BY BRIAN LIBBY
Now in its fifth year, Design Week Portland keeps growing and growing. And whether it's architecture you're interested in, or interior design, urban planning, graphic design, branding, apparel design or a variety of other creative disciplines, DWP has you covered.
Recently I talked to the festival's director, Tsilli Pines, about the evolution of Design Week Portland and what we might expect in the years ahead.
Portland Architecture: Now that the festival has been around for a few years, how have you seen it evolve over time?
Tsilli Pines: We’ve been seeing growth year over year, and we keep getting more ambitious. We launched in 2012 with 100 events, and this year, there are more than 300 slated. Yet our mission remains the same: to help shape the evolving state of design in the city. For example, last year with the University of Oregon’s John Yeon Center, we hosted the Green Loop competition to play out what this six-mile loop through the city might look like. Untitled Studio, the winner of this competition, has designed an exhibit being installed at this year's Design Week Portland headquarters. We invite designers, architects and city planners, as well as the boarder community to come together to learn, react, discuss and further envision the project’s potential. This is being developed in close coordination with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Portland Bureau of Transportation as the Green Loop concept heads for final City Council consideration this spring. This is a chance for designers and the community to have the right conversations and ultimately true impact on the future of Portland.
"Design" can actually denote a lot of different professions: architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, planning, graphic design, web design. What's your approach or mindset in terms of striking the right balance?
We view the scope as Design with a capital “D” – we want it all!
What have you learned about Portland's design community from establishing this festival and keeping it successful?
This is a town of people that want to be involved and to have an impact on the city they live in. Designers from all disciplines are willing to roll up their sleeves and get stuff done. As it turns out, that’s exactly what it takes to pull off an event like this. Our decentralized structure has allowed us to be a shapeshifter and reflect the energy in the city each year. It’s truly a festival by the creative community for the creative community.
Portland is growing fast, not just in terms of added population but with increased density and dwindling affordability. Do you feel like the city is becoming better, or our challenges greater than ever? Or both?
We’re facing a frontier in technology, in civic growth, and in political landscape. Our programs this year reflect that and ask designers to consider all the ways their work engages with these new realities. This is true nationally – and locally. The challenges are greater than ever, but I think people are energized. We’re looking squarely at some of the urban design challenges through our headquarters. We also have some really interesting talks on the Main Stage, like the one from Adele Naude Santos about affordable housing. I’d say as a city, we’re facing both challenges and opportunities.
How much cross pollination do you see happen at DWP events? Are there a lot of architects going to events related to branding and fashion, or vice versa? I'm wondering how much the festival helps people in different disciplines get to know each other.
Each year we invite designers in the community to share their specific DWP itineraries, which might best answer your questions. I hear from designers regularly that attending events outside their discipline is a priority. When Elena Moon shared her itinerary with me, she went as far as saying that user experience and digital designers might be quite disappointed if they are looking at her itinerary for programs and events in her discipline. By design, she is structuring her week of activities to fall outside her immediate field. She does this to support the work of people she cares about, and to explore subjects that interest her. She is particularly excited about participating in Crafting with Heavy Timber, as an example.
There are also some events that are explicitly about cross-disciplinary collaboration, like A/VEC from Marmoset. They bring together filmmakers and musicians who have never worked together before to make a film and score in a very short timeline.
We also try to make it easy for designers to find the events within their discipline. Architects, urban designers and anyone interested in the built environment can refer to our Built Environment Itinerary, for example.
Do you have much sense of how Design Week Portland compares to design festivals in other cities? Have you or other members of your team been able to travel to many other design fests to get a sense of best practices or what works and what doesn't?
Some design festivals are structured more like trade shows, like Milan and Tokyo. Our set-up is a lot more like London Design Fair – a focus on programming and independently produced events. I like this focus because of the way it invigorates the community on multiple levels.
What have you learned from putting on DWP and how might it grow and change in the years ahead?
It continues to be a challenge to make our design installations at Design Week Portland as quantifiable and actionable as we would ultimately like. But this is evolving. We took the five key findings from our installation at headquarters last year and presented them at a City Council meeting last May. We asked citizens about the issues facing Portland across education, equity, housing, employment and transportation – by neighborhoods. The presentation of our findings was just texture to an existing conversation, but it also helped us prototype a model for civic engagement through design, and that led to the larger ambitions this year. If the design community is properly engaged, there can be real impact.
Another key point in our growth and evolution was the addition of the Main Stage last year. With this two-day conference, we present 24 visionaries across nearly ever design discipline. Then in July of 2016 we launched The Journal. Each month, a video of one of the talks is released with a companion piece of unique content. Each installment is created to spark thinking and dialogue within the design community broadly.
This year, generous corporate sponsors stepped up to provide scholarships to students to attend the Main Stage. In coming years, we hope to expand our educational programs and our year-round activities.
What's the hardest thing about putting on the festival and what's the most rewarding?
Design Week Portland is still a labor of love for all involved. It’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but knowing that we’re adding to the creative ferment in the city is the reward.
If you were just an attendee and not involved with putting on the fest, what are the two or three events you'd be the most excited about attending?
The Design Week Portland Headquarters this year is not to be missed. We have expanded this component of the week dramatically by adding programming throughout the entire day. We’ve got pop-up shops, programming, happy hours and late night events in addition to the Green Loop exhibition. I’d stop in at the 7 HOUSES exhibition that is being hosted by The Center for Architecture, exploring the state of Pacific Northwest contemporary architecture. And on Friday, I’ll be hosting Jami Curl: Quin Candy at the CreativeMornings breakfast series, so you will find me at The Armory in the Pearl District at 8:30 am.