BY BRIAN LIBBY
Five years ago this fall, Design Museum Portland opened its doors for the first time. But to be more accurate, the doors weren't the museum's. In this Portland version of the museum, as with the first Design Museum in Boston, there was no brick and mortar location but instead a commitment to holding exhibits, talks and other events in a variety of locations. The first was an exhibit called "Green Patriot Posters" at Wieden + Kennedy. Since then, Design Museum Portland has expanded with a number of ongoing initiatives, from its Design Museum Mornings talks to the recent Street Seats competition.
Design Museum Portland's Gala 5, a party to celebrate the fifth anniversary, is scheduled for November 1 at the Jupiter NEXT hotel.
Although in these five years I haven't seen any Design Museum Portland efforts directly targeted at architecture and architecture firms, that's not the point. I haven't seen a specific focus on interiors or landscape architecture either. Rather than being an institution for designers themselves, Design Museum is about educating the world about design, and so exhibits tend to focus on industries that employ different types of design, such as health care or education, more than focusing on the disciplines themselves. The museum's slogan has long been, "Design is everywhere. So are we." The slogan seems to refer to the nomadic approach, but it also may denote that this institution is about taking design to the world, not taking the world to designers.
Recently I spoke with Sam Aquillano, founder and executive director of Design Museum Foundation, and Erica Rife, Design Museum Portland's managing director, about the five-year mark: a moment to look both backward and forward.
Portland Architecture: could you talk about the decision to come to Portland for the first Design Museum outside Boston, and the response you encountered here?
Sam Aquillano: It was our first expansion city: our first branch, as we call them. Frankly, it was as much an experiment for us as an organization as it was responding to an opportunity in Portland. To relate it to Boston, people in Portland bought into the idea immediately. It wasn’t, "Wait you’re not a real museum." It Boston it was, "You have to have a building." In Portland it was, "This makes sense." As we were experimenting with expansion, it was a breath of fresh air. People weren’t questioning the model. They were just, "How do I engage? When’s the first exhibit?" The first exhibit we did at W+K, "Green Patriot Posters," that really had people going, "I get it what a pop-up museum is." We’d done events leading up to that, but it was a watershed moment.
Does it that greater openness in Portland to the concept say something? Perhaps Portland is more used to creative shoestring operations?
Aquillano: I think more than anything just contextually, Boston is a city full of traditional museums and universities. Of course, Portland has many as well, but the mental museum in Boston is columns and marble and a pedestal. I think the entrepreneurial culture and maker culture, the grassroots innovation in Portland, really identified with what we were trying to do. We’ve started to get that in Boston now that we’re in year 10, but if we hadn’t got it so quickly in Portland, we might have wondered if we’d made the right choice. There were a couple other cities we could have gone to first. Portland was the right fit. It really lent itself to this new idea.
Parachuting into a new city, how were you able to get buy-in and involvement from people?
Aquillano: Our board is very much headquartered in Boston. But we never wanted this governing body separated by thousands of miles to be dictating. So we created an advisory council in Portland early on. That really resonated with people. It told tgen this was grassroots and the themes of the museum came out of what people in Portland care about. It keeps that local focus that I love. I also think we were successful with initiatives that Erica launched like Design Museum Mornings. Launching that galvanized the community. It’s a way for the community to engage with the museum. They know they can go to it. They’re going to connect with Erica and the team there. I think that was a pretty big moment. We also did some exhibits that got attention, like "Extraordinary Playscapes," and I think launching DM magazine was a watershed as well. There’s so many different ways to engage with it. You can make it your own.
It seems like a common thread is exhibits and talks that are accessible to people outside the design community.
Erica Rife: Before working for the museum, I was a member in Boston. I was fascinated with design but didn’t know how to get into it or how to explore design related jobs. It was going to Design Museum Mornings events that opened my eyes to the breadth of possibilities and the reach that design has. I saw an exhibit on street design in other countries and it blew me away.
And yet there's also an opportunity here to connect designers from different disciplines, right?
Rife: Absolutely. There are so many designers here. It’s talked about all the time. But they’re relatively siloed. Not many organizations are bridging gaps between different types of design. We’ve been able to create that here and it’s been fascinating. But we also like to bridge the gap by thinking about industries instead of design disciplines. We were just talking about how an upcoming Design Museum Morning is about education spaces. Another has to do with design in health care. In both cases it’s about the end users. That to me is the beauty of what Design Museum is doing. We’re bridging that gap.
Aquillano: We don’t really shape our program around disciplines. We definitely never wanted to be the McDonald’s of popping up and having the same menu. It’s not authentic. We recently did a Design Museum Morning about firefighting drones, for example. We have these 12 design impact areas: Vibrant Cities, Workplace Innovation, Education, Play, Data Visualization, Business, Social Impact, Sustainability, Healthcare, Entrepreneurship, Social Equity, and Civic Innovation. We shape our programming around those 12 things, rather than architecture or graphic design. In health care, for example, there’s all different types of design. Words matter, and the word design sometimes is intimidating for people who don’t understand how it plays into industries like health care. It’s powerful for us. It makes it accessible.
Could you talk a little bit about your process of listening to what the community wants for its museum?
Aquillano: A great example is how we’re starting to incubate a new branch in San Francisco. What are the topics and focus areas the community is interested in there? That’s a favorite part of my job: figuring out what a community is interested in engaging about, and learning and sharing. In Portland, a lot of the community was saying, 'We want to learn about what’s happening in other cities.' We did try to create that dialogue. But we really wanted to highlight what is happening in Portland. It’s a fun question; how you celebrate the local, and export that so every city can learn?
And while there are challenges to the museum not having a physical space of its own, the nomadic nature of the museum gives it a chance to make the popup spaces part of the learning experience, right?
Rife: That’s why the popup model is great: it allows us to activate spaces where design is happening. People tell us, ‘I love this tour of Portland I’m getting.' They’re able to go to spaces they wouldn't normally go into. We can be telling the story of a space, or of the people occupying that space. It just gets people making connections.
What does the future hold for Design Museum Portland?
Aquillano: We’re excited about a series called Inspiring Careers: Diversity in Design. There will be an exhibition, there will be events. It’s targeted at youth and career paths, and highlighting women and people of color who are role models. We hear from under-served youth that they don’t see a pathway to design, because they don’t see people who look like them in the industry. We want to create role models and get them into the community. We’ll put it into the magazine, and someday into a book. Both in Boston and Portland, we can do better, and we want to be a resource. There’s a huge hunger for it. The schools can’t do it alone. All of this, I think, helps to create a pipeline of diverse youth to enter the industry. They might be lucky enough to start with great programs like Architects in Schools from the Architecture Foundation of Oregon, but we can compliment that and widen the outreach. They might go to our exhibit and learn about, say, a Latino architect who comes from their own community and inspires them.
The conversation always seems to come back around to Design Museum, be it in Boston or Portland or San Francisco, being an accessible point of entry into design for laypersons and those who maybe haven't thought much about design in the past.
Aquillano: We always think of people as the common denominator. How is design impacting people? That always helps focus what we’re doing.
It's essentially rejecting pretentiousness and sharing the delight that design can bring.
Aquillano: That is one of the main reasons we started the museum, right there. That part of design didn’t work for me. It doesn’t matter to normal people. I’d look out on the street and see people walking around, thinking, design is affecting them, but museums are not reaching them. Could we create a design museum that does?