Dan Rubinstein

Hosted By:

Dan Rubinstein

Editor-in-Chief of Surface magazine

Jan 31


I've had the fortunate opportunity to guest curate a series of public programs at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York called "The Home Front." Through talks and open studios, people from throughout the design community -- including architects, gallerists, designers, journalists, and critics -- can talk about the state of American contemporary furniture. Multiple publications are sponsoring the series, each tackling the problem from different angles. Is the American consumer not receptive to contemporary design, and therefore don't support it enough? Do we need more state support for the design industries? What can the average design professional do to help? Or is nothing wrong at all?

If you were granted three wishes to help American contemporary furniture and related design, what would they be and why?


Dominique Gonfard

Founder, Lerival

Dominique gave the final word

I wish for greater responsibility from corporations with
built-environment and design influence to uphold a moral code toward
design integrity. This means a greater understanding by companies such
as Starwood or Hilton Hotels about the moves that are being made by
their design teams across the country, and how those moves are
teaching and influencing their patrons. This extends as well to these
companies making a conscious effort to advocate for the specification
of relevant design products for these properties, not simply turning
to imitations or ‘inspired’ pieces, often strange medleys of various

Friday, February 4 at 11:49am

Michael DiTullo

Michael DiTullo

Creative Director at frog design + Contributor at Core77.com

I don’t think state support would have a positive effect, in fact it might have the opposite. What has been positive are I think some of the “gateway” brands to modernism that show that it is not all bent chrome tubes and leather (though I love a good Bauhaus piece, don’t get me wrong)… I think Ikea yes, but even CB2 and West Elm are doing a good job of showing people a different way to live… the core issue is that people have a serious attachment to sentiment, even when that sentiment is purely faux.

My grandparents lived in an open plan ranch. Not full on Rat Pack Atomic (this was New York State not California) but surely influenced by the post war optimism of the time with pocket doors, plenty of Braun small electrics in the kitchen, and a big 60′s rectangular Caddy in the driveway.

My parents, the boomers that they are, eschewed all of that for sentiment. A brand new “colonial” with “antiques”. And now me, the next generation, longs for the house of my grandparents, with my DWR reproduction LCW chairs, Corbu couch, and bent acrylic coffee table…

Maybe it is just the way it goes. But I hope that we can get people back into purchasing furniture of our own era (not that I’m leading by example by the info I put above!). Maybe we should take note of how the modern craft movement has taken root with sites like Etsy? (which is moving a good bit of furniture…)

Tuesday, February 1 at 12:26am


    Michele Champagne

    Designer and writer

    Hi Michael, Wondering how exactly Ikea furniture provides a different way to live, than say colonial furniture? Or, put another way, how do Ikea chairs provide us with a different way of sitting than a colonial chair?

    Wednesday, February 2 at 6:32am


Alex Lin

Principal of Studio Lin, a NYC based graphic design office

Through working with many emerging young designers in NYC, I know that there isn’t a lack in talent, many designers just need that extra monetary support to quit their day jobs and focus on their work. So my first wish would be some kind of state support.

Secondly, I think we need more companies like Blu Dot. They seem to provide American consumers with unique, quality design that is relatively affordable. I don’t find that companies such as West Elm or CB2 come up with anything original, maybe their equivalent in the fashion industry would be a store like H&M that mainly focuses on bringing trends to the public.

Lastly, I wish to encourage designers to focus on quality and utility. Design things that you’d want and be willing to pay for!

Tuesday, February 1 at 10:59pm


Michele Champagne

Designer and writer

First wish: Move beyond static, artefact objects and furniture as the main point of interest for designers. Think less of making static objects that are “born” into this world. Ask: How do they grow?

Second wish: Think of the home as more than a box for people’s stuff, full of of colonial-modern-contemporary artefacts. Think about what a home really is, what it was, and what it could be; and think of it in context. A home in a Beijing suburb might be different than one in downtown Manhattan.

Third wish: When thinking about the home and new ways of living, avoid producing another artefact as a result. Too often, designers re-invent the world, then make another chair.

Also, think beyond “the contemporary”; it comes off as a style, or simplified version of “the colonial” interior home paradigm. Google “contemporary design” to see what I mean.

Why? If new designs could offer people new, contemporary ways of living — and not merely re-styled artifacts — perhaps they would support it more. (I fail to see the real, fundamental difference between my Ikea dining table, and my mom’s ‘modern colonial’ table). And until then, perhaps the public will continue buying whatever suits their taste more, whether sentimental, faux or not.

Wednesday, February 2 at 7:28am

emily leibin ko

Emily Leibin Ko

Communications Manager, The Glass House / Designer

My 3 wishes!

1) Non-Profit Design Organizations: I think there is a need for non-profit organizations that cultivate talent, provide funding, education and the tools necessary for independent, entrepreneurial designers to take their work and careers to the next level.

Many industrial/furniture design students disappear into other careers or segments of the design industry upon graduating, and a resource that can provide direction and connections to mentors to help them make the transition from student designer to entrepreneurial designer, running their own studio, would help retain and grow that talent which is otherwise disappearing into other (more financially stable?) industries. ( Pratt has a fantastic program along these lines: http://incubator.pratt.edu/ )

Support for creative endeavors is not a new concept – it is one that has existed for decades to foster the arts and architecture in America. Grants, funding, fellowships, affordable workspace, educational programs, retreats, non-profit galleries, exhibitions, international exchanges – these are all common in the visual arts and architecture, and I believe that entrepreneurial design – in particular furniture, lighting and home goods, have parallel needs to these other communities, and would benefit immensely from non-profit/federal support.

2) Made in the USA: Designers (and everyone really) need American manufacturing. Beyond the environmental implications of transporting goods from Asia to the US, and the perception that goods manufactured in Asia are of a lower quality than those made elsewhere (sometimes true, sometimes not). There are many benefits to manufacturing American design in America, including economic growth and developing a greater public understanding of the value of our American design industry.

Supporting the re-development of manufacturing local to our urban centers (Where there are often the highest concentrations of designers) would allow designers greater access to production and grow local economies. Brooklyn has done a good job over the past decade fostering design and manufacturing in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Greenpoint.

3) Education & Mentoring: I think that education about design should start early and be available at many points throughout a designers career. I know that there’s a crunch on arts budgets in many school districts, but I was fortunate enough to study at a suburban public high school with a fantastic arts program that unquestionably shaped my career path. I was exposed to great art classes – including drawing and sculpture programs which inspired my decision to study Industrial Design and later Criticism. The Cooper-Hewitt has a really great annual mentoring event where high school kids get to meet designers and learn about careers in design. What do recent college grads look to? Where does a mid-career designer turn for education and inspiration?

Wednesday, February 2 at 11:38am


Ron Labaco

Curator, Museum of Arts and Design, New York

First of all I want to thank Dan for doing such an incredible job in organizing such a thought-provoking public program series for MAD. The overwhelmingly positive response to the first panel discussion was very encouraging. In addition, this is a topic that I feel passionately about. I look forward to participating in this ongoing dialogue. It’s my hope that this just a beginning in which this museum can play a role in helping to find tangible solutions.

Unfortunately many of these questions are not new. What immediately comes to mind was an attempt several years ago to address the situation in the June 2008 issue of I.D. Magazine, with the article “Turning the Tables: American furniture design recently came in for a flogging. Is the punishment deserved?” What directly came out of it I don’t know, but it was certainly insightful to hear from the variety of voices, from designer to manufacturer, teacher, and journalists. MAD’s programs continue the discussion.

In an age with increasing awareness about socially responsible design, I feel that we sometimes overlook our moral responsibility to support the talent in our own backyard. There is no infrastructure in place to support emergent designers at the post-graduate level. Cuts to state funding for arts education for K-12 level only serve to exacerbate the situation. So how can I personally make a difference? In a nutshell, my three actions steps as a museum curator are:

1. Increase awareness about American design by developing and supporting exhibitions that showcase emergent and established talent at the local and national level.

2. Help link American designers with manufacturer/distributors to bring their designs into the production.

3. Develop relationships with more commercial venues, such as the ICFF or retailers, to bring contemporary American design to a broader audience.

Several projects are in the works, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 2 at 12:40pm


Joe Doucet


As an American designer working both internationally and domestically, I have noticed that the frequency in which I am asked in interviews about what is “American Design” has increased dramatically over the past few years.As to why it has become the au currant topic of design, I cannot say. I do have some options on the answer, however.

Firstly, there is no subsidized design in America, therefore, if you are a designer working here, you must develop a strong business acumen and a relentless drive to survive. Beautiful, conceptual design alone will not get you quite as far as say you live in the Netherlands. Subsidies are by default curation. Those who receive funding for producing a certain type of work come to represent what the body providing the funds see as worthwhile design. A sensibility becomes institutionalized in this way.

Secondly, with certain exceptions such as Bernhardt, American design companies have yet to see the value in design led products. This leads to two options for most of us. Work with European manufacturers or produce yourself. The former approach typically leads to design one can never truly brand as “American”. At best it leads to an “International” sensibility as you are appealing to a European manufacturer selling to a largely European market.

If I had to point to an American voice in design currently, it would be those designers who have chosen the latter route. I am currently part of an exhibit in Paris at the Triode Gallery called “American Design in Paris”. Some other designers in the exhibit are David Weeks, Jason Miller, Jeff Miler, Matthew Bradshaw and Brad Ascalon. The work could not be more different from each other. It is perhaps because each of the designers, to an extent, followed their both paths producing for European manufacturers, while creating and launching their own work.

It takes that pioneering spirit to make it as a designer working here, which is somewhat poetic as it was that same spirit which transformed this country from a backwater colony into a superpower in the first place.

A few cents from a working designer.

Wednesday, February 2 at 2:40pm

    Dan Rubinstein

    Dan Rubinstein

    Editor-in-Chief of Surface magazine

    Thanks, everyone! These are all great points. Here are my three wishes:

    1) State support for design is crucial, but it can come in many different forms. It can be direct, such as paying for prototypes and production. Or it can indirect, such as through promotion, education, and programming. It kills me to visit a fair like the SaloneSatellite (the young designer pavilion at the Salone del Mobile) and see only three Americans out of hundreds of booths. It’s embarrassing. We need to be competitive!

    2. If the government won’t step up to the plate (I’m not holding my breath), then our existing institutions need to. And in the USA, that means the corporate world. Media, museums, and critics alike need to put pressure on the multi-billion dollar brands that don’t feel the need to give back. Social responsibility goes beyond eco-friendly materials and fair trade coffee beans.

    3. Putting aside gov’t and big industry, I wish that the smaller and mid-sized companies/studios would band together to lobby for attention, funding, and respect. After all, what could be more American than lobbies and unions? The American Design Club is fantastic (Hi Alex!), and a good example of this on a much smaller scale. Perhaps a larger org can take this idea to the next level?

    Wednesday, February 2 at 4:41pm


Adam Simha

MKS Design

Many good points and to some extent I am reiterating – but perhaps with a slightly different spin-

1. I would advocate expanding the focus of design education to include a much more comprehensive hands on exposure – perhaps even immersion in- the processes that bring designed objects into being. This would include much more ‘making’ of real things, then seeing that practice of craft through to larger scale manufacturing, navigating puzzles of transportation, logistics (including environmental impact /footprint), and sales/marketing/PR/branding etc. Questions of cost (short and long term) would at no point be overlooked.
Our young designers could leave school much more mature, capable, responsible, efficient and sought after /employable.

2. Re-orient state and local government policy to embrace small and medium sized manufacturing concerns and encourage organizations that help foster connections between the design and manufacturing communities.
From the perspective of a small design firm, these shops are often the only avenues by which new designed objects can emerge and be tested as viable products- (as opposed to studio one-off pieces) from fabrication to function to market appeal. If this sort of ‘rehearsal’ were more the norm, larger manufacturers would then be much more inclined to take risks (or appear to) and be willing to put more formidable marketing resources behind what consumers will see as innovation and ultimately recognize as value.
Too many small shops operate too close to the bone and often fail. Government incentives – financial or otherwise could make a world of difference.

3. Re-introduce the notion of the value of quality to the marketplace at every level. If every dollar spent to advertise ‘CHEAPER!’ were instead used to promote, ‘BETTER!’, the ripple effects would help not only our design professions but implicitly address issues of sustainability and consumption as well. This shouldn’t be construed as ultra-nationalist, but I believe American design should be heralded as an American hero!

Thursday, February 3 at 1:48pm

3 wishes won’t solve all the design issues we have in America but here are my two cents on how to start…

Wish 1: Educate consumers on the ground level. I think one of the biggest issues we face is that consumers don’t have a respect for what good or even bad design is. If they are shown the benefits of good design vs. bad design they will be willing to go the extra mile as a consumer. Think about how long it’s been taking for the organic food movement to take place… but it is starting to have an effect.

Wish 2: Cheaper and better manufacturing in the United States. One issue as a designer I always faced is that it is just not cost effective to produce anything worthwhile in the United States. By the time Joe, Jim and Harry put their markups the end consumer has way too high of a price to pay what we are dictating to be “better design”. We can’t blame them for going with the cheaper version of a stool or vase on these reasons alone. If we had government supported manufacturing I think the industry could truly grow for the benefit of designers, consumers and the economy as a whole.

Wish 3: Government support of design. In this country we really need our government to understand that this is an investment in the future of our economy. We don’t want to be importing goods all the time (granted that can never come to a complete stop). If we could have some federal funding for design initiatives such as having small design groups to get off the ground it would help. Also having federal funding for design education at the 1-8th grade levels would be amazing.

All in all we have a long way to go. But I am a big believer that government and education are at the core of the issue to making American design viable and important.

Thursday, February 3 at 5:07pm


Brad Ascalon

Industrial Designer

I’ll try to keep it short…Joe Doucet made a number of great points regarding the contemporary American designer. We continue to hear the question uttered over and again, “What is wrong with American design?” I think that the lack of opportunities here, institutional and otherwise, are in part what help to churn out great designers. Designers who venture out on their own must develop, as Joe said, good business acumen and the will to survive or they cannot make it. The lack of a safety net like government funding forces designers here to make smarter design decisions and become better designers — and as I see it, as a function of good business. Give a man a fish vs. Teach a man to fish. Which one will come out on top?

I too work both domestically and internationally, and where I get the most satisfaction (monetarily and otherwise) is in merging my design abilities with an understanding of a client’s business – their brand, their culture, philosophy, audience, vision, etc. and designing WITH them, not FOR them. That is not to say that my voice is not apparent in each of my designs. But my designs are a consequence of my voice melding with that of the client. That to me is what makes design so beautiful, so rare and so valuable. It is the merging of multiple visions, multiple needs, multiple restraints into a singular object. Design is a business tool, and in America design is strong because many designers here understand this and work accordingly.

More and more, we’re seeing European brands working with American designers in unprecedented numbers. This isn’t a coincidence. Many European companies have been hit hard by the economic struggle of late, and they’re constantly being forced to make smarter and smarter decisions. American designers have a very unique perspective, and European manufacturers have begun to tap into that. As it is, modern design is much more understood in Europe than it is in the US, so my colleagues and I will continue to work in Europe with the hopes that more opportunities present themselves here as well.

Friday, February 4 at 2:16am

    Dan Rubinstein

    Dan Rubinstein

    Editor-in-Chief of Surface magazine

    One more wish/thought!

    Since most of American contemporary design is designed/sold/exhibited in New York, I wish the city got more involved. ICFF/NYDW needs to evolve from just the Javits into a cultural event that welcomes and touches the lives all New Yorkers…only then will brands and orgs really put the cash in to make the loftier goals of subsidizing design realistic. This is something that I hear from a lot of deep-pocketed companies when asked why they don’t participate in the American design scene, but openly pour money into other cultural/creative events. Help us out, Bloomberg! How about a Studio Job installation in Grand Central? Open lounges in Times Square by Blu Dot? Something in Central Park? Everyone loves design on some level — we just need to do a better job of introducing us yanks to it, year after year.

    Friday, February 4 at 8:29am


Dominique Gonfard

Founder, Lerival

Dominique gave the Final Word

A quick thank you first to Ron Labaco of MAD for bringing me into this provocative conversation, and to Dan for putting forth the topic.

As an American contemporary furniture manufacturer, we like to think that we’re working everyday to try to alleviate some of the problems being pointed out in this discussion, or at least not contributing to them. However, it is definitely an ongoing challenge to balance inherently higher production costs with demands from the consumer for lower and lower prices. Despite that, I do feel it is a battle worth fighting, and hope that as our kind grows in numbers, the challenge will lessen and the US will once again be thought of as a leader in design and manufacturing.

On that note, my three wishes are as follows:

1) I wish for the general media (not just the design media) to integrate design and architecture into mainstream reporting to create a greater overall awareness of key 20th and 21st century topics, and the ongoing and central role design plays in daily life. This means coverage by television news programs and widely-read newspapers, alongside the more specialized design and architecture publications. This could also mean (dare I say it / forgive me in advance…) tapping into the influence of celebrities to help design reach a wider audience: though everyone in architecture laughed at images of Brad Pitt and Frank Gehry making models together, I doubt there is an individual anywhere in the US who now doesn’t know who the latter is.

2) My second wish continues on this mainstream thread. I wish for greater responsibility from corporations with built-environment and design influence to uphold a moral code toward design integrity. This means a greater understanding by companies such as Starwood or Hilton Hotels about the moves that are being made by their design teams across the country, and how those moves are teaching and influencing their patrons. This extends as well to these companies making a conscious effort to advocate for the specification of relevant design products for these properties, not simply turning to imitations or ‘inspired’ pieces, often strange medleys of various styles.

3) My third wish is more directly toward education – it is a wish for departments to come together more openly across all disciplines and from an early age, in order to teach students that in practice, design is never isolated to its field but continuously learns from, and as well can teach, other fields. This is beginning to happen within certain institutions such as Parsons (specifically within its new School of Constructed Environments) but can be pushed further to cross design and architecture more explicitly with engineering, science, math, the humanities and as well with business, never a bad thing to learn…

Friday, February 4 at 11:49am


Henry Julier

I mostly do industrial design

I see three things that could change in order to help American Design advance in general. Some of these things have already been mentioned but wouldn’t hurt from being re-iterated!

1) Provide better channels through which designers and manufacturers can connect. Any designer reading this knows that it’s one thing to sketch it and another thing to make it. And it can be quite difficult to track down a particular manufacturer. This means that many designers can be stingy with their contacts, and understandably so… why share your favorite sheet metal guy when it took you two weeks to track him down? Unfortunately this selfishness gets us nowhere. A more open environment would be healthy and this could be facilitated a number of ways- exhibits or competitions that celebrate pairings of designers and manufacturers, a service or company dedicated to matchmaking… you name it.

2) Have companies take risks. This is a tough one as I am not a master of anything business related, but it would seem that the corporate structure of many American businesses are positioned to make profits and minimize risk. Design, especially furniture design that asks questions and reevaluates the way we sit and work, is inherently risky. It probably always will be. But the willingness of the company you are working with to accept these risks will help your cause (and theirs, if you do a good job) immensely. I have seen first hand how inflexible corporate structure that works to minimize risk can kill a great project, even when everyone involved has heart for it.

3) Design less and listen more. If there was ever a time to return to a more sober and contemplative form of design, now would be it. In both the furniture world and the world of consumer products, I see a lot of products that impose themselves on you and beg to be noticed. But guess what happens when you get tired of that? Trash can. These type of objects might be designed by people who are out of touch with those who they are serving. We can turn this around through education, and teaching future designers about the importance of their profession. And part of that education would be to learn how to listen. As a designer working for a well-known American company (of which I’m very proud of) I see myself in the middle of a giant sandwich: on one side are the needs (financial or otherwise) of my employer, on the other, its millions of customers. Both want different things. We designers get to listen to both sides and do our best to design a product that exceeds everyone’s expectations. Listening before you design ensures that you are at least designing for the right reasons and for the right people. This approach will definitely benefit furniture design, as the best furniture is created in response to a direct need and not a perceived discomfort on the part of the designer.

Friday, February 4 at 4:56pm

1.) I wish there were a stronger foundation being built in design schools to promote more individual designers. We need to educate students so that when they leave school they are ready to be designers. Business, Marketing, and Social skills are extremely important when you enter into the real world.

2.) I wish designers were more willing to communicate with each other. We should all be talking about what we are doing, where were going and how we are getting there. Let’s all be friends. Let’s create more things like the New York Creative Social Concern Limited and get out there so we can talk to each other.

3.) I wish and know that designers can help save the economy by keeping manufacturing state side. Made in the USA needs to be on more products!

Friday, February 4 at 6:58pm

Genuine designers will overcome all the obstacles present in the American contemporary furniture industry. They will not require any changes to the industry that would reduce the amount of effort for them to succeed on their own. However, it will take some time because of the monumental task at hand, but it is feasible due to the technologies available today, for example, the Internet. The genuine designers have the passion, tenacity, and motivation to raise the bar that will be reflective in their work, which in turn will resonate with the consumers. As a result, American contemporary furniture will see a rise in acceptance never seen before throughout America and beyond, thereby paving the way for its glorious comeback. In the meantime, keep an eye out on the American urban design field to see an example of that passion, tenacity, and motivation to raise the bar.

Also, I have no wishes at this time.

Friday, February 4 at 7:35pm


Selected list of words appearing in this and other conversations.