Talking to Alice Rawsthorn, co-founder of Design Emergency

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A chat with design guru Alice Rawsthorn

The biggest problem with trying to put together a brief introduction to Alice Rawsthorn is how in the world do you fit everything in? We’re going to try a rapid edit to give an overview of just a little of what she’s achieved in her career. So far. Originally from Manchester, she graduated in art history from Cambridge and became an award-winning journalist at the Financial Times for almost 20 years. She was also design critic for the international edition of The New York Times for a decade. She’s the author of the acclaimed ‘Hello World: Where Design Meets Life’ and ‘Design as an Attitude’ as well as a biography of Yves Saint Laurent. She’s chair of the boards of trustees at both the Hepworth Wakefield Art Gallery in Yorkshire and at the Chisenhale Gallery in London, and a founding member of the Writers at Liberty campaign, which champions human rights.

She’s also a founding member of the OECD’s Future of Democracy Network, was a trustee of Arts Council England from 2006 to 2013, a past chair of the British Council’s Design Advisory Group, a former member of the Design Council and has been on the jury for the Turner Prize. We should also mention that she’s an honorary senior fellow of the Royal College of Art, and a renowned public speaker whose TED Talk, Pirates, nurses and other rebel designers, has been viewed over a million times. It should come as no surprise that she was awarded an OBE for services to design and the arts – it seems the least they could do.

More recently, Alice co-founded, with Paola Antonelli, design curator at MoMA, the Design Emergency project, which is looking into design’s response to Covid-19 and how to start building a better future. It was this project which gave us the perfect reason to grab a few words with Alice.

First question – where on earth do you find the time?

I probably find it because I want to. I’m a happy workaholic who loves what she does – and because I’m well organised.

How would you describe yourself and what you do?

I write about design and do lots of pro bono work in the arts.

Have you ever wanted to move from writing about and facilitating design and designers to designing yourself?

Thankfully not. I love writing and consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to write about a subject that is so fascinating, constantly changing and richly contextualised. Design is a ubiquitous element of our lives, whether or not we realise it. Writing about it enables me to investigate anything I find interesting, whether it is gender politics or a global pandemic.

What made you decide to start Design Emergency?

Paola and I were chatting on Zoom at the start of the first US and UK lockdowns and we both felt that the design response to Covid-19 was so inspiring that it could radically redefine public and political perceptions of design. The ingenuity, resourcefulness, courage and generosity displayed by designers and their collaborators has been a rare “good news” story for the global media throughout the pandemic that gave us hope at an otherwise terrifying time. Paola and I hoped that by sharing examples of best practice worldwide on Design Emergency, we could demonstrate how effective design can be in tackling a devastating global crisis like this one.

How did you know Paola Antonelli?

We’ve been friends for ages. We first met nearly twenty years ago and hit it off immediately, not least because we are both passionate about design, and share a vision of it as an agent of change that can help us to address changes of any type, whether they are social, political, economic, ecological, scientific, or whatever, by interpreting them in ways that will affect us positively not negatively.

As I was writing for the New York Times, I often visited New York, and Paola made regular visits to London, so we’d meet then. But we have been lucky in that we are often invited to speak at the same conferences and to sit on the same juries, giving us lots of opportunities and plenty of time to hang out together in different places.

What are the aims and intentions of Design Emergency?

Initially, our aim was to investigate the design response to Covid-19 through a series of weekly IG Live interviews with the people who, we believed, were the global design leaders in the pandemic relief effort. We then moved on to a longer term phase of the project by interviewing the global design leaders of the redesign and reconstruction of our lives in the future.

Historically, major global crises like this one have been followed by dynamic periods of innovation. We hope that the trauma and devastation of Covid-19 will have the same effect and will galvanise us to tackle longstanding problems such as the climate emergency, the refugee and housing crises, inequality, injustice and systemic racism.

What has it achieved so far?

We’ve had a fantastic response to Design Emergency in terms of the audience it has attracted and people’s enthusiasm for the project. Paola and I are thrilled about that and are very grateful to everyone for their support. Design Emergency has also attracted a lots of media coverage, notably when Wallpaper* invited Paola and I to guest edit its October 2020 issue as Design Emergency with Frith Kerr, who has designed our graphics with her team Studio Frith as guest creative director.

Its impact has been very encouraging in terms of enabling us to achieve our objective of redefining public and political perceptions of design, and in flushing out new opportunities for the incredible designers we have interviewed in the IG Lives.

What impact has COVID-19 had on you and your life?

I’ve been very lucky in that, although a number of friends have had mild bouts of Covid-19, as have I, no-one I know has died or been so ill that they have needed critical care. From a practical perspective, I have also been lucky not to have faced financial hardship as a result of the pandemic as, tragically, so many other people have. One of the many tragedies of Covid-19 is that it has preyed remorselessly on the most vulnerable members of society. I decided from the outset that I would treat Covid-19 as a challenge and adapted my life accordingly.

As I have worked from an office at home for many years and had a remote working relationship with the New York Times for over a decade, this was fairly straightforward in terms of my writing and public speaking. However, I have had to devote much more time to my pro bono work in the arts. I chair the boards of trustees of two publicly funded art galleries, The Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire and Chisenhale Gallery in London. Like almost all arts organisations, both have come under severe financial pressure in an intensely turbulent, constantly changing context. Those problems will continue for some time because of the long term economic damage caused by the Covid-19 crisis, and its impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.

Are you still learning?
Hopefully.

What would you say are the major achievements of your career?

I’d like to think that they’ve yet to come.

Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?

I’d love to interview someone from the Great Green Wall of Africa team for Design Emergency. It’s a fantastic project, but, so far, they’ve proved very elusive. And I’d love to write a revisionist history of modern design, one that explores the transition from the industrial to the digital age and embraces the extraordinary designers who have been excluded from conventional design history books, because of their gender, ethnicity or for not being a white cis-male.

What are you up to next?

Right now, I’m going to be filmed giving a talk on Design Emergency for The World Around’s next summit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York at the end of January. Looking further ahead, our next big project for Design Emergency will be to collaborate with Central Saint Martins on a digital event in the spring to encourage design students who will graduate next summer to be ambitious and optimistic, though realistically so, about their future plans. Longer term, Paola and I hope to publish a book on Design Emergency.

Photographer: Michael Leckie