Design conference kicks off with smaller crowd |

Design conference kicks off with smaller crowd

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Some of the talk in the tent over dinner at the opening night of the 52nd International Design Conference in Aspen was indeed about this year’s theme, “What Matters Now?”

But some of it was about whether the Design Conference itself still matters.

The attendance at this year’s conference is much smaller than in years past, “and we admit it,” said Adele Santos, president of the IDCA, in her opening remarks Wednesday night in Harris Hall.

Santos cited the economy as one factor for the drop in attendees, as well as the shift to August from the traditional meeting date in June.

The two keynote speakers on Wednesday night reflected the ups and downs of the Aspen design conference.

Many of the speakers and presenters at the design conference over the past several years have been articulate, dynamic and stimulating. Paola Antonelli, curator of the architecture and design department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was no different.

Antonelli, who has charm to match her intelligence, told the half-filled auditorium, “The biggest challenge we have right now is public relations.”

She said that while people still depend on designers to produce items both beautiful and useful, too many people associate design with “cute chairs” and that “we need to make people aware that design matters.”

Her presentation was crisp, and she spoke directly to the audience, who, for the most part, could actually hear her, as the acoustics for the spoken word are much better in Harris Hall than they are in the Music Tent next door.

But the next speaker epitomized what too often occurs at the conference ? a brilliant and cutting-edge designer forgets that an audience wants to be treated like a client.

They want to be both informed and entertained. And they want to believe that the presenter cares about them and not just that they should care about the presenter.

Ron Arad, an architect, designer and artist from London, took the stage, sat down at a table in front of his laptop, and announced that he had not prepared a lecture.

“I think what matters is not to panic,” he said, smiling, scrolling through his computer’s log of files projected onto a movie screen.

Arad, who was introduced as a “poet of technology,” then showed the audience some of what was on his laptop.

And for the most part, it was fascinating evidence of his fresh, original thinking and innovative design work.

He showed a video clip of a hand-cranked bicycle one of his students designed for a wheelchair-bound boy, now joyously set free. “This is good work,” he said.

He then showed images of two architectural projects, one in New York and one in London, that didn’t get built, and he showed designs for a high-tech circular house he drew up for a sheik from Qatar.

And then he poked around some more on the laptop and showed how he designed and manufactured a series of what looked, ironically, like “cute chairs.”

Arad’s point was not that the world needs more cute chairs, but that innovations in how chairs are manufactured can, and should, guide the design of the chair.

But at about that point in Arad’s hopscotch review of his current work, members of the audience started getting out of their chairs and walking out.

At 10 minutes after 10 in the evening, a grande dame of Aspen and a thoroughly dedicated supporter of the IDCA stood up. And left.

“If you can’t make your chairs comfortable, you should become a dentist or an accountant,” Arad was saying, as even more people rose out of their chairs to leave.

His presentation, while intriguing, was clearly going on too long for some.

At 10:30 p.m., Arad was given the signal by his host to wrap things up.

“I’m very happy to stop,” he said.

The audience applauded.

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is]

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