Five Designers Get $50k in Mini-MacArthur Grants for Artists

A look at what makes them special.


On Monday, United States Artists announced its 2009 fellows–a kind of mini-MacArthur grant, which gives each honoree a no-strings-attached $50,000. The winners hail from 18 states and range in age from 28 to 82. And four–count ’em–are designers. Clockwise, from the top left: Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the duo behind fashion label Rodarte; Rick Lowe, a community-organizer/urban planner; Neil Denari, an architect; and Laura Kurgan, an infographics designer. Herewith, a brief tour of what makes each of them special.


Architect Neil Denari has a thing for sinuous, computer-generated forms–he’s a futurist, through and through. But at last, after over 20 years practicing, he’s begun to realize his designs. Recently, on a small scale, there was the gorgeous Alan-Voo house. But his latest project will raise his stature ten-fold: A new residential skyscraper overlooking New York’s High Line park. Dubbed HL23, the undulating shape was formed not by whimsy but rather by the invisible vertical zoning laws surrounding the site. The idea was to create the maximum amount of building, in a tight space with only a 40’x99′ footprint–a fraction of your usual high-rise:

Neil Denari

Laura Kurgan, born in South Africa and educated as an architect at Columbia University, is a pioneer in data visualization. Her work bends toward social betterment: For example, she designed a media wall to teach kids about ecology; and she also designed a map showing the Census blocks where the U.S. spends $1 million or more to incarcerate the residents. Recently, she was a stand-out at the landmark Design and the Elastic Mind show at MoMA, where she showed off an extension of her work on the judicial system: a map showing the mass migration between certain neighborhoods and regional jails:

Laura Kurgan work

Rick Lowe is hard to classify–he calls himself an artist,architect, urban designer, developer, businessman, and activist. And while his work isn’t immediately visually arresting, it might be the most inspiring. He uses design as social outreach in poor neighborhoods. His Project Row House in Houston’s blighted Third Ward, begun in 1993, brings together artists and community members to remake their neighborhoods. What started as 22 houses on 40 properties has become a revitalized neighborhood, encompassing parks, community spaces, and offices:

Rick Lowe

Sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy founded their fashion label, Rodarte, in 2005, shortly after studing art history and literaterature (respectively) at UC Berkeley. They quickly put that heady background to work, in one of the most cerebral, celebrated fashion lines in America. Their pieces are already in the famed costume collection at the Museum of Metropolitan Art in New York. Michelle Obama has worn them. Anna Wintour is a huge fan. They’re know for a decidedly sci-fi bent, as you can tell from their 2010 Fall/Winter collection (below). This month, they’re unveiling a collection for Target. Check out their most recent ready-to-wear collection here.


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.


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