Sunday, August 31, 2008


After posting about Adam Savage's elegy for American science, it got me thinking.

I'm an amateur scientist, but I'm a professional designer and engineer. I think about design all the time and read just about every magazine or book there is on the subject. I can bemoan the same thing about American design and ingenuity.

They were once the very best in the world. While other countries may build amazing things, they would always turn to the American design and engineering firms to actually get the job done. That's no longer the case.

I can pick out any area, any focus, and the number of excellent submissions coming out of America has nearly disappeared. While there are many publications that focus on the American market, the international magazines rarely feature our country. China's new creative class is showing us how it's done, and even Europe has left us behind.

I can't even remember the last time I heard something great about an American architect. Of the 11 Pritzker Prizes for architecture handed out from its inception in 1979 to 1989, a US architect won it 6 times. From 1990 to 2008, and likely 2009, we've won it twice. And one of those years was a win by dark horse candidate Thom Mayne.

And what about American industrial design, or consumer products, or clothing? We were fairly well-represented in the IDEA awards, but those skew American because, duh, they're sponsored by BusinessWeek. And even there, of the seven design schools represented, only one was from the US. We've got Apple, but we know their language. They did the original iPod and then, six years later, the iPhone. The MacBook Air was a breakthrough only to Apple fanatics.

I think one of our major problems is exactly what these major, entrenched companies adore, our draconian and ridiculous patent and copyright system. If a company dares innovate or break new ground, they are undoubtedly sued. Apple has been sued near countless times, and Nintendo with their innovative Wii, has of course been sued. I could go on and on and ON about our patent system basically needing to be shot, but the website TechDirt explains why our system is broken apparently beyond repair in much better fashion. When your reward for breaking ground is a lawsuit, there's not much motivation to do anything.

And yet, the East Asian market (which our American companies do nothing but bitch about as a no-mans-land of piracy, lax IP laws, and terrible, uninventive, outlaws who do nothing but steal our ingenious, American ideas) is exploding on the international scene.

Yep. Oh, and back to that list of design schools: Samsung Design Membership (Korea), Hong Ik University (Korea), Seoul National (Korea), Hanyang University (Korea), Royal College of Art (United Kingdom), University of Wuppertal (Germany). Those sad, wannabe schools of design. Stealing all of our ideas and winning awards with them. Tragic.

Another grand example, and by grand, I mean GRAND. Where are all the new buildings being built? Where are all the limits being pushed? Where do the structures look like they sprang from an imagination unhindered by reality? Oh right. Dubai. And China. And Taiwan. And Russia. Hell, even South America. Just not here.

I think a lot of that has to do with how expensive the US has gotten. It's SO pricey to do anything here, nobody is bothering anymore. We have unionized workers who get paid $40 an hour to lay brick (nothing against bricklayers, it's quite a skill). The other countries may have poor workers' rights laws, but boy do they get stuff done. There has to be a middle ground.

Or insurance costs. It costs more to insure an architecture firm, the construction, and everyone involved in the US than in any other country on Earth. You can be sued because your idea is cool, sued if idea takes off, and sued if your idea fails. Big surprise no one wants to do anything in our fucked-up country, anymore.

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