When I saw Taylor Swift this summer during the East Rutherford, New Jersey stop on her 1989 tour, where she paraded out a gaggle of models and sang “Jealous” with Nick Jonas, I figured that I had cashed in all my goodwill. Would I ever see a powerhouse at the top of their game again?
Enter David Rockwell, founder and president of the Rockwell Group, and Marcel Wanders, renowned Dutch designer and co-founder of Moooi: two prolific designers at the top of their game, both innovators in their fields who evoke whimsy and thoughtfulness in their designs. In the same way I unabashedly enjoyed T. Swift, I had the same fan girl moment when I got to hear Rockwell and Wanders speak during an event sponsored by WantedDesign and Surface magazine.
The two industry stalwarts talked about taking risks, the downside of collaboration, and how to get to the emotional core of design. Here are few other takeaways from these top designers
Ask questions. Wanders says in his day-to-day practice he likes to start off with a question: Why? “Among the designers I know, they have no idea why,” he said. “They tend to know how, but it’s the why that is super important. It excites. It inspires. It creates the foundation of the work.”
Be a magician. Rockwell referenced his friend, magician Ricky Jay when talking about what designers do. Much like those masters of illusion, designers, too, showcase the unexpected. Once the research is done, designers “can conjure and make seen what hasn’t been seen before,” he says.
“[Magicians] make you wonder how things are so different than they were because of their intervention,” Wanders continued. Designers, he says, take their audience on a journey, and the customer “trusts us to do something interesting, and we don’t have to explain ourselves.” For Wanders, he’d rather be “compared to the Brothers Grimm than someone who reads the news.”
Engage emotionally. When it comes to creating spaces, it’s about telling a story and creating memories. When Rockwell was a kid, he was “blown away” walking around New York. The storefronts he walked by then changed over time but the building remained. It’s the permanent and the ephemeral that drew him to architecture. For Wanders, the object itself doesn’t have emotion, but that feeling is created based on experience. “You can do a piece that is really human, and therefore, it connects to people,” he said.
Take risks. When Rockwell was designing the Jet Blue terminal at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, he brought in a choreographer to help create the experience of a public dance. It was a risk that paid off. “As designers, there’s the risk of repeating yourself, the risk of becoming bored,” he said. “Taking a risk is inherent in moving forward and looking at it as what is the next piece in what we are trying to do.”
Find the creativity in collaboration. Both Wanders and Rockwell wavered on this, but ultimately, “interesting things come out of creative friction,” Rockwell explained. Design is inherently optimistic, and when those negative moments occur, which they will, Rockwell advises his team to regroup and bring the mission back into focus. Wanders was a little more forthcoming: “Collaborations are really awful,” he said, but “you have to find a way to open up, listen to each other, find things that resonate with each other. It’s complicated.”