Minneapolis took root on the Mississippi where St. Anthony's Falls powered the city's early industries. A French missionary had named the falls after his favorite saint--and now another Frenchman has laid claim to the riverbank with the spectacular Guthrie Theater. Thanks to that and other stunning new buildings, the city's become a design boomtown.
THE GUTHRIE THEATER: French architect Jean Nouvel was so excited by the Guthrie site--"The Mississippi is mythic in France," he says--he insisted the theater be built 50 feet off the ground, for clear views of the river and those falls. His clients thought the idea was crazy. When Nouvel wouldn't give in, they rented a crane. Up swooped the Guthrie's director, Joe Dowling, in a cherry picker with the architect to check out the vistas. "I was quivering," recalls Dowling, while Nouvel, a bear of a man, puffed a cigar and sang "Old Man River"--in French. "Jean was absolutely right," says the director. "It was extraordinary." Nouvel got his way, but his daring didn't end with the theater's levitation. He designed a huge drum shape to house the main arena stage, an "endless bridge" that cantilevers 175 feet toward the river and an elevated passageway that connects to the scenery shop built atop a nearby garage. Then he wrapped it all in midnight-blue steel. The result is brazen, outrageous and wonderful--a building as drama queen.
Founded in 1963 by the great British director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, the original theater was famous for its asymmetrical thrust stage, re-created here in the 1,100-seat main theater. Nouvel added an elegant proscenium theater--in luscious reds--and a "black box" space for experimental work. "For the artistic community," said actor Sally Wingert, arriving at the Guthrie one recent day on her bike, "it's a giant, gorgeous playground." For the public, too, it's as inventive inside as out. Whether you're cruising up the escalators, strolling the lobby bar and cafés or wandering along that "endless bridge" with a glass of wine, you'll glimpse surprising reflections and views of the city and the river. Nouvel plays with color--one vast window is tinted ski-goggle yellow--and with illusion. At the end of the cantilevered "bridge," you encounter a big glass rectangle in the floor where, far below, you see the ground. It's a heart-stopping moment: at the new Guthrie, theatrical experiences won't be confined to the stage.
Nouvel's big blue monolith sits easily among its old industrial neighbors, its curved shape echoing the grain silos. The building evokes the Guthrie's history, too. "I proposed putting ghosts on the walls," says Nouvel--and there they are: huge wispy images of past productions screened onto the exterior steel. Hokey? A little. But like much in this amazing building, the images are subtle and unexpected. Monsieur Nouvel, please take a bow.
MINNEAPOLIS CENTRAL LIBRARY: The heart of Cesar Pelli's glass-and-stone library, which opened last month, is an elegant, light-filled atrium. The façade's etched glass evokes a frozen forest.
WALKER ART CENTER: A tour-de-force by avant-garde Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the building (it was their first U.S. project) features a huge silvery cube that seems to hover over the street.
MINNEAPOLIS INSTITUTE OF ARTS: The city's great art museum just opened its new postmodern Target Wing (the retailer was a big donor) by Michael Graves, also a popular Target product designer.
LAMP: When Rosita Missoni--yes, that Missoni--tired of the fashion business and launched Missoni Home in 1982, her sophisticated designs for interiors accomplished nothing less than making color and pattern modern. Luxurious throws with the intricate colors of Missoni knitwear and an oversize hanging lampshade (above) really lights up a room.
KAREN COMBS WALLPAPER: The Web site itself (namarococo.com) is computer art; imagine the impact of gloriously idiosyncratic papers like this one by founder Karen Combs.
TODD OLDHAM FABRIC: Sometimes design is obsession realized. When Oldham fell for the midcentury bird paintings of Charley Harper, 83, he fell hard. His birds flew onto fabrics Oldham wrapped around furniture for La-Z Boy, into two books and into a museum show set for 2007 in Harper's hometown, Cincinnati.
THE APPLE STORE: After only one month in business, Apple's newest retail palace, on Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan, is creating a big buzz. Rising like the Louvre's pyramid, from a once desolate plaza in front of the General Motors building, the glittering cube of glass is open 24/7, a beacon for night owls in the city that never sleeps. During the day, sunlight streams down the curving staircase to the retail space below, as pristinely minimalist as the iPod. "All of the stores we've done have featured some unique glass-and-stainless-steel assembly," says Carl Backus of the architecture firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, which designs Apple's outlets. "The opportunity to create an architectural feature out of glass at this scale was a welcome challenge." And he means scale--the cube measures 32 feet in each direction. In other words, a very big Apple.
THE EAMES CHAIR TURNS 50: Few modern classics are as cozy as this 1956 chair and ottoman, with its rosewood frame and cushy leather. Still in production at Herman Miller, the chair is being celebrated with a show at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York. And if you're bummed about your own 50th birthday, you could visit a shrink--who might well be slouched in his own Eames chair, a professional favorite.
PASADENA STREETLIGHTS: St. Louis has the Gateway Arch, Seattle has its Space Needle. Soon Pasadena will have PowerPLANTs. Nik Hafermaas's proposal, to be tested this summer, features 75-foot solar-powered stalks emitting a warm glow. And unlike the Rose Parade, they bloom all year long.
THE CONTAINER STORE: On my latest shopping trip to the Container Store, the manager tried to recruit me. "Our best customers make our best employees," he smiled, slipping me a card with the motto HIRING NEAT PEOPLE! Now wouldn't that be a bit of heaven, I mused, spending days in this clean, well-lighted place, dispensing hope in the form of robust plastic storage crates, linen-wrapped file boxes, sheer mesh baskets that glide into sturdy racks with the whispered promise: I will help you fight back the inevitable chaos of your life.
I could get into that, I thought, falling hard for the philosophy of the company's 37 stores devoted to storage and organization. Founder and CEO Kip Tindell calls it an "Air of Excitement: Three steps in the door and you can tell whether or not a retail company has it." Well, yes. Three steps in his doors and something inevitably hits you: unlike those overmerchandised mega-stores that come across so adorably on TV, people are smiling here.
If there's a design formula at the Container Store, it is to connect the customer directly with the merchandise. So they ripped the packaging off the products--revealing their essence--and created a prettier image of control and order. "But these products do not sell themselves," says Tindell. "They are too multifunctional." So he designed, too, an employee-training program so intensive, the salespeople, in effect, become the packaging: enthusiastic, informed and deeply familiar with the product line (their 40 percent discount encourages such familiarity--that offer's looking even better). Tindell is the guru-in-chief, fond of motivational training concepts like "The power of the wake," by which he means being mindful of the effect you have on others. All full-time employees get immersion training, "240 hours, compared to the in-dustry average of eight," he adds proudly. He's rewarded with loyalty and low turnover. "This is solutions-based retail," he explains. "We have to transcend value by adding emotional response." Sharon Tindell, who began with her husband in 1978 when they opened their first store in Dallas, and whose design sensibility touches every product, says it best: "We call it getting the customer to dance."
THE STARCK STROLLER: 'Children are not cartoons,' says Philippe Starck of his new Maclaren
THE KRUPS BLENDER: Like a Harley in the kitchen, by the German designer Konstantin Grcic
Terrific products bubble up from the inspired collaboration of designers and manufacturers--an everyday occurrence in Milan, less frequent in, say, Detroit. But today the provenance of a great idea can be anywhere.
SCOTT KLINKER: It was a match made in heaven, or at least in Michigan. Kerry and Bryce Moore, owners of Context, a small contemporary-furniture company in Royal Oak, met Scott Klinker--designer in residence and head of a graduate program at the renowned Cranbrook Academy of Art--at a local party. They quickly regrouped at Klinker's studio, where Scott showed them a prototype of the A-frame table (below) that had been giving him production problems. The Moores worked out the technical kinks just in time for Klinker's solo exhibition this year at Cranbrook, and the Truss Collection was born--10 pieces: tables, chairs, a desk. "Most important is that we share common values," says Klinker. "Context is design-driven; they want to lead the market, not follow it." Inspired by such elemental American icons as railroad bridges, Truss pieces have, their designer says, "an expression of unadorned structure that's almost simplistic, rustic." Context's digital manufacturing process turns out furniture made to be shipped flat, with minimal assembly. It's a process that minimizes cost as well. Says Klinker: "We're at an interesting intersection--affordable and contemporary--that's being underserved. Where do young people go after IKEA?"
PATRICIA URQUIOLA: This Spanish-born, Milan-based designer is hot, hot, hot, turning out inventive furniture for Italy's best manufacturers. But it's the seductive, lacy texture of her new T-table (as in T. rex) for Kartell that caught our eye. Urquiola calls it a "technological fossil, in direct contrast with the clean-edged plastic objects we know." The table is injection molded in one piece, its sturdy legs supporting a top so delicate-looking, you're surprised to discover organic shapes, "like creatures that were trapped there millions of years ago," explains Kartell's Ivan Luini. "Polycarbonate comes from the earth, hence a very old material meets a very new one."
3M PROJECTOR: What do you get when you cross a giant American corporation (3M) with a feisty Milanese design studio (Design Group Italia)? The end of the clunky projector. 3M's Digital Media System's sensuous shape is based on sports-car technology. It'll project large images from a short distance and it has a DVD player. Arrivederci, slide machine.
Some global-thinking designers are really going the distance in the search for sustainable, unusual goods.
MATERIAL CONNEXION: The company houses thousands of materials for designers to browse. Now it's working with the Philippines to develop new prototypes, from shells to bamboo, that are harder to knock off by competing countries like China.
NORTH SOUTH PROJECT: Tourists have always liked to schlep home local crafts. But Canadian designer Patty Johnson wanted to do something different. Partnering with manufacturers in developing countries, she's bringing the best of exotic furniture into your living room. But not too exotic. "We want to make sophisticated hybrids," says Johnson, "with the same quality you'd find here, but the vocabulary of where they came from." Seated below: chairs from Botswana that look stylish enough to be sold at IKEA. They're a takeoff on the American Windsor, with a deep matte finish that gives "the final object the same abstracted quality as African wood sculpture." The light fixtures above are from South America, woven by the Wai Wai people of Guyana, then whimsically left unfinished. (The weavers worked with Johnson over six months to develop the look.) They used rain-forest grass and colored the shades with natural plant dyes. But some of the lights are staying put. The Wai Wais were so pleased with them, they snagged a batch for their village, where a generator provides two hours of electricity every night. For Johnson, the lure is helping a country survive on its own goods. "We're trying to create value-added products that you can export," she says, "so it's not a drain of their natural resources." The collection (from $300 to $2,000)-- including benches, ottomans and cabinets--hits stores this fall. Up next for North South: a textile weaving project in Ethiopia.
Bubble Boy Hits the Street Are you fed up with advertising invading every corner of public space? Graphic designer Ji Lee, 34, has just the antidote. His Bubble Project invites passersby to jot comments into thought-bubble stickers--he has put up some 35,000 over the past four years in New York City--and sure enough, the people have spoken. Or written. "Some of it's funny, or political or personal," says Lee, a former adman himself who sees his work as a public service. "People have a platform for self-expression." Want to see for yourself? "Talk Back: The Bubble Project" has just been published in a book.
CONSTANCE ADAMS: As a designer for NASA, Adams is no stranger to the requirements of long-term space missions. But as a professional architect, she also brings her own sensibility. Designing for space travel shouldn't be the domain of just left-brain engineers, she believes, but also of right-brain humanists. Adams thinks about design by looking at the Earth's ecosystem; she wonders, for example, why a space module couldn't have a barrier of clean water around it to protect astronauts from cosmic radiation, much as the Earth's atmosphere protects us. And she wants to provide space travelers with some amenities of home--like a sense of time, place and wellness--which is tough in a zero-gravity space capsule. With a group of Yale students, she developed a patterned wall fabric that could be used in a space vehicle to tell up from down.
In the late 1990s, Adams helped design TransHab, a spaceship for the first human mission to Mars. Anything rocketing into space has to be less than 14 feet in diameter. Her solution? Inflatable modules that could grow to three times their launch volume. "We could divide the module into different zones, where astronauts could work, exercise, sleep and socialize around the clock, which is not possible in a 'can' habitat," says Adams.
Budget cuts have stalled TransHab, but Adams continues to work on design problems, big and small. Recently she's experimented with a corn-based resin that can be injection-molded into storage containers. (Ordinary plastic gives off dangerous gases in space.) "With all the things that go up there, we need a system that you can see into, like Tupperware," she says. And why shouldn't astronauts have all the comforts of home?
MARC NEWSON: The 43-year-old Aussie's aluminum Lockheed Lounge sold at auction last week for $966,000--a record for contemporary design. Yeah, but is it comfortable ? "It's slithery and sensual," says James Zemaitis of Sotheby's. "You've definitely gotta wrap both arms around it or you'll fall off."
Check out the latest exhibitions, books and a TV series on design.
ZAHA HADID: Show of edgy architect of Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center (below). Guggenheim Museum, New York (until Oct. 25).
FEEDING DESIRE: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500-2005. Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York (through Oct. 29).
DESIGN LIKE YOU GIVE A DAMN: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises. Edited by Architecture for Humanity (Metropolis Books, in stores July).
DESIGN: E2: Six-part PBS series about sustainable design, narrated by Brad Pitt. Begins this month (check local listings).
THE HIGH STYLE OF DOROTHY DRAPER: A Tribute to America's Decorating Icon. Museum of the City of New York (through Sept. 10) and IN THE PINK, a book on Draper (Pointed Leaf Press).
ARTIST'S CHOICE: HERZOG & DE MEURON: The Swiss architects select and install favorites from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (June 21-Sept. 25).
THE GREEN HOUSE: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design. The National Building Museum, Washington, D.C. (through June 2007).
Remember when new shelter mags were launching by the hour? Like everything else, the next wave of design obsession is exploding online. A few choice destinations:
LAND+LIVING: This link-loving collective swoons for all things design, from conceptual architecture to hip T shirts. (landliving.com)
DESIGN*SPONGE: Brooklynite Grace Bonney is equal parts diarist, talent hunter and advocate for warm, affordable design ideas. (designsponge.blogspot.com)
MOCOLOCO: This slick site, run by Quebec's Harry Wakefield, is a must for modern contemporary design lovers. (mocoloco.com)
DESIGN ADDICT: Perhaps the best-designed design site, it's like an artist and product encyclopedia plus Rolodex. Low on news, links. High on bios. (designaddict.com)
UNBEIGE: An industry news, gossip and job-listing site hosted by New York-based Mediabistro. (mediabistro.com/unbeige)
APARTMENT THERAPY: This multicity blog's mission is helping readers squeeze maximum comfort out of minimal space. (apartment therapy.com)