October 5, 2013 | By Edith Newhall for the Philadelphia Inquirer
These days, fairs, festivals, and celebrations are always popping up, vying for your attention.
Yet that was not the case in October 2005 when DesignPhiladelphia, a 10-day celebration of every manner of design, made its debut. It was a whole new kind of fair, too: a freewheeling, amorphous, mostly free design lovefest that took over the city’s universities, design stores and showrooms, art galleries, and vintage furniture shops with exhibitions, lectures, events, and tours.
In its first years, as now, DesignPhiladelphia’s offerings have also been pointedly broad (some memorably diverse ones included a tasting of local craft beers at Old City’s Hudson Glass as beer glasses were being blown, and a show by local artists of works fashioned from Corian, the solid surface material usually reserved for floors and countertops).
On the eve of its ninth event, the question is not whether DesignPhiladelphia will continue – its popularity has grown far beyond the design-aficionado crowd – but how this initially risky enterprise captured an audience and kept it growing.
The seed was planted when Hilary Jay, then-director of Philadelphia University’s Design Center (now director of the Center for Architecture) and Jamer Hunt, a professor at the University of the Arts (now director of the experimental graduate program in transdisciplinary design at Parsons The New School for Design), began batting around ideas for joint exhibitions.
The two eventually concluded they should invite all of the seven Philadelphia-based universities with design programs to participate. Then, a meeting with Joseph Dennis Kelly III, an architecture and design writer-turned-communications strategist, set them in a new direction.
“He told us about the London Design Festival, only in its second year, which included different places around London,” Jay says. The Philadelphia version would become the first in a major U.S. city.
“No one tried to dissuade us,” Jay recalls. “I was very nervous. We had to raise money. But people liked the idea a lot – that the creative community could come together as a creative force. Everyone was in on it.”
DesignPhiladelphia’s inaugural celebration in 2005 included 53 events. The first guide, a large poster, was followed by the handy pocket-size guidebooks that have continued to this day. This year, after an opening benefit party on Wednesday at bahdeebahdu in Kensington, there will be 120 events, including a teen design competition that requires using IKEA products to build installations inspired by Fernand Leger’s painting “The City” – a central piece in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s exhibition opening three days later.
New York transplant Michael Garden, the president of Citywide, a Center City real estate company and a former antiques dealer, remembers being pressured by a friend to attend a DesignPhiladelphia opening party two years ago, and reluctantly caving in. As it turned out, it was a life-changing event. He met the artist Sarah McEneaney, founder of the Rail Viaduct Project, and subsequently became involved in the Rail Viaduct Project, Friends of the Rail Park, and DesignPhiladelphia. He’ll be hosting this year’s closing party in his office near Rittenhouse Square.
“If DesignPhiladelphia were to take place at one location, it would be an event that speaks to the choir,” Garden says. “The way Hilary organizes it, it reaches a wider audience and exposes that audience to experiences it wouldn’t otherwise get. . . . It also creates more of an experiential exposure to design.”
That Garden may not have the time to take in all of DesignPhiladelphia’s offerings doesn’t bother him in the least. “There’s an excitement for me at this time of year, with so many things to do in Philadelphia, in knowing that I can’t see it all, that there is such an incredible banquet of possibilities.”
DesignPhiladelphia’s willingness to look beyond a prescribed set of boundaries has been used as a model for business education, according to James Moustafellos, a professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Moustafellos, who also plans Temple’s Inside Exchange Conference, which explores the innovation between design management and technology, saw to it that the meeting was moved to October to coincide with DesignPhiladelphia. “It was that important for us to be a part of it,” says Moustafellos. “Designers are incredible strategic thinkers and understand how to solve problems and we can learn from them.”
Eileen Tognini, an independent curator who also sits on the committee of Collab, a group of design professionals who support the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s contemporary and modern design collection, suggests that DesignPhiladelphia arrived in this city at a particularly auspicious moment.
“It was the perfect storm,” Tognini says. “Neighborhoods were starting to change; the economy was better; institutions were shifting programs to become more inclusive, people of all ages were moving into the city.” Adding DesignPhiladelphia to the mix was a smart entrepreneurial effort that has helped to retain talent in the city, she says. “There are so many young people pursuing careers in design here and they are attracted to an initiative like this.”
Candy Coated (a.k.a. Candy Depew) has participated in almost every DesignPhiladelphia event, and this year will lead a “Wanderlusting” tour that includes screen-printing of tour attire accompanied by Jazzmarnier Ice Cream Hot Toddies. She believes Jay’s dedication has fostered an increasing awareness of design locally. “Philadelphia was a good playground to plant seeds. People keep doing more things and educating other people. Hilary had a design child and that child has become an adolescent.”
Besides, she says, “I always love the cool stuff everyone is doing.”