Honoring the Vanguard of the Creative Trades

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, September 1, 2007

Labor Day, says the dictionary, honors America's "working people." The term suggests clericals, labor union members and hourly wage earners who toil at manufacturing, constructing or operating useful things. But those who artfully design such things, making them both beautiful and practical, are also working people who deserve to be honored.

Such honors were bestowed this summer when the National Design Awards were presented at a White House ceremony, during which first lady Laura Bush spoke. Sponsored by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, a Smithsonian Institution facility in New York, the awards recognize exceptional aesthetic and utilitarian achievement in diverse fields of design: fashion, industrial products, communications, graphics, interiors, architecture and landscape architecture.

Designers in these fields give shape to things that affect your life.

This year's award recipients included Rick Owens, a fashion designer in Paris; Chip Kidd, designer of book jackets for publisher Alfred A. Knopf; Jonathan Ive, Apple's senior vice president for industrial design; and Adobe Systems, creator of Acrobat and Photoshop. There was even an award for being a patron of good design, given to Maharam, a textile business.

A number of landscape architecture, interior design and architecture practitioners also were recognized.

Landscape architect Peter Walker received an award for his firm's consistent record of highly imaginative, beautifully composed gardens, civic spaces, parks and campus plans. Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis of New York was cited for outstanding design work in commercial and academic interiors, and Office dA, a Boston firm led by Monica Ponce de Leon and Nader Tehrani, received the architectural design award.

Several other architects were honored at the ceremony, not in specific categories of design, but rather for enduring legacies from decades of creative thinking and hard work.

Antoine Predock, among America's most inventive architects, received a lifetime achievement award. Predock's office in Albuquerque has designed dozens of highly original projects, many in the Southwest.

His civic edifices, academic buildings, museums, housing and recreational facilities are inspired by each project's unique site characteristics, including geology, ecology, culture and history. Using regionally indigenous materials, Predock creates dynamic and geometrically abstract forms with metaphoric allusions to each project's context.

Also honored were architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, winner of the 1991 Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture's equivalent of a Nobel Prize. Their Philadelphia firm boasts a long list of award-winning architecture and urban design in the United States and abroad. But they received the Design Mind award for work that led to significant shifts in design thinking and practice.

Rather than projects, their real legacy is their radical manifestoes, written in the 1960s and 1970s, that motivated many American architects to alter fundamental beliefs about design. Venturi's 1966 "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture," and later "Learning From Las Vegas," written with Brown and Steve Izenour, challenged the tenets and dogmas -- such as "ornament is a crime" -- of 20th-century modernism and the international style.

Proclaiming "less is a bore," their manifestoes extolled the virtues of American popular taste, conceptual and compositional messiness, stylistic eclecticism, and playful application of familiar but reinterpreted classical motifs. Their philosophy ushered in and provided a theoretical rationale for architectural postmodernism and historicism, which ran rampant from the 1970s to the 1990s, especially in Washington. These "-isms" still hold sway with some architects and many home buyers.

One other legacy was honored at the White House: the work of architect and design teacher Frank Ching. A professor emeritus at the University of Washington in Seattle, Ching is the author of several best-selling texts on architectural graphics, sketching and design methodology.

Ching's texts are special. Because he loves to draw and draws beautifully, his instructive books are filled with hundreds of didactic illustrations. They show readers that artful delineation is not just a technique for visual representation, but rather is a means to seeing and thinking more profoundly. Among the world's most widely disseminated and frequently consulted references, Ching's texts have guided generations of architecture students, teaching them how to draw and explore design concepts.

Looking at Ching's books, you know that every one of his thousands of drawings was a labor of love, one worth remembering on Labor Day.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company