Architecture-branded products like Kith and New Balance's recently released Frank Lloyd Wright sneakers undermine the values of the profession, writes Ryan Scavnicky.
Dead architects' names are the perfect secret ingredient for selling loads of mediocre merch. Stuff like educational toys, stuff like t-shirts, chess sets and even shoes.
Many of these architects, foremost among them Frank Lloyd Wright, followed the idea that architecture should be a total work of art, a concept that goes by the fancy German term "Gesamtkunstwerk". This means if an architect designed you a house, it would also come with a series of custom chairs or silverware.
You often aren't supporting architecture or design by buying this stuff
But sneakers or Lego sets are not a Gesamtkunstwerk, they're just regular old commodities. They don't come with a beautiful house, they come with a markup and maybe some cool graphics or colors.
At least, you might assume that architecture-marketed products somehow trace back to the architecture community – maybe in the form of scholarships or outreach for underserved communities – but that's what's messed up about it. You often aren't supporting architecture or design by buying this stuff, you are contributing to Uncle Scrooge McDuck's daily money swim.
Thing is, I'm a sucker for good merch. It is a great way to be reminded of the joy of a good trip, or support a cause. I've got a wonderful set of Sabacc cards from Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disney, even though the game itself is so complicated I will never play it. Just last month at the Venice Architecture Biennale I proudly wore a Bowser tee from my trip to Super Nintendo World. That merch is fun, but not as dear to me as the Cleveland Cavaliers t-shirt I got for Christmas that was made by an independent graphic designer with an Etsy shop, not NBA official.
This distinction – between corporate merchandise and grassroots products – is blurring. In a world where so much feels contrived, brands are taking advantage of the desire for authenticity by deploying buzzwords like "bespoke", "handmade", or, god-forbid, "artisanal". These are all words that have lost meaning, and you know it when it shows up in the description of airline food.
The trend towards things that attempt to feel unique means it is now harder to build support around a cause by selling symbolic stuff at a grand scale, as the American public is continually learning. Everyone was wearing those gaudy "LIVESTRONG" cancer-fundraising wristbands in the 2000s until Lance Armstrong's doping scandal crashed their donations and revenues. And who wasn't wearing Toms Shoes in 2012, beguiled by the buy-one-give-one concept, before it was revealed that the company really wasn't good at donating shoes at all?
That's why the argument here doesn't end with some froufrou notion of informed consumerism. There is little to be gained by arguing for ethical consumption, as all social causes have a systemic root we must pull to make actual change. Even architecture-branded products that did purportedly do some good for the community would ring hollow at best.
A deeper issue is what they teach kids about creating architecture
So I suggest we question the intention and legitimacy of those claiming to represent the values of architecture itself by turning its aesthetic output into a branding exercise to please shareholders.
An established institution's funds should come primarily from assets, fundraising, and grants because there are systems in place to deliver that money to deserving cultural ventures. Good institutional merch is about brand awareness, not actual profit. For example, I cherish my SCI-Arc-branded fidget spinner made during the peak of the trend in 2017.
Most of these products are children's toys – and therefore a deeper issue is what they teach kids about creating architecture. They come in two main types: kits and blocks. A kit is a set of parts that are designed to be assembled in a specific way, like Lego New York City. They teach you to learn from individual buildings and constructions as masterpieces. Blocks are an abstract set of shapes which can be arranged and rearranged, like K'nex or Little Tikes Big Waffle Blocks. They teach you to find novel combinations and organizations. In both cases, they expand a sense of space and creative activity.
Yet even blocks are advertised as if the point is to produce individual talent. The Froebel Blocks website lists Josef Albers, Charles Eames, Buckminster Fuller, and of course Frank Lloyd Wright, to name a few. This could stifle a kid's desire to just play.
This is troublesome because contemporary construction simply doesn't happen via the idolized brain of a lone genius. It takes loads of designers, workers, and craftspeople to execute a project. We must cultivate an image of architecture that talks more to its collaborative nature in current practice than creating mouth-breathing sycophants or worse: hordes of hopeful starchitects.
Let's take Broadacre City as an example. It is primarily a suburban planning concept championed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and arguably his worst and most destructive idea. However, the models, drawings, and representations of that idea come from years of collaboration and conversation. That a single aesthetic can be derived from that effort, and be attributed to one famous architect, is just wrong.
This collab pushes the level of branding to an obscenely low point
Kith, a fashion brand that proudly boasts of "collaborating with brands that have stood the test of time" such as Star Wars, has partnered with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to create a Broadacre City-themed pair of New Balance 998s. This collab pushes the level of branding to an obscenely low point, with nothing but a few desert-like colors on a generic shoe to pull some easy cash out of a handful of bright-eyed believers.
That the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation is getting involved in such branded collaborations should raise eyebrows. This is an institution which, according to its website, promises the money they make furthers their preservation efforts, yet I know from firsthand experience that the ceiling in the drafting studio was leaking on students attending the accredited school formerly housed within. Maybe that's what the foundation means by "better living through meaningful connections to nature". It fixed the problem by essentially kicking the school out and no longer supporting an accredited architecture program. That's some bullshit.
At least I can take comfort in knowing that when I die, some cultural foundation may be established. They may turn my previous memes, writing, or work into throw pillows, candles, and maybe some fidget spinners. If that happens, let it be known I hope they do something rad with the money.
Ryan Scavnicky is the founder of Extra Office, a design practice that explores new channels for architectural content. He is a former lecturer at the Frank Lloyd Wright-founded The School of Architecture and currently teaches architecture design, theory, and criticism at Kent State University.
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