Ask a Design Guru: "DesignPop" Author Lisa Roberts

The designer, collector, and TV personality visits the Building Museum next week to sign her new book.
Ask a Design Guru: "DesignPop" Author Lisa Roberts
Lisa Roberts, her new book, DesignPop, and Joris Laarman's Polygon Maker Chair. All photographs courtesy of Lisa Roberts.

Usually, it’s a book that inspires a TV show. Not this time: The inspiration for Lisa Roberts’s book was sparked by her 2011 docu-series My Design Life, which followed the design expert and her team as they visited museums, exhibits, trade fairs, and shops to hunt out only the most unique of high-design finds. The result is the newly released DesignPop, a neon-pink-vinyl-jacketed tome that offers a glimpse at 82 game-changing contemporary designs dreamed up since 2000, ranging from the unusual (Marcel Wanders’s otherwordly Zepplin chandelier) to the everyday (Nest’s smart thermostats). Roberts visits the Building Museum next week to present and sign the new book, and we caught up with her to get her insider take on the world of contemporary design.

DesignPop presentation and book signing. Tuesday 12:30 to 2 PM. National Building Museum, 401 F St., NW. RSVP online.

What’s the secret to great design?

There is no magic answer to that question, but great design succeeds in form, function, and emotion. Functionality is objective: How well does the object perform its task? Form and emotionality are subjective: How pleasing is the form, and does it speak to you on an emotional level? Since both of these depend on your point of reference, there really isn’t a singular formula for great design.

Which up-and-coming designer is most interesting to you right now?

The Dutch designer Joris Laarman. He works with some of the most advanced production technologies of 3D printing, CNC milling, robotics, and advanced software. As an artist as well as designer, he often incorporates hand assembly. A great example is his Polygon Maker Chair. It’s composed of mathematically designed CNC milled pieces that are assembled by hand [see bottom-right photo above].

Who’s your personal design hero?

Michael Graves. He started out as an architect creating some of the most iconic postmodern buildings of the 1970s and ’80s. In 1985, the Italian housewares manufacturer Alessi asked him to design the quintessential American product. He created the Whistling Bird Tea Kettle, which, arguably, has become the most successful architect-designed product in history, selling more than $300 million dollars worth of tea kettles. He then went on to design products for Target, bringing high design to the masses and making him a household name. After an illness left him a paraplegic, he has devoted much of his design practice to creating well-designed objects for people with disabilities.

What’s the best place to find high design on a budget?

Museum shops are great places to find high design without paying museum prices. Also, I like Target. They have programs where they invite high designers to work on their budgets.

You have a huge collection of contemporary design objects. If you had to just pick one, which is your favorite?

I love the Vermelha Chair by the Brazilian brothers Humberto and Fernando Campana. Early in their careers, they were inspired by the discarded and leftover materials of Brazilian manufacturers. They used these to make their prototypes, although once in production, the materials were new. This chair incorporates 1,500 feet of rope that is wrapped and woven to provide a structural and very comfortable chair. Mine is sitting in my foyer. I love its bright color, enveloping shape, and soft seat—form, function, and emotion!

What’s the next frontier in modern design?

That frontier is already here: wearable technology. It will sit on your wrist, be incorporated into your clothing, and even be attached directly to your skin.

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