This past weekend marked the third annual Aftertaste symposium at the New School, a free two-day event taking place at at the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Auditorium in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center that kicked off with a welcome by Laura Biggs, Interim Dean of the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons. Biggs said that the mission of Aftertaste is to “frame and focus the critical issues that surround design.” Listening to her talk, we were excited about the possibilities — it seemed interior design was a field on the cutting edge, ready to be completely transformed by technology. When she told us “interior design has the potential to heighten our consciousness,” we believed.
It was unfortunate that Biggs’s enthusiasm raised our hopes so high, because the first of the five panel discussions was uneven at best. The theme was “Sights: Environments and Projections.” (The other four panels discussed taste, hearing, smell, and touch, and how they relate the design of interiors.) The first presenter for the “Sights” panel was Robert Israel, a renowned theatrical designer who has worked on more than sixty operas. Israel told us he would discuss the design for a recent production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in Cologne, Germany — we’ve always been a sucker for a tragic love story, so our ears perked up.
Mysteriously, Israel arrived to lecture with no photographs of the design he intended to discuss. Instead, he drew a rudimentary diagram of the general layout of a stage on a chalkboard. (Note: The floor-to-ceiling paneled chalkboard in the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Auditorium is an excellent design element.) At one point, a floorplan of the set design was passed around the room, but it never reached our hands. The overarching theme of Israel’s lecture seemed to be that Americans have such limited attention spans, we cannot appreciate slow-paced art/design. At one point he spoke with disgust that Twitter only allows you to type messages of up to 140 characters, but we were unclear on how this related to interior design. We began to wonder if it was it meant to be a joke. Were we meant to laugh? Because here we were at a design school listening to a lecture from a renowned designer who didn’t have a single image of his work to show us. He was speaking strained attention spans to a roomful of people struggling to stay focused on his words.
Luckily, the second half of the talk was more organized and on-target for the stated theme of “Sights.” James Tichenor and Joshua Walton, who work together at LAB at Rockwell Group, were a pleasant surprise. The pair of young interactive designers work on some of the more technology-driven and interactive parts of David Rockwell’s design practice. Thankfully, LAB arrived with a presentation full of images of their work. Shocking, right? We cannot tell you how much easier it is to listen to a lecture about design when there’s a visual reference available.
Tischenor and Walton were funny, likeable and interesting. Their work really does seem to address the future of interior design, and it stays true to Rockwell’s mission to “surprise and delight” in architecture. We found ourselves imaging a future in which interiors could respond to the surrounding objects and people. Looking at images of their installation at the Venice Biennale, we wished they had been there to see it in person. (We also left wishing David Rockwell would give us a job working with LAB — it seems like they have a lot of fun on the job.)
It was a surprise that the two halves of the talk were so different in content and quality. Parsons clearly has the ability to bring great minds together for discussion, but it is unclear why Israel was so unprepared to speak to his topic — especially without social networking sites to blame as a preparatory distraction. We hope the rest of the weekend was more in line with LAB’s engaging presentation. It’s an exciting time for interior design at Parsons as they launch of their MFA in interior design this coming fall, and we look forward to further discussion on the subject at the university — as long as there are images.