MASTER AT WORK Lee.
It’s easy to forget during this hyperactive campaign season, with its safely-dressed politicos delivering safely-worded speeches, that Rhode Island isn’t solely a stage for debates, photo ops, and consultants scurrying around while talking on cell phones. We’re more than that. And there’s proof.
In the coming days, two local events — one of which actually contains numerous other events — have aligned to provide a dual reminder that this place is pretty inspiring, after all.
Read on to bask in the knowledge that Providence’s self-appointed nickname, “The Creative Capital,” is a political slogan with some actual truth behind it.
WHAT: Design Week RI
WHERE: All across Rhode Island, but mostly focused in Providence
WHEN: September 17-27
Did you know the set designer for Saturday Night Live, Late Night With Seth Meyers, and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon lives in Providence?
His name is Eugene Lee, he’s in his mid-70s, he’s fond of wearing bowties and collecting typewriters, and he is incomprehensibly accomplished. (He’s received Tony Awards for his work on Wicked, Sweeney Todd, and Candide , and designed sets for countless other Broadway productions; he’s been given three honorary PhDs; and he remains the resident designer at Trinity Repertory Company.) “I always say Eugene is the only actual genius I’ve worked with,” longtime SNL producer Lorne Michaels recently told The New York Times.
Lee — who quietly lives in Providence, while producing work that’s celebrated around the world — is a fitting symbol for the inaugural Design Week RI, a 10-day stretch dedicated to showcasing the typeface gurus, web-design visionaries, inventors, architects, and other tasteful tinkerers who toil in our midst. Lee will be give a rare public presentation at 4 pm at Aurora Providence, on Monday, September 22, as part of Design Week RI’s “4x4” speaker series.
Aside from that event, there’s plenty more to look forward to, like a “Design and Manufacturing in Rhode Island” panel and open house at the new, 25,000-square foot Quonset headquarters of Focal Upright Furniture, which sells its revolutionary, not-quite-sitting/not-quite-standing workspaces to clients around the world, including Google and Facebook. (“Literally, thinking on your feet is better for you,” company founder Martin Keen says.) There will be an architectural pub-crawl highlighting the revitalization of three Providence buildings — the Dean Hotel (formerly the Sportsman’s Inn) on Fountain Street, the Dreyfus Building on Washington Street, and the building at the southwest corner of Eddy and Westminster streets — that each have top-notch watering holes at street level (Faust, Local 121, and the Eddy, respectively). There will also be a rooftop ceremony inducting four local designers, including Keen and the late, legendary architect Bill Warner, into the newly-created Rhode Island Design Hall of Fame.
But Design Week RI — organized by DESIGNxRI, a consortium of designers and architects founded in 2013 with the help of a Rhode Island Foundation “Make It Happen” grant — is less a single distinct event and more a series of events tucked under a large umbrella. At one end, is the Providence-based Business Innovation Factory’s 10th annual summit, BIF10 (September 17-18): a heady, futuristic forum in which various thinkers, authors, and entrepreneurs deliver TED-style talks. This year’s roster includes a New Yorker cartoonist, a roboticist, the chief innovation officer at the Coca-Cola Company, and the renowned The Way Things Work author/illustrator, David Macaulay. At the other end of Design Week RI, is the American Institute of Architects (AIA) annual New England Regional Conference (September 26-28). In between, you’ve got the increasingly mindblowing Better World by Design Conference at Brown and RISD (September 19-21; more than 700 students from around the world will attend) and Providence Park(ing) Day (September 19), during which 32 parking spaces across the city will be transformed into “parklets” and local cyclists will enjoy a temporary protected bike lane on Broadway.
So what makes Providence so design-y?
Design Week RI’s organizers point to a series of compelling statistics: RI’s 3rd highest percentage of creative sector jobs in the country and second largest per-capita corps of industrial designers; the world’s top design school (RISD); and the creation of 500 new design-related businesses between 2007 and 2012.
John Caserta, meanwhile — head of RISD’s Graphic Design department and a featured speaker at Design Week RI’s September 25 “Marathon Clambake” – points to something slightly less tangible. “There’s something really special about how close the West Side and Olneyville are to downtown, to the East Side, to Brown, to RISD,” he says. This means people are bumping into each other and sharing ideas all the time. “There’s a way in which it feels really good to leave the house.”
The Design Office, the Westminster Street design collective founded by Caserta in 2007, is itself a compelling reason to leave the house. (We raved about it in our March cover story on co-working spaces in RI.) It’s one of 41 firms in Providence, Pawtucket, and Warren participating in Design Week RI’s September 24 Open Firms Night.