.S. pioneer. It was the first not to be centered on a trade show and the first to act as a platform and bullhorn to define and promote a city's sprawling design talent. After Philadelphia came San Francisco, and in the last three years a wave of others around the world have followed, giving rise to a bit of a "what have we wrought" moment in London. One of the panels at its festival last month was called, "Design Festivals: Who Needs Them?"

It's similar to the question Hilary Jay, DesignPhiladelphia's founding director, has been asking. For seven years, her scandalously underfunded venture has looked to kindle our creative economy, brand Philadelphia as a design city, and, as she puts it, "help the muggles understand how design makes a difference in their everyday lives - and that it's not just about what they own."

The festival's low barrier of entry makes it very muggle-friendly. DesignPhiladelphia, which begins Wednesday, has always been open-source - for a small fee, anyone can put on an event, as long as it's about design. Almost all are free and open to the public. Jay and her team provide the platform, process the applications, prepare the guidebook, promote the festival, stoke the fire, and witness the exhilaration that overtakes the city each fall. The number of events grew quickly from 50 the first year and plateaued at around 150 soon thereafter, even when the festival went from 10 days to this year's five.

But after seven years, DesignPhiladelphia felt like it was on autopilot, and that was not enough for Jay. When last year's whirlwind ended, the self-described "design evangelist" wondered if the festival was saving Philadelphia. Did the 10-day event have permanent resonance? Was it touching only "design people" or was it also reaching the uninitiated? Should it be scrapped for a new and more effective model? She circulated a survey and convened an advisory team on which I served. The conclusion: It shouldn't go away. All the information showed the festival "was contributing to the city as more than just a look-and-see sort of thing," says Jay.

So she redesigned the design festival. In response to feedback that the citywide scenario was becoming too widespread to easily digest, she shortened it to five days and named three "design districts" - Old City, Northern Liberties, and East Passyunk - to corral events into clusters of activity and make the festival impossible to miss (even for the non-design people) in these neighborhoods. Last year's most popular event was its kickoff, held off the beaten track in Callowhill near the Reading Viaduct - Philly's hope for its own High Line-esque park and the subject of much design buzz. It turned into a street party. Events highlighting graphic design, product design, and architecture collided, and Mayor Nutter was awarded the inaugural Design Champion award. "We learned that people are starving for a community experiential happening," says Jay, "where they can meet new people in a neighborhood they haven't been to before, so there's this sense of discovery."

Jay is repeating that winning formula at this year's opening event Wednesday at Provenance Architecturals, a salvage warehouse in Fishtown. University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann will receive 2012's Design Champion award for her work connecting Center City and University City, proof that design is about much more than colors of the year and expensive chairs. And DesignPhiladelphia is expanding into a year-round initiative to include "Something From Nothing," funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. This competition asks young designers to reimagine underutilized urban spaces. The results will be a centerpiece of DesignPhiladelphia 2013.

Jay's - and London's - questioning of their festivals' worth may be a reaction to the inability to properly evaluate the long-term impact of a temporary event. Evans is in the process of persuading his government to invest in such research. But there are plenty of anecdotes to support the festivals' worth.

Take Jesse Gerard, a 2010 University of the Arts grad whose experience making a speaker for a DesignPhiladelphia 2010 exhibit led him to quit his corporate job and start Carrot Grant, a bespoke speakers business. His was one of two Pennsylvania companies highlighted in Fast Company's United States of Design issue in 2011.

There's Gus Scheerbaum, former chair of the board of the South of South Neighborhood Association, who met Katie Winkler, a designer at Brown & Keener, at a B&K open house during DesignPhiladelphia 2010. He and Winkler cooked up BetterBlocksPhilly, based on BetterBlocksDallas, for DesignPhiladelphia 2011. Along with the landscape design firm WRT, they planned temporary installations of on-street designs, including pop-up parklets where people could gather. BetterBlocksPhilly was temporary, but it showed the neighborhood and the city what was possible.

Igniting a single design entrepreneur's aspirations and upping the urbanism IQ of a neighborhood are just two of thousands of points of light.

The recent wave of design weeks - including in Detroit, Portland, Ore., Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Baltimore, Paris, and Singapore - points to a hunger for something we're feeling here, too. Carol Coletta, formerly president of CEOs for Cities and now director for ArtPlace, says the festivals are the symptom of a grand shift. "We're going through a difficult economic transition," says Coletta. "Part of that is the growing value of design and its increasing value in our economy, and design festivals are a way for people to understand what the next economy looks like."

Among the miraculous inventions of the Industrial Age introduced at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Fairmount Park were the Corliss steam engine, Heinz Ketchup, and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. Today's design festivals, the 21st-century equivalent of these world's fairs, still display new technologies such as 3-D printing. But more often they showcase innovations that are less about "stuff" and more about immaterial matters, such as designing the interactions between humans and their computers and public-interest design: reviving urban manufacturing, activating abandoned spaces, and examining the correlation between storefront design and a store's profits.

So, design festivals: Who needs them? Apparently, we do. Today the Philadelphia design scene is nearly everywhere you look, but as little as five years ago - when I started writing about it - there was less innovative work happening, and much of it was buried well underground. The change can't all be ascribed to DesignPhiladelphia, of course, but I wouldn't be surprised if future urban studies majors look back to this time and cite the maturation of a city's design festival as a marker of its uphill climb toward economic strength and cultural vibrancy.

As for branding, the intangible buzz about Philadelphia's creative culture has intensified from mosquito to cicada strength in the last few years.

"The culture that exists here is different from New York's or L.A.'s," says Jay, "and that's what makes a place exciting. That's what makes you want to live there, invest there, raise your kids there." She pauses. "It takes a long time for this to happen."

But without DesignPhiladelphia, it's going to take much longer.


DesignPhiladelphia Bound?

DesignPhiladelphia runs from Wednesday to Oct. 14, with more than 100 events taking place citywide. For a complete schedule of exhibits, lectures, tours, and workshops, go to www.designphiladelphia.org.


Caroline Tiger is a design writer in Philadelphia. Visit her blog at design-phan.com.

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