Oculus - Spring 2015 - (Page 45)
B Y J o H n mo r r i s di xo n , fA iA
Dialogues from the Edge of Practice
Yale University Art Gallery
Richard Meier & Partners Architects
n the early 1980s, a couple of enterprising women
saw an opportunity for architects to apply their
talents in an unconventional way. Nan Swid and
Addie Powell realized that architects attaining
prominence could expand their recognition in an
area known in commerce as "tabletop and decorative objects." The pair were no strangers to the
marketing of architect-designed objects, both having been executives at Knoll (the company where
Nan's husband, Stephen Swid, had recently become
To launch the project, the two hosted a lunch
at the Four Seasons for a gathering that included
Richard Meier, Robert A.M. Stern, Stanley Tigerman, and Charles Gwathmey's partner, Robert
Siegel. There they laid out a business plan offering
royalties on product sales, rather than design fees.
Present to bless the project, but not participate, was
Philip Johnson. In 1984 the partners unveiled their
first line of products and began marketing them
through high-end department stores.
Of course, noted architects had designed tableware in the past. Frank Lloyd Wright and his Vienna contemporary Josef Hoffmann had designed
widely admired tabletop items early in the 20th
century. In 1979 the Italian metal products maker
Alessi had commissioned opulent tea and coffee
sets by architects such as Meier, Michael Graves,
Robert Venturi, and Hans Hollein.
Drawing on their Knoll experience, the two
entrepreneurs had knowledgeably scouted the potential market. By the 1980s, great numbers of baby
boomers had acquired the resources and discernment to buy useful objects with exceptional design
cachet. Meanwhile, the Postmodern movement had
made ornament more acceptable to both architects
and their public.
The architects recruited for Swid Powell covered
the whole Modern-Postmodern spectrum. Meier
and Siegel limited their ornament to very restrained
geometrical devices; Stern introduced discreet
historical references; Venturi and Graves went for
bolder patterns and colors.
Over the next few years, Swid Powell added
designs by several architects from across the U.S.
Yale University Art Gallery
once embraced dinner plates and candlesticks
produced by Swid Powell
(clockwise from top right)
Charles Gwathmey and
Robert H. Siegel: "Tuxedo"
pattern buffet plate; Robert
pattern four-piece place
setting; Robert A.M. Stern:
Richard Meier: "Classic Bowl";
Michael Graves: The Big
Dripper Coffeepot and Filter.
Richard Meier "Classic Bowl" courtesy
of Richard Meier & Partners Architects.
All other photos courtesy of the Yale
University Art Gallery, Swid Powell
Collection; "Tuxedo," "Grandmother,"
and "Metropolitan" Gift of Nan Swid;
Big Dripper Coffeepot and Filter Gift of
Lindsay S. Suter, M. Arch. 1991.
and the world, among them Arquitectonica, Arata
Isozaki, Robert and Trix Haussmann, and Paolo
Portoghesi. Steven Holl and Zaha Hadid joined the
roster as they became widely known.
Consistently, however, the most marketable
items were from New York firms. The best-selling
dinnerware pattern, by far, was "Tuxedo" by
Gwathmey Siegel, with sparse geometrical figures
on a white ground. There were much smaller but
respectable sales for patterns by Venturi, the Haussmanns, and Holl. In the area of silver-plated bowls,
picture frames, trays, pitchers, and candlesticks,
Meier's works were the best sellers, with substantial
sales for those of Stern.
In the most successful six-year period of Swid
Powell's architect-designed products - 1984
through 1989 - sales totaled more than $10
million. In the 1990s, the company introduced
well-designed but less distinctive pieces by fashionworld figures such as Calvin Klein. Swid Powell
survived into the early 2000s, but the heyday of its
architect-designed tableware had passed. Today
these objects have, ironically yet predictably, become collectors' items.
John Morris Dixon, FAIA, left the drafting board for
journalism in 1960 and was editor of Progressive
Architecture from 1972 to 1996. He continues
to write for a number of publications, and he
received AIANY's 2011 Stephen A. Kliment
Oculus Award for Excellence in Journalism.
Spring 2015 Oculus
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Oculus - Spring 2015
First Words Letter from the President Repositioning All Around By Tomas Rossant, AIA
Letter from the Editor The Edge of New By Kristen Richards, Hon. AIA, Hon. ASLA
Center for Architecture Center Highlights
One Block Over Rough Waters: Squalls continue over the redevelopment of South Street Seaport By Claire Wilson
Opener: Thinking Into Other Boxes By David Zach
Mars in the Bronx CASE gets new environmental technologies out of labs and into buildings at (relative) warp speed By Jonathan Lerner
Spinning Research Into Practice Intense experimentation with digital technologies is yielding remarkable designs and products by ARO By Lisa Delgado
A Results-Oriented Think Tank Defining architectural practice broadly enough to include research, theory, and public discourse, Grimshaw’s Urban Research Unit is a full-circle activity leading to a richer built environment By Bill Millard
The Resilience Factor Perkins+Will is making resilience design and planning a growing area of practice and income By Richard Staub
Socrates at the Drafting Table REX champions a slow thinktank architecture of methodical problem-solving By Janet Adams Strong
Architecture in the Social Data Era Transforming our practice to engage new data sources and design intents By Melissa Marsh
Museum as Incubator The New Museum hatches a multidisciplinary workspace to nurture creative entrepreneurs By Julia van den Hout
When Bottom-up Meets Top-down The benefits of community engagement in post-disaster rebuilding plans By Deborah Gans, FAIA
In Print Bricks & Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made By Tom Wilkinson Tales of Two Cities: Paris, London and the Birth of the Modern City By Jonathan Conlin Visionaries in Urban Development: 15 Years of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize Winners By Trisha Riggs, et al. American Urban Form: A Representative History By Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore Preservation is Overtaking Us By Rem Koolhaas, with a supplement by Jorge Otero-Pailos Reviews by Stanley Stark, FAIA
31-Year Watch Architectural practice once embraced dinner plates and candlesticks produced by Swid Powell By John Morris Dixon, FAIA
Last Words Eve of Construction By Rick Bell, FAIA
Index to Advertisers Alphabetical & Categorical Index
Oculus - Spring 2015