Teens mingle with Tim Gunn, top innovators at Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt design fair in D.C.


Michelle Obama (R) hugs Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Wayne Clough at a White House luncheon honoring the winners of the 2013 National Design Awards. (MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA)

The Toledos, artist Ruben and designer Isabel, passed around their sketches with six teenage girls who just love them. Chad Hurley, co-founder of YouTube, explained his latest mobile video app to a rapt circle of 15-year-olds. Yves Behar, designer for electronics brand Jawbone, sat with four D.C. high school students probing them on how wearable technology fits into their lives. And if you were among the luckiest 12 students at the Teen Design Fair, you got face time with key innovators at Facebook or TED over a lunch of herb ravioli and Wagyu beef at the White House.

The Teen Design Fair is only in its fourth year but is attracting big names in fashion (Tim Gunn), architecture (James Wines) and technology (Charles Adler, Kickstarter co-founder) that would make any Stanford MBA candidate envious. This year’s winners of the National Design Awards, the annual honors from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, were present, speaking about career prospects or how design fits into education.

“We started the Teen Design Fair three years ago when Mrs. Obama wanted to broaden the awards to include students,” said Caroline Baumann, director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. “So many of these students are interested in fashion, architecture or graphics, so for them to connect with designers is really special.”

But the National Design Awards and their week of corresponding events weren’t always so open to novices. Past ceremonies didn’t have eager high-schoolers who knew the features of ionic columns or Maya Lin’s biography. That’s probably because design didn’t used to be so democratic, fueled by a Pinterest culture in which teens are hyper-aware of design’s impact. That culture is bleeding into academia, too: The Cooper-Hewitt Museum is expanding its “Design in the Classroom” initiative, which has injected design into math and science classes in New York public schools since 2011. This summer, they tested the program in four cities, including Washington, to start a national design education initiative for elementary and high school students.

The students clearly love it. Students asked tough questions when Tim Gunn, the keynote speaker, took the stage to talk about his career in design. One student asked Gunn — who was once an associate dean at Parsons the New School for Design — what he looked for in applicants, while another asked how difficult it is to transition among design fields. Like good Washingtonians, students weren’t shy asking for business cards from architects or interior designers.

Among the lucky12 students selected for the White House lunch, there were graphic designers, architecture enthusiasts and a local teen, Julia Schillo, 16, who designs jewelry inspired by Native American artwork. They all interviewed for the chance to attend the luncheon and practiced etiquette during a mandatory pre-White House lunch, learning about silverware and polite adult conversation.

While the attendees from New York, many of whom had never seen Washington, were impressed with the memorials and museums, the local kids in attendance, including Mariah Stewart, 15, a sophomore at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, knew the Washington drill well already.

“I’ve been to the White House five times and for the garden tour once,” she said. “But never for lunch. This is exciting.”

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.

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