Lisa Cheng Smith, chief design officer at Areaware
June 6, 2017
If you haven’t heard of Areaware, it’s still very possible you’ve come across their work—the design objects they produce are found everywhere from museum stores and local boutiques to the pages of the New York Times. Each of their seasonal catalogs is full of original works from small studios and independent designers, many of whom are being introduced to a larger audience for the first time. Lisa Cheng Smith, Areaware’s chief design officer, describes the company as the “connective glue between manufacturers, retailers, designers, and the public.”
I’ve long admired Lisa’s overarching design vision for Areaware’s products, but I hadn’t realized the level of detail, creativity, and critical thought she also puts toward the commercial and logistical aspects of her work. After studying both architecture and industrial design, Lisa shifted from a more conceptual practice to one focused on making good design accessible for the most people—to own, share, and pass down, rather than just appreciate. It’s clear in talking to her that her scholarship continues to inform her work.
In a conversation over email, she makes a case for why thoughtful product design should also have commercial value, and how considering art and commerce in unison can benefit the items we buy, our attitude toward material culture and our relationship with design.
Meg Miller: When and how did you start working with Areaware? What, in general terms, do you do there?
Lisa Cheng Smith: I started as Areaware’s creative director in May of 2014, three years ago almost to the day. My position has evolved constantly since that time. When I started, I was responsible for product selection and development, visual communications, and visual merchandising at industry exhibits and tradeshows. I had a team of three.
In May of 2015, I took on a larger role as chief design officer. It’s not the most descriptive title—I sort of view it like CEO-in-training. I currently oversee sales, marketing, product, and communications, which are all handled out of the Brooklyn office. We also have a Columbus, Ohio-based team that handles accounts, logistics, purchasing, and distribution. I work with them directly, but don’t manage that side of the business.
It’s been very enlightening and humbling to have all of these areas under my watch. I’ve learned so much about the industry ecosystems that products live in. It’s not just enough to make a great and desirable product, you also have to know how to communicate it, sell it, and deliver it. In fact, most products aren’t great at all, but they still do well because all other aspects of the equation are worked out, often at the expense of good design.
As much as I love to set the creative tone and direction of the brand, I have also grown to love the nitty gritty of resource and sales management. I don’t do any sales myself, but I do communicate deeply with the sales team. This provides me with a holistic view of the designs we produce—not just what designers and the press think of what we’ve done, but also how the consumers who are actually purchasing the products react to the choices we made. My ultimate goal is to make design products that designers can get behind and that the public want. To succeed in this is a constant exercise in listening and revising.
When I first announced my new role, a few friends were critical, like “How can sales and design be overseen by the same person? Aren’t they opposed?” I think that’s a common perception, but actually every company has to have someone who can see the big picture. I’m lucky that Areaware has chosen me—someone with a background in design. So often the lead is numbers-focused and the product becomes infinitely less interesting if design is sacrificed for other metrics. On the flipside, I still have a lot to learn about hitting numbers.
It’s hard to walk the line between art and commerce, but I want to enable designers to be represented in the marketplace successfully. I want independent designers to be able to compete with big box design-derivative brands. It’s one way to make a real impact on the material culture of our generation.
Could you expand a bit on the Areaware point of view, or what makes a product an Areaware product?
We are looking to do a few things. We want each product to represent the studio it came from—to have a design process beyond pure form-making or market-gaming. Each product has to be special, beautiful, and original. At the same time, it also has to have commercial potential.
The overlap in the Venn diagram of commercial and original is not always easy to achieve. This usually translates to doing a lot of work to get a product ready for market, because it hasn’t already been done by someone else. We always talk about how difficult products to manufacture are some of the best to make. Even though they require a lot of investment up front, they are very hard to copy.
How do you find most of the designers you work with?
It’s very much relationship driven. I won’t work with someone I haven’t met or at least had a phone conversation with. I prefer to work with designers who have shown that they can reinvent their practices, have a wide range of interests, and can remain self-critical. If you work with someone who has only ever done one good thing, it’s a lot of investment into a relationship that might not result in a continuing dialogue of work.
I also look for practitioners who are flexible in preparing a product for the market. Not all designers are excited to adjust their designs based on sales or manufacturing feedback. This makes it more difficult for us to do our jobs well, and the products suffer commercially. We try not to compromise any design intent, but I can’t deny that going to market with thousands of units always requires adjustment to the original. A small tweak can make or break a product, and we are experts in that.
You went to undergrad at MIT for architecture and then the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) for a masters degree in design studies, concentrating in designed objects. Why did you make that switch?
Designed objects is what SAIC called its product design program, to distance it from commerce. To be honest, this is what attracted me to SAIC over other programs, though I am in the opposite camp now.
I was interested in making design work that was not complicit in the commercial sector. This impulse came from my experiences in architecture—in that field, it felt that doing unbuilt works was an important part of having an impactful practice, because to make a building is a huge undertaking. There was no way to work if you didn’t take on self-driven non-commercial projects. I worked in architecture for a couple of years and loved it. I didn’t so much change as shift my focus–I was interested in approaching smaller scale objects with the same scholarly angle that I learned to approach spaces with.
Little did I know, it is such a different discipline, with a different set of skills, and a different dialogue. Of course there are overlaps, but I feel fairly disconnected from the bleeding edge of architecture scholarship now. Instead, I feel more connected with other forms of design—I know so much more about graphic and fashion design than I did as an architect. When I was working in architecture, I thought architects could design the best version of anything and therefore wasn’t very interested in other fields. Now I’ve done a 180 and really value specialization and the deep dialogues of other design disciplines.
In a way, I care more about architecture now. I’m less concerned with the heroics of form making, and much more interested in what makes a space one’s own. I’ve become interested in this idea of ‘Stimmung,’ a term coined by interior historian Mario Praz. As Witold Rybczynski put it in Home : A Short History of an Idea, ‘Stimmung is a characteristic of interiors that has less to do with functionality than with the way that the room conveys the character of its owner—the way that it mirrors his soul.’
For me, that’s a big driver of working in product design. As the cultural critic and religious historian Michel de Certeau examined in The Practice of Everyday Life, there is a capacity for self-expression in consumption patterns.
After SAIC, you ran the exhibition project Object Design League, as well as
—its brick-and-mortar off-shoot—with Caroline Linder for about five years. Can you talk about these two initiatives and how they influenced your thinking in regards to design and manufacturing?
In grad school, I was interested in applying design study to smaller objects that could move around the world, be used and misused, discarded and found again. I have always loved little objects and products, not as a collector, but as a pragmatist. But at the time, I was also very anti-commerce, anti-function and pro-conceptual. Now I view this as quite naive, especially given the mundane work I was making.
After graduating, Caroline Linder and I formed Object Design League, a sort of exhibition society. We put on group shows and staged events. This was wonderful in that it brought a community together. Over time, I realized that shows are an effective way to support artists through the sale of their art. This wasn’t as true for product design—it’s much more rewarding (and financially sustainable) when consumers are part of the equation. So we looked for a way to support designers the way exhibitions created financial opportunities for artists. We realized that product design is really a commercial activity at its core and we should treat it as such. So we got into licensing and production.
I’m still in that line of work. Though I am trained as a designer and employ these skills all day in all kinds of ways, I really view myself as a design facilitator. I’m developing a body of experience that will help me bring products into existence and get them into the hands of everyday people.
When I think back to all the design pieces I love—Castiglioni lamps, Enzo Mari puzzles, etc.—I realize that each one has a great manufacturer behind them. Without that, you might see these pieces in books or museums, but you’d never run across them in random antique shops or on eBay. I want people to run across the work I’ve touched 15, 20, and 30 years from now, in antique stores and their parents and grandparents homes.
Were there any theorists or artists in particular that influenced that thinking for you, either in school or in individual research?
I have been all over the map. There are the things that I read in grad school simply because I thought I should, like Derrida, Deleuze, etc. These have had basically no effect on me.
I have also come across things that I can’t let go of. Though it’s fairly controversial for being a white man’s version of Utopia, A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander has been very important to me because it speaks so much about lived experience and the granular detail in how humans occupy their spaces and create their habits.
I also love the writings Atelier Bow-Wow has done on “Behaviorology.” They have an insightful book of short essays called Echo of Space/Space of Echo that discusses experience. There is an essay on cleaning that describes sweeping a corner out with a broom as a way of interacting directly with the tiniest particles of the room. This research informs their conception of architectural space, but for me I think of all the implications of the broom and what that tiny experience should be like.
Though I haven’t read it in a long time, I was very much influenced by de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. It describes a way to live freely even within structures of control, by using ‘tactics.’ For example, taking a different route home when the city streets are set up to funnel you along a specific path. Or improvising with products in an ad-hoc fashion to give them functions that they were not ascribed by the companies that made them. I am always looking for a way to engage in commerce without being complicit in the negative effects of capitalism. This book always gave me hope that there was a way out that wasn’t a total rejection of industrialized production, which I do believe can have really beautiful and democratizing results at the best of times.
Do you have any personal projects going on at the moment, aside from your work at Areaware?
I should start some? I have been very slowly working on an eBay aggregator project, but can’t really talk about it. It’s been a few years in the making and basically uses eBay as an archive from which users can curate their own collections (and of course bid).
I would like to get into design writing. There is a lot of suspect stuff going on in the design world, but criticism is hard to come by. Design blogs are collections of press releases or cute spins on dumb stories. We can do better. This is the downside of being so commercial—everyone wants to sell sell sell.
What other artists and designers are you influenced by right now?
I reference the initial work Danese did as a brand almost daily. They were flirting with and representing the avant-garde at every turn, and yet were commercially successful. Enzo Mari and Bruno Munari are very well known names in design, but the brand work they did for Danese is amazing and is really not discussed.
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