Almost 30 Years in the Design Industry – March 29, 2010

Thirty Years – issue 49

My son spent his Uni Christmas break in America.
After living in Australia for the past six and a half
years he felt the need to reconnect with family and
friends, no doubt hoping to discover a long lost
relative with money looking for some kid to will it to.
He returned penniless, but did spend quality time
with my brothers who, bless their hearts, gave him a
fetching picture of me in my youth that has provided
hours of family entertainment.

In the photo, I wore a blousy red top, pleated teal
coloured pants cinched at the waist and tapered at
the ankles. Topping off the look my hair had been cut
in a Ziggie Stardust genre mullet that I would suggest
was quite cool and should not be confused with the
business up front party in the back mullets popular
with suburban bogans.

I told this story to some of the young lads in
Singapore and demonstrating the sensitive emotional
intelligence so popular with young people these days
they pointed out that they were one year old when
the photo was taken. There is nothing like a cold
slap in the face to make one realise that time has
indeed passed and as much as I would like to avoid
the reality, the fact is I have been around for a while
and consequently have been in the design industry
since smart arsed guys like Ray and Stirling were in

At the time this all happened I was conversing with a
PHD candidate in Sydney, he has been investigating
changes in the design industry. These two events,
PHD guy and young smart arsed guys, have led me
to the topic of this months Rambling, a retrospective
of what is painfully close to three decades in the
design industry.

The 80’s
In the early 80’s the world was not a happy place.
There was a recession, conservative politicians like
Reagan and Thatcher were dominating, people were
starving in Ethiopia, and the Soviets were at war
with Afghanistan, the US was invading Grenada and
bombing Libya, Saddam Hussien was gassing the
Kurds, Argentina invaded the Falklands and the Arab
Israeli conflict was beginning.
The good news was that the Cold
War ended providing the impetus
for the fall of the Berlin Wall.
I received my degree in architecture and moved back
to my home town of Chicago with the expectation
of working for a famous architectural practice
designing big buildings. The week I arrived firms like
SOM, Perkins & Will and Holabird and Root had laid
off hundreds of architects leaving my chances of
employment in the slim to none category.
I did what many of my fellow architects did and got a
job doing corporate interior design.

Back then we didn’t have computers, everyone had a
drafting board and men wore ties to work. You could
spot the designers going home on the train by their
ties stuck into the space between the buttons of their
shirt, something they did to avoid catching them in
their mayline. Not only were there drawing boards,
many had ashtrays on them because in the good old
days you could not only smoke at work, but could
also make politically incorrect comments to your
hearts content.

The interior design work of the decade could best
be described as excessive. Clients thought of us as
trophies and were boastful of our extravagances.
The objectification had the benefit of eliminating the
need to justify our choices, clients did what we told
them to do, which in some instances was tantamount
to a 2 year old dummy spit – “I want that Jack Lenor
Larsen fabric on that Donghia chair and you said I
could have it”.

Workspaces were extremely customised to their
users and space allocation was definitely an indication
of ones rank in the organisation, to the extent that
some clients (mostly legal) would measure the size
of their office and insist on a wall being moved if they
discovered the area of their office was smaller than
that of a colleague.

Open office environments mimicked the enclosed
environment; this is why systems like Knoll’s
Ethospace with its chunky architectural proportions
were so popular, for they resembled built walls rather
than flimsy cubicles. The work environment’s menu
consisted of office space, conference rooms and
reception, and while there were places where one
could go to get a cup of coffee, they were secondary,
with their design relegated to the office junior as an
after thought.

Sensitivity to environmentalism did not exist; in fact
using exotic veneers from endangered species was
testament to ones exclusivity. It was not uncommon
for designers to travel the globe to select stone or
wood for a project, I spent a whole week in Germany
hand selecting flitches of Karelian Birch Burl for a law
firm we designed! It is now embarrassing to say we
were proud of the fact that our Leo Burnett project
depleted the Australian Lace Wood resources.

By the end of decade everyone became more aware
of the frailty of our world, due in part to a toxic gas
leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal India and the
nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl.

The 80’s were a time for working hard and playing
hard, designers would work long hours, party hard
and dance all night to The Clash, Billy Idol and Prince
before he became the artist formally known as
Prince. We were not the only ones, drugs in particular
cocaine, were en vogue and it was such a concern
that the War on Drugs began in the US, even the
presidents wife got into it by delivering the sage
advice of “just say no”.

My Mom used to tell us when we were kids “you
damm kids are going to keep fooling around and
fooling around and fooling around and then someone
is going to get hurt”. She was right, by the end of
the 80’s our fooling around got the better of us when
the AIDS epidemic hit. There is nothing like attending
funerals for guys under 30 to sober you up and sadly
working in the design industry meant there were
almost as many funerals at work as there have been
Geyer babies.

The 90’s

The last decade of the 20th century brought a better
standard of living for many. Personal income doubled
and the NYSE hit 10,000. Since many of us had
settled down with 2.4 children, a station wagon and
house in the suburbs that was a good thing. We could
enjoy our evenings watching Baywatch on TV and
listened to Oasis or the Counting Crows, unless you
were in Seattle and into grunge then you would listen
to Nirvana, or if you lived in the hood you would be
listening to The Prodigy sing ‘Smack My Bitches Up”.

Despite the good times it wasn’t all sunshine and
rainbows, there were still wars in the Gulf, Congo,
Kosovo, Chechnya and Yugoslavia, the latter giving us
the term ethnic cleansing.

There were events that eroded
our foundations of safety and
freedom: the Oklahoma City
bombings, Columbine High
School and barely stopping the
first major terrorist attack in the
US when Al-Qaeda attempted to
bomb LAX.

Great design was prevalent, Aldo Rossi, Tadao Ando
and Renzo Piano were a few to get Pritzkers in the
90s and Phillip Stark was designing spatulas and
toilet brushes for Target that we could afford. The
mullet was gone, Jennifer Aniston hair was in and
what I believe to be one of the defining inventions
of our lifetime, the Wonderbra, made its first

The world of office design matured resulting in an
explosion of thinking. Michael Brill, BOSTI’s founder
wrote about how the workplace affects work
behaviours and outcomes. Franklin Becker from
Cornell began the International Workplace Studies
Program that explores how innovative workplace
strategies and the ecology of new ways of working
can enhance the triple bottom line and finally Francis
Duffy (the D in DEGW) wrote “The New Office”

Our focus began to shift from making something
pretty to something that impacted the bottom line.
As designers we learned the word ‘churn’ and began
to create solutions that would enable space to be
quickly reconfigured, we channelled fundamental
mathematics and applied the rules of common
denominators to workplace design e.g. junior guy
gets one square, supervisor gets one and a half, and
senior guy gets two squares.

I never smoked at work so losing the privilege of
smoking in the office had little impact, what was
sad to see go was being politically incorrect. At
Gensler everyone in the office had to take a half day
course designed to wean us off of the inappropriate
statements that had provided us all with years of
workplace entertainment.

Suddenly we learned that everything we talked about
was inappropriate, no more comment on clothing
and appearance or who was stuping who. Imagine
that – designers not commenting on shoes, hair and

Two events that occurred in the 90’s would impact
us as designers more than we realised. The first
was The World Health Organisation removing
homosexuality from its list of diseases. This meant
gay people could settle down with dogs, kids and
station wagons and be as boring as the rest of us.

The second was a little thing that happened at CERN,
the pan European organisation for particle research,
they published a report on their World Wide Web

Systems furniture manufacturers got into the game
too, Haworth designed the Race system that enabled
off module mounting. This meant the configuration
of worksettings on one side of a spine could change
without those on the other side changing.
concept of ‘universal plan’ came to the fore, we
recommended everyone get the same size office
or work setting to allow people to move rather than
work settings.

From an environmental standpoint we were better,
but nowhere near enlightened. The concept of
sustainable timbers came into play, which threw
the rainforests a bone; but we still used noxious
adhesives and chemicals to assemble joinery and
furniture. Pioneering companies like Interface began
thinking about how they would recycle their products,
which forged a path for others to follow.

In the late 90’s I lived in San Francisco and Seattle,
the industries we worked with in those geographies
set a tone for what was to be adopted by others
in the decade to follow. This was to be a slob at
work. Bikes, dogs and executives wearing jeans and
tee shirts were common; designers were always
overdressed because none of us would have been
caught dead mowing our lawn in what some of those
guys wore to work. By the end of the decade even
the lawyers were casual.

The 00’s
We didn’t get bit by the Y2K bug, but the changes in
the past decade have been massive for our personal
and work lives. The world continues to be a violent
place with the War on Terror being played out in
Afghanistan and Iraq, Somali Civil Wars, Mexican Drug
Wars and the never ending Arab – Israeli conflict. As
horrible as these are, they have not had the unsettling
impact on our collective psych as of terrorist attacks
in New York, Bali, Madrid, London and Mumbai.

Our sense of security was rocked and the result for
us as designers has been a greater appreciation for
security in workplace design.
Personally, the heightened
security meant less privacy; you
could forget hijinks in the office,
heck we now even have to be
careful about adjusting outfits
and picking our lunch out of our
teeth in the lift for fear of being

Without a doubt technology has made the biggest
impact. The iPod, wireless connectivity, social
networking, virtual worlds and on-line media have
changed the way we live, work and experience the
Most importantly, we encourage movement and want
to empower our people rather than strong arm them
into submission.

We now have a workplaces with users that represent
all generations, coming from a wide range of ethnic
backgrounds. They bring new customs, expectations
and culture to our workplace. This has resulted in
people with ear buds in their ears and others with
hearing aids.

Offices feature break out areas that
resemble trendy night clubs with the best technology
money can buy; they are definitely not designed
by the office junior! Within the environment we now
provide quiet rooms that can be used for focus, rest,
or prayer. Heck, in the 80s if you had said we would
be putting prayer rooms into work environments we
would have laughed so hard we would have blown the
coke off the mirror and spilled our scotch.

Architects like Rem Koolhaas, Herzon & DeMeuron
and Zaha Hadid were all Pritzker prize winners in
the 00s, they have done work that reflects greater
community awareness and demonstrates the impact
of new technologies on design.

In a decade ripe
with man made and natural disasters like hurricane
Katrina and The Boxing Day Tsunami, architects and
designers are far more generous with their time and
money and projects are often considered in a broader
social context.

This explosion has delivered a new language that
permeates society with words like: dotcom, web 2.0,
Second Life, YouTube, iTunes and Wikipedia.
Our ability to connect with anyone in the world has
opened doors and given us the ability to go to new
sources for inspiration without leaving our desk.

Designers now have the ability to connect with 67
friends through Facebook when they are meant to be
working; if that is not inspiring enough there is the
option to watch YouTube videos like Where The Hell
is Matt or Dancing Baby. Designers on Twitter can be
continuously connected with colleagues to exchange
valuable information such as: Going to lunch now,
can I borrow five dollars? With so much inspiration
one wonders how anything gets done.

The landscape of the 00s offices look very different
to those of previous decades. There are low, or no
screen dividers on work settings and desks are on
wheels. We have recognised the value of providing
variety within our work environment and have given up
the notion of designing a desk or office that supports
the wide range of tasks any worker engages in during
the day. The concept of the ‘third place’ crept in
to our workplace lexicon as we realised that work
happened at home, at work and at Starbucks.

We can credit Al Gore with bringing environmentalism
to the front burner for the everyman with his film An
Inconvenient Truth. Now there is not a designer who
is not aware of Greenstar, NABERs and GECA. At
home we have water tanks and solar panels, we put
our groceries in green bags and some flush the loo
with leftover shower water.

We are much more critical
of what others do these days, we are sick and tired
of a small part of the population ruining it for the rest
of us.

Collaboration was a watchword for the past decade
for our clients and ourselves. We often partnered
with other designers, where in the past we would
have more likely clawed them to death if we were in
the same room.

In the office we were positive and
pleasant to one another, generation Y and a talent
shortage taught us to hold our tongues for fear of
offending others. In the noughts you would never talk
to your colleagues like my old boss Mel used to talk
to us “What is this s%^t, this is butt ugly, I could get
monkeys in here who could do a better design than

Was the last decade as fun as the previous ones?
Well it’s different that’s for sure. Those of us who have
been in the game for a while can’t see, we can’t hear,
we can’t use our computers and our feet hurt.
We would like to go out but we can’t because we
have to take care of our parents and our kids.

Our gay friends are not any frisker, they too are married
with kids and dogs and mortgages and would love to
go out and whoop it up, but its too damm loud and
too damm crowded and do you know what a martini
costs these days? It’s better to just stay home and
watch So You Think You Can Dance, Biggest Loser or
Masterchef and get a dose of the real world without
leaving home.

Macken, Deirdre; The Noughties: How We Have Changed;
The Australian Financial Review, December 5 & 6, 2009


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