The United States of Design

With the reopening of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis now seems poised to become a major design mecca.

On a sloping site along bustling Hennepin Avenue, the north-south thoroughfare of Minneapolis, the Walker Art Center’s new addition sits gleaming. Herzog & de Meuron’s first cultural project to open in the United States, the extension unfurls from the renovated existing building—a sturdy 1971 assemblage of brick rectangles by Edward Larrabee Barnes—as a glass-and-steel ribbon that terminates in a massive block of aluminum mesh. Northeast of that, the dark-blue circular Guthrie Theater on the River—Jean Nouvel’s first U.S. building—is under construction, its truncated bridge cantilevered over the Mississippi River Parkway. Between the two, Cesar Pelli’s steel-and-glass Minneapolis Public Library is taking shape; Michael Graves’s addition to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Children’s Theater Company will open nearby in 2006.

If Minneapolis ever was deserving of the title “design capital,” it certainly is now. “There’s no question that the new cultural facilities, with their star designers, send a signal globally that the city is a player on the international design map,” says Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (CALA).

In actuality the city has been nurturing a heady matrix of diverse interrelated activity unique to its geography and cultural history since at least the mid-1900s—despite its reputation as a frozen hinterland. Minneapolis is already home to buildings by Frank Gehry (whose Weisman Art Museum, at the University of Minnesota, is a sort of Bilbao prototype), Philip Johnson, Antoine Predock, Steven Holl, Kenzo Tange, and Ralph Rapson, as well as two design think tanks: the Metropolitan Design Center, founded by William Morrish and the late Catherine Brown (whom Herbert Muschamp once called “the most valuable thinkers in urbanism today”); and the Design Institute, which has received major funding from hometown icon Target, the originator of America’s new design democracy.

Anchoring this robustness are CALA and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which consistently rank within the top ten schools in their categories. The fertile environment these institutions create has produced and/or lured several Modernist architects with national reputations, including Charlie Lazor (of Blu Dot and the new FlatPak House), Vincent James, and Julie Snow. On the more populist end of the spectrum, residential architect Sarah Susanka originally launched her “Not So Big House” revolution from Minneapolis. Her publisher, Taunton Press, regularly canvases the city for potential architects and writers.

For the city’s graphic-design community, the mooring is the legendary Minneapolis advertising industry, where firms like Carmichael Lynch and Fallon Worldwide—and innovators such as Joe Duffy—consistently break new ground in corporate and brand identity for their blue-chip clients. Linking it all together is the strong tradition of corporate and individual philanthropy that established and continues to support the city’s flourishing cultural institutions—and fund their new buildings. “Face it: without all of this, the Twin Cities would be a pretty miserable place,” Fisher says. “Without culture and design, we’d just be a bigger version of Des Moines.”

Minneapolis has always aspired to be much more than an outpost in flyover country. So in 2002 when Richard Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class placed Minneapolis within the nation’s top ten cities based on its “creativity index,” the ranking not only validated the city’s cultural vitality but was a boon for its promoters. “When Florida talks about the development of the creative class, he’s describing Minneapolis yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak says.

It’s Ann Markusen, however, an economist at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, who has the numbers that substantiate Florida’s enthusiastic but often vague rankings. While Florida’s “creative class” includes every white-collar professional in the city he’s studying, Markusen’s research focuses on a truer measure: a city’s populations of architects, designers, and artists, from blue-collar to white-collar. In the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, she says, “the design occupations are really overrepresented compared with other cities nationally. We have 36 percent more designers in our workforce than the nation does as a whole.” The concentrations of architects and graphic designers stand out at, respectively, 54 and 42 percent higher than the national average. There is also, Markusen adds, tremendous cross-fertilization between architecture and design, and the area’s deep-rooted theater, dance, visual arts, literature, music, and film communities.

How did such cultural richness spring forth in Minneapolis? “It’s the pervasive influence of the city’s northern European, primarily Scandinavian culture, which has always valued design,” Fisher says. Scandinavian immigrants, with their blend of down-to-earth practicality and design sensibility, were among the first groups to colonize Minneapolis. (Minnesota still boasts the largest number of Norwegian-Americans in the country even as its demographic has diversified to include populations of East African, Southeast Asian, and Latin American immigrants.)

Innovation is another answer. In the late 1800s mill barons arrived from New England and transformed the sawmilling village on the Mississippi River’s roaring St. Anthony Falls into the flour-milling capital of the world. General Mills and Pillsbury developed advertising departments to sell convenience products like Wheaties and cake mix. That specialization eventually broadened to serve other industries, resulting in the city’s robust advertising agencies. According to local historians, the milling era also gave rise to such Minnesota-based internationals as medical-device pioneer Medtronic, Twin Cities banks, and the corporate and individual philanthropy that underpins Minneapolis’s cultural institutions.

The Walker Art Center’s role in the cultivation of the city’s design consciousness began in 1946, when its first director, Modernist architect Daniel Defenbacher, and the Bauhaus-trained curator Hilde Reiss started the Everyday Art Gallery and the Everyday Art Quarterly. The gallery and magazine educated the public about well-designed products for everyday use in order to elucidate “the shared principles between Modern art and Modern design,” explains Andrew Blauvelt, the Walker’s current design director. Reiss’s other initiatives included Idea House II, a fully equipped Modern home that demonstrated how design could improve living conditions.

In 1954, Cranbrook-trained architect Ralph Rapson arrived to head the university’s architecture school. He was also selected to design the first Guthrie Theater, which opened in 1963 next to the Walker and became a staple of architecture books worldwide. “Those two institutions began to put Minneapolis on the map,” Markusen says. “People migrated here to move in and out of those theater and artistic communities, and the city experienced incredible ferment, with start-ups and spin-offs all over.”

When Mickey Friedman joined her husband, Martin, at the Walker in 1970, the institution was about to move into the Barnes building. As head of the design department, Mickey Friedman turned the renamed Design Quarterly into an international forum for architecture and design. She became Minneapolis’s design guru, organizing symposia and exhibitions that brought in such unknowns as Rem Koolhaas, Franklin D. Israel, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, and Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio. She also helped introduce Frank Gehry to a national audience through a traveling exhibition and assisted in the design of the Walker’s Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

After the Friedmans retired in 1991, Kathy Halbreich took over as director and, a year later, ceased publication of Design Quarterly. “Some would say it wasn’t my finest moment, which sadly turned out to be true,” Halbreich says. (Speculation currently abounds as to whether she will also regret presiding over the demolition of the Rapson-designed Guthrie to make room for an additional sculpture park.) The demise of the magazine “left a big hole,” Mickey Friedman says. “Nothing has come close to replacing it, except for the program at the university.” That “program” is the Design Institute (DI), created in 1998 by Tom Fisher and former university president Mark Yudof. “During my first meeting with Yudof, he asked what I would do to make design more of a player here,” Fisher recalls. “I outlined the idea of a design think tank.” Initially funded by the Minnesota State Legislature at $650,000 a year, then presented $1 million by Target in 2001, not long after the arrival of Janet Abrams, its first and current director, DI’s “main obligation is to educate the public about the value of design, as well as to expand the boundaries of what design gets involved in,” Fisher says.

Abrams brought to the job design connections that stretch around the globe. Her symposia guests have covered such topics as design and biotechnology, and one of her competitions yielded Twin, a typeface that morphs according to changes in weather, wind, and traffic. DI produced a Twin Cities Design Celebration in 2003 and holds an annual summer Design Camp for teens. Yet to many citizens attuned to the cultural life of the city, including some graphic designers, DI is an obscure entity. Bruce Rubin, whose Minneapolis firm Rubin Cordaro Design has been designing magazines and logos for 25 years, is perplexed when asked whether he’s aware of DI. “I’m not sure,” he says. “Fill me in.” But mention the Design Celebration’s Big Urban Game (BUG), in which players raced giant inflatable game pieces through the Twin Cities, and he says “Oh, yeah.” The event drew local media coverage and more than 3,000 online registrants.

But DI has yet to wield the catholic influence of its major funder, Target, which has probed with remarkable savvy the idiosyncratic character of Minneapolis culture and delivered it to America. As Fisher explains, “Minneapolis culture has always swung between high art and high design, and a kind of populist concern for the ordinary person.” Target negotiates the fertile divide, according to Fisher, “between valuing design, which always has a bit of a desire to transform things, and the democratic idea that when you do that you can’t leave the ordinary person behind.”

Fortunately Abrams isn’t without the enthusiasm necessary to help propel the city to its next stage of evolution. “I want Minneapolis to become Design Central USA,” she announces. But to do this, she adds, it must move beyond what she considers a piecemeal approach to design. The city and its design leaders need to enhance the connections between architectural edifices, arts and cultural organizations, and the various disciplines while drawing attention to the context in which such design activity is occurring.

“We’re off to a good start,” Abrams says. “But it will take quite a few more years to assemble the pieces so they can be understood in connection with one another. That ambition requires a shift in thinking. On an everyday basis, is design adding meaning to people’s lives here? And is this place an example for other cities by demonstrating how design can engage multiple disciplines in finding ways to help people lead more creative lives?”

Mayor Rybak is already on board. “We’re in the greatest development of cultural institutions in a single period in the city’s history,” he says. “But we need to weave them together so the experience of moving from one to the other is as uplifting as going into the building itself.” Halbreich takes an even broader view. “Regionalism is the next big design issue,” she says. Demographic changes, land-use dilemmas, transportation concerns, housing needs, and shrinking economic resources, she explains, would benefit from analysis through the lens of design.

The Design Institute, Abrams insists, is poised to assume leadership on such issues. “If we could be recognized and deserving of the label ‘design capital’ because we have shifted the conception of design to something that’s in service of real social issues and enduring ideas,” she says, “that would be something to aspire to.”

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