Designing a better Illinois economy
October 8, 1992
In which I am caught pouring some fresh hot water over some old coffee grounds. I had covered an international design show for the Reader, and did this piece in which I reconsidered in a statewide context some of the issues thus raised.
Finding myself in the Loop with some time to kill, I stopped by a Starbucks, the chain coffee boutique that been spreading like bankruptcy across the country. A sign on a display shelf caught my eye. "At last," it read, "an electric, automatic drip coffee-maker that we can enthusiastically recommend." The patriot in me swelled to note that it was a product of Springfield's own Bunn-O-Matic Corporation, which obviously has applied its path-breaking office coffee-maker technology to the home market.
The previous standard for U.S. electric coffee-makers was set by Mr. Coffee, a shoddily-made machine that heated water only hot enough to make a coffee-flavored emulsion rather than to actually brew coffee, and whose popularity in the '80s explains why so few American young people like coffee. In its place now stood a Bunn-O-Matic, right next to Krups machines from Germany and assorted Italian espresso apparatus, sleek, sturdy, and (thanks to the ailing dollar) competitively priced.
As it happened, I was in Chicago that day to learn more about good industrial design. The Chicago Athenaeum had mounted a salute to "Good Design" that showcases 150 products of all kinds designed by and for such Illinois firms as Motorola Inc. and John Deere. In October, a show will open called "Elegant Techniques," sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission; this exhibit is to feature Italian furniture by 50 designers from 1980 to 1992 and reportedly will reveal the various phases (including production techniques) that bring each piece to its finished form.
No art for art's sake here. It is design—not low-cost labor or superior marketing—that distinguishes Japanese electronics and cars or Italian housewares from their U.S. competitors. It is design that made Milan the fashion capital of the furniture and housewares racket. And there are people who believe that it is design that will restore Chicago's (and thus Illinois') place in the global economic scheme of things.
Chicago and Illinois used to be the nation's top furniture makers. That distinction is today enjoyed by North Carolina, California and Michigan. but furniture design and manufacturing in Illinois is still a billion-dollar industry that employs some 20,000 workers. Location and access to cheap materials made Illinois a giant, but other places now enjoy those advantages in the domestic market, and they never did mean much in the international market. The world needs furniture—there probably isn't a dozen decent executive office suites in the whole Communist bloc—but Illinois isn't selling it to them. Only about $55 million of Illinois' output in 1990 was sold abroad, according to the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs.
"Because all trends in today's design originate in Italy, Milan is considered a center of design," explains Athenaeum director and Chicago booster Christian Laine. "Chicago has equal talent and resource. The only difference is that we don't promote the industry nationally or internationally." So, last April the Athenaeum (with help from DCCA) unveiled a showing of new Chicago furniture by ten Chicago designers at the Salon de Mobile di Milano, which is a sort of World's Fair of furniture. Milan is to the well-seated buttock what Paris used to be to the well‑tailored one, and it was the first time Chicago designers have shown there.
To some, selling "Chicago" design to the Milanese is as hopeless as selling refrigerators to the Eskimos or, perhaps, selling fine foodstuffs to the French. But furniture designed at the turn of the century by Frank Lloyd Wright and manufactured in Chicago and Milwaukee not only sells at extravagant prices at auction but has inspired a sub-industry devoted to making reproductions of it for the larger retail market. (Vulpiani Workshop in New York advertises a "plant stand with leaded glass" that is just enough different from the one Wright did for the Dana house in Springfield to deceive the lawyers, if not the connoisseurs.)
Chicago and Illinois are better known for men who designed processes—mail order, meat packing, assembly plants, commodity markets—than products. Chicago is Sears and Wards, purveyors of Subdivision Chic. Nevertheless, the cellular phones made by Motorola (designed either in-house or by Chicago studios) have made Nipon Motorola that industry's leader. "The Japanese were shocked when they found out these phones are made by a U.S. company," a Motorola spokeswoman told me with pardonable pride. This year, 40 industrial design students from the University of Illinois at Chicago submitted "concepts" for leather seating for Poltrona Frau Corp. of Italy. The three best will be built as prototypes by Poltrona Frau craftsmen; in 1993 ten students will study in Italy under UIC's noted German-trained professor of design, Herbert Ohl.
After the 1940s the designer was replaced by the marketing expert. Design in the U.S. became a matter of advertising and image and less of use; selling things well, rather than selling well-made things, became the game. Today, a company needs to design for specific markets as well as sell to them. That means having to understand the sociology and the psychology of products and how products fit into a different social context.
"Design" in this larger sense requires a kind of cross-the‑boundaries creative thinking, not to mention a cosmopolitanism that is alien to the analytic thinking used by financial, marketing and engineering specialists. The task ahead of the economic development whizzes is thus vastly more subtle than selling McLean County to a Japanese carmaker at insider prices. The people who will carry Illinois forward will be not high-tech wizards or management wise men able to squeeze another nickel out of labor. Instead they will be—oh, irony!—now-despised liberal arts majors adept at languages, history, sociology. Business, like they, makes strange bedfellows. ●