Out and About

Beyond Put-a-Bird-On-It

The Portland design world has graduated from DIY to a more sophisticated, yet still inclusive, collaborative aesthetic.

By Kristin Belz October 7, 2012


Like a child maturing from elementary to middle to high school, the Portland design world has slowly but surely been growing up. It may even have its driver’s license by  now, or at least its learner’s permit. And this month – with Design Week Portland,  the local AIA chapter's Architecture + Design Month, and a flood of design-related activities – feels almost like a graduation. While the food scene probably leads the pack of creatives bringing positive attention to our city, visual arts designers of all stripes (from digital to hand drawing) are right there with them. 

Of course, Portland is famous for leadership in sustainability and urban planning, but smaller scale endeavors ­– cooking good food, crafting beautiful useful objects – perhaps even better capture the character of our city. Sustainability and urban planning are large scale projects much if not most of the time – long term, political, expensive to say the least, involving hundreds and thousands of people and billions of dollars. Columbia River Crossing, i.e. a new bridge from the 'Couv to PDX? Rose Quarter revitalization? Perhaps these projects could benefit from a bit of the "roll-up-your-sleeves and get to work creatively collaborating" spirit that infuses the smaller scale design community.

Not that the smaller scale means small scale, exactly. The Wieden and Kennedy advertising agency, famous for Nike ads and others, recently announced it added Facebook to its list of clients. These are big time players, but they don't retreat into an attitude of "this is how we always do it" that tends to befall more institutional design producers.

Authenticity, green design and even social impact are also part of the community philosophy, in many cases. There is a sense among the "young creatives" that they need to make a living, of course, but not  that they aspire to make so much personal profit that they're ensconced in a mansion up in the hills.  

It's notable that Portland is less known for the so-called "fine arts" than for the practical arts. Cooking, crafting objects to use in our daily lives – these are utilitarian at some level. We need to eat, and sit on couches and chairs and have tables and desks on which to put our plates and books. We need shelter. The Portland design aesthetic embraces the "real world" requirements of a design challenge, aiming to bring together a high level of beauty and efficiency in a creative design solution. Fine arts seem to suffer in Portland, by comparison; do they strike us as superfluous, not necessary to our rustic, authentic lives?


In today's Portland design world, collaborations create new life. The Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) was struggling several years ago, but it didn't die. It's now thriving, in conjunction with an expanded, elevated Museum of Contemporary Craft. Portland State University added an accredited graduate architecture program. The Oregon College of Craft expanded programs and facilities on its wooded, hilly westside campus. The University of Oregon architecture program (with associated fields of study) has a real (and wonderful) home now in the White Stag building, appropriately showcasing its increased urban presence.

The hip design website Remodelista focused recently on Portland Design Destinations (though they included that other Portland, the one in Maine – just for fun I guess?) and includes our city in its selection of international city guides.

Among the many intriguing offerings of Design Week Portland:

The movie Coast Modern screens Saturday night, October 13, 2012. Directed by Mike Bernard and Gavin Froome, the movie will bring us "Travelling along the Pacific North West coastline from LA to Vancouver...showcas[ing] the pioneers of West Coast Modernist Architecture, and the homes that have become their legacies. Stepping inside the most inspired dwellings on the west coast, we feel how the light and space of a classic Modernist home can work in collaboration with the natural environment." (Get tickets to Coast Modern, which will screen at 6 pm at Ziba Auditorium, here.)

Open houses by geographic area: Wednesday October 10 (noon-3 pm) are two tours, North/Northeast and Southeast. Thursday October 11, Southwest and Northwest host tours (also noon-3 pm). 



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