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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.