Despite the eco-friendly cardboard centerpieces, the ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria, with its velvet draperies and glittering chandeliers was an uncomfortably swanky venue for the annual AIGA Design Legends gala in a year when the ripples from the financial mayhem on Wall St. had wreaked such economic turmoil throughout the industry
So AIGA president Debbie Millman, in a little black dress and long white gloves, addressed the issue straight up: "The guy who created my fabulous up-do asked me, 'Do people really have events like these anymore? In this economy?'"
Noting that the room had been booked long before last fall's market meltdown, Millman acknowledged the unease the space created, given the general state of the economy. "Not to be a buzzkill," she said, "but 86% of industries said they had cut back over the past year, the most in 42 years. Every state has reported upticks in unemployment." So, she asked, "Should we celebrate designers in this economy?"
You didn't have to be a "Squawkbox" forecaster to guess the answer. Citing a variety of examples of design innovation from past downturns, from Cyrus McCormick's mechanical reaper in the 1870s to Apple's iPod introduction in 2001, Millman affirmed that not only could the assembled crowd of designers eat their filet mignon without dissonance, but with pride: "We can't shirk our responsibility," she said. "Designers have the ability to make the world a better place. The world now offers opportunities and designers must respond."
Naturally, the remarkably upbeat crowd roared their approval as they tucked into their artfully arranged shrimp and artichoke appetizers.
Indeed, the mood in the room was decidedly merry, with a number of designers confiding little bits of good news between courses. Joe Duffy said business was picking up after a bleak six months, and he'd soon have killer news on a project with Coke. Brian Collins hinted about an upcoming award. Event co-chair (and FC expert blogger) Ken Carbone threatened to dance into the wee hours at the after party. And David Rockwell said he'd been flat out opening the new Disney Family Museum, and working hard on the launch of the new Ames Hotel for Morgans Hotel Group, then dashed off to tuck his kids in bed.
The rest of the evening featured a long and appealingly-produced celebration of the year's honorees, from corporate achievers to AIGA fellows, designers who have made significant contributions to the field in their own communities.
Jet Blue, introduced by Rockwell, was lauded for allowing its customers to feel "frugal and indulgent at the same time." Julie Gilhart, fashion designer at Barney's, introduced corporate winner Patagonia, and confessed to a huge crush on company founder Yvon Chouinard. She further demonstrated her affection by wearing a Patagonia trench coat with Balenciaga shorts and Manolo Blahnik heels. Noting that she was heading off to a Fashion Week party directly from the gala, she said, "There are times when I'm sitting watching the fashion shows on the runways when I have to fight the desire to run away and be a 'dirt bag hippie' like Yvon says he was."
But the big winners were the AIGA medalists, the organization's highest achievers. This year, the group honored three giants in the graphic design field: Pablo Ferro, the Cuban-born designer who created the opening credits for films ranging from Dr. Strangelove to Midnight Cowboy; Doyald Young, master of logotypes for John Deere, Charles Krug, and Shu Uemura, among others; and Carin Goldberg, who's designed books, album covers, and a variety of literary artifacts for nearly every prestigious publisher in the city.
Accepting his award, Ferro, in his trademark red wooly muffler, thanked his adopted land. "I was a kid from Cuba, where I wore no shoes, and came to America at age 12," he said. "Only in America could I go from admiring the Rolling Stones, to working with them. No matter how many times things like that happen, it still surprises me.
Young, 83, was lauded for his profound influence on students at Art Center College of Design, and Goldberg said a 6-week summer trip to Paris had inspired her to forsake her normal New York brittle repartee in her speech for humble, heartfelt gratitude. "Merci beaucoup," she said, clutching her trophy in tears as she left the stage for comfort in the arms of her lifelong friend, and presenter, Paula Scher.
[Photos by Paul Schlacter]