Designers Need Heroes

Mine is Olga Gueft: she started out my mentor then became my booster. Who is your hero?

It’s early March, and I’m thinking about two events coming at the end of the month. One is an awards ceremony in Manhattan celebrating long and productive lives in design; the other is a talk to University of Nebraska students about how the next generation will shape design. Since I’m always looking for ways to connect those who went before us and those who will come after, the historian in me rejoices in the juxtaposition.

It’s no secret that I have a special fondness for interior design and for those who practice it. My attachments were formed early, aided and abetted by Olga Gueft, who hired me as her assistant at Interiors magazine some three decades ago. By then she had been the editor in chief of the magazine for more than 20 years, setting the highest standards for editorial coverage while becoming a tireless advocate for the profession. Her interests went beyond the attractive work she featured; she was intrigued by interior design as a business, as an economic construct. It was this vision of Olga’s that helped give the profession its solid footing in the business world and led me to perceive design as much more than a mere styling exercise.

As Olga’s assistant I got to read everything she wrote—and it was a revelation, especially in relation to other writings on interiors. The trade rags were dry and boring; consumers got puff and hype—not much different from today. Olga’s language was concise and poetic; she described as well as analyzed design. She showed me that a design magazine editor can and should be deeply involved in the industry. One of Olga’s enduring contributions to the interior design industry is her detailed history of professional organizations, from their formations to their evolutions into more sophisticated and relevant versions of themselves, as with ASID and IIDA.

Through it all, Olga maintained an almost childlike wonder at the beauty and complexity of the worlds designers create. When she’d call something “beautiful!” it was because it did more than simply catch her eye: she was excited about finding the story behind the gorgeous image. Her abiding enthusiasm, coupled with a boundless intellectual curiosity, made Olga an essential player—a contributor, a mentor, my hero. I hope I can do her justice as I honor her with a National Arts Club Visionary award. It’s hard to talk to your hero face-to-face about being a hero.

But as I talk to students, Olga stands firmly behind me. I tell them how much I believe in the contributions they can make; I tell them that I admire both their willingness to tap into the humanist roots of modern design and the ways they take technology seriously. And I remind them of what George Santayana famously said in the early twentieth century: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I believe in the importance of history to designers. That’s where we find our understanding of our world, as well as our heroes.

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