Giving by Design

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 9, No 1 (Spring 1998)

Mary Griffin

Typically when businesses decide to support the arts they do so through a grant-giving mechanism or through a program that places employees as volunteers and consultants in arts organizations. But, I've noticed a different kind of interaction between the profit-making and not-for-profit art worlds in recent years. Some business people have set up foundations dedicated to improving the ethical and cultural context in which their own professions practice. I'm not sure how wide-spread this phenomenon is, but in the last few years, two new foundations were established in New York City by people whose professional life is in the design industry.

David Sterling is a graphic designer who wants to enlarge what he considers the narrow cultural references of the design industry. Andrea Woodner is an architect and real estate developer who wants to improve and protect New York City's public spaces. Although the two have never met, they share certain assumptions about the way business and the arts can intersect and they make use of their financial and professional resources to shape their very young foundations, both of which not only give grants but offer practical intervention.

The World Studio Foundation
On Thanksgiving Day in 1992, graphic designer David Sterling decided to make a list of the things he felt most passionate about. Although he was a partner in a successful New York City design business, he was troubled by the feeling that his creativity was often employed in an empty task — helping businesses “ameliorate the bottom line.” He knew he had to make a living, but felt he hadn't achieved the psychological integration of creativity, work, and the world of spiritual engagement, a sense of connection that he had sought from a young age. Although he'd worked as a volunteer at various organizations, these experiences had been frustrating. He had to cut and paste his voluntary efforts into night and weekend slots, and he hadn't found a way to fully engage his talents and professional interests in service. He was vexed by a sense of disjuncture.

Sterling remembers that his list included “making things with my hands, world cultures and travel, giving back, being autonomous, and creating a situation for other people to experience the same freedom.” He wondered what he would call the items on his list if he grouped them together. Immediately, the phrase World Studio leapt into his mind. The studio had always had a profound meaning for him dating back to his Oklahoma Grade School where the art teacher, Mrs. Evelyn Douglas, made the school's art studio a world of its own. Sterling remembers it as “a place where freedom was an attitude, where you were given permission to create.” Several yellow pads later, he found that he'd drawn up the premise and structure for a new business enterprise — a virtual studio — where designers, clients, and interns would be given an opportunity to engage with larger questions, where they would work with “more than just surfaces,” where the graphic design would be keenly conscious of global concerns of race, ecology, and social progress. Thanksgiving had turned into Epiphany, and in 1993, with art director Mark Randall, Sterling opened World Studio Creative Services.

Sterling points out that the design industry is a large, highly creative, and financially productive sector with a pervasive influence on the way our culture looks, sounds, is sold and consumed. Architects, graphic designers, furniture and fashion and textile designers, illustrators, urban planners, and advertisers “make” our material world. Although many design professionals are committed in their personal lives to ideals and practices of social engagement and progress, Sterling observed that no industry-wide, interdisciplinary focus existed to help channel these individual and corporate energies, and no business forum was available to collectively rethink assumptions about materials, content, form, and intent. He intended the day-to-day business of his firm to provide a forum for critical discussion and to be a catalyst for practical applications of these discussions.

Sterling's attachment to the idea of the studio as a creative and liberating place led him to evaluate the design industry's characteristic practices in the workplace. He concluded that in many ways the design studio, a paradigmatically creative environment, is often remarkably pedestrian, even conservative, in its business and personnel practices when compared with the innovative approaches of some of the leading multi-national corporations. The design industry as a whole has not benefited from recent research that informs corporate management and results in more inclusive and flexible personnel practices, non-hierarchical structures, and employee incentives for creative and profitable ideas. Sterling argues that it is in the design industry's economic interest to make the studio a more humane and expansive context. Such a restructuring of relationships and procedures in the workplace necessarily would affect workers' attitudes toward each other, to their profession, and to larger social relationships.

Sterling feels that the industry should begin remodeling its workplace by paying attention to the design profession's conspicuous and ironic lack of color. The industry has made little concerted effort to recruit young people of color. Sterling remarks that at professional design conferences the lack of minority representation is a frequent agenda item, but so far the topic has not stimulated an active, industry-wide response. While there's a general inclination to be more inclusive, the design field has lacked a nucleus for discussion and action in this area. Sterling points out that recruiting more ethnic minorities may be altruistic at heart, but it also has demonstrable commercial benefits since people of color comprise a huge market in this country — a market that is rarely addressed through its own graphic vocabulary and is as rarely offered products designed with references to a non-dominant cultural aesthetic.

The World Studio Foundation was integral to Sterling's original conception of the business. Most of the Foundation's efforts go to a scholarship fund that awards scholarships to minority and economically disadvantaged undergraduate and graduate students studying applied and fine arts. Although most art schools make strong efforts to attract minority students, Sterling knew that minority students and students from low-income families typically need special financial help: their families can rarely afford to help with tuition or living expenses. Art school demands a large concentration of time beyond the class work and study required of all students. To become proficient, art students must spend much extra time in the studio or workshop, improving their craft and extending their understanding of the practical application of their studies. Part-time jobs, typical for most students, eat into the creative and practice time needed by art students. Many have to drop out for a semester or longer to earn enough money to re-enroll. Their experience of art school is harried by debt and anxiety, and completing their education typically takes them substantially longer than it does other students.

The World Studio Foundation sends out requests for proposals to accredited art schools around the country inviting matriculated students to make application directly to the Foundation — submitting portfolios, transcripts, and letters of recommendation as well as autobiographical statements explaining their financial need and their plans to incorporate a social agenda into their professional lives. A panel of designers appointed by the Foundation make scholarship awards based on the aesthetic merit of the work, the student's economic need, and evidence of an interest in building a more inclusive social context for the fields of art and design. The scholarships are disbursed directly to the schools for payment to the students. In the first three years of operation, World Studio Foundation awarded scholarships to over fifty students from art colleges all over the country including California College of Arts and Crafts, Rhode Island School of Design, Cranbrook Academy of Art, Kansas City Art Institute, and New York's School of Visual Arts.

Scholarship funds come from a number of sources. World Studio commits 10% of its business profits to the Foundation and, for the first two years, was the largest donor to the scholarship fund. However, Sterling and his board, many of whom are designers or executives in design firms, are resourceful in using their contacts within the industry. MTV, for example, was an early supporter. This year Architectural Digest has funded new scholarships in the name of its advertisers: the Honda Award will be given to an industrial or transportation design student whose work reflects an interest in sustainable development and environmental preservation; the Michael Manley Award, established on behalf of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, will go to a design or architecture student from one of the Caribbean islands; and the Rado Watch Scholarship will be awarded to a student of design or architecture. When World Studio mounted a trade show of print fabrics, all the exhibiting firms were asked to consider adding $50 to their registration fee as a contribution to the Foundation's scholarship fund. All forty agreed. This year World Studio Foundation has attracted the support of GameWorks, a company whose partners include DreamWorks and Universal Studios, for a program that will award ninety $1,000 scholarships and nine six-week internships at companies such as Universal Studios and DreamWorks, as well as at GameWorks' own multimedia design studio. By May 1998 the Foundation will have awarded $170,000 in scholarships to over 150 young people.

In addition to its scholarship fund, the Foundation's mentorship program offers internships in its own studios to minority and economically disadvantaged high school and college students interested in design. The Foundation also acts as a broker between corporate design studios and social service agencies serving young people at risk. The young people get a rare opportunity to be tutored in the application of various sophisticated design software programs by professional designers at such corporations as SONY Music. With the supervision and assistance of their mentor designers, the students develop six-week personal projects — in product packaging or advertisement, for instance — during which they learn advanced features of the software and acquire sophisticated production skills.

To reach the larger design community, the Foundation produces a graphically lively publication, Sphere, that highlights designers, artists, developers, and corporations who improve the ecological, ethical, and aesthetic standards of the design industry. Sphere publishes articles about projects that are inspirational in their use of the natural world and in their inclusive social philosophy. It also includes articles about approaches to design in different cultures, particularly those of the Third World, and interviews with artists of color whose work has had a strong influence on the fine and the applied arts. The publication offers suggestions on ecologically conservative practice, brief descriptions of work situations that exemplify the Foundation's ideals, and cites corporate behavior that is insensitive to its immediate or larger place in the region, the country, or the world. Sphere is published bi-annually and is mailed to over 25,000 industry contacts. It is financed by advertisements from firms such as Donna Karan and by substantial in-kind donations from paper companies such as Gilbert and Champion.

As Sterling says, the design profession knows how to reach people. That's what World Studio does, and it's these talents and resources that he's employed in building World Studio Foundation. In developing a more generous sense of community, he believes the profession will also widen its definitions of creativity.

The Design Trust for Public Space
Andrea Woodner's family developed a large real estate business in New York and Washington D.C. She grew up in New York City and as a child was deeply affected by the beauty of the City — “the architectural shape of it, the light caught in the grid of the streets, the narrow tip of the island where it meets the ocean, and its broad expanse to the north, the city as the aggregate of its buildings.”

She trained first as a visual artist and, after fifteen years working as a sculptor, took a second degree in architecture at Columbia University. On the death of her brother, she and her sister took over the management of the real estate firm founded by their father. Woodner became the project manager for a large building in Washington that was just getting off the ground. The experience of being responsible for the completion of the building reified two important lessons she'd been taught. First, her brother had told her, “You'll find great joy in keeping a project going, even though it will seem that everything, at every turn, tries to stop you.” Second, a close friend in the business taught her a lesson that she says she had great difficulty learning: good management means not meddling with every detail. It means acknowledging and supporting the role that each individual plays in the enterprise. “While as manager, you're ultimately responsible, you have to let them do it; they all must possess and accomplish the work.” Woodner might have found it a difficult lesson, but she seems to have learned it well because it's embedded in the philosophy and modus operandi of The Design Trust for Public Space, the organization she founded in 1995.

The declared mission of The Design Trust is to help improve the design, creation, and understanding of New York City's public spaces. The mechanism that Woodner has developed to pursue this mission involves project-oriented, long-term design workshops, which the Trust funds and manages. The workshops bring together public and private practitioners to solve substantive problems relating to existing and planned public spaces in the city. Workshop participants include city officials, tenant groups, private developers, architects, engineers, and designers. Discussions are led by workshop Fellows — individuals with expertise in architecture, landscape architecture, environmental art, urban planning, or related design fields. Fellows are awarded a stipend by the Trust and work as researchers and explorers. They develop collaborative partnerships among participants that allow the participants to investigate their projects with a creativity and thoroughness unavailable or unaffordable in normal practice. The teams work together on the site being studied or in a location convenient to the subject and process of the workshop. Workshops last anywhere from several weeks to a year, and produce a variety of results including design charettes, small building projects, design guidelines, and studies and publications.

Woodner wanted to avoid imposing her own idea of what are the important subjects in public space, and sends out an annual request for proposals for workshop topics. Proposals are reviewed by a panel of design professionals who also appoint the workshop Fellows. She and the panelists have been impressed by the quality of the proposals, which she feels reflect New Yorkers' love for their public spaces and their passionate energy to protect, improve, and extend them.

In its first two years the Trust has completed three workshops and has three others in the hopper. The principal partners of the first workshop were the New York City Department of Design and Construction and the Brooklyn Public Library who worked together to develop design and construction recommendations for Brooklyn branch libraries. Architectural considerations had too frequently been left out of the scopes of work for library renovation, restoration, and new construction projects. The workshop study allowed the City's in-house designers and the Library staff to get together for the first time, to share their distinct expertise, and to benefit from presentations by industry experts on solutions to existing and emerging challenges in library design. The year-long study resulted in the publication of The Brooklyn Library Design Guidelines, a 78-page illustrated manual which is now issued to all architects and engineers contracted to build or renovate Brooklyn's branch libraries.

The Brooklyn Public Library study was the result of a collaboration between a city agency and a private entity. It is the kind of project that Woodner particularly relishes because it has an immediate and wide-spread impact on the public sector's ability to make informed decisions about the conservation and creation of the City's public spaces — in this case, one of our most democratically potent public spaces.” As Woodner points out, “Everyone loves the library.”

At the same time, Woodner believes that the Trust should engage in solving what might seem to be “modest” neighborhood design problems. A well-designed lobby in a public housing project is an important social forum, and the Trust's second workshop embodied this conviction. In response to a proposal from Tenants United for Better Living and the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, a workshop was organized to address public space concerns raised by the tenants of Diego Beekman Houses, a low-income, scattered-site housing development in the South Bronx slated for major capital improvements. The residents believed that their own intimate understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their buildings and community would be essential to the design of open spaces and would complement their ongoing efforts to reduce crime and reclaim their neighborhood. The Design Trust Fellow structured an intensive design workshop at the tenant organization's offices. The tenants drew up a set of principles to inform design interventions and developed a series of guidelines and recommendations for the construction and modulation of buildings and open spaces. The results of the workshop were submitted to HUD for consideration as part of its planned renovation and refinancing of the buildings, and will likely have a significant impact on the design of the public housing. Based on workshop recommendations, HUD is continuing to fund the Design Trust Fellow as tenant representative on design development.

As Woodner says, the Trust is “grantmaking plus process.” Woodner and her one staff member, Simon Bertrang, become very involved in each project. In this way, Woodner is able to use her own expertise to broker partnerships between public and private agencies, individuals and organizations. She describes the process as “getting people together, listening rather than dictating, knowing when to advocate” — skills she learned to value in her real estate business. She's particularly happy when public and private sector designers tell her that a Trust workshop was the first opportunity they'd had to meet and talk about public space design. It fulfills her goal that the Trust should be an enabler of creative dialogue and full participation. Another of her pleasures is giving talented young people — the architects, artists, and designers who become Fellows — the opportunity to become involved in rewarding projects that address significant urban space concerns and that affect the built environment directly. At an early stage in their careers, workshop Fellows become involved in communities and work with others to understand and create or redefine public spaces with a freedom and directness rare in professional practice.

While she has structured the workshop process to allow broad participation, Woodner is wary of the dangers of public design enslaving itself to public opinion. And she has mixed feelings about architects. Many of them, she says, feel marginalized. The vocabulary of their profession is baffling to a lot of people, their aesthetic concerns seem rarefied, their craft undervalued. In civic projects she's often seen them be treated merely as technicians, handed a list of requirements they have to fill. On the other hand, some of them can be esoteric and peremptory. “Sometimes” she says, “you have to tell them to shut up.” Still, five members of her recently assembled board are architects.

The Design Trust is still largely supported by profits from her real estate business. Woodner says frankly that being the principal donor of the Trust has given her the liberty to put her ideas into practice. In other hands, such power might have led to a kind of vanity foundation. But Woodner's strong belief in the participatory nature of well-designed public space is reflected in the generous design of her organization and in its inclusive intention and process. She is gratified that her board members are taking ownership of the ideas of the Trust, and she also feels that recent grants from other sources such as the Commonwealth Fund, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, and the New York State Council on the Arts along with donations from individuals are another way that participation in the Trust is widened and the number of stakeholders increased.

Woodner speaks passionately about her love for public spaces and for their impact as participatory social generators. She believes that the lack of well designed public space leads to isolation and factionalism, and she points out that Central and Prospect Parks, the spaces of the Public Library system, and the reclaimed walkways and piers along the East and Hudson Rivers are, quite literally, popular places — salient features of civic identity and barometers of urban viability.

. . .

The Design Trust and World Studio Foundation are very different entities, shaped to fit particular circumstances, but they parallel each other in the vision and energy of their founders and in the way the founders achieve their goals. Both foundations are innovative, entrepreneurial, and hands-on in practice. Much of their efficacy comes from the fact that the founders earn their living in the arenas in which their foundations operate. They work from inside their industries, turning business acquaintances into donors and allies, mentors and expert advisors. Founders and board members are in a powerful position to harness the resources of their professions in the service of each foundation's enterprise.

Sterling and Woodner are both engaged in successful businesses, have a passion and respect for their professions, and allow their professional enthusiasms to shape their foundations. They both are practicing their belief that a symbiotic relationship between not-for-profit and for-profit has great potential, that the bottom line can be much more imaginatively drawn. Woodner's integrity made me — an eternal tenant — feel differently about the business of real estate; Sterling's use of advertising to promote racial equality, ecological preservation, and international communication persuaded me — a defacer of subway posters — that advertising doesn't have to be just greedy graffiti. Oh, yes — and this may have something to do with their vision and its practical success — they're both artists.

Mary Griffin is a writer and producer. With Carlota Schoolman she produces Arranged Introductions: Art Works in Different Places, a program of Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, which commissions artists to make work in cooperation with community organizations. With composer Joseph Hannan she is writing a triptych of operas about saints. The first two sections, “Christina the Astonishing” and “Lovers and Sick Cattle,” were presented at the Whitney, Roulette, and the Performing Garage.