The Visual Story, With Lasting Lessons

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 16, 2006

Through the miracle of Google and without any design education, Leonard Wood and Vernon Woodland have created the prototypes for a line of hip-hop shoes. The two men sent rudimentary sketches from Prince George's County to a manufacturer in China. With the addition of a little venture capital, they could start production and lay claim to the first designed-in-Hyattsville "urban fashion shoes."

Their story is a small but powerful example of how firmly design has worked its way into everyday life and aspirations in our community. I write about them today, in a farewell column, as an expression of design as the most populist and accessible of the arts.

A design feat of a different dimension occurred last week in the District's Seventh Street arts corridor. It is a classic example of the innovation and creativity lavished on objects that touch a few lives today, but which we hope will trickle down to the rest of us tomorrow.

At the Apartment Zero store, owners Douglas Burton and Christopher Ralston gambled correctly that customers were ready for the ultimate holiday bauble: a magnum of Dom PĂ©rignon champagne encased in a limited-edition, neon-green ice bucket. The two-foot-tall collectible was signed by Marc Newson, an Australian industrial designer whose 20-year-old aluminum chaise, the Lockheed Lounge, was sold at auction in June for $968,000 -- a record for a piece of furniture by a living designer.

Burton and Ralston had wangled just six of the bottle-shaped Newson buckets out of a worldwide run of 1,000. The objects sold out at $1,000 each, making the nation's capital a global design hot spot, if only for the night.

In the best of all possible outcomes, Newson's synthetic molded shell will inform the next generation of insulated coffee mugs or lunch packs sold at Target or Wal-Mart, which is why attention should be paid.

A third design phenomenon -- the creation of public space -- is percolating in Southeast. Three parking lots across from an abandoned housing project are destined to be reinvented as a park named for a canal buried deep in Washington history. The designer, Kathryn Gustafson of Seattle and London, is one of the most admired names in landscape architecture. Her portfolio of daring projects includes the interactive Princess Diana Fountain in London's Regent's Park, the Garden of Forgiveness in central Beirut and the courtyard at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Gustafson's scheme for reflecting pools and green space has survived scrutiny by the National Capital Planning Commission, with modifications. More important than the water features is the fact that enlightened Washington planners and developers are banking on world-class design, not as an elitist gesture of gentrification, but as an essential component in the quality of life.

Whether Gustafson's park will knit strangers into an instant community is not knowable on my watch. As the departing design critic, I salute readers for embracing the visual culture and making it as much a part of their lives as an iPod. On Saturday mornings, we have shared a dialogue ranging from the origins of Bubble Wrap to the Katrina Cottage. During my tenure, industrial designers have made soccer balls fly faster, electric cars drive more cleanly and ovens so smart they respond to a cellphone call. Graphic designers have created punchier campaign buttons. The White House redecorated the Lincoln Bedroom (alas, I was never invited in for a look).

The New Economy inspired a generation of designers to infuse products with color and cartoonlike forms, none more iconic than Volkswagen's New Beetle. The new millennium has been marked by more serious concerns and a welcome streak of humanitarianism. The most thoughtful designers are creating gadgets to purify drinking water, experimenting with emergency shelters and volunteering time to rebuild communities devastated by tsunamis, hurricanes and earthquakes.

If I had to give dubious achievement awards, on the other hand, they'd go to the makers of trendy vacuum cleaners, which cost too much, and to the designers of cereal boxes, whose visual mayhem is an insult to the visual age. But there are more reasons to celebrate than complain.

Watching Washington emerge from its Jeffersonian cocoon has been a privilege. Contemporary design, a rarity in the 1980s, can now be found in lofts, restaurants, boutique hotels, nightclubs, theater lobbies and airport terminals. The latest European and American designer wares -- from Frank Gehry chairs and Walter Gropius dinnerware to Richard Sapper lighting and a rare Hella Jongerius sofa -- are sighted in retail stores such as Apartment Zero and Design Within Reach. Urban nomads can fill their Zipcars with designer lamps and cookware at Target. Suburban hipsters can revel in the best of American design at the nearest Apple store.

Museums, embassies and galleries have contributed a stream of scholarship on design culture, introducing the ceramic sculptures of Isamu Noguchi, the decline of American silver and the broad influence of Finnish design. This year, the National Building Museum took the lead in educating people about sustainable design, a movement as important to the 21st century as modernism was to the last.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, New York's Museum of Modern Art literally wrote the book on products for a safer world. The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, through its National Design Awards program, has begun to call attention to exceptional designs and designers in all fields. Smithsonian officials continues to hint that they are looking for space for a Cooper-Hewitt presence in Washington, possibly in the American Art Museum.

Where once design could have been described as something apart from the average Washingtonian's day, it now is firmly embedded in the shape of a cellphone, the protective cardboard sleeve on a cup of latte or in the vision of budding design entrepreneurs in Hyattsville.

Wood reports that his Trinity Corp. has an investor, which might make a trip to China possible in the new year. I wish them luck.

As Nike would say, just do it.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company