London Design Festival 2009: The What Women Make Report

Chair Arch conceived of by Wallpaper’s Henrietta Thompson

The week transcended all expectations.  With a day’s distance from my time at the fair, I see the trends as follows: Reality skewing shapes, new world order inventions for sustainability rocketing us into better mousetraps, intellectual pursuit, bold against black, color and selfassuredness. Here I recount my path of discovery:


The day of my arrival in London was spent gearing up for a week of design immersion. I went to Sainsbury’s to get cereal and yogurt so I wouldn’t be slowed down by morning hunger and was wowed by the convenience of automatic check out. A system that dispenses bills no less. Much easier than Ikea’s system. Do we (America) have that anywhere? Easy, clear, convenient and fast. My good branding and service loving side was in heaven. (I’ve been living in Paris and Barcelona for the past three years.)

Then I went to W.H. Smith and browsed the London city guides looking for something that wasn’t going to consider Big Ben the vital destination and ended up with just an A-Z mini map because everything from Time Out to Not For Tourists felt too commercial or too broad.



Ceramics in the City

It was only when I got to the beautiful, green and tranquil Geffrye museum for Ceramics and the City that I found Max Fraser’s London Design Guide which as it turns out had just been published and would be all over the place within days. It has clear maps by neighborhood and covers everything from big commercial design stores and hotels to the small and independent but it doesn’t consider fashion to be design other than a few biggies like Paul Smith and Dover Street Market and therefore misses the design worthy independents like No-one on Kingsland Road which I found to be a bit of a shame.


Geffrye Museum

At Ceramics in the City, a one day sale of local work, the big winner for me was Hitomi McKenize. Her pieces are a refined snapshot of the spinning ceramic wheel in motion. (F) The museum itself is like a hidden oasis in East London. Along the back there is a hall with small wooden benches and a wall of windows facing fluttering green leaves and dappled sunlight. A great place to sit and read or write.


I looked through all the Brick Lane and market stall stores stopping on my way back to talk with the owner of semi permanent pop up shop, Marsh-mellow, a store dedicated to festival goers in the UK. No longer just the one-off viral marketing stunts they started out as, pop up stores are now the norm for testing the marketplace before leaping. The vibe in London was palpably one of moving forward in creative, thoughtful and innovative ways though. I didn’t get a sense of doom and gloom or the impression creative types were holding onto a safety raft.

Next was dinner with a Japanese exporter who showed meticulously crafted leather goods at Maison & Objet in Paris for the first time and was only in London on his way out of town. We discussed a shared passion for the dying ancient traditional crafts of Japan at Sake No Hana in Mayfair which only made me long for the real thing. When I asked him why the Japanese always eat Japanese food when they’re abroad he said he can do with a few days of European food or Chinese but then he just finds anything but Japanese too greasy.


In the morning I went to pick up my press card and looked through the V&A Telling Tales exhibition of expressionistic escapist furniture and design.

I am trying my hand at agent as well as brand strategist to female led projects so I checked out a handful of recommended stores supporting independent designers. One of these was Beyond the Valley off Carnaby street where I met the affable but fashion week rushed buyer and had a chat.

Then I made my way to the famed “b store” on Saville Road which left me markedly underwhelmed. It’s one of those concept stores that are dark, cold, housing a paltry collection of overpriced garments exalted way beyond their level of originality or interest – with the requisite shelf of independent handmade magazines, “Me” magazine, the newspaper format magazines focusing on one very specific banal obsession, in this case ‘light’, and a self-involved sales staff that never looked up to say hello. There are one or three of these in every fashionable city.


me at Skandium

This was a surprise because everywhere I’d been in until now, the friendliness and charm had been total which I think is way more modern than aloof unfounded snobbery of past years (or of Paris in general) so with b store, I really could not see what all of the fuss was about.

Here’s a regret. On the other end of the humanist spectrum, I missed the ‘Reclaim’ exhibit at Eco Age. It was just too out of the way of everything else. I had really wanted to meet Orsola de Castro who with partner John Teal made art out of unclaimed luggage. I hope to catch up with them via email. I thought of them when my eyes landed on a quilt made from dolls and baby toys at 100% Design. They made a similar quilt out of the contents of the luggage.


Tuesday the pace increased exponentially. I missed Responsible Design – and not because I was irresponsible! – but because the website said the talk was at 9:30 and it was actually at 8:30 but I recovered from the glitch while perusing the Brompton Design district. The Knit Wit exhibit at Skandium was lovely though I wouldn’t say terribly unique. The store itself is a joy, especially Klaus Haapaniemi’s Iittila cups. Afterwards, I sat down with the striking Priscilla Carluccio, owner of Few and Far and of brother Terence Conran and Habitat fame (F) and then went around the corner to Mint, a gallery shop that sits on the border of design and art, cherishing concept and metaphor over strict functionality. The staff were knowledgeable, unpretentious and welcoming and the content, strangely beautiful. The highlight was the “At One” couch made from ash, latex, crushed velvet, and foam by Charlotte Kingsnorth who was influenced by rising obesity and the paintings of Jenny Saville. The work is a comment on  the relationship between a human being and their furniture “which has been devoured by its obese occupier.” This bulbous melting structure was actually pretty comfortable.


lunch at Portobello Dock

tomdixonwallNext I went to interview Dieneke Ferguson, founder of Hidden Art. For the duration of the London Design Festival, Hidden Art took up residence at Tom Dixon’s temporary exhibition and showroom space at Portobello Dock which also housed nascent designer projects. Dieneke who is Dutch, has been a kind of fairy godmother for independent designers and artisans in the UK for the past twenty years, eleven of which under Hidden Art (F). It was day one in the space for her and we took some time trying to figure out the process for ordering lunch. She had the rabbit. I’d eaten a sandwich in transit and had my third cup of coffee of the day which didn’t hinder my sleep one iota by the time I went to bed.

I ended the working day with an interview with Danish designer Nina Tolstrup whose Pallet Project created a second life for “pallets” (wooden crates) as chairs. She commissioned artists Gavin Turk and Cornelia Parker to paint a chair each. The chairs were auctioned off for a charitable organization where women in poor neighborhoods in Buenos Aires come together to make pallet chairs for their community. The woman who set up the foundation approached Nina with her idea after seeing her chairs online. (F).


Wednesday: the actual fair now a day away, I had a packed schedule. I attended the book launch of “Discovering Women in Polish Design: Interviews and Conversations” which to date was the most eye opening and relevant to What Women Make’s global / local female focus (F).


glass house at Wapping Project

At night I ended up missing Lee Broom’s opening that I’d RSVPd to as well as the London Design Medal which I do regret, but I made a new friend who creates textiles and innovates design processes, one of which will be used to ornament hospital ceiling tiles. shoedesignertalkI was introduced to her by the Blueprint Magazine product editor, Luca Amadei, who led and wrote the Polish Design book project. I’d met him the night bfore at Nina’s party and we hit it off right away. Ana Aranjo, who moved to London from Belo Horizonte, Brazil, teaches at Oxford when she’s not running her company, Atelier Domino. She invited me to a talk at the Wapping Project. We had dinner in the converted factory and she filled me in on London creative entrepreneur life as I considered a move there.


around the corner from Persephone Books near Russell Square

The highlight of my week was between breakfast and dinner. It was my interview with Nicola Beauman of Persephone Books. It had nothing to do with design. After all, What Women Make is not just about design but about creative women and female leaders leading creative businesses. Ten years ago after stints at the Financial Times and the Observer, and a book of her own under her belt about women writers, Nicola founded her publishing house and bookshop in Bloomsbury. Persephone Books publishes out-of-print female authors from the 19th century that she personally loves. I won’t say any more. You’ll have to wait for the interview to post. (F)


The fair arrived. I started with Designers BlockDesignersBlock where I stopped four or five women designers whose work caught my eye, from recent grads to new entries, to the hugely successful founder of Ella Doran. The rest of the day was spent walking a maze of delight around 100% Design, definitely concentrating on the back center and right quadrant for new and experimental design and concepts dealing with sustainability. (F)


Reluctant to admit this is my last day, I was slower than the rest to make it out the door. When I did, I headed right to Brick Lane’s Truman Building for Tent thinking its at least a half-day event but I ended up seeing only one or two items of note and finish the single floor in forty minutes including a chat with a woman who upholsters beautiful antique trunks with her hand printed textiles.

All in all, my evenings this week were spent mostly with friends and not at parties, save one. That might bore you, but on my last evening dead tired and unable to make it back to East London for the festivities, I spent it gathered at a bottle of wine with a new New York acquaintance lamenting our city’s dwindling steam, both of us for the first time considering moves to the dynamic, engaging, poised, diverse, and somehow seemingly more intellectual and daring, London.

And that’s my trip. Please follow me on twitter and my RSS feed to be alerted to the interviews and features as they post. A selection of photos of women and their work will post next and a video of the week will be coming shortly after.

-Chauncey Zalkin


Definition of a Designer-Maker + 11 Things To Love


from ffffound, work of Roland Tiang Co

The apt definition of designer-maker given on the hidden art website is worth repeating here:

“Designer-Makers design and make their own unique work, on a small or large scale. Hidden Art promotes and supports designer-makers who design and make functional items in three main categories:

  1. Designer-Makers who produce hand-made items. For example, a potter whose work does not involve mass production.
  2. Designer-Makers who design and then in some or all instances sub-contract out the turning of the design into a product. They may oversee the making of the product, but they do not produce it themselves.
  3. Designer-Makers most possibly with a degree in product design, who develop a new design or concept, and then look for a manufacturer to produce it. Their ultimate aim is to become a pure designer and they themselves do not ‘make’ their designs into tangible products.”

Marie Langaa - teapot cast from textile. Doorknob handle. Danish Crafts on DesignBoom

Here are some things that I’ve run across and twittered about but haven’t had time, preparing and presenting my ethnography seminar and now my trip tomorrow to London to confront the onslaught of design euphoria, to share — but as I make way for more, here I give you a “check it out” rundown of all I’ve starred over the past weeks.

  1. Narrative Identities by Nadia Troeman, on She’s created a color wheel identity and branding system that shifts and changes based on the culture of the student body.  She’s a graduate student at Central Saint Martins.
  2. A retrospective of the work of Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovi.
  3. The Cardinal Club. Somehow eating in the private backyard of someone’s East Village apartment seems like the freshest idea. Not about a woman maker but, well, partly. Caitlin Zaino reports.
  4. Supermarket Sarah, creative female entrepreneur. Like the Cardinal Club she’s opened up her home, a welcome respite from the maddening crowds of overwrought luxury stores and fast fashion stampedes. She moves between her Portobello Market stall and her home as Swiss Miss reports, “offering teas and cakes” to shoppers of her eclectic collection.
  5. Repurpose. Weed through Margo‘s slapdash crafts page to find some real gems and inspiration. I can see someone re-imagining, for example, some of her work with china wreaths and swags.
  6. Paula Wallace, president and co-founder of Savannah College of Art and Design, guestblogging for Fast Company.
  7. A piece on the Women’s Monument in Memory.  Female Victims of Political Repression, Santiago, Chile.
  8. PIG 05049

    PIG 05049

    Christien Meindertsma’s book of photographs shows the path of a pig from the day it is slaughtered to all of its disparate uses – and it is the first ever communication design entry to be a finalist at the INDEX:DESIGN awards.

  9. Jean Madden’s beds for the homeless, Street Swags, won the Index:Design award. ‘design to improve life.’
  10. Lisa Maria Grillos bike bags write up in the New York Times, a feature entitled Plan B about businesses after the pink slip, reminds me of when I was similarly featured in a Daily News article entitled “Meet New York’s Newest Entrepreneurs” after 9/11. My ‘dog hoodies’ and I pictured big on the front. While my hoodies were indeed cute, a big hit, and told the story of my 2003, it takes a lasting passion for a product and its trajectory from homemade to a  full fledged large scale distribution channel to make it work. For me, hoodies weren’t my longtime passion but I had a fun run.  Maris Grillos bike bags show keen insight into a problem and if she can and has the desire to grow big without compromise, she may have more than what  the Times calls ‘accidental entrepreneurship’ on her hands.
  11. Miranda July,  filmmaker, writer, installation artist of sorts, and now… pillows!
    -Chauncey Zalkin

18 Predictions For The Future To Live By Now

  1. The intelligent craftsperson is the visual world’s thought leader.
  2. A challenge to the primacy of traditional currency – a resurgence and innovation in barter.
  3. The most useful and most simple exchange of goods and service wins.
  4. Learning how to continue to trade, create value and be compensated in the face of the creative commons shift. People will not pay for things they can get for free therefore creativity that is spreadable through the ether (music, movies) must find a new way to be supported, through networks of supporters. The contract will be implicit. Just not sure yet how.
  5. Living life as a combination of your online identity and brand and your offline interactions, enriching both through the recording and refining of both to its bare essence of what matters most to us.
  6. Consumers are empowered with increasing control over the shaping of the things they surround themselves with. Products we consume must be refined to their ultimate utility. The consumer is too savvy and stretched too thin to tolerate poor design and unnecessary steps in service. New creative challenges result in more innovation in design, higher mental processes up the ante, more inventions result and inventions that matter, that speak to our current concerns of climate, sustainability, environment, crowded spaces, creating more time for our hurried society to enjoy life.
  7. Remember that sustain means creating something that allows us to stay on this planet longer, to enrich future cycles in the life of a thing, allow for continuous improvement, continued harmony.
  8. As technology is further and further integrated into our mobile lives we will become untethered to our computers again and our interactions will exist in a third space, now forming.
  9. As more exciting innovative materials are being created and light sources are redefined and evolved, the raw organic materials from metal to wood to vegetal fabrics will be prized and cherished and treated with respect. Nature the new ‘love mark’.
  10. Finding ways for us to live for a common good instead of an increasingly alienating individualistic and ephemeral satisfaction. Individualism will be more and more about satisfying both social and common needs and finding time and space to recharge. Rampant selfishness and egoism is now subsiding.
  11. The end of the traditional fashion magazine. A centralized authority defining what we should love, follow, wear, is falling to the wayside as more diverse voices share the stage and fashion moves so quickly as to be as unremarkable as yesterday’s lunch special.
  12. Design is integrated into utility. Design means organization of principles. Ordering. Prioritizing. We will have to take the most time and care at this stage because competition is fierce. Homogeneity is a constant threat. And for the process to be invisible, it must be thoughtfully considered beforehand.
  13. Simplicity is king but that doesn’t mean dull.
  14. Scent and color become design elements.
  15. Everything has a purpose but that purpose might be visceral, might be emotive. We have to listen to culture and hear the shifts.
  16. We must stop saying ‘consumer’ and say ‘people’ ‘person’ ‘citizen’. As marketers and developers, we are on the same side. We must not work to ‘trick’ people into buying. We must respect their needs and serve up the best solution, the best most enjoyable experience or product.
  17. Create whimsy. Create pleasure. Get people to think. Promote expansiveness. Promote progress. Promote sharing.
  18. Time is a luxury. Time will be a currency. We will ‘pay’ in order to have more time.

An agency in Barcelona asked me what I thought about the future and this is how I answered in an email. It came off the cuff and still holds true for me more than a year later.

-Chauncey Zalkin

All rights reserved.


What Women are Making in West Africa: Mali

Picture 8

I made a new friend from Mali here in Barcelona. Just around the corner from the church he has a store in bright yellow with:

  • handmade watering cans of recycled tins
  • plastic woven rugs in all sizes and colors
  • a cloth patchwork map of Africa sewn on a pillowcase
  • huge colorful straw baskets
  • wire mobiles
  • and best of all, these bracelets which are melted plastic shoes made into necklaces (made to layer) and these bracelets. In the store he has snapshots of women sitting on overturned buckets working over a flame.

    • 3 € / 5
    • 5 € / 10.

    The owner is working on opening a boutique hotel in Mali which I’m sure will be just as uniquely stylish and joy-inducing as his store

    Of course my interest is in female artisans — he has assembled a team of fellow craftspeople of the female variety who work on projects for him for his store. He imports in huge canisters and lives a happy life with his Catalan girlfriend and young son. He’s come a long way through his years spent homeless in Paris after his papers ran out and his pride prevented him from crashing on friends couches for very long. He read, he worked on his craft, and was patient; making his way to dishwasher, then supplier to an African boutique (now closing) in my old Marais neighborhood, to a store of his own here in Barca.

    Because of him, Mali is my first entry in What Women Make! Welcome!

    -Chauncey Zalkin


New York Design: War of Words

I posted this because I  learned  all I know about design while living in Europe the past four years. In New York, I thought design was just expensive (sometimes very eye-catching and lovely) couches for the rich. I didn’t really think that – but that’s the way it appeared. It was a bit off-putting, slightly antagonistic. As much of NY high materialism can be. It couldn’t be further than the real value of design and I want to hold onto what I know and feel now when I return to New York in 3 weeks..

Design Loves A Depression

Few of the arts benefited from the late economic boom more than design. After all, when the wealth is flowing, people don’t covet the concerts you see or the books you read. They covet the couch you bought, and then they buy a cooler one.

…one way or another, design will focus less on styling consumer objects with laser-cut patterns and colored resin and more on the intelligent reworking of current conditions. Expect to hear a lot more about open-source design, and cradle-to-cradle

Jan 3, 2009,

via  New York Times

Murray Moss’ response:

(the following response by Moss was hard to find. It left it’s Design Observer home some time between when I first posted this and today so I want to keep it here for posterity. Hope I’m not breaking any copyright rules here. Let me know if so.)

This past Sunday’s The New York Times “Week in Review” section featured an article by Michael Cannell titled “Design Loves a Depression” which has already received some wide (and in some cases approving) circulation within design circles and beyond. In it, he claims that with the current economic downturn, the design professions have received a well-deserved comeuppance. “The pain of layoffs notwithstanding,” says Mr. Cannell, “the design world could stand to come down a notch or two — and might actually find a new sense of relevance in the process. That was the case during the Great Depression, when an early wave of modernism flourished in the United States, partly because it efficiently addressed the middle-class need for a pared-down life without servants and other Victorian trappings.”

Design loves a depression? I can assure you that design, along with painting, sculpture, photography, music, dance, fashion, the culinary arts, architecture, and theatre, loves a depression no more than it loves a war, a flood, or a plague. Michael Cannell’s article is regressive and mean-spirited, and it demands a response.

“Design tends to thrive in hard times,” says Mr. Cannell. No, it doesn’t. It tends to suffer, like any of the other humanistic disciplines. New ideas do not get championed or realized. Leadership turns to market-driven accommodation.

Of course, design will of necessity respond creatively to an economic downturn. It always has. And many talented, world-celebrated designers (including Hella Jongerius, Marcel Wanders, and Fernando and Humberto Campana, of whom Cannell is so disdainful) will no doubt articulate a myriad of rich, generous responses that are problem solving and practical, as well as responsive to monetary and material concerns. These and other great talents will also address through their work other areas of our lives, those human concerns we rely on the arts to embrace, including our emotional, intellectual, cultural, sociological, and political well being.

But apparently these humanistic concerns are of no interest to Mr. Cannell. Or at least I sense that he, along with Julie Lasky, anachronistically consider such topics irrelevant to design. He quotes Ms. Lasky: “If household furnishings are to avoid landfills…it will be about finding the sweet spot between affordability and durability.” That’s it? The only measure of good design is whether it’s cheap (by whose standards, by the way?) and sturdy? Ikea and Target are to be our official standard-bearers of good design?

It’s in reference to the Campana-designed $8,910 Corallo Chair and the $10,615 Jongerius-designed “Ponder sofa” (though I presume he is referring to her Polder Sofa) that Mr. Cannell proposes that the design world “come down a notch or two.” Is he suggesting that these great works should adapt something that in his personal opinion would be a more “democratic” pricepoint? What would that number be, exactly, and who would arbitrate it as accessible? (Perhaps they should be priced as the proverbial Nixonian Good Republican Cloth Coat?) When he says “come down a notch or two,” does Mr. Cannell mean that Design should retreat from its current expansive, ambitious, fearless, exploratory, guild-breaking, all-encompassing plateau, from its hard-won re-positioning in the Arts? And revert back to what? To the perceived mid-century notion of efficiency and comfort? What regressive, back-in-the-box, frozen-in-the-mid-20th century absolutist utopian modernist “democratic” criteria for evaluating contemporary design is Mr. Cannell proposing from his alleged “front row seat” on design?

Designers and their true supporters have fought hard over the last fifteen years to expand the definition of design, not shrink it. Yes, to “notch it up.” To cross established boundaries for the discipline. To allow design to address multiple tasks — including function — as well as the myriad other concerns that might be compelling to the designer. To expand the criteria with which we evaluate design, not shrink it. To not be afraid to talk about a “narrative” embedded in the design of a particular chair, or the sculptural nature of a table. To not relegate art solely to those flat canvases one can hang on one’s wall over one’s purely “functional” sofa. To allow designers the opportunity to evolve from simply being our society’s slavish problem solvers to — at their best — simultaneously being our poets. And some are doing this anyway, like it or not.

Mr. Cannell quotes MoMA’s Paola Antonelli as predicting for these difficult times “there will be less design, but much better design.” I hope so, but I strongly doubt that will come to pass. Better how? More like the good old “sensible” days, just after the last century’s Great Depression? It’s far more likely that there will be far less design innovation, period.

This is not a celebratory moment for design. Design-related businesses, including my own, are suffering, and will most likely continue to face very difficult times in the coming year, at the very least. That said, I deeply resent the tone of comeuppance in Mr. Cannell’s article, his condescending, parochial-school-matronly, Calvinistic reproach of the design that flourished during what he refers to as the “economic boom.” (I would use the term Renaissance). None of us — gallerists, collectors, architects, interior designers, and especially journalists — who love and respect the designers and the industrialists who have grown design during the past fifteen years should be smugly waving our fingers at those unruly designers who dared to speak without raising their hands, who fluidly transverse the terrain between art and design and lead us — some of us, evidently, resisting all the way — to new possibilities, way beyond those imagined by their counterparts in the mid-20th century.

We are the fortunate benefactors, not the dupes, of design’s evolution since our recovery from the last Great Depression. We should defend that progression with resolve. We should push forward, in whatever ways are still possible, even more strongly. We should lock arms and support one another. And we should not hesitate to challenge those, like Mr. Cannell, who would somehow, mistakenly and punitively, equate the current global economic meltdown with design’s recent surge. We should, and will, refuse to go back into the box.

In 1994, former fashion entrepreneur Murray Moss opened his eponymous store in a small former gallery space in New York City’s Soho, determined to transform the public perception of industrial product design. The store has since became internationally known for its product selection and presentation.


Fast Fashion and The Future of Retail

Zara, H&M, Forever 21, TopShop. Rags ripped and dangling from swinging hangers. Stampedes of the fashion flock echoing at closing time as the underpaid are left to pick up the last ripped price tag. Last month at the opening for Topshop in New York, I hear it was like pigs at the trough and in Tokyo the Forever 21 flagship attracted a line of people the night before.

Is all this lust for novelty going to just go away? Especially for the youth trendbot demo? I have my doubts.  We like to think that highly conscionable change agents make up the masses but it just ain’t the case.

But let’s just forget about sides at the moment, because this isn’t your run of the mill pendulum swing, our systems of consumption are truly broken right? And they needs fixing. But before calling for a full scale return of craft and demise of fast fashion, we have to be honest with ourselves and how we actually live our now-thrifty lives.

I became fully aware of the tons of crap I consume when I moved from New York to Miami back to New York to Paris and then Barcelona between 2004 and 2009. Now that I’ve got it down to the bare minimum of accumulation — very well made things, nostalgic keepsakes, and practical disposable goods, I am starting to see what matters most -or how to live better but since I’m not in a wealthy way these days, I do go to H&M for necessities and treat it like checking items off a grocery list. “Buy saturated orange top to work well with skirt I already own”, “need new tee shirts”,  and then once a year, “jeans falling apart, trip to Barney’s co-op”.

My clothes are my new bottle of dishwashing liquid. My bag of lemons. My six pack of chicken breasts. I replace the stained, the pilled, the misshapen by repeated washes when I need to and that’s about it. Can you blame me for being Coscoesque in my approach? I think of clothes as disposable because it seems that the 300$ + goods is just as fallible as the Forever21 tee shirts I own.

At the same time, just as I don’t have the means or inclination right now to buy a Bang and Olufsen stereo or a lampshade by Moustache lets say, the biggest design buzz from Salone del Mobile last week, I still seek objects that bring tactile pleasure, incite memory, offer balance, and celebrate aesthetic excellence because our object world relies on design to communicate and please. It’s a very important part of the human experience and one which stands totally apart from ‘it’ bags and this season’s boots.

The trick is to ask, do I want to collect this? If you do, that’s when you spend the money. If you’re going for novelty or just a clean pair of underwear, we’re going to have to learn some way to ween ourselves off fast fashion fast because it’s too late; we are no  longer willing to pay a high price for basics.

Consider the following quotes from a Core77 article entitled Selling the Future: Design and the Financial Crisis

  • “Make less. Make it better. Focus on craft.”
  • “Examine the thing you’re designing right now: Does it fulfill a fundamental human need?”
  • “People no longer pay for durability. They will.”

Well said.


Feature: Brand New Lessons from Ancient Japan


Brand Channel Homepage

This article started with the a trip to Tokyo and Kyoto working on a lifestyle brand inspired by Ancient Japan. My client wanted me to see with my own eyes this enigmatic culture revered the world over for its power and its mystery. The article is now up on BrandChannel with a bit more of a branding twist than it started out with (original article below).



By Chauncey Zalkin

Japan, the land of paradoxes.  From the start a collectivist society, Japan has always had a devout reverence for nature, a hardened understanding of what is now the biggest buzzword of our time, social responsibility, and yet a derring-do where only the brave, most visionary, and sometimes slightly wacky, need apply. These qualities, with all their distinctly Japanese nuances, couldn’t be more relevant to today’s branding challenges the world over.

Historically, In a simpler time before the jet age, Japan was physically isolated, surrounded by treacherous seas, formidable fault lines, and land three-quarters covered in mountains. The entire population clustered inside the land left – a constant reminder of nature’s strength and the need to adhere to a manageable social order. Their history of isolation led to a respect for nature and an emphasis on the group over the individual. The result was an enviable system of organization and ethos of constant improvement that gave rise to innovative brands and services.

As China and Korea look to transcend their reputation as efficient manufacturers and get into the branding game, they look to Japanese standards as a beacon. Brands like Toyota, Mitsubishi, Sony and smaller progressive brands like Muji and Uniqlo hold cues to the future for these emerging markets.  “For us, ’Made in Japan’ means quality”, says a Korean marketing MBA interviewed for this article and an employee of Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto in Paris. While other east Asian countries are still finding their capitalistic identity mostly by westernizing, she explains “the Japanese dare to be themselves.” After the Beijing Olympics, Reuters reported that a new game was under way, ‘telling China’s economic future by reading the tea leaves of Japan’s past’.  By all accounts, China yearns for Japanese standards of style and hospitality.

Superb craftsmanship, strict standards and attention to detail are what makes Japanese corporations the envy of all the rest. But it’s the deeper cultural differences long embedded in Japanese society that are hyper-relevant to living and branding in a new, more accountable world.

The consumer perception of Toyota is that the perfect car is possible which is as much a part of their brand as it is their internal workings.  On the other end of the spectrum, Comme des Garcon’s creator Rei Kawakubo and her stable of designers are known in the industry for pursuing the ultimate form of creation. Its this combination of pushing the limits with a particularly Japanese brand of restraint, that is most ingenious.



In ancient Japan, once someone did even a small favor for a stranger, for example, picked something up off the street that you dropped, you had to reciprocate. The ancient word for a social obligation that must be repayed was an ‘on’. One could wear an ‘on’ their whole life if they did not or were not able to reciprocate. In ancient Japan, it was considered by many to be a burden. Even now, every individual is strongly linked to every other individual in Japanese society.

There is no literal translation for the phrase “kuuki wo yomu” in English but it means to ‘read the air’, essentially to get a sense of the feeling of the room or the group. In a recent social experiment, Japanese and Western participants were shown an individual standing in front of a crowd and asked to describe what the individual was thinking. The Japanese test takers ‘read the air’ when assessing the situation. They considering the facial expressions of the group behind the individual, whereas westerners focused solely on the expression of the individual in the foreground.

The fundamental principle at Toyota is kaisen or ‘continuous improvement’. Another is genchi genbutsu or ‘mutual ownership of problems’. When Toyota CEO Yuki Funo was asked if he might star in a Toyota ad (as the American president of General Motors had), he said something along the lines of, ‘there’s not one single hero, we all are.’ The ability of a brand to be socially conscious and consciously expansive are crucial. Social responsibility is now inexorable to a company’s reputation.



One set of slippers is for the house. Another, for the bathroom.  Sake comes before, not during, the meal.  After a Japanese meeting, it’s time for karaoke and raucous good times. The working day is done.  Each experience has its place, and for that time, every other experience is put aside.

Japanese patterns and rituals have the ability to clear the senses, to reorder what the mind takes in.  Interiors are marked by clean, minimal lines and stripped to their bare essence.  Nature is controlled in Zen gardens or the pruning of a bonsai tree.  Each object in the landscape is distinct and pure.

‘Shibui’ means inobtrusive beauty.  ‘Wabi Sabi’ is the reflection of inner perfection, simplicity, the rustic and the unembellished. Muji, for example, employs top designers whose names are absent from all packaging and merchandising.

In the hospitality and service industry, the flashy boutique hotel with its disco lobbies has had its day.  Luxury now is about time and space, superior construction, and escape from the ordinary.



Number five of Toyota’s fourteen guiding principles is “Be reverent, and show gratitude for things great and small in thought and deed.”

There’s been a shift in the U.S. collective consciousness — green is no longer an issue marginalized to fanatical environmentalists; nearly all Americans display green attitudes and behaviors versus a year ago.

-WPP, 2007

Japan is by many measures the world’s most energy-frugal developed nation.

-New York Times referring to Japan’s “single-minded dedication to reducing energy use”, 2008

“Custom-made and one-of-kind are rising above the mass-produced.”

-Head of Trend Research, JWT, 2007

(Luxury consumers) are looking for unique handcrafted things that can’t immediately be reinterpreted at every level of the marketplace.”

Brand Media Week, 2008

Japan is known for sci-fi style innovation but also for employing nature’s materials.  Japan’s ancient Shinto religion is based on reverence for nature and the power of the spirit of animals.  Zen Buddhism pays homage to nature in the form of pristinely preserved rock gardens and an abundant use of natural materials.

From Maison Objets in Paris to Salone del Mobile furniture fair in Milan to PCBC show in California, design and building news is dominated by natural and renewable materials.

In all communities, even in our post-industrial individualistic society, we’re tribal in some aspects and isolated in others.  The values of social responsibility, respect for nature, and a distinctly more modest and subtle luxury are extremely relevant in a saturated environment of strident individualism, materialism, waste, and social alienation.




As Luxury Changes with the Times, A Few (Timeless) Lessons from France

(edited and published on Brand Channel) – When branding industry experts and enthusiasts discuss luxury, they generally agree that products of French provenance enjoy a distinct advantage. Words like perfection, detail, heritage, and the French “touch” are peppered throughout conversation. In fact, to witness true luxury, all one has to do is look around France itself —the immaculately preserved masonry of the stone buildings, the glimmering gold-tipped iron gates, and the regal gilded statues polished to perfection.

With more than 30 million fashion-hungry and camera-toting visitors every year, Paris, the “City of Light,” is the most popular tourist destination in the world and France with its vineyards, lavender fields, and regional cuisines, is the most visted country with 79 million per year but the center of all that glory is Paris.  From the gold hued river Seine with its glimmering reflection of the Eiffel tower to the notorious French locals and their surly relationship with t-shirt loving vacationers, the underlying psychology of the city is rooted in a heritage of beauty and meticulous attention to detail. Lionel Crochet, a luxury travel business owner located right off the famed Avenue Montaigne ( says “Paris is a big swimming pool of the best of what the world has to offer. Growing up in a French household, you develop a taste for quality.  You are raised with the best.  We might not have it in our genes to be super efficient or hyper creative in a trendy sense but in regards to a Chanel suit, 20 years later, you wouldn’t move a stitch.” A local Paris bar-goer describes his home city by explaining that the term luxury comes from the Latin root lux, the Latin word for light, and, in French, there is actually le luxe, the masculine, and la luxure, the feminine, which doesn’t occur in English—a branding tragedy!

French luxury brands remain decidedly on the top of the luxury pyramid. French holding companies LVMH and PPR reign over the luxury marketplace and consumer perception when it comes to the finer things in life just like their forbearers -the ‘createurs’ that dressed kings, queens, aristocrats and the upper bourgeoisie.

However, the very idea of luxury brands and branding is undergoing unprecedented analysis due to issues such as the shifting tide of global economics, the increasing availability of so-called ‘luxe’ products, and of course ‘green’ fever. The latest buzz regarding luxury brands stems from two books in particular. The first is Dana Thomas’ Deluxe, How Luxury Lost It’s Luster, which provides a detailed overview of the history of Paris couture—for example, the more than 200 hours of work that go into the creation of a single gown and the moment in time when the visionaries behind the frocks came to hold sway over the aristocrats who wore their designs.

This was an important development in the history of luxury brands for two vital reasons (1) the creator was empowered to focus on quality  – asking can you sit, can you stand, what will you be doing in the dress, etc. –for these were dresses made to be worn repeatedly.  They were not disposable fashion and (2) creators came to dictate (in the strictest sense of the word) fashion and style as indispensable counsel to aristocrats seeking advice on trends, elegance, and taste.

The very idea of luxury came about a close relationship between the master creator and the client.  Thomas talks about the modern day massification of luxury brands and the consequential loss of “luster” now that the sense of exclusivity and the special je ne sais quoi of luxury items have been compromised by mass production and increasing financial means. The very rich must now (and do) look for even more heightened and exclusive luxury experiences—so take note luxury brands.

Another even more riveting book, The Cult of the Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury, charts the rise of luxury brands on the other side of the world. In the collectivist societies of Asia, which are enjoying sustained prosperity, luxury shoppers are more than mere consumers; they are fanatics. in Asia, a Louis Vuitton bag is more than a must-have luxury; it’s even become an icon of Japanese culture. The Japanese account for 40 percent of all luxury purchases worldwide. China is growing exponentially, and both India and South Korea have a growing and voracious demographic of luxury brand-obsessed consumers. In the wake of this shift, the long courted US market is no longer seen as the premiere demographic in which to push luxury brands and lifestyles.

Poise, grace and careful attention to detail is apparent in the demeanor of the new generation.  Hotelier Antoine Chevalle, 34, of family-owned jetset hotel, The Byblos in Saint Tropez (where Mick and Jade Jagger had their wedding in 1967) takes pride in what his family has built and honors its tradition yet he doesn’t take anything for granted.  In an office unlike our utilitarian and minimalist American boardrooms, oil paintings surround a long carved wooden table. This is where Mr. Chevalle’s sits, hands politely folded in front of him, and explains, “luxury to me is made to order or ‘sur mesure’.  It has to be created especially for an occasion and has nothing to do with mass market.  Luxury is a hand-crafted experience for specific people.”

Take couture as the ultimate example.  Today couture is an oft misused word in the English language.  “Couture”, loosely translated means dressmaking or needlework and “haute” means high so ‘haute couture’ implies hand-done made for measure garments fitted to the individual.  In reality, true couturiers are comprised of a short list approved by the Chambre Syndicale De La Couture via a decree issued yearly by a special commission of the Ministry of Industry. They must employ a minimum of 15 or 20 technical sewers along with a slew of other criteria and aesthetic judgments – yet the bastardization of the term is rampant.

In fact, with today’s growing luxury brand-obsessed demographics spreading across the globe, there is a risk of a real devaluation in the value and perception of luxury brands as they become more available, accessible, and attached to the bling quotient.

When it comes to luxury brands then and now in fact, much is lost in translation. For example, when asked about luxury brand sales, one Parisian personal shopper to wealthy clientele, Noémie Khatchadourian (, says she has a hard time finding American clients with the declining strength of the US dollar. “All of my clients are Russian. I must educate them on the French touch though.  When they first come to me, all they want is bling.”

The concept of “bling” is decidedly at odds with the French concept of luxury. In fact, Noémie, in a follow up to her own comment, asks about bling, “Is this an Italian word? I don’t know the origin of this word.” After being informed that rap and hip hop are responsible for the term bling, she — still bewildered and not understanding this is not a guess — comments, “I don’t know… maybe it comes from England?”  A person at the next table hesitantly agrees, “Yes, Angleterre.”  When, finally convinced that bling is indeed from the streets of America, illustrated by the gold-fronted teeth and knuckle rings of rap album covers, she gasps, fascinated, “Really?”

The French value the idea of longevity and the importance of heritage as it relates to the quality of products.  In a modern day marketplace where character is achieved in clothing through “distressed” jeans and shirts, many people tend to think of authenticity as something we manufacture—like theme parks. The French appreciate heritage because it contains the story of themselves—their identity. Who they are has been fermenting for years in the barrels of wines, and is etched deep in the stones of their 15th-19th century architecture.  “The acknowledgement that one is great because one is standing on the shoulders of past giants is essential if we are going to be serious about our work,” says creative director Alexander Gallé ( who has worked on French luxury brands YSL, Garrard and Boucheron. And nobody could ever accuse the French of not being serious – least of all about their luxe.  Philippe Mihailovich – a South African brand strategist and university professor who grew up with a chic Parisian perfumer mother whose mother was a “Fath” as in famous designer Jacques Fath – moved here five years ago to investigate luxury brand culture says “With French luxury, it’s the story, the true authentic story.  Without that, without the heart, your brand is nothing.”

For many luxury brands the French touch is where the value lies—that combination of heartfelt whimsy, that elusive nuance that can’t be described, but no doubt exists, in an elegant product that is built to last. That never loses its meaning. For the French, quality comes before any apparent branding. In fact, the love of money is an object of scorn in France.  Branding grows out of reputation and is maintained by quality standards. Philippe Starck says, “We (the French) are the world guardians of abstractions.  The creators have to keep an extreme rigueur to deserve the glance of their peers. Thus, France is the country of quality.”

As for technology, indeed a major part of new luxury, branders might pull from other cultures and disciplines but without the ‘je ne sais quoi’ touch, no amount of technology or service or bling will matter in the game of luxury. For that we say, Vive la France.

An emerging irony is that the French themselves are being priced out of the luxury brand demographic. The owner of a well-known luxury multi brand store near Concorde, explains “We can not afford these things in our economy. We sell to the Chinese, the Russians, the Americans, the rest of the world.” “Real craftsmanship is breathtaking, so you will always find people who really ‘get it’” says Gallé.  Surely France will ultimately sustain their luxury heritage for the people within its borders as well as without – it’s sewn and knotted into its history

How can we be more like the French?

  1. Think of the long haul.  Build a brand with meaning, one that is rooted in a true story, not a story you manufacture and place adhoc on a brand.
  1. Say no to the ‘bling’ factor.  Don’t go for the cheap shot, the flashy bells and whistles that makes your brand hot one day and not the next.  Give your luxury brand time to ferment.
  1. Remember luxury, in the true sense, has zero to do with function and utility.  It’s about pleasure, beauty, and indulging yourself in a unique quality experience. Don’t lose that.  X says “the iconicity of the object becomes its raison d’être which is why jewelry, which has zero functionality, is the most prized luxury of all.”

“Chauncey writes about the current state of luxury from the French perspective. This week’s feature story on


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