January 1, 2008
New Model Army
A graduate program at the School of Visual Arts trains the next generation of design critics.
In the family of arts writing, design criticism is regarded as a stepchild of sorts, an afterthought relegated to “Home & Garden” somewhere between ultimate saunas and how to clean a fabric lamp shade. Enter D-Crit, the country’s first graduate-level design criticism degree in more than a decade. (Parsons offered a similar program from 1986 to 1996 and is currently planning a new version.) An attempt to inject academic rigor into a field better known for pretty pictures than sharp exposition, the two-year program at the School of Visual Arts, in New York, opens for 12 students this fall. The mission is twofold: train a new army of critics and synthesize a language for evaluating design, be it MySpace’s layout, a Trump tower, or something really seizure-inducing like the London Olympics logo. “Design criticism has a vital function as a kind of provocateur or social conscience,” chair Alice Twemlow says. “What I’m asking for is for it to be refined as a practice and discipline.”
The program is long overdue. Fine art has inspired a degree of discernment since cavemen doodled at Lascaux and is routinely dissected in publications as varied as Artforum, Time Out, and the New York Review of Books. Design, on the other hand, has only warranted formal scrutiny in the United States in the last 60 years, coinciding with the post–World War II surfeit of stuff. (How else to distinguish between refrigerator models?) Today it is still linked to consumerism—and so deemed less worthy of serious study—but it is increasingly understood as an important cultural force. “The program represents an evolution of design as an intellectual discipline,” says I.D. editor in chief Julie Lasky, a faculty member. “It speaks to the growing self-consciousness of designers, who must now consider themselves within a broader historical and cultural framework.”
With such prominent tastemakers as Kurt Andersen, Michael Bierut, and program cofounder Steven Heller at the chalkboard, the 64-unit degree is destined to be “highly structured and intensive,” Twemlow says. Students will complete 30 weeks of design history and an internship, and at program’s end they will present research papers at a public conference. “Boring writing will be questioned” in Philip Nobel’s Criticism Lab, according to his course description, and students are expected to write every day. Tuition is $26,120.
Of course, whether that translates into an enriched field—one that transcends the sparkling pages of “Home & Garden”—is open to debate. Spending two years cogitating on frameworks and context doesn’t guarantee students’ ability to write well. Indeed, some of the best urban-design critics—Jane Jacobs, Ada Louise Huxtable, and Lewis Mumford—earned their bona fides outside the classroom. At the very least, D-Crit is an acknowledgment that there’s a hole to be filled in the design world. “What will change? Who knows,” Heller says. “It’s the first year of a very new idea.”