The Industrial Designers Society of America’s annual International Conference brings some 600 designers, engineers and professional thinkers from around the world to Portland this weekend. With so many aesthetically gifted intellects about, you sense a real celebration of the brilliantly made thing. Just listening to the founder of New Zealand’s successful custom-manufacturing firm Ponoko, or examining a €22 latrine made to revolutionise sanitation in rural Cambodia, it’s easy to believe that design can save the world.
Strange, then, that the conference’s theme this year —“Will DIY Save Design?” — implies that the profession faces existential peril. Rapid technological change, which seems to promise that anyone can make anything, anywhere, leaves even the best in the design business fretting over obsolescence.
Portland makes an oddly perfect place to address that anxiety. This small city, far from the design world’s established capitals, has become a laboratory of do-it-yourself craft, from its ubiquitous food carts to the welter of start-up design and fabrication outfits that inhabit its old industrial quadrants.
The IDSA event promises a deep dive into Portland’s artisan and independent cultures, with a programme of events in galleries, restaurants and bars. The hope seems to be that Portland’s homegrown renaissance can inspire visiting designers to incorporate a bit of DIY verve into their work, without losing the consideration and craft of professionalism.
“I wanted to address the usual disconnect between a conference theme and its location,” Sohrab Vossoughi, founder of the Portland-based Ziba Design, tells Monocle. Vossoughi, whose firm has worked for a litany of major corporate clients, was the key figure in bringing the IDSA conference to Portland. “Portland is a city on the fringe, on the periphery, in many ways. It is a place where things can happen in basements and small workshops. The barriers to entry here are low, and there is a flexible and open local market. You can mess around for a while, and there is a receptiveness to experiment. That’s why cities on the fringe will be more and more important in the future—because they will be the places where people are able to experiment.”
The conference roster touches on several such “experiments”, such as John Economaki of Portland’s Bridge City Tool Works. Twenty years ago, Economaki couldn’t find a conventional market for his exquisite custom woodworking tools. He placed a $2,700 advert (with his life savings of $2,700), and soon turned DIY into a cult-coveted brand. “Even in bad economies, and even with all the market forces that work against quality, we’ve found a way to live at the very top of the pyramid,” Economaki says. “At the same time, our customers themselves are the DIY people. I’m now able to talk about how to bring a product from the individual work bench to the market and I think that’s the value of my story.”
And that hits upon the conference’s overarching message: even if anyone can make anything, anywhere, we still need someone, somewhere to know their business and be able to use modern tools to create old-fashioned quality.
“If you think about design as a tool for making objects, well, that’s one thing, and technology is perhaps replacing that,” Vossoughi says. “But if you think of design as a process, of synthesis and creating meaning and value, then technology does not replace that. In this DIY future we are talking about, design will be as relevant as ever — more relevant, in fact.”