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The State of Design
Andrew Blauvelt assesses the buzz about the Minnesota design scene

“With the reopening of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis now seems poised to become a major design mecca,” wrote Metropolis in May 2005. Walker design director and curator Andrew Blauvelt takes issue with the magazine’s use of the future tense. With a rich design community working in artistic, aca¬demic, and commercial realms, not to mention the building boom that’s adding cultural facilities designed by Herzog & de Meuron, Jean Nouvel, Steven Holl, Cesar Pelli, Michael Graves, and others, this has long been—and currently very much is—a hotbed of progressive design. As he launches Drawn Here, a new series of talks about architecture and design in Minnesota, Blauvelt spoke with Walker managing editor Paul Schmelzer about how this reputation evolved and what issues designers will turn their sights to in the future.

Paul Schmelzer:

Many voices—including Richard Florida, who in his theory of the “creative class” ranked Minneapolis among the top 10 cities based on its “creativity index”—have been declaring Minneapolis’ design moment. With so many high-profile projects by celebrated architects, so many institutions dedicated to design (the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and the Walker, to name a few), and so much design innovation demonstrated by major retailers such as Target and upstart businesses such as Blu Dot, how do you regard their assessments?

Andrew Blauvelt:

Well, it’s true that there’s a buzz about the design scene in the Twin Cities. When I travel around the country, people ask me if it’s real or just hype. I do think there is something interesting happening now—and has been for quite awhile. In some ways there has always been a strong design tradition in this area, but more recently we have seen so much activity along a number of fronts simultaneously: more high-profile designers and architects, more interest by businesses in the value of design, and even a larger audience for design. To me it’s about critical mass. The Twin Cities area is small enough that you meet other designers pretty easily, big enough not to feel provincial, and deep enough to encourage diversity. There’s a great ecology of design here that spans all sectors and scales. For instance, you see national brands like Design Within Reach opening a shop along with eclectic places such as Robot Love or redlurered, which exist in the same environment that spawned Room & Board. There is a strong entrepreneurial sensibility as well among practitio¬ners such as Process Type Foundry or Aesthetic Apparatus, and you also have major architectural firms such as HGA (Hammel, Green and Abrahamson) and MS&R (Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle) winning national awards and commis¬sions alongside smaller offices such as James Dayton Design, Vincent James Associates Architects, David Salmela, and Julie Snow Architects. Many publi¬cations have used the major architectural projects going on around town as a springboard for their stories, which might be confusing cause and effect. I’d like to think that such projects happen because the ground is fertile enough to allow these kinds of works to grow.


While there are many factors we can look to—from our high concentra¬tion of design-savvy Scandinavians to the pioneering companies that engi¬neered Minneapolis’ rise as a flour-milling mecca—what role do the arts have in shaping the design consciousness here?


If we agree with Florida’s idea of the creative class—which he defines broadly and thinks exists in places where innovation and diversity flourish—then the arts play a major role in shaping an environment that fosters design. It’s more than a quality-of-life benefit—it’s more catalytic.


And the Walker?


Places like the Walker are important in that regard because they act as a landmark in the cultural landscape, drawing many artists and designers together by providing a public forum. Design at the Walker, going all the way back to the 1940s, has always existed among other artistic and cultural pursuits, which is what I think keeps it vital.


This winter you’ll be curating a show on prefabricated modernist archi¬tecture that includes local designers. Are there other design trends that are being germinated here?


Prefab is a good example. You have very innovative thinking happen¬ing here, which you can also find in other parts of the country or abroad in Australia or Sweden. Each is different, but the fact that it’s happening simulta¬neously in vastly different places is the big difference. The common wisdom used to be that trends originated in one place and spread across the country, or rather met in the middle. It took time for ideas to disseminate. I don’t believe design trends are bound by geography. What’s interesting to me is that now you can find essentially the same design concerns at the local level as you can at the global. For instance, issues of sustainability are very much at the forefront of many design disciplines—which encompass everything from sustaining ecological production techniques to preserving indigenous cultures to maintaining the most creative and innovative environments—but how that is interpreted can be quite different from place to place and from culture to culture. Things like local climate and lifestyles create uneven devel¬opment, even if the underlying philosophy is the same. Interestingly, the same issue pertains to the local design scene: how can design sustain its vitality?


What will be the big design issues in the future, locally or internationally?


Now and in the future, I think design will be called upon to solve increas¬ingly complex problems—for cities, businesses, and so on. I’ve noticed that the processes and skills designers learn in school are increasingly being used outside of the studio and profession by non-designers in strategic think tanks and classrooms. People are studying creative processes and environments such as design studios to learn how they can be used in their own company or school.

Station Agent: Design director and curator Andrew Blauvelt at the Lake Street Light Rail Station designed by Julie Snow Architects

Photo: Cameron Wittig