Why Does Design Matter?

During the Centurion Jewelry show, I had the opportunity to interview Juliet Polcsa, the costume designer for HBO’s popular mobster soap opera, The Sopranos. (See p. 62.)

Polcsa brought up an interesting point about the relevance of art and design in Americans’ lives. She said most Americans’ art education comes not from teachers, but from retailers. We’re not being taught about art and design, she said, we’re being marketed to.

When I was growing up, art was a once-a-week class in elementary and middle school, as was music. By high school, both were elective and tended to focus on the practical, rather than the historical or philosophical. But at least I got some art and music education prior to college. Today, art and music often are the first subjects to go when a school district’s budget gets tight, and they’re often not required in college. I’m also lucky that, when I was a child, my parents organized regular outings to museums and concerts, and if I didn’t always appreciate them then—especially when my friends were at the playground—I do now.

Admittedly, learning to read is more important than learning to finger paint, but kids should learn to appreciate beauty and the elements of good design and know how to think creatively and critically. It’s important for everyone to understand the role the arts have played in both reflecting and challenging society and to appreciate objects that are well designed, even if not to one’s taste.

After attending a multitude of foreign jewelry shows, spending time in foreign cities, and speaking to many international colleagues over the years, it’s clear that art is far more central to life abroad than it is in the United States. Whether it’s the beautifully executed exhibitors’ stands at Inhorgenta, the extravagance of Basel, the elegance of Vicenza, the exuberant creativity of Feninjer, or even the simple fact that any café in Europe presents a cup of coffee and a croissant to the customer in such a way that breakfast becomes a small occasion rather than a refueling stop, the appreciation of the art of whatever one is doing is evident in a way that it isn’t here.

In terms of visual arts, American tastes often don’t respond well to avant-garde design. As Claudia Rose, director of strategy for the Diamond Promotion Service, once said, American consumers’ idea of “different” is vanilla with sprinkles, not pistachio-almond fudge. Our roots as a nation—from the early Puritan and Quaker settlers on through Calvinist Protestants and German farmers—lie with people who emphasized practicality, spirituality, and productivity over beauty.

Today, to give us credit where it’s due, we’re global leaders in scientific design and engineering, and even in the visual and performing arts we aren’t locked into tradition the way many Europeans are, leaving our artists freer to explore new avenues of thought and expression. Italian and German jewelry design tends to have a consistent, recognizable aesthetic, whereas American design—the product of a melting-pot culture—doesn’t. Neither does Brazilian design (Brazil being another melting-pot culture), although it does tend to make common use of the gems indigenous to the nation.

Does it matter if Americans learn about design and taste from retailers rather than teachers? Is it important for someone to understand what makes a piece of furniture or jewelry timeless or avant-garde, versus just buying a couch or a ring because it looks good in an ad or was worn by a particular actress?

I think it does. Beauty matters. I’m not talking about the kind associated with thin, blond, and scantily clad celebrities, but rather the kind that strikes a deep, primal chord within each of us. It’s been proven time and again that people feel happier and perform better in attractive, well-designed environments rather than unattractive, poorly designed ones, and that attractive people are perceived as smarter and more successful than unattractive people. I also think people want to learn about good design, which is why design-oriented retailers have found such a receptive audience.

Jewelers also have an opportunity to enrich customers’ appreciation of beauty and art. Aside from providing something that gives them a means of self-expression or emotional expression, you can subtly teach a little bit about the culture and design that leads to each piece’s creation. You might have to do some research, but that’s not a bad thing. Or you can invite the designers you carry to give their own presentations. You might be furthering the culture of retail education, but you’re also teaching customers to appreciate the timelessness of good design and quality—and that you’re the best source of each.