The leafy Rhode Island School of Design, a global leader in arts education, is buzzing about its new president: the freewheeling, commercially aware digital theorist and world-reknowned graphic designer John Maeda – a man as happy at Reebok as MoMA.
For months now, students and faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD, pronounced riz-dee) have been texting each other about “Maeda sightings” on campus. John Maeda – former MIT Media Lab professor, renowned graphic designer and artist and RISD’s new president elect – was due to officially assume his post on 2 June.
For most of the last semester Maeda has been omnipresent on the historic, cobblestoned and hilly downtown Providence campus. For Will McLoughlin, the student alliance president, “John Maeda is truly somebody who seems to be in two places at once – he is really energetic. Any time he’s on campus there’s a flurry of energy.”
Maeda bounds into a nondescript RISD conference room on a sunny spring day in May wearing a wrinkled white Issey Miyake shirt and black trousers, explaining that we are meeting here because he hasn’t yet decided where his office is going to be as he doesn’t want to move into the presidential suites upstairs. His sentences are sprinkled with frequent “ya knows”, “likes”, “yeahs” and Star Wars references (The Force and Yoda provide regular metaphors). In the digital age, dorky is cool and that’s John Maeda – he trips over his words and has to stop himself from interviewing everyone in the room just to answer Monocle’s simple question: “What are you going to do at RISD?”
“Good question – I have no idea!” giggles Maeda. “I only know that I’m trying to figure out one core question: what do artists and designers want to be in this century? Then there is the question of what commerciality is? What’s the point of dying for your art? What if you could actually live with your art?”
Maeda is clearly planning to take RISD in a more commercial direction. Maeda himself has been adept at slipping between two worlds: his own design work is in the permanent collection of MoMA in New York and he designs bestselling Reebok sneakers. He is not ashamed to plead the case for an artist’s need for commercial success – if you Google “do both”, one of his mantras, Maeda flashes up first. He wants people not to think that working in the commercial world means going over to the “dark side”.
“It’s not about selling out – it’s just good common sense,” says Maeda defiantly. “Look at Family Guy [the Simpsons-challenging comedy animation series] – Seth MacFarlane was a RISD grad who branched out and built an industry from an animated film made for his senior project.”
Maeda is looking at strengthening the RISD brand and is bringing over his right-hand woman from MIT, branding specialist Becky Bermont. “I’m committed to activating RISD’s powerful brand in the creative fields,” says Maeda. “And I want the world to associate creativity with the RISD name. What that might mean according to Maeda is everything from a fragrance (really) to virtual trinkets on Facebook, to offering creative consulting services. He has, of course, already re-designed RISD’s T-shirts. Maeda has spent his own money to start a scholarship fund to bring African and South American students into RISD. “I want all these under-served areas that are massively creative and unique. How do you get to where the missing talent is?” he says. “How do you find raw talent? Maybe it’s ageless, maybe it’s people who are 60-plus. I think all these stigmas can maybe go away.”
Maeda’s work at MIT Media Lab helped companies to simplify technology. In his book, The Laws of Simplicity, Maeda refers to himself as a “humanist technologist”. He has already put a human face on RISD, achieving what he calls the future of technology: connecting people. He started two blogs, made videos of himself and outgoing president Roger Mandle and more recently put videos of the professors on the RISD website.
He has driven in the campus police car, served midnight brunch to students preparing for final projects and jogged through campus on his inaugural “Jogging with John” jaunt. His appearances in the woodshop, glass-blowing studio and campus cafeterias have generated excitement among the students while mildly bemusing members of the faculty. So is Maeda college president material?
While he was unanimously elected by the RISD board, he is not the safe choice for president – especially compared to outgoing president Roger Mandle (off to become executive director of Qatar’s Museums Authority). Mandle is a New England college president straight out of central casting. His elegant manners, tall good-looks and bespoke suits are a direct contrast to this bouncy, West Coast, iPod-worshipping son of Japanese immigrants.
In his 15 years at RISD, Mandle revitalised the curriculum and initiated several grand architecture projects while increasing the endowment by 500 per cent to $360m [€228m]. He is handing over a college in excellent financial and academic shape. Maeda’s challenge according to Mandle is to take RISD into the future. “With John here, we’re going to become much more connected to the technological capabilities that can be put at the disposal of our artists and designers,” he says. “We need to go in with a pitchfork and start turning soil in order to keep ahead of our competition and keep our curriculum as alive as it needs to be.”
Here on campus today, a classroom of students are wandering around with scarves over their eyes, experimenting for a class project with what it feels like to be blind. Like these students, John Maeda is feeling his way around the RISD campus and may too hit a few walls as he leads RISD. “I just want to try some stuff out,” he says. After all, this is a liberal arts college.
1992: Earns PhD from Tsukuba University Institute of Art and Design in Japan
1996: Associate Director of Research at the MIT Media Laboratory (until 2008)
2000: maeda@media, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, first major solo exhibition
2006: The Laws of Simplicity
2007: Reebok x John Maeda Timetanium shoe release. Museum of Modern Art in NY puts early digital media design work in permanent collection
2008: President, Rhode Island School of Design
RISD’s already intense atmosphere – 3,000 focused artistic types – is even more highly charged since the news broke about the appointment of the youthful-minded Maeda. But it is just as big a deal off-campus. RISD is the most highly regarded art and design school in the country with an emphasis on critical thinking and a notoriously gruelling admission process. “US News and World Report” recently ranked RISD as having the number one graduate programme in fine arts in the country and in 2006, an unprecedented four of the 25 MacArthur Foundation Fellows (the equivalent of the Oscars for creativity) were RISD alumni. All freshmen are given strict foundation classes in fine art and students study in 18 departments including film and animation, ceramics, photography, architecture and glass.