Cooper Hewitt National Design Award winners embrace the creative spirit

Susan Chin and Mary Ping - Cooper Hewitt Awards

2017 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award winners Susan Chin, FAIA, and Mary Ping speak during a panel discussion at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC.

A panel of 2017 winners convened at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, to talk about their design influences and today’s challenges

Members of the design community welcomed three of the winners of the 2017 Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards to the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, for a panel discussion on the importance and impact of design.

The awards program, now in its 18th year, honored 11 winners, including panelists Susan S. Szenasy, editor-in-chief of Metropolis Magazine, who won the Director’s Award; Mary Ping, founder of New York-based label Slow and Steady Wins the Race, for fashion design; and the Design Trust for Public Space, for corporate and institutional achievement, represented by executive director Susan Chin, FAIA.

The National Design Awards underscore the significance of design in an era where arts funding is increasingly at risk. According to Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton, the awards program is “a chance for solutions or optimism at a time when optimism toward seemingly intractable problems seems elusive.”

Elaborating upon that sentiment, Szenasy spoke of design and architecture as acts of hope: “Whatever you put out there is about future use of something,” she said. “The creative spirit in human beings is the most important spirit alive.”  

In a discussion moderated by Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper Hewitt in New York City, Chin, Ping, and Szenasy emphasized that design should be accessible to all—in fact, that mantra is part of Ping’s design manifesto. “What defines good or bad design shouldn’t be a price tag,” she said. Ping credited her grandmother for instilling thoughtfulness in her design process. “We would go to the fish market,” she said, “And she would tell me to pick a fish. She would tell me, ‘They all look alike, but you have to choose the best one.’”

“This award raises awareness of design and our shared spaces as the lifeblood and heart of our cities that should be public for all.” - Susan Chin, FAIA

In her work with the Design Trust, Chin stressed the importance of listening to community urges but also offered advice on how to get things done. Based on her past experience as a government official, she said, she could easily persuade other government officials that she was on their side. The key to many of the Design Trust’s successes has been the iteration of projects from pop-up to pilot to permanent: “Government officials aren’t so afraid when you say you just want to test something–that it’ll only be there a couple of months.”

Through the progressive upscaling of projects, the Design Trust takes input to see what works and what doesn’t, incorporating findings into the next step, with success used as proof-of-concept to generate groundswell of support from the community and the officials. “Typically no one thinks about public space,” Chin wrote in an email. “When it belongs to everybody, it belongs to nobody, so this award raises awareness of design and our shared spaces as the lifeblood and heart of our cities that should be public for all.”

One of the livelier moments in the conversation came toward the end of the evening, when one audience member asked about the fate of Civil War statues commemorating Confederate leaders. Szenasy cited Communist statues in Hungary that were relocated to a sculpture park. Chin, on the other hand, talked about adapting existing fabric, and cited Berlin’s efforts to make use of Third Reich-era buildings.. “It’s history we may not own but need to understand,” Chin said. “The Civil War was a horrendous time. How do we begin to open a dialogue where we can talk about what makes us Americans? How do we talk about monuments, about slavery? The past is never the past.  The past is the present.”

After the program, Szenasy further addressed how crucial it is to preserve funding for the arts. “Arts are so much a part of who we are,” she said. “You can’t suppress it, you can’t let it die away, this robust artistic culture. There’s a need to express the thoughts within us, and it’s important to engage in lifelong learning and support great artists.”

The National Design Awards, according to these winners, celebrate the potential that design offers toward enhancing daily life for everyone. Chin offered this closing thought: “In a time when our civil rights are challenged every day, these awards call attention to design making a difference.”

Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA, is a writer and architectural photographer based in Washington, DC. He is the founder of Brutalist DC and the former associate editor of design for Architect Magazine.

Image credits

Susan Chin and Mary Ping - Cooper Hewitt Awards

Deane Madsen, Assoc. AIA

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