Lisa Roberts: Inside A Design Mind


Lisa Roberts with Phillippe Stark's kettle Hot Bertaa | Photo: Kelly Turso

Lisa Roberts with Phillippe Stark’s kettle Hot Bertaa | Photo: Kelly Turso

Editor’s Note: Over the last decade, Center City resident Lisa Roberts has emerged as a keen observer of product design and architecture. A trained architect who has worked as a product designer, Roberts is an emeritus trustee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and for years a been a force behind the Museum’s design focused program, Collab, which gives out a prestigious annual award. At present, Roberts is a trustee of New York’s Cooper Hewitt Museum and now she’s out with her second book, DesignPop (Rizzoli), a narrated tour of exemplary work of industrial and product design by contemporary innovators. DesignPop debuts tomorrow night at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Nathaniel Popkin caught up with Roberts via e-mail for this Q&A.

Nathaniel Popkin: First off, this is your second design book. You’ve had a TV show dedicated to design, and for years you’ve been closely involved with the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Collab project. But you started your career as an architect. At what point did your interest in product design emerge for you as the stronger impulse—a true passion? Was there a catalyst?
Lisa Roberts: When I graduated from architecture school in the late 1970s, we were in the middle of a recession. It was very difficult finding work. Although I eventually did find a job, after six years I changed careers. I found that my design skills were transferable to other industries such as home furnishing design, giftware, and graphics. At the same time, the more established firms were looking for other things to design as well, and furniture and furnishings was a natural extension. So a trend began, architects started to design things they never had before like tea kettles, toilet brushes and trash cans. And I realized I was part of this movement.

DesignPop by Lisa Roberts

DesignPop by Lisa Roberts

NP: Your book covers design of the 21st century. Lighting, furniture, functional objects, etc. But the book itself is well designed: the information is easy to digest, the products are categorized smartly and effectively. How hard was this to do? Or did you have a picture in your mind of the book before you even began choosing products?
LR: First, I believed that a book about design should be well designed itself. I worked closely with the photographer Kelly Turso and the graphic designer Lisa Benn so that every aspect of the book sent a consistent message. Selecting the cover was crucial. I thought a book about product design should have a product element to it itself, so we used a padded vinyl with de-bossed lettering to make it very tactile. Second, the book is a selection of highlights of game changing designs in the past 15 years. I looked at what might make something a game-changer–a new material or production process, an unexpected typology, or an innovation in sustainability–and then sought out designs that featured these characteristics. We searched far and wide to find them going to museums, trade shows, designer’s studios, and stores. The hard part was selecting a wide range of examples for each chapter to give a balanced point of view.

NP: You make a great effort to help lay people understand the thinking behind product design. This is so critical—why did the designer make the choices she made? What were the constraints—this is essential for moving the conversation beyond questions of style and aesthetics. Is that your point?
LR: I think there are many ways to understand and appreciate design. It starts with aesthetics and functionality. But adding to this are the back stories of how designers get their ideas, the challenges they may have faced, or the design elements they incorporate which might be missed at first glance. These are the stories I like to tell, just as an art curator gives greater meaning to a painting when explaining what the artist was thinking, I see myself in the same role with design.

Pam Zonsius' Brelli, from DesignPop by Lisa Roberts

Pam Zonsius’ Brelli, from DesignPop by Lisa Roberts

NP: You have a design gallery adjacent to your Center City house (which is itself a kind of tableau for design choices). Here you curate, you choose, you put objects together. And you do so in DesignPop too. But then even among this curated group you must have favorites. For my part, I’m particularly enamored of the lighting you’ve chosen: the ToFU lamp, the Mercury Ceiling Lamp particularly, and some of the sustainable products, like the Brelli umbrella and the Kaktus stool. Do tell!
LR: When I talk about design to people who may not be in the industry, to get them on my wave length, I always mention the iPhone. Then they go “a-ha now I understand your direction.” Then I mention the Dyson products–the vacuum cleaner and the bladeless fan. If people know any designs, they know these. This is the ice breaker. Then I can go onto some of my favorites like the Peacock Chair by Dror Benshetrit made of industrial grade felt or the Pour and Store watering can by OXO which I use every time I water my plants. There are so many thoughtful design features in this one small product.

NP: You’ve certainly noticed the way advances in material process—3D printing, etc.—have transformed this field. What sort of affect is that having here in Philadelphia, among designers you know?
LR: More designers are using 3-D printing here and everywhere. But Philadelphia is one of the first to have a place where people can rent the equipment, be trained to use it and/or have the facility print your designs for you. It’s called NextFab. They have one major center and are planning smaller outposts around the city.

NP: And for that matter, who are the local designers that have caught your eye, and what are they producing?
LR: I like MIO and their work with sustainable design, Blue Cadet are digital designers creating inventive, interactive experiences, and Maria Eife, the Tyler-trained jewelry designer, is working with the latest technologies of laser cutting and 3-D printing.

NP: The designer Dieter Rams’ famous 10 principles for good design: (1) Good design is innovative. (2) Good design makes a product useful. (3) Good design is aesthetic. (4) Good design makes a product understandable. (5) Good design is unobtrusive. (6) Good design is honest. (7) Good design is long lasting. (8) Good design is thorough down to the last detail. (9) Good design is environmentally friendly. (10) Good design is as little design as possible. I wonder if your views match up to his? Anything you’d add, alter, or take away?
LR: I might reorder the list in terms of importance, as sustainable design has become a greater priority. And I would include an addendum to Dieter Rams’ 10 principles of good design: Good design should be non- discriminating, available and accessible to all.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."

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