The National Design Awards Gala was a Bonfire of the Vanities affair of a thousand or so New York swells decked out in tuxes and gowns celebrating great designers, if not great design. A special design award for plastic surgery would have been in order. Paul Thompson, director of Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, walked about in a velveteen jacket that, combined with his British accent, made him seem like a 1930s Noel Coward character who had somehow drifted off the Broadway stage to wind up under a big tent blinking into flashing cameras as famous people came up to be photographed with him.
Curly-haired Yves B?har, the design "it" boy of the moment, ran the ceremonies with humor and an appealing sense of astonishment that a shy Swiss kid had come so far. Clearly, the crowd adored him. Especially the women.
But B?har was upstaged time and again by the very, very famous called up to present the awards to the merely famous designers. Actor Robert Downey Jr. came up to say nice words about Design Patron Award winner Craig Robins, known for reinvigorating Miami with the Art Basel Fair. Starchitect Richard Meier loomed (too closely perhaps) over MOMA's star curator, Paola Antonelli, as he described how she brings politics, beauty, and empathy together in her exhibitions and how she was therefore deserving of her Design Mind Award. The director Spike Lee, who shot ads for Nike in his early days, said nice things about the company receiving the Corporate Achievement Award. And on and on it went, with Diane von Furstenberg, Milton Glaser, and others often overshadowing those actually receiving the awards.
Touching Testament The sweetest moment was a video of Herman Miller's Bill Stumpf, the man who designed our Aeron chairs. He died just weeks before receiving his Product Design Award but left behind a wonderful five-minute tale of design and life.
All of the winners deserved to win, though no one could figure out why any one designer won this year. Some awards were clearly for lifetime achievement even though they were not called that. Others were for more recent work. And others were just question marks. Apple's Jonathan Ive, for example, didn't win and was only a finalist (see also BusinessWeek.com, 10/19/06, "Design's Night of Glamour").
Oh, and then there was the after-party, with Pentagram's Michael Bierut doing the DJ thing.
The National Design Awards Gala is clearly the Oscars of design. You love it, you hate it, you wonder if there is an indie alternative.