IIDA Notes: Passion: Keeping the Fire Going

Oct. 1, 2005
By Eric Engstrom,
FIIDA Inspiration comes in many forms for designers in their “autumn years.”

Many designers, as they reach their mid-career and beyond, find themselves having to balance families, firm management, marketing and business development, and community activities. Oftentimes the subject or practice of design doesn't enter the daily activity mix—unless one is called upon to review the work of others. And whatever drove the designer into being a designer in the first place—that allconsuming passion and acute interest—seems to fade away. Life sometimes feels more like reaction than spontaneity, and the hot fire of youth gives way to fading embers.

A group of noted designers recently took part in a program sponsored by the Northern California Chapter of the International Interior Design Association (IIDA/NC) in San Francisco. IIDA's CEO Cheryl Durst moderated "Champions of Design," and the lively conversation included the designers reviewing their early inspirations and mentors and sharing their individual views on keeping passion alive. All agreed that life changes greatly as you approach the autumn years but that curiosity and creativity don't disappear, they just take different forms.

One common thread of "maintaining the passion" was each designer's continuing experimentation and exploration of different resources and influences. One designer noted how her horizons expanded by working with people who lost the use of one or more of their senses or mobility factors and how their limitations allowed her to learn more about how to design for everyone. Another respected designer, who listed his photographer wife as an inspiration and mentor, noted that he had discovered a new interest and passion by collaborating in hand-coloring her photographic images. Revisiting influences and inspirations, and discovering new ones, was also high on the list of things that keep the passion alive. Interestingly, participants said that architect Carlo Scarpa had inspired them, and that Italy itself was a large influence. The Italian passion for life—through art, design, food and wine—was noted as a major influence and a reason to keep pulling in new ideas to apply to their design practices as well as daily life.

Another methodology used to maintain (and increase) passion is mentoring—that aspect of sharing one's history, ideas, techniques and inspiration with younger designers. All noted their own mentors—two had exceptional grandfathers, and others mentioned teachers or fellow designers. Each related stories of people who made a difference in them finding their life's work, and their realization that they might have the same impact on others by mentoring themselves. The fact that this distinguished group came together and discussed these topics was in itself a mentoring exercise.

An underlying theme in maintaining and increasing one's passion is the realization that life is not a linear journey—that one must be prepared for change and the "lucky accident" that changes the direction of one's life. One participant answered an advertisement early in her career for a design position in Japan on a whim and found herself in Tokyo for three years working as a designer. Her life changed forever—she found an entirely new set of reference points and cultural milestones as well as a very different approach to practicing design.

The aspect of life that allows an open mind—a curiosity and constant observation and notation of the world—serves as a touchstone for many of these designers. Influenced by music, film and, yes, even television, the panelists noted the recent graphic/comic book/live action aspects of the films "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and "Sin City" as influencing the way they feel about space and time. Music is also a constant inspiration and not just background to the design process. New technology serves as a key to discovering new ways to be creative and hold on to the passion. Lighting effects that have become part of the designer's toolkit and palette are changing people's perception of interior space and how they use it.

Maintaining the passion is not an easy task—life has a habit of blunting the joy and excitement of discovery. But if one's core values include a continuing curiosity and openness to all that's out there to inspire, the passion will remain and grow. One only needs to look at the work accomplished by Andreé Putman, Gae Aulenti, Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson to know that the passion can flourish in the late autumn and early winter of one's life.

  • Eric Engstrom, FIIDA, is president of IIDA, and founder and president of Engstrom Design Group (edg), San Rafael, CA. IIDA is headquartered in suite 13-500 at the Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL, and can be reached at (888) 799-IIDA;
  • www.iida.org.

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