Last month, the Cooper Hewitt hosted its annual National Design Awards,
a relatively uncontroversial evening of fun and good vibes. Some hubbub, however, did transpire several months before: Five of the 2005 Communication Design honorees boycotted the breakfast reception hosted by the award’s honorary chair First Lady Laura Bush and held in June at the White House.Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher, and 2x4’s Michael Rock, Susan Sellers, and Georgie Stout wrote an open letter to Mrs. Bush (published onwww.design-observer.com), stating, “Graphic designers are intimately engaged in the construction of language, both visual and verbal…[I]t is our fundamental belief, and a central tenet of ‘good’ design, that words and images must be used responsibly, especially when the matters articulated are of vital importance to the life of our nation…[I]t is our belief that the current administration of George W. Bush has used the mass communication of words and images in ways that have seriously harmed the political discourse in America. We therefore feel it would be inconsistent with those values previously stated to accept an award celebrating language and communication, from a representative of an administration that has engaged in a prolonged assault on meaning.” Who said designers are apolitical? Bravo.
That same June breakfast also received the 2006 winners and Paolo Soleri, this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, also had hopes of bringing a political message to the White House. Posted on his Arcosanti website is the letter he planned to recite to his hosts. Some of its juicier Italian-English morsels: “The insularity of the American nation, [whose] cause-effect is xenophobia, has generated the Empire USA. It owes its existence and its triumph to Homo faber opportunism—industriousness and determination—but in the process, we Westerners have been trapped in the cage of materialism, our invention…
The technocratic empire will be short-lived because its myopic and immense
power is echoed by its own theocratic imprint.” Alas, Soleri didn’t have the
chance to eek out the words, shuffled along as he was for his two-minute handshake/audience with the First Lady. He did tell us that he distributed 75 copies of his letter at the awards gala, which the First Lady dogged for the second-year running. In attendance, however, was First Daughter Barbara, who works in Cooper Hewitt’s educational programming department (a job she found on Craigslist). If a copy of Soleri’s letter landed in her hands, it must not have troubled her much: At the after-party, she was reportedly gettin’ down on the dance floor with her boyfriend, as were 2006 finalist Chip Kidd (one of the nominated graphic designers who did not sign the letter), and an impressive showing from the 2x4 crew. Michael Bierut, recruited as the evening’s DJ, apparently knows what turns designers on—Prince, the Sugar Hill Gang, Paula Abdul. “I always thought graphic designers liked rap music because we’re the design discipline that works with words,” he explained.
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