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A Function in Need Of a Better Form At the Smithsonian

The awards also reflect the high-low contradictions of contemporary chic. The well-to-do find fashions at Target, a corporate winner, that would not look out of place at a boutique hotel created by Andre Balasz, honored as a "design patron."

A consumer society needs an endless supply of iMacs, Tupperware, paddling gear, back-saving chairs, all enhanced by innovative designers. All of these have touched the lives of baby boomers.

An emerging generation of designers is pushing the edge for today's preschoolers. Milton Glaser, a lifetime award winner, created the famous poster of Bob Dylan for his 1967 greatest hits album. Now John Maeda is pushing the frontier of art and computer science at MIT's Media Lab. Eva Zeisel, named this year's lifetime achiever on Tuesday, defined modern style with mid-century ceramics; the porcelain designs of Ted Muehling do the same today.

Matters of conscience emerge, though perhaps not as many as one might expect. The values of environmental architect William McDonough, author of "Cradle to Cradle," and the late Samuel Mockbee, founder of the Rural Studio in Alabama, are worth sharing.

The impact of design is not lost on Cooper-Hewitt Director Paul Warwick Thompson, who has always championed the awards as an opportunity to send "a much broader signal out to the public."

The museum staff has stretched to set up studio tours and a few lectures in New York. This fall, a partnership with Western Interiors magazine will fund a panel discussion with past winners in Los Angeles, moderated by Behar.

Jodi Imburgia, awards program director since December, responded positively to the idea of holding a public program in Washington on the day of the eventual White House reception. But nothing is in the works.

"In the private sector, it's much easier" to organize, said Imburgia, who worked for the Herman Miller furniture company. "We pay for things. We pay for speakers, we pay for facilities. We can solicit in-kind donations for products or whatever."

Thompson believes public access to design winners is more logically expanded through film. He has engaged in exploratory talks with a production company and envisions a six-part series, ideally on public television, with a celebrity emcee who would walk viewers through buildings, talk to users, interview detractors and ultimately let the audience vote up or down. It sounds dangerously like a design-world version of reality TV.

He is not worried about letting Washington in on the national design collection. "You have TV sets," he said.

In Washington, form often follows funding. The cost of the design awards program, which is sponsored by Coach, was not disclosed. The most basic temporary exhibition would cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars," according to Rifkin, and space would have to be found "God knows where."

Pick any tunnel in the vast Land of Smithsonia, I wanted to say. Or work toward 2006, when the embattled but splendid, high-design canopy by Norman Foster might cover the courtyard of the Old Patent Office Building, home to the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.

As the Smithsonian has discovered with the Foster project, good design is worth fighting for.

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