Blogs The Gradient Andrew Blauvelt

What is Hippie Modernism?

The following text originally appeared as the preface to Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015; Andrew Blauvelt, ed.). The exhibition is on view at the Walker October 24, 2015 through February 28, 2015, before traveling to the Cranbrook Art Museum and University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. […]

The following text originally appeared as the preface to Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia (Walker Art Center, 2015; Andrew Blauvelt, ed.). The exhibition is on view at the Walker October 24, 2015 through February 28, 2015, before traveling to the Cranbrook Art Museum and University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.



I first encountered the term hippie modernism twenty-five years ago in an essay by Lorraine Wild, who mentioned it passingly in the context of the design program at Cranbrook Academy of Art—a reference to the process and methodologically oriented character of a certain type of 1970s design.[1] Although no examples were shown I could not help but conjure an arresting image in my mind. Perhaps she was thinking of a poster that documented a road trip in 1973 by fifteen students and faculty undertaken in a Winnebago from Detroit to New York. The black-and-white broadside mapped their route and a lexicon of design terms surveyed the terrain of ideas they encountered along the way. Certainly, the piece was the product of a collective process and a self-conscious method. The poster’s orderly modern grid exemplified what one historian has labeled the International Typographic Style.[2] However, with its typewriter typography used to define terms such as architecture machine, software, “democratic” design, and design freaks, and a map masterly collaged with the signs and symbols of the roadside vernacular—a gesture right out of Venturi and Scott Brown’s Las Vegas playbook[3]—the project also embodied a hippie otherness. The poster, like the air inside that packed van, exuded some kind of funk. Titled “The Cranbrook design trip,” the double entendre spoke for itself. After all, what could be more hippie than a collective road trip inside a recreational vehicle transformed into a nomadic design studio for eight days?

Despite the clarity that this example offered, the term still contained an unresolved dissonance: were the hippie and the modern opposing concepts or complementary ones? Why does the notion of the hippie seem so estranged from modernism? At first glance, the culture of the hippies evokes not the modern but the premodern and the preindustrial: an affinity for nineteenth-century pioneer dress and its agrarian way of life, vividly captured in photos of rural communes;[4] the stylish period clothing of the Victorian-era Wild West said to have emanated from the vintage clothing stores of San Francisco and the Red Dog Saloon in Nevada, an early site of acid rock;[5] or its counterpart, the recurring figure of the American Indian as a countercultural touchstone representing a more authentic spiritual connection between man and nature.[6] In these ways, the hippies anticipate the postmodern search for historical symbolism and identity. But the hippie scene also embraced modernism’s fascination with new media, materials, and technologies—taped music, synthesized sound, feedback and distortion, light effects, slide projectors, portable video cameras, television, plastics, reflective Mylar, and computers.[7] But unlike the technocratic impulse that viewed scientific advances as intrinsically progressive and socially good, the hippie modern sought alternative uses for such technologies, which were increasingly adapted for personal creative effect and collective betterment. For instance, video and television could fulfill its democratic potential,[8] computing could be for personal use and no longer the sole purview of military and corporate elites, [9] technology could be made appropriate for local contexts and more environmentally sound,[10] the urban environment could be rehabilitated rather than euphemistically renewed,[11] and man and nature could be brought into ecological balance. These ameliorations and alterations typify a reconditioning of modernity through encounters with its hippie other. In a larger context of the counterculture, the hippie modern sought a recuperation of the avant-garde’s utopic dream of integrating art into everyday life. It did so by fusing art and politics and by creating alternative ways of living and thus producing the artifacts, rituals, and experiences that were necessary for this new life.


Hippie modernism marks the tension between the modern characterized as universal, timeless, rational, and progressive, and its countercultural other, which adopts a more local, timely, emotive and often irreverent, and radical disposition. I argue that hippie modernism was a momentary reconciliation of these seemingly opposed values as a way of resolving the impasse that faced postwar cultural modernity—caught between the proverbial rock of technocratic progress and a hard place of impending social disaster[12] that erupted in crisis in the 1960s and would later be very differently reconciled under the rubric of postmodernism in the 1970s and 1980s.



The path forward in art-historical terms was split between those artistic movements more aligned with deeper investigations into the increasingly essential properties of a particular medium or reductive practices (e.g., Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Minimalism) and those movements that actively sought an expansion of the arts into a plurality of new forms, hybrid media, and interactive experience (e.g., expanded cinema, intermedia, installation art, performance).[13] Of these choices, hippie modernism would follow the latter course through experiments that drew upon the theatrical qualities and the participatory actions of the Happening, embraced Fluxus’s democratic spirit in its everyone-is-an-artist philosophy, explored the work of experimental filmmakers seeking to expand cinematic experience, and experimented with the fluid nature of light and sound as well as the interactive qualities of kinetic art. From Pop art it drew its lessons about popular culture as a source of inspiration and entertainment as well as its potential for social critique and the dangers of market commodification. Despite these influences, the fate of most countercultural production was that it would be undertaken outside the disciplinary boundaries of art—beyond its studios, galleries, and museums—and enacted in the public spaces and places of popular life: in streets, parks, plazas, discos, and theaters.

While advanced industrial society at mid-century continued its forward march, the 1960s’ counterculture embodied a deep skepticism about modernity’s technological progress in a postwar society. Seeking a promised liberation from stifling social conventions and oppression, it looked back to seemingly ancient or non-Western examples for spiritual and ethical guidance, exploring open social networks and experimenting with collective actions in life and work. It demanded an expanded social conscience for all, while preaching enlightenment and human potential through expanded forms of consciousness one person at a time.

The hippie modern is not invoked to delineate a style, but rather to denote a historical moment—the creative eruption of the countercultural period that I bracket between the Merry Pranksters’ cross-country acid trip in 1964 and the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 to 1974, which brought into dramatic relief the limits of Western society’s progress and geopolitical power. From the thrilling promise of a post-scarcity society to the sobering reality of a stalled economy, the decade unfolded with dramatic speed but concluded like so many idled cars queued at the gas pump. By evoking the word hippie, I do not mean to suggest that all or even any of the artists in the exhibition self-identified with the term or would have described themselves as one. The hippie was and remains a highly mediated figure, one used rhetorically within this project as the same kind of empty signifier to which accreted many different agendas. Or, as the Diggers once said, the hippie was just another convenient “bag” for the “identity-hungry to climb in.”[14] I adopt the term hippie modernism as a convenient art-historical bag with which to gather and identify various countercultural remnants. By doing so, I risk a similar co-option that the Diggers tried to burn and bury in their “Death of Hippie” event to cleanse Haight-Ashbury of its insipid commercialism. However, my objective is to contest that fate by drawing attention to this liminal period between an increasingly insular high modernism that furthered the cause of art’s autonomy in society and an emergent hippie modernism that engaged new forms and experimental practices that drew upon the early modern avant-garde’s desire to dissolve art into life.

The period under consideration is a historical transition from one epoch to another: from an industrial to a postindustrial society and from a culture of an ossified high modernism to a nascent postmodernism. Because of this transitory status and its rejection of disciplinary boundaries, the counterculture, until very recently, existed in the margins of so many art, architectural, and design histories.[15] This project foregrounds such practices and excavates such histories.


Finding the Hippie Modern


The modern conjures the figure of the machine as its preferred metaphor—a creation of man but with no trace of the hand, all smoothness and refinement, an abstraction of labor and an efficient, if indifferent, labor-saving device—something apart from nature. By contrast, the hippie evokes not the machine but the body—sensual and emotive—connecting man to nature, a direct rather than a distant connection wherein man and nature are part of a shared cybernetic system. If the modern was the hardware, then the hippie was the software—offering a new operating system for “Spaceship Earth.”[16] It is the collision of these philosophies and aesthetics that defines the project’s center of gravity, the tension between the hippie and the modern.

Despite any differences, both movements shared a similar desire to sweep aside convention and to “start from zero.” In this way they both can be said to be in search of a utopia: whether technological, social, or political. In the modern, the new wants to be invented without history, ex nihilo—out of nothing—zero. With the hippie it must be recaptured, relearned, rebooted—a return to renewed beginnings—a different kind of zero. As Tom Wolfe, who had famously chronicled Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ escapades in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test of 1968, affirms in his essay “The Great Relearning”:

The hippies sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero. At one point the novelist Ken Kesey, leader of a commune called the Merry Pranksters, organized a pilgrimage to Stonehenge with the idea of returning to Anglo-Saxon civilization’s point zero, which he figured was Stonehenge, and heading out all over again to do it better. … This process, namely the relearning—following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero—seems to me to be the leitmotif of the twenty-first century in America. [17]


Above: Stuart Hall, “The Hippies: An American ‘Moment,’” in Student Power, ed. Julian Nagel (London: Merlin Press, 1969), 173.


It is this utopic impulse that gives the counterculture its radical edge and avant-garde position.

The interplay of the hippie and the modern can be gleaned in various ways throughout the exhibition—through its process, appearance, and politics. I see the hippie in the patchwork assembly of Drop City’s handcrafted “zomes” and the modern in their avant-garde notion of creating a community to integrate art and life. I recognize the concept in Victor Papanek and George Seegers’s “tin can radio,” a dung-fueled receiver for the developing world—which fascinated the faculty at the Ulm School in Germany, successors to the Bauhaus, but who were nevertheless repelled by its anti-aesthetic form and the decorative cozies knitted by its local owners. I’m reminded of today’s networked culture in the powerful collages of Superstudio’s Supersurface—a cybernetic grid of modernism enveloping the world, its hippie inhabitants living happily in a “world without objects.”[18] I can learn through doing—a favorite trope of the counterculture that sought to free education from the tyranny of schooling[19]—by making my own spaces from the plethora of “cookbooks” offering up recipes for modern living structures, whether plastic and inflatable or wooden and modular.[20] I try to decipher the message of the acid rock poster, its vibrating palette a Josef Albers color exercise done, to quote Dave Hickey, “backwards—inside out, too much, and exactly wrong.”[21] I read the paperbacks of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and Jerry Rubin, whose countercultural ideas are not locked up in dutiful text blocks on Gutenberg’s press bed but released onto Quentin Fiore’s fluid, cinematic pages—an ironic testament to the fact that the revolution wasn’t televised as much as it was printed.[22] I’m immersed in the wondrous images of John Whitney’s technically sophisticated films, whose micro and macro compositions evoke the sacred geometries of a more timeless cosmological order. I wander through Helen and Newton Harrison’s sensuous cybernetic orchard of fruit trees under grow lights, while recalling Richard Brautigan’s poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.”[23] In these and in other projects in the exhibition, implicit and explicit critiques of modernity are made manifest in the work and in our shared experience of them decades later.


“Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”

Using Timothy Leary’s famous dictate to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” the exhibition is loosely organized around these concepts. Attributed to Marshall McLuhan, the phrase is both a countercultural cliché and a handy, but rough, chronicle of the period’s evolution. As such, the first section explores the notion of expanding individual consciousness through altered states of perception—whether through the pharmacologically induced acid trip or its drugless approximation via technological or spiritual means, for instance: the psychedelic canvases of Isaac Abrams, the optical apparatus of Haus-Rucker-Co, or the meditative quality of USCO.


The second section, “tune in,” explores the notion of social awareness and collective consciousness and action, with particular attention paid to the role of books, magazines, posters, and prints as more democratic modes of cultural production and objects more easily circulated through society, including: the weaponized Pop graphics of Corita Kent or in the timely missives of Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party’s minister of culture; the immersive media chamber of Ken Isaacs’s Knowledge Box, with its projected images culled from popular magazines of the postwar image bank; or one of the most widely circulated and successful books of the counterculture, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, which served to connect a far-flung community in common purpose and purchase.[24]


Third, the “drop out” is addressed through a diverse range of refusals, which often explore the pitfalls and potentials of technology and nature, such as: Drop City, the iconic artist colony turned countercultural commune; the proposed nomadic community of Ant Farm’s Truckstop Network and their roaming Media Van,[25] which refused the destiny of network television in favor of portable video; or the recycling of Evelyn Roth, who wove new environments wholly out of the detritus of society’s discarded videotape and thrift store sweaters. Radical architects and anti-design proponents refused the high modernism of 1960s and design’s conventional practice and lack of social engagement. In the words of Adolfo Natalini, one of the founders of Superstudio: “If design is merely an inducement to consume, then we must reject design; if architecture is merely the codifying of bourgeois model of ownership and society, then we must reject architecture; if architecture and town planning is merely the formalization of present unjust social divisions, then we must reject town planning and its cities … until all design activities are aimed towards meeting primary needs. Until then, design must disappear. We can live without architecture.”[26]


Victor Papanek harbored equal disdain for product design that only served the wants and desires of consumers rather than the real needs of all people: “It is about time that industrial design, as we have come to know it, should cease to exist. As long as design concerns itself with confecting trivial ‘toys for adults,’ killing machines with gleaming tail fins, and ‘sexed up’ shrouds for typewriters, toasters, telephones, and computers, it has lost all reason to exist.”[27]

In Stuart Hall’s discussion of Leary’s famous phrase, he rightly points out its mechanistic metaphors: one turns on a device like a TV or a radio and we tune in a channel or a program. Tuning in is channeling one’s inner-self while being attuned to the lives of others. As Hall relates: “There is, as the phrase suggests, more than one ‘channel of perception’ through which we experience the world. The trouble with straight society is it that it is tuned in to the ‘wrong station’ and thus getting the wrong message or signal.”[28] To “drop out” is to refuse to participate in the organized rituals of normative society—its schools, its military, its economy, and so on—in essence, its way of life. This kind of nonparticipation, however, is too often seen as socially passive and politically apathetic. This project seeks to counter this common misperception of the counterculture’s slacker ambiance, preferring to understand its disengagement as an active form of disavowal. Because it looked beyond modern industrialized Eurocentric viewpoints in matters of spirituality, healing, and technology to other places such as India or Africa, or back in time to the American West of nineteenth-century pioneers or to fin de siècle Vienna in matters of style, the counterculture harbored the kind of tendencies that would later define the stylistic eclecticism and historical nostalgia of postmodernism. For the most part, the search elsewhere was not a matter of reviving earlier historical styles as it would be for postmodernism, rather it was a spatial and temporal displacement in the present day to a contemporaneous world of agrarian peasant practices, vernacular building methods, “third world” technologies, and the like.[29] In other words, one did not have to look back into history for premodern, non-Western precedents but rather could find them coexisting alongside advanced industrial society in the present—not at its center, but at its margins.


Utopia Now

If the exhibition is about a relatively brief moment in time, it is not ultimately limited to this era. For every historical example, there seems to be a contemporary corollary. In fact, so much contemporary art and culture can trace its roots to the themes and movements of this period, whether the pedagogical experiments of a socially practiced art, the speculative and open-ended nature of a more participatory and socially impactful design, the discourses of sustainability and resilience in architecture and design, or the harvesting of once radical and visionary ideas into the image banks of contemporary practitioners.


Hippie Modernism is a Janus-faced figure, one side facing forward and looking ahead and the other side facing backward and looking behind. But looking at what? Conventionally, we would say that one sees the future and the other the past. However, they both see the future not simply projected from the current reality forward but one shaped and altered by this backward and forward looking glance—a transfigured vision that holds a utopic potential. It seems unlikely though as the future is always ahead of us, or so we are told, just on the horizon. It challenges, among other things, the idea of that which is in front of us is intrinsically positive and progressive, while that which is behind us is inherently negative or regressive. Technology is constantly presented as a future proposition, one that is in front of us but can also appear as if out of nowhere, out of the blue, beyond our field of vision—even from behind us.[30] Technology is portrayed as within our grasp, just as André Leroi-Gourhan conceived that evolution coincides with technological evolution: as humans stand upright on two feet, they free their hands for grasping and their faces for communicating.[31] Thus, humans are free to fabricate extensions of their bodies and senses through the tools and technologies that remake them and project them forward. In this historical moment of the hippie modern, the Janus figure sees the future both in front of him and behind him. However, in the hippie modern every step forward recalls a turning back—not a step backward, but a return to that moment when humans originated their technological selves. It is this forward and backward glance that bends or alters the seemingly inevitable trajectory of a relentless forward-facing, technocratic progress.

Utopia, like any tool, is conjured from a future but it is destined to remain just out of reach of the technological self. This unresolvable conundrum defines the struggle. Nearly a decade before those fifteen Cranbrook students and faculty piled into their Winnebago, Ken Kesey and his acid-fueled Merry Pranksters drove their wildly painted school bus across America. Their bus was named Further, which describes a position beyond one’s current location but without directional bias. Even a half-century later, we still ask: are we any further? Such is the question of a hippie modernism.



[1] Lorraine Wild, “Transgression and Delight: Graphic Design at Cranbrook,” in The New Cranbrook Design Discourse, ed. Hugh Aldersey-Williams (New York: Rizzoli, 1990), 31.

[2] See the chapter “The International Typographic Style,” a reference to the dominant architectural modernism of the early twentieth century but in its mid-century corporate graphic design guise, in Philip B. Meggs, A History of Graphic Design (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983).

[3] The reference is to the landmark study of the Las Vegas commercial strip by students and faculty from Yale University. See Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972).

[4] See the cover story and photo essay, “The Youth Communes New Way of Living Confronts the U.S.,” Life, July 18, 1969.

[5] Beginning in 1965, the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, owned by Chandler A. Laughlin III (aka Travus T. Hipp), helped buoy the music careers of the Charlatans and Big Brother and the Holding Company with its unique blend of psychedelic-fueled mayhem, light show displays, and a burgeoning form of electric folk music that would soon become the template for the San Francisco scene.

[6] See Philip Deloria’s “Counterculture Indians and the New Age,” in Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s & ’70s, ed. Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle (London: Routledge, 2002), 159–188.

[7] For one fascinating example, see: David W. Bernstein, ed., The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[8] For an account of the intersections between commercial television and early video and media activism, see David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

[9] See John Markoff, What the Doormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry (London: Penguin, 2005).

[10] Two influential books from the period that argue for a downsizing of technology include E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (New York: Perennial Library/Harper & Row, 1973) and Lane deMoll, ed., Rainbook: Resources for Appropriate Technology (New York: Schocken Books, 1977).

[11]The reference is to the countless urban-renewal projects undertaken in American cities in the 1960s and 1970s that eliminated various so-called undesirable and unproductive parts of the city. By contrast, projects such as the Integral Urban House (1975), a retrofitted Victorian mansion in Berkeley founded by the Farallones Institute sought to bring a more eco-friendly lifestyle to the existing urban environment. See Sim Van der Ryn, The Integral Urban House: Self-Reliant Living in the City (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1979).

[12] The apocalyptic overtones of the countercultural period include the risk of annihilation from a nuclear explosion brought on by the Cold War, a much anticipated civil race war following the deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as American cities erupted in riots, or the computer-predicted ecological disaster brought about by overpopulation of the world and its limited resources forecast by the Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits to Growth.

[13] See Eric Crosby, “Introduction to Art Expanded, 1958–1978,” in Living Collections Catalogue, vol. 2, ed. Eric Crosby with Liz Glass (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2015),

[14] The full quote states: “The media cast nets, create bags for the identity-hungry to climb in. Your face on TV, your style immortalized without soul in the captions of the Chronicle. NBC says you exist, ergo I am.” Free City news sheet published by the Diggers, October 6, 1967,

[15] See my essay in this volume, “The Barricade and the Dance Floor: Aesthetic Radicalism and the Counterculture,” 15–30.

[16] The metaphor can be found in a speech by US Ambassador Adlai Stevenson in 1965 to the United Nations in which he proclaimed: “We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.” Albert Roland, Richard Wilson, and Michael Rahill, eds., Adlai Stevenson of the United Nations, 1900–1965 (Manila: Free Asia Press, 1965), 224. The term was, however, popularized by R. Buckminster Fuller in his book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969).

[17] Tom Wolfe, “The Great Relearning,” in American Spectator 20, no. 12 (December 1987): 14.

[18] See William Menking, “The Revolt of the Object,” in Superstudio: Life without Objects, ed. Peter Lang and William Menking (Turin: Skira, 2003).

[19] See the foundational text Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1970).

[20] Among the many “cookbooks” of the period are Ant Farm’s Inflatocookbook, Ken Isaacs’s How to Build Your Own Living Structures, and Victor Papanek and James Hennessey’s Nomadic Furniture books as well as Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook series and Steve Baer’s Dome Cookbook and Zome Primer, which are all featured in the exhibition.

[21] Dave Hickey, “Freaks,” in Summer of Love: Art of the Psychedelic Era, ed. Christoph Grunenberg (London: Tate Publishing, 2005), 64.

[22] See Sam Binkley, Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), in particular the chapter “Book as Tool: Lifestyle Print Culture and the West Coast Publishing Boom.”

[23] The poem was written in 1967 during a period when Brautigan was poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology and was published and freely distributed by the Communications Company (Com/co), the printing arm of the Diggers. The poem can read online at

[24] For accounts of the Whole Earth Catalog, see Andrew G. Kirk, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2007) and Simon Sadler, “An Architecture of the Whole,” Journal of Architectural Education 61, no. 4 (May 2008): 108–129.

[25] For an account of the Truckstop Network project, see Felicity D. Scott, Ant Farm: Living Archive 7 (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2008).

[26] Adolfo Natalini, lecture at the Architectural Association, London, March 3, 1971, quoted in Superstudio: Life Without Objects, ed. Peter Lang and William Menking (Turin: Skira, 2003), 20–21.

[27] Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (New York: Bantam Books, 1973), 15. The emphasis is in the original.

[28] Stuart Hall, “The Hippies: An American ‘Moment,’” in Student Power, ed. Julian Nagel (London: Merlin Press, 1969), 173.

[29] For one account of such explorations, see Alison J. Clarke, “The Anthropological Object in Design: From Victor Papanek to Superstudio,” in Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, ed. Alison J. Clarke (Vienna: Springer, 2011), 74–87.

[30] For a deconstruction of the concepts of anteriority and posteriority as well as his conception of the “dorsal” turn as it relates to humans and technology, see David Wills, Dorsality: Thinking Back through Technology and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[31] See André Leroi-Gourhan, Gesture and Speech (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993).


The Uncollectibles: Andrew Blauvelt on Minnesota by Design

When Walker staff began planning the celebration of our 75th anniversary as a public art center, most discussions revolved around what could be done to feature the museum’s collections. This approach makes sense since the collection is what remains with an institution for the long term. What was interesting for me as a curator of […]


Minnesota By Design, a virtual collection exploring the state’s rich design landscape

When Walker staff began planning the celebration of our 75th anniversary as a public art center, most discussions revolved around what could be done to feature the museum’s collections. This approach makes sense since the collection is what remains with an institution for the long term. What was interesting for me as a curator of architecture and design is that the Walker does not have a specific collection in this area. This will probably come as a surprise for many people since the Walker has been presenting architecture and design since 1940—it was a founding discipline within the art center. Of course, there are a few design artifacts and works by architects and designers in our permanent collection—Frank Gehry’s Standing Fish, most publicly, for instance, or objects acquired from various exhibitions about design that the Walker has organized over the decades. The reasons for such an omission are varied, but this void within the Walker’s Collections remained seemingly insurmountable at least in the present context of an impending collections-based celebration of the institution.

Faced with this challenge, I reflected back on a project that was initially presented as part of a design history conference I organized in the late 1990s for the now-defunct American Center for Design in Chicago. Dubbed “ReMaking History,” it featured new takes on how history could be undertaken and presented, and was notable because most of its participants were themselves practitioner-historians—enthusiasts, educators, and designers who were often engaged in issues of history, theory, and criticism and who often operated within academic arenas. I recalled a project by Michael Rock, Susan Sellers, and Georgia Stout (now 2 x 4) in New York who proposed turning the city itself into a kind of open-air design museum. Branded the Museum of the Ordinary (MO) it called for various artifacts of design to be presented in-situ—seen as a part of everyday life and not removed from this context and placed in a museum vitrine. Being practitioners, they brilliantly illustrated the possible ways in which such objects could be “called out” in the environment in which they were essentially invisible as things worthy of a second look or even a second thought, such as a mobile advertising van that would pull a billboard through the streets welcoming visitors to the “museum,” or using the ubiquitous mesh construction scaffolding wrap, which could be printed with object label information about a chosen building—cloaking its appearance and thus drawing renewed attention to it. Although smaller scale iterations were undertaken, their larger scale vision has yet to be implemented.


2 x 4, Museum of the Ordinary, proposal, 1997

The brilliance of what they proposed as the Museum of the Ordinary allowed for artifacts to remain where they were and in the context of their “useful” lives, but it also allowed for the inclusion of what I call “the uncollectibles”— landscapes that change over time, too vast to be expropriated by a museum; immovable buildings, too big to move; objects that by their nature are fugitive, ephemeral, perishable, or no longer extant; and largely immaterial things like services or concepts that do not exist as physical artifacts, or digital objects that live a precarious existence in terms of the future conservation requirements that collections require.

Another important predecessor to this project was one created in the summer of 1975 called Immovable Objects. It was created by Studio Works, a practice composed of architects Robert Mangurian and Craig Hodgetts and graphic designer Keith Godard, for the new Cooper-Hewitt, a design museum of the Smithsonian Institution in New York City scheduled to open in 1976. An “outdoor exhibition about city design” Immovable Objects took as its site lower Manhattan from Battery Park to the Brooklyn Bridge. Essentially annexing both the iconic buildings and more banal bits of infrastructure found in the area, Immovable Objects offered its visitors a walking tour of the city, facilitated by the production of an exhibition catalogue—in this case a newspaper complete with routes, building information, and essays on related topics, such as the evolution of architectural styles in lower Manhattan, the nature of public space in the city’s new plazas, or how zoning codes have shaped the city. The inaugural festivities included a parade whereby architects and designers chose their own or a favorite building to reimagine as a costume to engage passersby.

Michael Rock and Susan Sellers, 2 x 4, Museum of the Ordinary, proposal, 1997

Studio Works, Immovable Objects exhibition guide, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 1975

Design museums (as well as contemporary art museums who faced some similar issues years ago) are tackling some of these challenges, trying to collect the uncollectible. Leading the way is Paola Antonelli at the Museum of Modern Art in New York who has been trying to “acquire” a 747 airplane, which would still be in service but might have, for instance, its acquisition number on the side of the plane. Those that have been to MoMA know they already own a helicopter, and, of course, the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum routinely contends with such massive objects. However, the “live” nature of the object still flying from port to port takes it to a different level. Antonelli’s acquisition of the @ symbol pushes the boundaries of whether an object needs to have a definite or fixed form. Letterforms and characters by their nature exist independently of any particular typographic representation, so what was collected in this case was not a particular font but rather a piece of language, a graphical concept.

The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York recently acquired its first digital application, Planetary. This raises immediate questions of conservation, especially as the technical support structures that host such apps (operating systems, web browsers, programming code, etc.) evolve and change in the future. Interestingly, they placed the code for this app online at GitHub, where people can study it, but also add to it and help conserve it for the future—tending it much like open-source software. Museums have also been collecting other buildings, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s purchase of Eero Saarinen’s mid-century modern masterpiece, the Irwin Miller residence in Columbus, Indiana, or closer to home, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts acquisition of the stunning Purcell-Cutts house a few miles away on Lake of the Isles.


Detail of Minnesota By Design’s interactive map

In response to this context and these kinds of questions, we launched Minnesota by Design, a new online initiative that takes the form of a website to document the rich landscape of design across the state. The project seeks to increase public awareness of the human-built environment in Minnesota—its landscapes, buildings, products, and graphics, both past and present—and the role that design thinking and practice plays in its realization. This virtual collection has been seeded with some 100 designs that reflect exemplary instances of practical ingenuity, creative thinking, beautiful form-giving, social and cultural impact, and innovative uses of technology. We’ve included descriptive texts about each selection, like the kind you might find on the gallery wall in a museum exhibition. Taking advantage of its online nature and the fact that we are limited to Minnesota, we locate each project to the extent that is possible on a searchable map. Perhaps not surprisingly, this viewing mode reveals that the selections dominate in the surrounding metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. To help correct this location bias, we’ve added a nominations feature whereby users can offer suggestions for future additions to the collection. Users can also help us correct mistakes and diversify the selections across various categories—taking advantage of crowdsourcing at its best by drawing upon collective knowledge or simply having more eyes on the page and out in the world.


The Minnesota By Design entry for masking tape, invented in 1925 by 3M’s Richard Drew

The virtual nature of this collection is also by design. By eschewing the object-centered nature of most museum collecting and its attendant issues of conservation and connoisseurship, the Walker is free to explore design without the normal barriers of the physical realm. In creating this virtual collection, we especially wish to include those works that cannot be collected in any practical way—for instance, a park or building due to its size or uniqueness. To these “uncollectible” examples, we have added an eclectic mix of artifacts that purposefully stretch the definition of design into perhaps less familiar areas such as food design, service design, and game design. This expansion of design belies the fact that such “new” genres were and remain integral to the Minnesota economy of food processing, retailing, healthcare, and recreational activity.

Minnesota by Design can be extended from its virtual hub to the real world. I can imagine such extensions of Minnesota by Design take the form of billboards or bus shelter ads or other outdoor media around the state to bring awareness to selected designs in all their iconic yet humble glory. Some such ads, by fate of their particular location, could point to nearby designs: “Exit 237 to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Only Gas Station.” One could easily imagine a smartphone app that uses geo-location sensing and augmented reality to allow visitors to “see” buildings and other things from a bygone era in the places where they once stood proud.


Proposed Minnesota By Design billboard, featuring Henry Dreyfuss’s iconic thermostat

Minnesota by Design, in any of its forms, celebrates a place often recognized nationally for making an outsized contribution to the American design scene. Part of this influence is due to the varied ecology of the state’s design scene—a space composed of boutique firms and in-house studios of Fortune 500 companies, a resurgence of artisanal practices and post-industrial technologies, a long history of public and private sector progressive civic cooperation, and with it, the fostering of what we now call a creative class economy that tends to spawn innovation and entrepreneurial activity. While the design diversity of the state makes it hard to pin down any singular aesthetic or any dominant type of practice, its design output, albeit occasionally elusive to capture, is collectible—if not physically then virtually.

A Pioneer of Human-Centered Design: Remembering Bill Moggridge

Bill Moggridge’s passing on September 8 at age 69 wasn’t totally unexpected–he had been battling cancer–but it was nevertheless a shock to the system. In the latest incarnation of his design life, Bill had taken the helm of the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Design Museum housed in the former mansion of industrialist Andrew Carnegie […]

Photo courtesy Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Bill Moggridge’s passing on September 8 at age 69 wasn’t totally unexpected–he had been battling cancer–but it was nevertheless a shock to the system. In the latest incarnation of his design life, Bill had taken the helm of the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Design Museum housed in the former mansion of industrialist Andrew Carnegie on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This assignment came as a delightful surprise to many in the design and museum worlds. The choice of placing a designer at the head of this museum was not only a bold one but also surprising and yet reassuring. It would be as if an art museum would choose an artist as its leader—something of a rarity and quite implausible in this age of museum management courses and arts administration degrees, and despite the assumed logical connection it might present at first glance. Of course, Bill was not just any designer to assume such a role and brought with him a passion for the subject that he had in fact been embodying his entire life.

While much of the memories about his life will undoubtedly reference his inventive work on the first laptop computer, as he himself has stated, all that industrial design work of shaping the package “melted away” when he turned on the machine and was drawn into the experience of interacting with the device. This was not just a personal epiphany for Bill but a paradigm shift for his chosen field of practice. The notion of ergonomics, or how humans interact with the world and use its manufactured objects and systems, had been part of the discipline for decades—a path paved by the likes of iconic figures such as Henry Dreyfus and Niels Diffrient. What Bill discovered was not just the relationship of humans to objects, no matter how dematerialized the product became, but rather a much more holistic anthropocentric universe that would eventually unfold as a world of human-centered design. In fact, his greatest legacy will be his contributions to this now-dominant approach to design. As one of the cofounders of IDEO, Bill was instrumental in bringing this philosophy and its working methods and strategies to the field largely on the strength of numerous and successful new consumer products, services, and experiences.

Compass computer for GRiD Systems. Designed by Bill Moggridge. Palo Alto, CA, 1982. Photo: Don Fogg, courtesy Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution

In many ways Bill was the perfect spokesperson for such an approach: an affable demeanor, truly engaged and curious about the world around him and the people in it, an avuncular figure capable of providing true insights through years of experience. This was a unique set of traits totally in keeping with a philosophy that claims to be as much about the humane and humanity as it is about human factors. Indeed, too many proponents of this approach come off more as human engineers than humane designers: a place where users are always right in the same way that customers are always right (despite the fact that anybody who has worked retail long enough has experienced otherwise).

This very human package is what gave me hope when I first met Bill at our annual low-key and lo-fi gatherings with other designers in the high altitudes of Colorado’s “Collegiate Peaks.” I felt hopelessly unfit and sedentary as I drove past Bill as he bicycled up the mountain each morning to our gathering. His physical stamina contrasted his rather matter-of-fact analysis and the inevitability of his logic, all delivered in that delightful English accent that is so convincing to American ears.

Bill’s Design Talks: Walter Hood. Photo: Shamus Adams, courtesy Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution

I had developed a rather skeptical disposition to the notion of so-called human factors design, fearing that it was less about design and that many of its proponents had succumbed to the allure of whatever new business strategy was in vogue and could be sold—belief without lasting conviction. It was also rather disconcerting to see so many Post-It notes stuck to the wall and so few drawings or sketches being produced. However, it was Bill’s very humanity that was in the end the best case that could be made for adopting a more human-centered approach to design. It was also the fact that Bill was a designer at heart that gave credence to the argument to rethink design itself beyond just objects. This was an expansive kind of thinking, one that quickly took hold at IDEO as it moved from developing new consumer products, both hardware and software, to retail experiences and customer services.

I believe that Bill also helped shape the future direction of the Cooper-Hewitt in both message and as messenger. After all, it’s a small step to rethink things such as the design museum and education when the business you helped found is trying to solve challenging  or “wicked” problems, including reinventing government or re-imagining healthcare. At the Cooper-Hewitt museum he was once again surrounded by objects and artifacts, but also by people, ideas, and the desire to explain the power and potential of design to the audience that probably matters the most, the public.

Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards Gala at Cipriani’s in NYC on October 13, 2010. Photo: Richard Patterson, courtesy Richard Patterson

Crowdsourcing the Open Field: setting the stage for summer in the Walker’s backyard

In early January the Walker hosted more than 30 local architects, landscape architects, product and graphic designers, artists, and other cultural thinkers to help us think about the four-acre green space that was created as part of the museum’s 2005 expansion. This convening took place as the first public step in an upcoming summer-long program […]

In early January the Walker hosted more than 30 local architects, landscape architects, product and graphic designers, artists, and other cultural thinkers to help us think about the four-acre green space that was created as part of the museum’s 2005 expansion.

This convening took place as the first public step in an upcoming summer-long program called Open Field—an experiment in new educational and presentational platforms that can engage the public in a dialogue about what makes the “cultural commons”—that great reserve of collective knowledge and creativity that is publicly held. Open Field begins on June 3 and lasts through Labor Day. During that time there will be lectures, workshops, classes, and artist residency projects taking place around the Walker campus.

While our first impulse was to create an open competition, the decision to explore a more collaborative model proved a better fit given our themes of participation and collective culture. Free to convene in any size team and to work in any fashion that suited them, participants tackled the unique challenges posed not only by the site but also pondered the philosophical and logistical dilemmas of how best to engage with artists and the public. After eight hours of requisite site visits, intensive drawing, conceptual speculation, and shared presentations and critiques, five distinct groups emerged.

Highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the site and project, the teams provocatively challenged many of our underlying assumptions, and most importantly, offered keen insights and creative solutions to our problems. Many designers are accustomed to some version of a charrette, or collective brainstorming session, during their education or perhaps later in their professional lives, such as consultations with community constituents. What was particularly unique about this charrette was the willingness of frequent competitors to work together.

We crafted an inventory of current site problems and opportunities that was distilled from each team’s work and presentations. Many teams noted the Walker’s Vineland Place entry, located directly across the street from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, as an important threshold for the museum. But it’s one lacking shade, and is a jumbled and confusing patchwork of materials, pathways filled with obstacles, a necessary but unfortunately located fire lane, and a giant retaining wall—the collective effect contributing to the plaza’s homely face and unwelcoming presence.

Busting free from the box we originally placed them in (our prescribed zone of Vineland Plaza), the teams conceptualized the entire space as zones of different activities—with unique circulation issues and hidden vistas. A do-it-yourself ethos emerged frequently in solutions that called for visitors to participate directly by bringing their interests to the field, or in such schemes as a collective “tool box” that could house a variety of items—whether picnic blankets and umbrellas to use on the lawn, or even a machine like the kind used on ball fields to paint lines for a game that you create.

Big Tree Concept Sketch

Noting the Walker’s landscape as rather one-dimensional, with a penchant for sod and occasional prairie grasses, a couple of teams proposed planting some trees—or in the case of one enterprising team, planting a “big ass” tree. A beautiful metaphor of the cultural commons, the tree captivated many people. Evoking the social sculpture of Joseph Beuys’ 7,000 Oaks, or the spectacle of Maurizio Cattelan’s unearthed olive tree, this idea became pivotal to our thinking of how to re-invent the space.

Other teams urged us to unify our hardscape of mixed materials: continuous grass, crushed gravel like the Sculpture Garden paths, or even Astroturf were all suggested. Many tackled the nearly 100-foot-long white retaining wall that terminates the plaza, with solutions that included creating a living or “green” wall of plants, covering the entire surface in blackboard paint, or using it as a giant video screen. One team tried to overcome the wall as a barrier by building over it and around it—suggesting the importance of connecting the space above and below and reminding us of the axial alignment between the Spoonbridge and Cherry in the Sculpture Garden and the area atop the wall—a place currently inaccessible to the public.

"Raft and Plinth" concept sketch

Out of all of these ideas and insights, we are currently studying the feasibility of many of them: not one tree, but a grove of trees to provide shade on the plaza and also act as a gathering place; a communal “tool box” with a variety of items one might use on a summer day (umbrellas, radios, lawn chairs, etc.); a series of ramps and stairs to a platform or deck at the top of the retaining wall for classes and performances; a new beer garden and outdoor barbeque on the plaza; and better integration of the plaza hardscape.

"Umbrellas" concept sketch

"Green Wall" Concept Sketch

We will post blog updates on our progress as we continue to design and install our new outdoor lounge, and as our programs and projects evolve. Drop by on June 3 for a special Target Free Thursday Night launch party as we invite you to spend the summer in our new backyard.

Towards Relational Design

The following is extracted from a series of lectures about relational design practices. A related article can be found at Design Observer. A seemingly random selection of projects from various design fields with an underlying thread: An expansion strategy for the Hermitage Museum in Russia simply annexes the surrounding government-owned buildings in St. Petersburg, increasing […]

The following is extracted from a series of lectures about relational design practices. A related article can be found at Design Observer.

A seemingly random selection of projects from various design fields with an underlying thread:

Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Hermitage Museum expansion plan, St. Petersburg, Russia, c. 2003.

An expansion strategy for the Hermitage Museum in Russia simply annexes the surrounding government-owned buildings in St. Petersburg, increasing the available space for objects from 629 to 1928 rooms.

Nucleo, Terra: The Grass Arm-Chair, 2000

A chair made of grass must be grown and then trimmed and watered by its owner in order to remain functional., Big Boda cargo bicycle, Kenya, 2002-2005.

A worldwide group of bicycle enthusiasts borrow the open source model for redesigning and modifying inexpensive passenger bikes for transporting cargo in developing countries.

LettError, Twin, typeface for the Twin Cities commissioned by the Design Institute at the University of Minnesota, 2003.

A typeface designed for a city alters its weight and appearance based on changes in the reported air temperature.

Shared Space concept in England, c. 2005, most likely by Ben Hamilton Baillie after Hans Monderman’s schemes.

A Dutch city removes all of its traffic markings and signage in order to reduce collisions between motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians by increasing awareness among those sharing the roadway.

Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, Blur Building, Swiss Expo 2002

A pavilion on a lake containing thousands of jet nozzles adjusts to atmospheric conditions and dispenses a continuous mist around itself, the resulting fog both conceals and reveals the structure: a scaffolding with no “real” building.

Modernista! website, 2008

An advertising company launches its new “website,” which exists as a small navigation bar overlaid on any referencing page, directing users outward to preexisting forums such as Flickr and MySpace for much of its content.


The history of modern design can viewed in three successive phases, moving from form to content to context; or, in the parlance of semiotics, from syntax to semantics to pragmatics.

This third phase of design—which could go by several names including relational, contextual, and conditional design—follows and departs from twentieth-century experiments in both form and content, which have traditionally defined the spheres of avant-garde practice. Relational design is preoccupied with design’s effects, extending beyond the form of the design object and its attendant meanings and cultural symbolism. It is concerned with performance or use, not as the natural result of some intended functionality but rather in the realm of behavior and uncontrollable consequences. It embraces constraints and seeks systematic methodologies, as a way of countering the excessive subjectivity of most design decision-making. It explores more open-ended processes that value the experiential and the participatory and often blur the distinctions between production and consumption.

Some examples of design as they move from form to content to context:

columns and walls were separate from an "aesthetic and functional context," being used instead as part of a "marking or notational system." fig. 1 fig. 2 fig. 3

fig. 1: Peter Eisenman, House series, c. 1970, a formal language in which architectural elements such as columns and walls were separate from a “functional context,” used instead as part of a “marking or notational system;” fig. 2: Content analysis of vernacular architectural languages, in this case the meaning and symbolism of “movie star mansion” iconography applied to bungalows around Los Angeles, 1975 (analysis by Arloa Paquin); fig. 3: Estudio Teddy Cruz, as part of Manufactured Sites, 2008, a prefabricated metal framework, a designed element, is introduced into the ad-hoc, indigenous building practices of Tijuana’s suburban shantytown sprawl.

fig. 4 fig. 5 fig. 6

fig. 4: Dieter Rams, Braun Aeromaster 10 Cup Coffeemaker; a classically modern approach to simplifying the visual form of the product and process of coffeemaking; fig. 5: Michael Graves, Tea Kettle for Alessi, 1985, the bird connoting the sound of the whistle; fig. 6: Naoto Fukasawa, Rice Cooker for Muji, 2002, which has a rice paddle rest on its flat top, solving the problem of where to place this utensil after use. The rice cooker’s form is a result of its relationship both to the paddle and to the behavior of the user.

fig. 7 fig. 8 fig. 9

fig. 7: Karim Rashid, Dirt Devil Kone vacuum, 2006, in a form so refined “you can leave it on display”; fig. 8: Dyson DC15 vacuum cleaner, 2005, the articulation of the “ball,” the pivoting wheel of the vacuum, as well as its color-coded parts, imparts and expresses its functionality; fig. 9: unlike its predecessors iRobot’s Roomba vacuum cleaner, 2002-, maintains a relationship to the room rather to the hand of its owner and uses various algorithms to complete its cleaning tasks.

fig. 10 fig. 11 fig. 12

fig. 10: Vignelli Associates, New York City Subway Map, c. 1972, a classic of modern information design and the belief in the clarity of abstract form in communication; fig. 11: Durst Organization, The National Debt Clock, New York, NY: “a symbol and metaphor, particularly highlighting the fact that the clock ran out of digits when the U.S. public debt rose above $10 trillion on September 30, 2008”; fig. 12: Laura Kurgan, Spatial Information Design Lab, from Million Dollar Blocks project, c. 2006: informatic mapping of individual incarceration costs to inmates’ former neighborhoods in the hopes of shaping public policy.


In relational design, the role of the designer is closer to that of an editor or a programmer, not an author but an enabler, while the consumer is recast as a more creative agent (in the guise of the designer, DIY-er, hacker, or “prosumer”). It prefers pragmatism over post-structuralism, or Dewey over Derrida, and the prosaic and banal over exotic vernaculars. It is governed by social logic and the network culture of the many to the authorial culture of one. It embraces generative systems over formal iterations and contingent solutions to variable interpretations.

Some examples from one strand of the diagram: open-ended processes and generative systems.


Experimental Jetset, John&Paul&Ringo&George T-shirt, 2001, and variations from others: the archetype as meme.

Luna Maurer and Jonathan Puckey, workshop with kits for poster-making using game-like, rules-based instructions for participants. Graphic Design in the White Cube exhibition, 22nd International Biennale of Graphic Design Brno, 2006.


Saarinen, Target, and the Art of Good Design

In the exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, which I co-curated last winter, the big box store figured prominently—a newer form of suburban retail that is undergoing change. While installing the exhibition, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, I happened to learn that Target had been planning a new specially designed store near Bloomfield Hills, a […]

Photo: Justin Maconochie

In the exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, which I co-curated last winter, the big box store figured prominently—a newer form of suburban retail that is undergoing change. While installing the exhibition, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, I happened to learn that Target had been planning a new specially designed store near Bloomfield Hills, a suburb of Detroit that is home to the famed Cranbrook campus, designed by Eero Saarinen’s equally famous architect father, Eilel, and the place where Eero grew up and established his world famous practice. I sat down with Jim Miller and Rich Varda to discuss this new store and its context of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Andrew Blauvelt: Tell us about the design of your new Target store in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which is home to Cranbrook, the educational community designed by Eliel Saarinen and where his son Eero lived and worked.

Jim Miller: When we first decided to bring Target to Bloomfield Hills and engaged the township, they had some very preconceived notions about what a retail store should look like. They referenced some upscale retail centers in their community, which we visited, but it was basically a lot of garden-variety retail design with upgraded materials. Given the location of this new store, we felt there was an opportunity to influence the direction of its design by going back and looking at Saarinen’s work. He was always mindful of this tension between community and the individual—how one influences the other. Given that Cranbrook is in their backyard, we felt it was natural to explore that context. If you look at Saarinen, especially with Eero, you see this tension between expressing the individual and expressing the community, for instance, at Yale with the Morse and Stiles dormitories. Yale just wanted institutional buildings, but he wanted individual housing to emerge, so that is what came out of that.

AB: At Yale, Saarinen also had a difficult preexisting context to deal with and a very irregular shaped site.

JM: Our site for the Bloomfield Hills store was also a difficult site—being a triangle, very tight and restrictive, affronting residents on two sides, and a major street on the third side—a transition of this really hard edge retail thoroughfare into this very upscale residential area.

AB: You’re also dealing with a broader kind of imaginary context in which everybody in the township knows the Cranbrook campus, its materials and its formal language—the way Eliel Saarinen played with the brickwork. At first glance it doesn’t look like the usual Target store at all. It almost looks like a civic building, perhaps a new library.

Rich Varda: Well, the large glass lobby is the most visible element in front of the building, which makes it look civic but it is entered from the other side from the parking field that is below the building.

JM: If you are familiar with Detroit, they have what is called the Michigan Left, which means you can’t just can’t turn in, you have to drive past the building and then return back to turn into the site. On an extremely busy road it gives the opportunity to help orient yourself to a single point of entry into this entire site, which we normally don’t like.

AB: Obviously, this is not the typical Target store. How about the larger context? Are these kinds of Target stores part of a general trend?

RV: We call them “unique stores.” And we have a unique store team, but most stores are modified in some way to better fit the community they are in, or to fit the retail center they are part of. Most stores are developed as part of a complex of buildings that is going to be a town center for the community or the neighborhood, and often the developer will develop a stylistic or material tone working with the community, and we work within that tone, or sometimes we help set that tone with the developer. Occasionally, we meet with the community directly, like Jim did on this store, and learn more about what they are about and what they are expecting and try to develop a statement that reflects those expectations.

Cameron Wittig

Left to right: Andrew Blauvelt, Richard Varda, and Jim Miller; Photo: Cameron Wittig

AB: I imagine the reaction to this store is very favorable.

JM: It has been very favorable. It took nearly 18 months just to get to the point where the township was comfortable enough to allow us to go through the formal approval process, but once we got to that point they were very pleased. About two weeks ago I did get a call from the township supervisor who is the equivalent of a mayor and they had just got the signage up inside and the lights were coming on. He was just blown away.

It is a difficult thing to try to convey what the real building will look like through sketches and try to accurately represent the architecture and the materials. I think most people still don’t quite visually understand it in their minds. As much as we went through excruciating detail and explanation he said, “It still does not come across as the building comes across.”

RV: I think part of that is the because of the materials that Jim used on this design. The texture of materials, the contrast between the wood panels and the glass as compared to the rustic and substantive materials of the stone and how all of that affects the form of the building.

JM: Of course, Saarinen experimented with materials with the General Motors Tech Center and even with the IBM buildings in Rochester, Minnesota. We aren’t so much creating new materials, but we were applying materials much differently than normally would be found in retail.

RV: I think most people expect, because of their everyday experience, that retail architecture is the least expensive box you can have with some kind of pasted-on façade. It is very visible, but not a building of substance—a building of temporary qualities. It is certainly our objective at Target that not only are regular stores, but also modified and unique stores are buildings of substance—that the materiality, the form, and the function have been thought about and they all work together. It is not the least expensive possible box with a façade tacked onto it. I suppose to make a grandiose leap; Saarinen comes from that Finnish background that design should infuse every aspect of life. It is practically a national sport in Finland. It is fabulous to experience when you are there. Cranbrook represents that too. I think Target in a way has that same kind of spirit. The “Design for All” attitude asks why can’t good design infuse every aspect of life—from a Michael Graves toilet brush to utensils to furniture to buildings. That is what is expected as our brand, and our CEO supports that.

JM: Many times design is created and but too often it has absolutely nothing to do with people and their community. Eero Saarinen was really of his parent’s culture—of the Arts and Crafts, where design infused every aspect of the entire community.

AB: The Saarinens’ roots were in a culture where design was completely integrated.

JM: He totally integrated it. He naturally came out of that and knew how to bring that together. It is the same thing here. It is for the community and of the community.

AB: I think that is a really great point that when design and architecture is fully integrated into the largest context, which is the community, you do read it as substantive. Coming into town and setting up shop like an old Western storefront or using materials that break down in 20 years, or as long as it takes the plywood to rot. Then it is gone.

Your use of landscaping in this project also looks substantive. I recall Saarinen’s work on corporate campuses and how he basically started with a blank slate in most of these suburban locations and thus created his own context—designing not just the building, but natural environment.

JM: The landscaping requirements were extensive. Over-storied deciduous trees had to be significant. We normally use an inch and a half or two inch, but it was 4 inch. Evergreens specimens had to be a minimum of 14 feet tall. When they brought the landscape in and stockpiled it on the lot, it looked like a nursery. The shrubbery was already taller than myself.

RV: It is also laid out as an extension of the geometries and rhythms of the building similar to what Saarinen did with his corporate campuses—at least in the immediate vicinity of the buildings.

Photo: Justin Maconochie

AB: When you are working on these unique stores, given that the context is going to vary tremendously across the country, what are the aspects that you end up taking away that go into the library or the memory banks for the next project? Or do you feel like you find yourself starting from zero each time?

RV: We have definitely made an effort to document them, creating a kind of nomenclature of past examples. We have design guidelines handbook that we use that not only picks out the best examples, but also tries to understand if we are looking at a stylistic or regional vernacular. By doing so, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we can improve upon it each time. Having that kind of vocabulary available helps when we go into discussions to negotiate our design with city staffs and neighborhood groups. We have a lot of material we can bring for discussion, and we have already gone through and we understand that we can afford that achieves our goals and their goals.

JM: Good design is a lot more complicated than it appears. In negotiating, when we go into communities, when we talk to design review boards, when we talk to planning commissions and trustees, the common ground is that they all shop. They all have some preconceived idea of what good design is in retail. It really is not that easy. We really have a way in which our guests have responded how we merchandise our store, and this was all truly the effect of the store plan. The store plan is kind of sacred because we really understand how that works, we really understand what our guests need, and how they shop. So when they come in and they ask us to put windows in here and there, it doesn’t quite work.

AB: And to clarify, this is the idea that if I go to the Target in Edina versus St. Louis Park, that I can find the laundry detergent because I know the basic store plan.

RV: Saarinen had a very careful understanding of the program, the functions, and the behavior of people in public buildings. We have studied the actions of people in our store environment extensively, and we understand shopping as well as other behaviors, including guest service, food service, checkout, and approaching the store from the parking lot. We try not to reinvent it all every time.

I will make another extreme comparison to Saarinen’s airports. When you are in an airport there are a lot of people moving through and toting their luggage around with them. But in our stores, everyone is pushing a shopping cart around with them, or pulling one—maybe with kids in it. That cart effects vertical circulation, whether parking garages can slope, and everything that the cart can bump into has to be thought through.

AB: The turning radius of the cart.

RV: The width of the carts crossing each other in an aisle is very important.

JM: One of our typical guests is a mom with children and to facilitate her needs and a two year old while negotiating the store. The signage, the way you find things, how the space is relayed so that it is easy so that it is almost intuitive we try to make it as intuitive for them to navigate through the store as possible. We are adding a complicated layer when we have a store on grade: it isn’t as easy as she gets out of the car and sees the entry. The condition in Bloomfield Hills is not quite the same, but the response has been favorable.

AB: It is interesting because at the Target in downtown Minneapolis the store is two stories. You have a similar situation where you are trying to brand something from the inside to the outside through a glass atrium. You have got the underground parking structure to deal with. How does the tight urban footprint fit into the Target store approach? Or do you generally just try to avoid it all together?

RV: We even have one now that is three levels of sales floors that replaced a department store that departed a very successful mall in Los Angeles and we wanted to make it work, but when you are taking shopping carts between floors you have to do it just right so that your guests will be happy to do it, so that they can travel all parts of the store.

AB: Right, it’s elevators or “Vermalators,” a kind of escalator for shopping carts.

RV: If you do anything wrong—all the way from getting into the parking, getting from your car into the store, and then getting back out with the cart to your car— it will affect your overall sales. That is a lot of dollars. So our attention to doing it correctly is one of our biggest research focuses. It is applied to every new store design.

AB: With the former department store example, does it become more of a department store, where the first floor is clothing, the second furniture, and so on?

RV: Actually, our three-level store was actually done like that. In that the first floor which is the main floor of the mall that it connects to is all apparel and soft lines. And it really looks like a department store when you come in. Then the middle floor is everyday products, like the market, the pharmacy, health and beauty and then the top floor are destination items, such as electronics and entertainment, which really pull people up there.

AB: Saarinen is extremely prolific in that he only practiced on his own for only 11 years. Although he practiced in so many typologies of architecture—college and corporate campuses, churches, airports—he did not as far as I know build any retail structures. It would be interesting to imagine how he would have handled a store design.

RV: Right, it is tragic what was missed because he did die at a relatively young age for architects. He could have easily had another 25 years in his practice.

JM: They used to say that architecture is an old man’s career. By the time you assimilate all of this knowledge and experience, when you reach the zenith of your career, is the age when he passed away—at age 51. But he had an amazing number of projects.

Photo: Justin Maconochie

AB: Saarinen’s approach to the idea of branding was, I think, really a head of his time in terms of doing major corporate buildings from John Deere, to IBM, to General Motors to TWA. There is a famous photograph we have in the exhibition of “Black Rock,” the CBS headquarters in New York and on the top of it he puts the famous CBS logo. He certainly never shied away from the corporate embrace.

RV: It is interesting that his in terms of branding, he really cared about the idea that how does this building solution emerge out of everything in relationship to it. Not just the nature of the community or the program itself, but rather the idea of what the activity is, for example, the TWA terminal and the expression of flight and the glamour of air travel. And then his corporate headquarters are about the business and the activities of a headquarters and how should architecture reflect that kind of disciplined thinking. What a contrast to the iconic names of architecture today. I think they have allowed too much success to happen simply by creating architectural signatures, which can be repeated from place to place with minor modification. Without really thinking through how this solution is correct and admitting the fact that if you do each solution based on the nature of its location and you might not have a visible signature for yourself, which makes it harder for you to create your own brand as an architect. Saarinen reflects a very interesting testament about values as an architect.

JM: This particular store is a result of the dialogue with the township and was not so much about branding this building for Target. Because at the same time I was also working with a store outside of Boston, the same concept raised up, but it is truly a building branded for Target. The aesthetic is 180 degrees, it is metal panel and precast panel and a very clean very simple, very straight forward but in its own right, a very compelling design. This was a store about branding the community. It was personifying that aspect of community.

RV: At Target everyone understands what we call our Best Company Ever goals and objectives and they are really four things we always think about: how to be best in our community, how to be best for our guests, how to be best for our team members, and how to be best for our shareholders. So they are all balanced together and that means a lot about the people in the buildings and the people living around the buildings.

AB: It seems like this particular store is a win-win. A big win for the community to get the kind of store architecture that they desire at the same time.

JM: We hope so.

RV: We are counting on that.

AB: How do you innovate within the same retail typology and with an in-house team? Because it is different when you are moving from one type of building to another, one day it is hospitals and the next day it is an airport.

RV: One of our areas of innovation, that is the least visible, are circulation issues for stores that are not on grade or are multileveled and within larger complexes. Vertical transportation issues of materials as well as people are extremely complicated. We have a store that recently opened in Brooklyn that is on the second and third level of a three-story retail center that we built and developed. The loading dock is on grade, part of the stock room is below grade, part of the stock room is above the store, part of the stock room is at store level. There is also a 500-car parking garage. It gets incredibly complex and if you don’t have the right innovative solution, it isn’t going to succeed financially in the long run.

JM: One of the things that are different then say private practice is that with Target stores the rules are very rigorous and fairly rigid because we know what works. But on the other hand, because we know those so well, we can explore other areas. We can be much more efficient by really expanding design innovation by knowing the constraints.

RV: I am the Senior Vice President for store design. Store design in-house at Target is almost 300 people. They are equally divided between architecture, engineering, and store planning. I don’t think any of our competitors have a group of that size. They rely upon outside consultants almost exclusively.

We just got an award an hour go from Xcel Energy for being energy partners on five different stores. We will receive large rebates for what was achieved on those stores, and that is different, I think. The Design for All philosophy can then be part of our culture as an internal team and every team member understands it and applies it as Jim has to this store.

JM: It brings a real clarity when you have 299 other people that are speaking the same language.

AB: There must be such incredible efficiency here. I have an in house design team and there is shorthand that happens and it is not like you’re constantly re-interpreting everything.

RV: On our corporate website there is an area for Target acronyms that is 32 pages long.

JM: Don’t test us on that.

AB: Don’t worry, I won’t. What would be your ideal test store if you could have a test store? It sounds like you are more of a learning culture – learning from every project.

RV: We do tests all the time.

JM: I’ve always tried to see the store as a non-building, you come in and you feel like you are part of an exterior environment. I would love to see glass where we typically put stock, and store where we put stock—with everything open to this glass box on the outside. So it really blurs that line between inside and outside, but I think I just broke every rule, so that it would probably NEVER happen.

RV: You are free to sketch it all you want too.

AB: What makes Target’s support of the Walker and MIA’s joint presentation of the Saarinen exhibition so meaningful?

JM: There is certainly a design-for-all attitude in Saarinen’s work that we support. Everyone deserves good design. It can be accessible; it doesn’t need to be this kind of upper echelon, out-of-reach thing. I always refer back to my freshman year in college; in architecture school we had to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book talks about how you can put all these parts together, which are meaningless, but if you put them together in a fashion that makes sense, they do have meaning. I think people can understand that.

RV: There was an old department store system of merchandising called “Good, Better, Best,” where department stores would relegate good design to the best. Meaning, you would pay more to get good design. Our attitude at Target is not to divide items. Design can go anywhere. The good, the better, and the best may all be in a number of options and in the quality of the overall product. Design should be there at all levels.

AB: I think that is what Saarinen was trying to get at as well, in trying to impart the experience of good design to the public. The United States is a vast and diverse country. When you go to Finland or Japan, these countries are smaller and the culture more homogenous and it is easier to transmit those values. So it is really important to have that conversation coming from a major retailer.