Allison Arieff spends her days thinking about design and writing about its impact on our daily lives. Best known as the former editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine, Allison has also worked as an editor for Sunset magazine and senior content lead for IDEO, is a published author, and writes the By Design column for the New York Times. She sees the interconnectedness of all design, and through her writing sparks thoughtful discussion about its impact on areas such as urban planning, the economy, public health, food production, and education. Now serving as the food and shelter ambassador for the Pepsi Refresh Project and a contributor to GOOD, Allison aims to bring smart design and rich connections back to our local communities and world.
Allison Arieff at Urban Re:Vision event
You’re someone who looks at design in all its forms — from architecture to urban planning to food production to household objects and beyond. I wanted to start by asking what you would say to someone just getting started in a creative field about the importance of good design in our lives.
I think design was always kind of in my life, and I was lucky enough to have parents who had all Scandinavian modern stuff and just kind of bought well-made, well-designed stuff — not so much as a status thing but just because it was sort of the affordable, nice-looking option. So I was just sort of surrounded by all this stuff growing up, and it wasn’t until I was much, much older that it was all kind of collectible. So I was kind of oblivious to the idea of much of the stuff that I ended up writing about just because so many of these things just happened — I lived in a walkable neighborhood, and people didn’t have to write about them in quite the same way they do now.
I actually studied art and history in college and not design per se, and I definitely had some great professors who talked a lot about things in terms of how everything was related to one another. And that was always really interesting to me. Not history as facts, but history as the food part and the economics part and the war part, all kind of mixed in and sort of a picture of society. So I think I’ve always sort of approached design as just sort of one facet of that, sort of focusing on the larger picture. What I don’t like is when it gets so separated out that it becomes sort of formalist art history or something. That’s not the sort of analysis that I’m interested in doing. So I would say, especially now, the more that one can realize that everything is connected, the better — infrastructure is connected to health, safety, economics, architecture, design, etc. — that all these things kind of feed into one another. And I feel that most people look at all of these things in isolation — a bridge is a bridge, and that’s all. But you can begin to look at any aspect of anything that you’re interested in in terms of how it relates to other things and how your thinking might improve those relationships — systems thinking, call it what you will. The fact that doing X affects Y, and how can these things work in concert with one another. I think our thought processes are kind of woefully absent of that.
I ended up doing interdisciplinary work in grad school and realized that it was getting harder and harder — ‘Oh, if I finished my PhD, I couldn’t ever find anyone to hire me to teach this kind of multidisciplinary approach.’ You sort of had to have an appointment within one department of a university. I guess I feel that that’s a little bit outliving its usefulness, and I think that’s true for so many disciplines. It’s not enough to know about one thing, you have to be able to see how they connect.
I think it’s a tricky time for design right now. You know, people went to design school even five years ago — and, frankly, even now because it takes a while for curriculum to kind of catch up — and it used to be you go to design school to learn how to make things. And there’s always going to be a market for making things, but far less than there was. And the things you’re making are different and have to be changing, have to be responding to many, many different concerns — supply chains and obsolescence and all of that stuff. So much of what a lot of designers I know are doing is designing experiences or ideas or organizational structures, so I think the field is changing so dramatically. I think for people just starting out right now, it’s equally part of what you need to figure out how to do right now. A willingness to be flexible and kind of look over the horizon at the next thing coming is kind of the best skill you can have right now.
Strada 533 folding bike by Mark Sanders for Strida
You’ve emphasized something every good designer knows, to quote Eames, that good design comes from constraints. Is this the silver lining of the recent global economic downturn?
I do believe that good design comes from constraints, and yes, I believe that the recession has inspired many to be more inventive, more resourceful. This can be seen as a silver lining, but it’s more complicated than that: there are some real challenges around the economics not just of design but of creative output in general. People are creating wonderful things with less — will they ever be able to make even a modest amount of money for their efforts? I don’t long for a return to starchitect excesses or a surplus of product, but it is important that design is supported culturally and financially.
At the core of our thought process about real estate and development is this notion of ‘highest and best use,’ which rarely if ever takes into account the context of the neighborhood or larger community. Looking across a range of urban issues, from those wonderful, multi-generational hutongs in Beijing being taken over by skyscrapers, to a city like Detroit looking at urban farming as a way to revitalize itself, do you think we’ll make any meaningful progress in how we evolve urban environments until we rethink this fundamental notion?
Well, highest and best use assumes that everyone has the same interests in a particular building. So for a developer, the highest and best use is the greatest ROI, right? So I can put this many people in this big of a space and get this much money for it. And I’m making a gross generalization, but their highest and best use is high occupancy and great rate of return. And that could be diametrically opposed to the people in that building. So I think that kind of continues to be the basis for so much of what is built in this country: it’s all about cost per square foot and resale value, and very little about sustainability and functionality and livability. And that definitely has to change, but it’s really hard for that to change! Even the inhabitant of that building might not totally understand that that’s wrong.
I spent a year working for a master-planned community developer as a consultant and did a lot of interviewing with potential home-buyers and was kind of unnerved by what a premium everyone put on resale value at the expense of a lot of other things. You know, even if they were going to live in this house for some time, they were far more concerned with what they were going to get for it in the very end. And I like to think that what’s gone on in real estate the last few years is that people will step back a little bit and say, ‘Well, all these guarantees that I thought I had about increasing real estate values aren’t necessarily true.’ But — and I’m talking about residential real estate now — things that are added, put in, sizes that are mandated, etc., are not so much for the actual benefit of the people living in there but because of the perception that this is what people want and this is what people will pay for. And I kind of equate it to you write a paragraph, and then someone rewrites it a little bit — like the mission statement of an organization — and then everyone keeps taking it and editing it just slightly for their own purposes. And then you look at it a year later and say, ‘This makes absolutely no sense!’ So many people have tweaked it, and no one actually went back and thought the thing through!
So I think you can kind of look at residential real estate this way and say, ‘Well, everyone needs a Viking range!’, ‘Everyone has to have three bedrooms!’, ‘Everyone has to have this room and this much square footage and whatever else.’ And never kind of stepping back to reevaluate these things and say, ‘This is what people want, and this is what they’ll pay for.’ And as a result you get this kind of mish-mash of features as opposed to something kind of holistically conceived. So we’ve gotta get out of that.
Fortune magazine covers the potential of urban farming to revitalize Detroit
Cornfield in downtown Detroit
A hutong community in Beijing, image from Wikimedia Commons
I’m just wondering how we get out of that — as you say, it may have to start with consumer demand.
I think there’s fairly compelling evidence that not everybody wants the sort of standard, cookie-cutter subdivision house. But there’s so much reticence to change. And I’m not even talking about radical architecture, I’m talking about more flexible floorplans and living scenarios, and, like you said, the multi-generational neighborhood and really kind of designing for that. I live in a neighborhood in San Francisco that sort of as a fluke has ended up being this completely multi-generational, economically diverse neighborhood. Everyone walks everywhere, we only have one car, there’s a little sort of European shopping street — I call it ‘downtown’ — and I really don’t have to leave my little three-block radius because I have everything I need. But no one seems to ever be able to design deliberately for that. There was a series of happy accidents and arguments and long battles and all kinds of aggravation and strife to get to this point, but it’s kind of a perfect neighborhood now. And my whole thing is: how do you get there, how do you design for that? I haven’t seen much of it, to be honest. That’s kind of a big goal and hope of mine to do that.
You’ve expressed your frustration that we haven’t made much progress in addressing the problem outlined in Buckminster Fuller’s 40-year old quote below. Do you have a sort of utopian vision for how you wish we were living? And what are some of the best ideas you’ve seen for reimagining the sprawl we’ve let happen for so long?
“Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.
It’s time we gave this some thought.”
— R. Buckminster Fuller
I don’t have visions of Utopia. I’m too pragmatic for that, and I’ve seen too much fail. But I certainly believe things can be better — there is so much that could be done smarter. Fuller’s observation is one great example — in essence, real estate is designed and built for boom times. There is a persistent denial that we also go through of periods of bust. The cycle continues, and all the energy goes toward designing for the good half of it. But there are ways to design for both. This could mean more flexible building designs or form-based code (where the same structure can be used for multiple uses: bank, market, housing, school). Something as simple as Room Wizard (an online platform that lets you schedule room use remotely) allows for better efficiency of space in, say, an office or university building. I’m seeing building tenants share use: one restaurant operates lunch, the other dinner, or an antique store divided itself in half and now leases the other side to an urban garden store. Air B&B facilitates the renting of apartments for short term stays.
There is lots of good thinking around reimagining sprawl — most of it remains in the re-imagination stage, however. I’ve just finished an article for GOOD magazine on how agriculture might help save/redefine suburbia. Galina Tachieva of Duany Plater Zyberk is finishing up a book called the Sprawl Repair Kit that features pragmatic solutions for things like transforming McMansions into senior housing facilities or apartments. I hope that people will continue to get creative — I’ve heard so many developers say, for example, that subdivisions can’t support a café. Why not let an enterprising individual run one out their garage a few hours a day? People in cities do this all the time. I am confident people will walk if you give them something to walk to. None of this transformation will be inexpensive, but without doing it, so many things (resource use, pollution, obesity) will continue to get worse.
Aerial view of suburban development
The term sustainability is used across every discipline now, but Rob Hopkins, the founder of the worldwide Transition movement, talks about the importance of ‘resilience’ over ‘sustainability’ and asks, as one example, how we got to a place where food is grown so far from where we consume it. How big a push are you seeing to return to growing food locally in urban centers, and what are you most excited about in this realm?
There is an ENORMOUS push. I have a 500-square foot farm in my backyard in San Francisco where I grow beets, carrots, kale, lettuces, fava beans, snap peas. There are few things as satisfying. I could attend a panel on urban farming every other evening here in San Francisco. The University of San Francisco has an urban agriculture minor. There are more and more farmers markets, more and more community and school gardens, and even the typically conservative garden show will have a demonstration vegetable garden this year. It’s become an accepted part of landscape architecture. Detroit is poised to have the country’s largest urban farm. Vancouver just passed a resolution requiring developers to have edible landscapes as part of their projects. San Francisco is giving over vacant lots to urban agriculture. Things are really happening.
It’s at the top of the list for suburban improvement as well. That article for GOOD I mentioned looks at agricultural solutions as part of suburban retrofits. There are many obstacles, to be sure, but I love the idea of designing around an edible landscape. It could strengthen community, improve the health of residents, get kids outside and moving around, reduce population, and help insure food safety.
The revitalization of neighborhoods
Vertical farming as one example of urban agriculture
There seem to be a lot of little revolutions taking place — such as Park(ing) Day — to create a tangible example of what is possible, even if just for a short while, and push public policy faster than it would ordinarily go. I wonder if you’ve considered the role of government and how it should be adapting to our lives?
PARKing Day and its cousin, Pavement to Parks, show how grassroots efforts can really push public policy. Both programs were designed to be temporary; both were so well-received, the spaces so well-utilized, that the city took notice and has moved to make official versions. It’s a great strategy. If someone had proposed PARKing Day as a permanent installation, people would be up in arms over losing a single precious parking space. But REBAR had proof of concept — the commandeering of the parking space put smiles on people’s faces, brought more customers into local business, didn’t hamper traffic — so few could find reason to object to making it happen in a more permanent way. With budgets where they are and with levels of tension and disagreement where they are right now, this sort of grass roots activism used to initiate meaningful change seems to be the smartest way to go.
Note: pictured below are Park(ing) Day examples of renting a city parking space and creating a temporary but welcoming, park-like space.
Two examples of Park(ing) Day uses: top image Philadelphia, bottom image San Francisco
Have your thoughts about what good design means changed since having your child?
It’s interesting. We bought a house and had a child within one month. We looked for a house for a year at the top of the market in San Francisco and lost house after house and had given up — and then found a house when I was super, super pregnant, and we were like, ‘OK, let’s just do it!’ Both of these enormous changes, of home ownership and parenthood, started at the same time, so I would say the combination of those things has definitely changed my ideas about design. It’s a funny thing, because as the editor of Dwell for a long time, a lot of people have this expectation of what you must live in, and I think I must sorely disappoint those people because I don’t have a Dwell house at all! I have a 100-year old house, and I have some modern stuff and we’ve done some renovations that are more on the modern side, but I don’t have some high-design architecture house, and I certainly have a far-from-minimalist house. And now that I have a child, I don’t even know what the people who had children in these houses that we shot ever did, because my daughter’s four now and she’s like leaving bread crumbs everywhere — I mean, not literally, but she comes in and there’s just a trail. And you can fight it, and I do a little bit, but I just kind of go with it at the end of the day and just sort of shove it all aside as much as I can. But I could not keep up with some sort of hyper-minimalist interior and a four year old. And not that I lived in a hyper-minimalist home before that, but I think that’s changed a little bit.
My interest in gardening and landscape architecture, and particularly edible landscapes, has absolutely blossomed. Around the same time that we acquired this giant space and had her, and we spent a ton of time in the garden and have all these vegetables growing, and it’s really become like a family room for us. She can putter outside in the dirt and be perfectly happy and has a great awareness of the science of insects and dirt, and I absolutely love that. So that’s something that wasn’t a big part of my life prior.
Allison Arieff’s own garden
Allison’s daughter Emilia in their garden
To keep up on such a range of issues and events and then draw themes, trends and meaning from them, what does a typical day look like for you?
I spend a lot of time reading everything from tweets to books, going to panels and lectures, and talking/emailing/meeting with people working on the issues I’m interested in. The research part is never a chore — I’m really interested in these things, so I want to learn more. I get so much from listening to someone tell the story of their effort, the two people growing all the produce for the restaurant on their corner, the woman organizing an online platform for resource-sharing, and the like. I get to meet great, inspiring people, which is important because far too much of my day is spent in front of my computer screen.
Looking back on your years of work with Dwell magazine, plus your work with Sunset, IDEO, your books, your By Design column and work with GOOD, what do you think your greatest contribution is so far? Do you have a sense of personal mission?
I feel incredibly lucky to have been involved with all of these efforts. With Dwell, the opportunity to start a magazine from scratch was incredible — now even more so as the era of the print magazine seems to have passed. We had such an incredible team and really created something unique that quickly became part of the larger conversation on design, and that’s incredibly satisfying. Prefab — the book, the design competition, the idea — seemingly the most uncool thing ever, took off in a way that was completely not anticipated. It’s amazing really; I regret that prefab didn’t live up to its potential but now I’m seeing that its best future is in multifamily and affordable/disaster-relief housing. I’m eager to see that happen.
Issue of Dwell magazine
Prefab by Allison Arieff and Bryan Burkhart
I don’t have a formal mission — I do get excited about things, and it’s not enough for me to write about them. The Times column has been great as it’s part of the Opinion section and it’s been an incredible forum for things I’m passionate about: housing, urban agriculture, systems thinking, sustainable design. If there was a mission, it would be to not just observe and comment but contribute. Writing a critique of a subdivision is one thing, but being able to improve the way of thinking about that subdivision — how to make it more walkable, more able to foster good relationships between neighbors, environmentally responsible, design it to support local merchants — enough to change the way its built, that’s the kind of work I’m hoping to do.
Besides good design, what are some of your favorite things?
I feel like all the stuff that I’m writing about now, whether it’s housing or sustainability or architecture, it’s all nominally connected to design, but it’s sort of but almost not even my work anymore. It’s just what I do all day. I just find out about all this stuff, so it’s hard to separate those things out. Plus my husband and I do very similar things, and all the various books we’ve done, we’ve done together, so it’s been part of my familial and romantic relationship doing these projects, and it’s all very integrated into what I do.
I’m a huge, huge reader, but I read novels — I don’t read about organic gardening at night! But I read probably a book a week and just love reading novels and always have. I love going to the farmers market. And cooking food is very much a part of our lives, growing it and buying it — I really love the process of food shopping! I love being part of the neighborhood and the whole experience of selecting food and cooking it.
And I think this whole local movement that’s been happening nationwide, I would kind of extend that out past food — kind of an appreciation of everything that’s around you. And I joked about not going outside my little three-block radius, but I really just love my neighborhood. We have a giant park and lots of friends close by, and I’m really enjoying that proximity. And it’s familiar, but there are new things and new people all the time too.
I feel so lucky that I get to spend all this time researching and inquiring about stuff that’s really interesting to me and just kind of meeting people and talking about these things. And really making sure I’m not doing it online all day but really getting out of the house and having face-to-face conversations. I think that’s one of the big challenges for everyone right now — remembering that, yes, you can get an amazing amount of stuff done online at your computer, but I think people are just sort of losing sight of what it’s like to sort of get out there. I just really love this mix of circumstances I find myself in right now.
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