Any worthy report bolsters and expands upon an anecdotal truth. Architects gravitate to New York City in large numbers—even larger numbers than expected—making design the fastest growing creative industry in New York, according to the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), “a think tank dedicated to independent, fact-based research about critical issues affecting New York’s future.”
But we knew that. Now what? The recommendations of the report are concise and within reach—and in need of immediate and vocal endorsement by the entire design community.
On a small scale, the city already supports the fashion industry, helping to facilitate the move of the fall fashion shows to Lincoln Center, launching an incubator in the Garment District, and arranging a fellowship program and workshops for fashion entrepreneurs. That kind of backing needs to be more substantial to have any real meaning—the incubator is for 12 companies. But first, the city needs to understand that design is much more than fashion. It is that broad and diverse definition of the profession—encompassing everything from game design to building design—that has the potential, if treated as a single entity, to have tangible impact on the economy.
Too much political capital has already been spent on grousing and counter-grousing about the disappointments of the Javits Center as economic driver. The CUF report rightly says the show’s the thing, not the convention center itself, and suggests the city ought to better promote the design-related trade shows already here, namely ICFF. (It also roots for the resurrection of Brooklyn Design, shut down this year when state funding was withheld.)
Other cities do it better. At the Milan furniture fair every year, banners stream across the streets, almost every shop, restaurant and hotel is stacked with event guides and maps. The city makes an enormous investment in high quality design installations spread across many neighborhoods. There is always a major attraction demanding vast international media coverage. One year, the big event was at a palazzo where Yoko Ono artfully suspended knives, Robert Wilson staged a one-person drama in a life-size Cornell box, and Peter Greenaway sat naked in a bathtub—thought provoking at all kinds of levels.
London has also pulled way ahead of New York as a design destination, and in just a few short years. Can you imagine a New York City Design Council working with the NYCEDC to hatch plans for a design event? That’s what happened in London when British Design Council and the London Development Corporation launched the London Design Festival in 2003. In order to foster the festival as a citywide event, marketing tool kits provided by the city go out to all participating design organizations, non-profits, museums, shops and many others. With a stroke—at the cost of a few banners, stickers, a website and a map with flags—the design festival is a branded event for the city that now attracts 350,000 visitors to events across the city for nine days every year.
The CUF report recommends begetting a New York Design Festival, but that could be expensive, something to save for flusher times. But right now there are things that can be done, again, following the example of others. In Korea, for instance, Seoul has built up a vendor list to promote designers and architects with strong track records for jobs within government and accessible to city, BIDs and development corporations. This is not the same as the Department of Design and Construction’s Design Excellence procurement program. It is simply a trusted resource list shared by all city departments—parks, planning, transportation, schools, health, etc.—on all matters of design from structures to signage to graphics for brochures. That may sound like a pipe dream given the local credo of balkanized power bases, but it would be an excellent starting place, and it is an achievable goal.
And what about a mayoral advisory group on urban design policy and priorities. Again it already exists in London, and Mayor Daley in Chicago relied on an informal design policy group that has helped put Chicago way ahead on the sustainable design front. The report, available for a good read at www.nycfuture.com, is loaded with other smart ideas, from matchmaking designers to tech start-ups in entrepreneurial partnerships to creating affordable housing for the design industries and promoting the export of architecture and design services in the same way we export cars and beef.
Bloomberg may be in his last lap, but the next administration will be looking around for do-able initiatives that provide a big bang for the smallest buck. Now is the time for architects and designers to put their shoulder to the grind to frame and promote those plans. Let’s make sure that the new mayor feels that ignoring such farsighted plans would be a scandalous loss for the city.