Amy J. makes me feel antediluvian. Petite, nattily dressed, hysterically blond and strictly business, she’s come from college in Cincinnati to New York on a three-month internship at a Union Square design firm. Somehow she manages to cover both ends of the spectrum of reactions I receive when I ask strangers to lunch; she’s at once the most delighted and the most scared. But that’s the thing about Amy J.: she covers the ends of nearly every spectrum with which she engages. I’ve never seen anyone spread themselves so thinly. In Amy’s world, this is both the safest and most daring way to be.
“I’m kinda into everything,” she says in a voice that sounds like a machine gun shooting out rapid-fire piccolo notes, with shades of Joan Cusack. “I don’t ever want to be one thing. I never want to be branded in just one way.” She speaks in tongues that way, peppers her speech with as many grown-up words (Networking, Holistic, Niche, Watchword, Product-Driven) as she does teenage ones, especially Awesome!, the exclamation mark evoked aloud at every utterance. She is eager to please in an almost frantic way.
After living for two months in one of the vest-pocket rooms of a Canal Street art gallery, Amy has moved into a doorman apartment on Avenue B that she shares with three cute Southern boys, including a Goldman Sachs banker. The rent is the same, but in this apartment, she can actually stand up straight in her bedroom without hitting the ceiling with her head. “The other place had a bunch of French kids living there and a bunch of bad installation art, but it had no kitchen and you had to step over a homeless guy in the stairwell,” she reminisces. My own rent in Brooklyn costs about a third less, but I get the discount available to New Yorkers who acquiesce to being unhip. Were Amy and the French kids part of the installation? I wonder aloud. “Maybe,” she says uncertainly. “I thought that for a while.” Either way, it was pretty cool. “It’s like, I’m 21, I’m living in the city, everything’s a little craaazy! No, it was cool!”
Amy’s internship takes place at a cutting-edge design firm for whom she considers herself very lucky to be working. They specialize in what the industry has termed the next frontier: ‘experience’ design. “I’m really into it,” enthuses Amy.
So, what defines ‘experience’ design? According to Amy, it’s conceiving of, say, laundry as an event rather than as clothes spinning in a centrifuge. “The solution to the laundry problem should be more than a product. Laundry’s about ergonomics. It’s about the chemicals. It’s about keeping the socks from falling when you transfer them over to the dryer.” It’s about how you feel while you’re folding. It’s about the memories of laundry you had as youth. I am not being sardonic; it really is about those things. Do we agree?
What Amy’s company does, she explains, is redefine brands as
all-encompassing experiences. Hotels hire Amy’s colleagues to
determine the lighting, the carpet, the coffee, the staff uniforms, the
materials subject to a customer’s touch, the perks they receive
according to varying degrees of fidelity, the message suggested by the
font of the monogrammed towels. Baudrillard illuminated the volumes
that even elevator music and one’s choice of bar snacks can speak;
Amy’s work makes a science out of manipulating signs like these to
allure, to signify status and desirability. Doing so translates into
money for everyone involved.
The trick is to do it without overdoing it. Overbranding is antithetical to successful design. Why? Because, of course, it makes the process too transparent; people notice that they’re being marketed to. And that’s not good for business.
“We look at rituals,” Amy explains. “What’s the ritual when you go to a restaurant? You give the hostess your name. She takes you to a table. She hands you a menu. Someone brings you water. Right? Well, we refine the rituals into an ‘experience’.” She’s got the knack some people do for making manifest their punctuation; the quotation marks hook themselves around ‘experience’ without her needing to do the finger thing less facially expressive folk resort to. I’m looking confused, so she tries again. “Okay, look. Some people design coffee cups. But we think design should be holistic. So we ask, ‘How does your coffee cup interact with the whole space?’”
One technique currently rocking design research is the one trade journals call ethnography. Consultants visit, say, ten Starbucks shops in ten different parts of town and order a cup of coffee. They sit down and drink it. They look at the other people buying and drinking coffee. “I hate Starbucks, first of all,” says Amy, making that face smart people do when they imagine getting caught tucking into a Big Mac coming out from the drive-thru. Amy’s company specializes in taking on design projects from clients who are looking to “deepen their niche,” in other words, multi-unit corporations who can charge more by appearing smaller. Like Coke requesting a design for a gazillion bottles that look good enough to suggest that only a limited number, like half a gazillion, were made.
Here’s another word the industry’s loving: sustainable. Have you noticed it, too? Everyone’s talking about sustainability. “That’s the new watchword,” confirms Amy. “And there sure is something to be said for green design and elements of sustainability. I’m totally into it.” She’s never heard of LEED, the US benchmark for green building design, but building vocabularies is a lifelong project.
Our waitress interrupts with steaming panini. Amy eats distractedly, focused more on conversation than nutrition. She belongs to a new generation of midwestern women: taught the rules of fastidious propriety, but taught also to question them. This makes her ballsy and hesitant both. Corn-fed and wiry. On one hand she wears the silver signet ring she’s had for years; on the other, a ludicrously large, fake pink stone, a party favor her colleague brought back from Paper Magazine’s Oscar bash over the weekend.
Amy has the chops to succeed in the modern world of New York City
design, because she understands what it requires: distinct personal
style (a non-overbranded brand), and a boatload of determination. The
latter she has in spades; of her modus operandi regarding schoolwork
she says, “You’ve got to calculate how you’re going to get to that
place where people are going to hate you.” Of the former—well, she’s
working on it. She admires designers like Philippe Starck, Marc
Newson, and Karim Rashid, all of whom are known for having formed a
distinctly personal style, or as Amy calls it, “their own schtick.” Of
these we speak of Rashid the longest. “You have to give him respect,”
says Amy. “His style is so intensely him. Yeah, sometimes it’s
ridiculously tacky, but at least you know it’s him.” A few pointed web
searches reveal Rashid a full member of the new school of holistic
design about which Amy and I have been talking. Having already
designed 2,000 products ranging from the Trump Towers to Lacoste
sportswear to a Dirt Devil Hand Vac, Rashid has just written a book
called Design Your Self: Rethinking the Way You Live, Love, Work, and
Play, which explains how to optimize all areas of life—aesthetic and
spiritual—including wardrobe, office space, love life, and diet.
“Design is about the betterment of our lives,” writes Rashid in his
Karimanifesto. “Poetically, aesthetically, experientially,
sensorially, and emotionally.”
Poetic design is based on a plethora of complex criteria: human experience, social behaviors, global, economic and political issues, physical and mental interaction, form, vision, and a rigorous understanding and desire for contemporary culture. Manufacturing is based on another collective group of criteria: capital investment, market share, production ease, dissemination, growth, distribution, maintenance, service, performance, quality, ecological issues and sustainability (there it is again!). The combination of these factors shape our objects, inform our forms, our physical space, visual culture, and our contemporary human experience. These quantitative constructs shape business, identity, brand and value. This is the business of beauty.
In Rashid and Amy’s world, fashioning sofas is packaging hard drives is prototyping silicone Yahoo! watches is designing the Limited Edition Hyundai Black Master Card for Korea. Vacuum cleaners and lamps notwithstanding, Rashid’s business is image design, parsing and re-packaging identites from Brazil to Montenegro. It’s this that he calls the business of beauty.
Amy is learning the talk. “What’s my visual language?” she asks aloud. “How can I develop my own brand?” She describes an idea she developed while working at Ford at her last internship. “I wanted a car that was me-driven in ways that go beyond color. Imagine a car geared to Girls on the Go, or a car for Gamers. You’d have different customizable options that you’d choose according to your personality.” Perhaps what’ll define Amy’s personal style will be allowing others to express their own, made manifest by the patterns of their upholstery and the addition—or resolute absence—of an espresso machine in their glove compartment, as I once witnessed on Pimp Your Ride.
I suspect that the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed version of Amy J. with whom I spoke will streamline seamlessly into the hard-hitting businesswoman she hopes to become, although when she articulates what that woman might resemble, she uses artist’s terms. Amy’s intelligence is patent and her savvy especially modern, of a post-MTV-generation kind. I would posit that, were it cut open and examined, her brain would mirror the Internet more than it would lateral, limited, flat, oh-so-‘90s television. Those who make careers out of envisioning and shaping the future—designers, for example—are now sketching designs that consider the three-dimensional or even infinite universe. Amy, busy internalizing every experience New York offers her, is training herself to grow this kind of brain.
If this makes her sound like a bit of an android, let me rephrase. She is excruciatingly human in a number of endearing ways. A sentence that begins uppitily with “Material is very important,” is inevitably dashed to bits by the declaration that wood is fricking awesome.
At the ripe old age of 21, Amy J. is more directed, focused and put-together than I may ever be. I take it back—she doesn’t make me feel old. Just old-fashioned.