Design Week Portland Calls It Quits

After eight years and thousands of events, the org is closing its doors to make way for a new generation of thinkers.

By Cami Hughes November 4, 2021

A Design Week screen printing workshop at now-defunct Mt Tabor printer Magnetic North

Image: Shawn Schmidt

In 2012, a group of Portland designers came together to figure out how to tighten the city’s somewhat loose-knit design community. Two of them, Tsili Pines and Eric Hillerns, ended up co-founding a weeklong festival called Design Week Portland with the goal of building that desired community.

Over the past eight years, Design Week Portland became a year-round organization known as Design Portland, and held six festivals, thousands of events, hosted hundreds of speakers, and provided opportunities for those inside and outside Portland’s design community to come into one shared space. But even with the success and support Design Portland gained, on November 2, they announced their decision to cease operations.

“I’m so proud of every single thing we accomplished," says Pines. "I think I’m just proud of the impact we had on people, individuals… [and] really proud of the spirit of the thing."

The first festival held 40 events and 60 open houses throughout Portland, all put together and run by volunteers. By the second year, it had more than double the number of events and attendees. In 2017, their festival grew to the largest it had been, with around 350 total events and over 5,000 attendees.

Although optics suggested it was thriving, Design Portland was pushed to its limits in 2017, making it a turning point for the organization. The size became unsustainable for an organization that relied on unpaid volunteers and a single paid employee, managing director Rachel Coddington. Design Portland was a side project for many of its key figures, and the time and labor it required on top of their regular jobs and family lives was becoming untenable. So they stepped back to take a look at how they were functioning and what they needed to become a sustainable effort. “We were way over our skis operationally, we did not have enough support,” recalls Pines.

Tsilli Pines, a cofounder of Design Portland

Then, as they were finally getting on the right path with support from a grant by the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation, COVID hit, sending them back to another stage of self-reflection about  their purpose in Portland’s design community.

“It forced us to really reexamine what we were doing,” Pines recalls. “Not only was COVID this major cultural reckoning of who’s setting the agenda for what we’re talking about here… [we were] just thinking, ‘OK, is this providing the same value as it was before? Are we the right people for what is needed right now?’”

After asking themselves these questions, the Design Portland team realized they needed a break to figure out their role in Portland’s design community. When it came time to deciding whether they would gear up for the next festival or make this break permanent, they realized they no longer had the energy to continue on, and would rather hand on the space to a new and younger group of people. “We were just exhausted” says Pines.

The impact of Portland Design Week will be felt long after their official last day in April 2022. Programs like their student tour group, which took over a thousand high schoolers to different spaces to learn about various forms of design, will continue on with partner organizations that worked alongside Design Portland through the years.

Pines has great hope for these budding designers. “I do believe that shuttering Design Week leaves a space that does need to be filled,” she says, “and I believe it will be filled by the next generation."

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