ByD+ Ilene Shaw
ByDesign+ sat down with industrial designer, founding director of ‘Design Pavilion’ and ‘Design Talks’ and now ByDesign TV star, Ilene Shaw to chat the week after she helped bring the city to life for the ‘NYCxDESIGN’ festival.
ByD+ How did your upbringing affect your appreciation of design?
Ilene Shaw: Well, I think our upbringing influences everything we do in our lives, in every way; the way we see the world, the way we see ourselves in the world and what we seek or what we run away from. In my case, I had a lot of emotional support growing up, but I did not always have the visual comfort that good design can provide.
I knew something was missing because within my own home my parents, who were very creative people in different ways - my father composed music and my mother painted. They created a little oasis within a New York City housing project, that otherwise could be very brutal visually. I must say, at that time, in its early stages, the projects were a great civic experiment and a very wonderful social success.
I inadvertently took a job at an architectural firm at a young age, so I fortunately stumbled upon an opportunity to learn about the built environment and how it affects us. This exposure was eye opening for me, literally. That’s when I began to seek out the beauty that was missing in my world. I found out in time, that beyond beauty was function, as well as affect. In this incredible job, at this incredible architectural firm I was introduced to architecture, interior design and art. These architects and designers worked closely with artists to enhance their spaces. I met artists and I worked alongside the designers. One designer in particular, was the late Naomi Leff, who moved on from this firm as a young architect to start her own firm, where she was very influential in the conception of the Ralph Lauren branding and merchandising - from apparel to home — and the Ralph Lauren Mansion.
I would stand behind Naomi's desk and just look over her shoulder as she drafted. In those days, plans were drafted by hand and to me, it was magic. Once in a while, the designers would ask me to choose colors, or they would ask “what textile should we use in the shoe department at Neiman Marcus in Fort Worth TX?” I was 15! They said “yeah, come on”- of course they gave me good choices, and I would choose and they actually used my selections in their final designs. So that was encouraging for me. I celebrated my Sweet 16 and then my high school graduation with them, and as soon as I was out of high school, I went right into Parsons School of Design, the alma mater of many of these designers. That was mentorship at its finest, and it made me understand how important it is to embrace young people and guide them. So, I guess that early experience as a mentee greatly influenced my approach to mentorship today, and it's funny, I did not put that together until this very moment!
You can make a great impact, just by inviting young people into your fold. It’s like parenting, you don’t have to tell young people what to do necessarily, but you must set an example. To this point, my architectural friends and I started an organization called Operation Design, made up of architects, designers and artists volunteering to go directly into New York City public schools and provide design and creative programs. Not just for an afternoon- it was a very dedicated program that lasted three to six months per project. One of our founding partner architects was Emanuela Frattini Magnusson, who also recently appeared in the fabulous TWA Airport Hotel in Episode 1 of New York ByDesign Architecture! Our other founding collaborators were Nancy Thiel, a wonderful architect, creative marketing talent Brian Maloney, who at that time was the Brand Marketing Director at Ogilvy, and creative business strategist Michael Venturi. We haven't worked together on this organization for many years now, since, as volunteers we put in so much time and energy for a long time, we burnt out. But I believe we should start up again. There is a need. We influenced quite a lot of students. In fact, two young ladies, who came out of that program, became architects! The aim of Operation Design was not necessarily to encourage students to become designers or architects, but we thought this sort of creative thinking, also called ‘design thinking’ - a term which has become a bit controversial these days - is a good skill for anyone to hone, whether they are a judge or a math teacher.
ByD+ Interesting that you say the term ‘design thinking’ is controversial, how so?
Ilene Shaw: That's a good question. I sometimes think it's generational. In time, people experiment and practice, they grow and evolve and they come up with better ways of doing things or solving problems and that happens in the design industry too. As design changed and expanded to include many more categories and business models, including the digital world, these factors might have affected what we call ‘design thinking’ and perhaps design thinking today is a little broader than it was 20 years ago when we began to use the term. At its best, design thinking is creative thinking, thinking out of the box, problem solving... Teaching this process to young people as a skill can be encouraging, can build confidence and help them feel more stable in their decisions and how they think things through. Design thinking encourages an iterative process, which is OK, as long as it’s more than just following steps - designers are creative thinkers, and so they will build that box and then breakthrough that box and change it. This evolution is progress, and as designers, we’re here to progress….
ByD+ So those walls are there so they can be pushed down?
Ilene Shaw: Yes, exactly! Create a tried-and-true method and then break through with an improved, enhanced or more progressive iteration, for the time.
ByD+ Through your mentorship you make space for new voices. I also feel it's important to talk about the actual physical spaces you create, how important are they?
Ilene Shaw: You know, that is such a great analogy because instead of just being tutorial or preaching, we are inviting the public into these spaces to experience them for themselves and you got that, so thank you! And most important, public space belongs to them, the public. And so, they know these spaces and installations are meant to be shared with them specifically, versus going to a special venue like a museum, showroom or gallery, which many of them likely don’t do.
I'm very interested in public space and yes it started with my childhood- the way public housing was created. There were these ‘courts’ we called them, formed by buildings set around an outdoor space. In those days, there were manicured grass areas, trees and there were benches for seating. They encouraged community, communication, sharing and gathering. The kids would get together, and we performed for our parents. We put on plays, we created talent shows, we danced, we sang, I don't know how we did this, but as children, we organized ourselves and we were occupied 24 hours a day. This was during the baby boom, so for every child, there were at least 15 other kids that were like you. Sadly, the projects were not kept up, they were defunded which led to a terrible lack of care. It started off as a great experiment and then it was dropped and neglected. It is very important to me that urban planners focus on that gathering feature and as the city works towards the future, is rethinking its infrastructure and its landscape in a way that expands public space, green environments, with people at its heart.
For example, the consideration of closing Broadway to car traffic all the way down to maybe 14th St and the redesign of 5th Avenue to include pleasant pedestrian paths - it’s taking city outdoor life into consideration. Walking in a city like New York is very important. ‘Walking cities’ are great for exercise, social opportunity, a healthier environment, and you discover and learn so much about cities and communities by walking their streets. So hopefully, we have this new focus on changing the complexion of those streets and catering to pedestrians and community. I’m taking advantage of the gathering spaces that we do already have and making places where people feel welcomed and comfortable- even just by creating a place to sit. Take Times Square for example- 450,000 people walked through that area daily pre-pandemic. Now, there are already up to 325,000 walking through again, so we’re almost back to normal traffic patterns. If you place a tiny stump or a silly little folding chair in the center of Times Square with nothing around it, somebody will sit down on it and when you put out a few, a whole group of people will sit down, it’s just human nature to want to be a part of a greater something. When we began building Design Pavilion in Times Square people were curious, asking questions, “what's happening?” “Oh really, when are you opening, we will come back.” When we open a space like that, they take part and it is curiosity and the desire to learn and also the delight that they get from this new experience that pulls them in. It's a winning formula and now we will go to other locations in New York, expanding from Times Square. I’ve seen that if you put something interesting out there, you're going to get a lot of interest and attention. If you put something really, really good out there, whether a person knows that this is good design or not, that good design affects them positively and they are drawn to it.
ByD+ Can you define what good design is to you?
Ilene Shaw: For me, like art, design is visceral. You know we can talk about the function, the quality, sustainability, the beauty and having all of that together in one piece? Yes, that's great design. But when I say its visceral- if you are walking through a place that is just ugly, or it's neglected, or it's deteriorated, you feel bad inside your body. Obviously, some decay can be beautiful, but I am speaking about neglect and lack of care. Comparatively, a tree, a sculpture or walking through the streets of Milan can make you feel so good. Good design can create those pleasant feelings, the same way great art hits you inside. I feel it in my heart, in my gut and that's why I can say that I'm truly passionate about design because good design elicits an emotional response within me.
In fact, this reminds me, I just learned a very important word. 'Frisson'. A friend of mine, Sam Gilberg, wrote an article about this word last week pertaining to music, and this is how I discovered the word to describe the feelings I’ve always felt through design- that innate visceral response to beauty and things that work seamlessly and art and design. May I quote the article —
“Frisson derives from French and is ‘a sudden feeling or sensation of excitement, emotion or thrill’, and the experience is not confined to music. Historically, frisson has been used interchangeably with the term aesthetic chills. According to a 2019 study, one can experience frisson when staring at a brilliant sunset or a beautiful painting; when realizing a deep insight or truth; when reading a particularly resonant line of poetry; or when we watch the climax of a film. It happens with music, paintings and watching dance.”
“Aesthetic chills correspond to a satisfaction of humans’ internal drive to acquire knowledge about the external world and perceive objects and situations as meaningful. In humans. This need to explore and understand environmental conditions is a biological prerequisite to survival.”
This explains why good design and art are essential, more than ever during challenging times.
Survival! It's why creativity, in all industries, arts, and walks of life, bubbles to the surface clearly and desperately to solve problems, share messaging and help humanity to survive. That sounds huge and drastic, and it really is. We have a few chances at the right time, to make things better, to make things right. It’s up to us not to blow these chances. Step by step, object by object, building by building, city by city and person by person.
ByD+ Your work at Design Pavilion creates a space that can be revisited and gives people a sense of place and belonging. How important is building a space to you?
Ilene Shaw: Well, when I arrived this morning (at ByDesign HQ in SOHO) we talked about the skylight and the sun and the beautiful space. Being in a well-designed space creates a good feeling that helps us face all kinds of challenges, stressors and day to day difficulties. To start with an environment that feels great, strengthens us to deal with everything else that we must face in this world and in our daily lives- so, why not be fortified in that way?! It is up to us as designers, to create such fortification.
ByD+ I’m seeing some similarities between your work at Design Pavilion and what we do at ByDesign. Could you speak a little bit to the parallels between what you've created, this phenomenal physical and conceptual public space and what you have experienced as a friend, supporter and host of ByDesign?
Ilene Shaw: ByDesign is creating conversations around design that can be had by everyone. Look at the feature we did together on perhaps the most in demand architect in the world right now, Bjarke Ingels, speaking to him about his, as Bjarke called it, ‘court-scraper’- VIA 57 West. It is a uniquely shaped building and ByDesign spoke to Bjarke about why the building is that shape- a tetrahedron with a massive hollow at the center. Well, it was this shape for a reason, not just to be unique or to draw attention, there was a really good reason, with people at its core, which was……
ByD+ …I can just direct our readers to the episode featuring VIA 57 West. After all, a picture tells a thousand words!
Ilene Shaw: Yes true, you can just watch the story! Suffice to say there was a really good reason for the building being that shape and luckily ByDesign was able to tell that story with Bjarke himself!
ByD+ With a little help from you too! You must be getting lots of messages at 7pm on Saturday nights, from people saying, “Ilene, you’re on CBS!?”
Ilene Shaw: I have been! As a presenter on the show, I did not tell many friends or associates about it, maybe just my immediate circle, I kept it quiet, I was feeling a bit nervous and shy about it. People I know found ByDesign independently, especially during COVID times, because people are looking for something new and of substance to watch... Friends from all walks of life, teachers, authors, attorneys, found it on their own and were surprised to see me on screen! That's the importance of ByDesign! For me personally, sharing great design with the world, that's my mission and ByDesign does it in a great way - it goes into the homes of millions of people! I show up on their city streets with Design Pavilion and ByDesign shows up in their homes. Together we cover a lot of ground!
ByD+ Like you, we at ByDesign have a passion for making good design accessible. Do you become frustrated when you see good design monetized and only accessible for those with deep pockets? Really good design, especially city planning, public space and public transport infrastructure, that should be for everyone shouldn’t it?
Ilene Shaw: I find the general public thinks ‘design' means ‘fashion’ design and I can't blame them for thinking that, since fashion designers, well, they have become very visible in society and to the consumer public. I believe that industrial designers, architects, graphic designers, digital designers… they should be visible as well. We should know who designed a building we walk through daily and be aware of why it’s designed as it is. Good design does not need to be expensive - the greatest design provides affordable items and affordable spaces- this takes enormous skill. It's more difficult to design simply, it's more difficult to design within a budget and it's more difficult to design sustainably and that is the entire point. We must be designing within those parameters, with no waste. People should understand that as well. Good design is for everyone at every price point. There are wonderful expensive materials, but also, there are less expensive and affordable materials that are brilliant. Look around NYC - bricks are relatively inexpensive and create some of the best buildings in the world. They are more or less forever, they can be decorative or uniform, and bricks are even helping us become and remain more sustainable.
ByD+ How does it feel stepping out from behind the scenes on to screen with ByDesign, not only are you a designer and facilitator but now you are also an experience designer for television!
Ilene Shaw: For decades, I have created platforms from which great talent can shine. I believe design talent deserves to shine for all the reasons we've mentioned. People should know who's behind the designs that affect their lives- and why should they? Because it's made by other people. Young people should know that they too can be in the position to affect lives, to improve lives and to enhance lives and that it's a viable career path that they can take. I find design to be a very noble path because humanity is the basis of it all. That's why we do it, it's for and about humanity. At this point in my career when I'm a little bit more visible in the work that I do, thanks to ByDesign, I find it important to be accountable. ByDesign is putting a face to all this work and when you are standing in front of your work you must be accountable, you are responsible. I've always felt that sense of responsibility to my industry and with this newfound visibility, my industry could be criticized or perhaps critiqued. There is courage in stepping out and saying, “this is what I do” and then being open to that sort of critique. In my talk series ‘Design Talks NOW’ we're producing a visionary series on ‘courage’- it takes courage to step out and state what you're doing, what your purpose has been and what your intentions are. And courage is required to do things a bit differently from the rest.
ByD+ Everyone at ByDesign thinks you're a wonderful designer and that you’re a wonderful face of design, because you are motivated by the value of empathy. I think that cornerstone is really important, especially when creating for humanity as you said earlier.
Ilene Shaw: I believe empathy is imperative for any relationship, any business, in any industry- it’s what we need to relate to one another. When empathy is lacking, misunderstandings occur and prejudice, fear and hate bubble to the surface, as we're witnessing right now. Empathy, an open heart, conscience and good intent as people, no matter what, must lead us in design, especially since design is humanity driven. Period. Design is for humanity. Without empathy, we can’t help and we can’t possibly make good design.
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