The fifth estate: designers wield the power to shape a new era

The fifth estate: designers wield the power to shape a new era

Prediction about Building Architecture

“IN THE 15TH CENTURY, everything changed,” wrote Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. “The human mind discovered a means of perpetuating itself that was not only more lasting and resistant than architecture but also simpler and easier. Architecture was dethroned. The lead characters of Gutenberg succeeded the stone characters of Orpheus. The book was to kill the building.”

While Hugo’s predictions that the printing press would lead to the demise of the cathedral were clearly incorrect, his remarks indicate a common prejudice in favor of language. We think of journalists as the powerful fourth estate–sharing facts and insight, shaping opinions and beliefs, providing inspiration–but cast architects and designers in a primarily passive role, responding to the needs of others. To do so is to miss Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin’s point: “Design is a language that is communicated visually.”

Architecture concept

Architecture concept

Europe’s great cathedrals are a positive example, successful in interpreting and promulgating medieval culture and spirit. Adolf Hitler, too, used art and architecture to communicate his message to the world–and in fact considered himself “master builder of the Third Reich.” Striving to construct a bridge of tradition for future generations to admire in “reverent astonishment,” he strongly opposed the modernism of the Bauhaus and looked to define his reign with anachronistic grandiosity that he saw as sentimental and nostalgic. (The Olympic stadium complex in Berlin is among the surviving examples of Nazi architecture.)

House design community with culture

Unsurprisingly, it was to those very same architects and designers associated with the Bauhaus that corporate America looked to communicate a new identity after Hitler’s defeat. Businesses wanted new headquarters that would function like the great cathedrals of Europe, buildings that would announce the importance of these corporations to society, reflect their mission, and embody their technological, expertise. Today, businesses continue to appreciate the power of design as a tool for communicating beliefs, and we see the growing power of design as an approach to branding, from Starbucks to the Gap. And now, as never before, design is being used by organizations as a way to attract and retain employees. Even entire cities are using design to revitalize and inform, from Bilbao with Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim to Milwaukee with its museum addition by Santiago Calatrava.


So, how does design inform? By presenting theory and intent. Design sets up the behavior and degree of formality or intimacy, defining the culture, the mood, or the essence.

Over the past two years, answering this question became increasingly compelling to my team as we worked on the Interior Design Handbook of Professional Practice. We started the project with a single mission: to define what it really means to be a design professional in the new millennium. And while we set out to create a handbook, our approach was less a journalistic process than a design process, one that started with building a community of advisers and contributors whose recent accomplishments are seminal. The design process–connecting people, ideas, and resources around a shared mission–led us through to discovery.

In A History of Architecture, Spiro Kostof writes, “No building is an isolated object, sufficient unto itself. It belongs in a larger setting, within a bit of nature or a neighborhood of other buildings, or both, and derives much of its character from this natural or manufactured environment that embraces it.” Kostof’s metaphor applies to all communities, whether they are communities of buildings or people–in essence social and professional communities, like those of buildings, derive much of their character from the environment that embraces them. The interior-design community is no different.

Today our community, the design community, is at a crossroads. We are in a time when matters of design are moving to the forefront of business and personal decisions, a time being labeled the “era of design.” And while we are all looking forward to an opportunity to make the work of interior design more meaningful to our clients and society, do we all agree on what it means to be a design professional? The process of writing our handbook led us to this conclusion: To be a design professional in the new millennium requires that the design community become a group of people who speak with one voice on matters of legislation, regulation, ethics, responsibility, sustainability, and excellence. We must coalesce as an assembly of well educated minds that, focused on questions of research or social policy, can create, hold, and perpetuate knowledge that will contribute to the universal intellectual enterprise. And like every healthy community, we must continue to grow and evolve as new people, new ideas, and new resources join us.

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