Austin has a reputation. In his book The Rise of the Creative Class,
Richard Florida used Austin as proof that a “creative city” will
attract a substantial community of artists and creative individuals per
However, there is some concern as the current development of downtown Austin begins to change the economic realities, moving away from a small-town feel and toward a denser urban development. The city will maintain a healthy range of entertainment choices, but the question arises as to how local artists and designers will factor into this new vision of Austin.
This is what I was thinking as I walked into a little gallery space on the third floor of the University of Texas’s Co-Op on Guadalupe. Gallery 3, established in 2005, is a student-run exhibition space that presents the work of students, faculty and staff. The recent exhibition, a collection of work by six undergraduates from UT’s School of Design entitled Object / Type / Transform, presents topographic projects constructed with the help of curator Amanda Douberly. In the gallery brochure, Douberly explains: “Design is sometimes understood as a management of constraints, but limitations can inspire as much as they can check creativity.” The work of these six designers focuses on themes from typology to typography that they had worked on as class projects. Marti Manship rearranged the elements of a photograph of a bike rack, cut-and-pasting them into an unending sequential pattern, like a swath of wallpaper. Allison Lura envisioned a way to preserve the transformative moment of the breaking of a wine glass to symbolize union within the Jewish marriage tradition. By forming each broken glass from generations of marriages into a molded shape, she has constructed both a symbolic family tree and a functional chandelier.
While considering the general strengths and weaknesses of these works, I came to the realization that over the past three years I have rarely seen work dealing with functional or experimental design, especially outside of the university context. The Creative Research Lab’s summer exhibitions frequently provide the opportunity for designers to showcase their work, which is well and good. But keeping in mind the nature of student work, it’s mostly going to be of an experimental or conceptual nature and based on challenging methodology. Design seems to be a soft spot within the local gallery and museum scene. Given the changing exhibition potential within Austin, how will local designers find a public audience post-university?
I don’t want to advocate for a permanent experimental design exhibition space so much as point out that the continuing representation of local design and designers within Austin is at stake. The de facto design center of Austin, the Design Center of Austin at Penn Field, is the clearest example of what I’m trying to point out. Opened in 2001, the multipurpose space houses six local designers of interior wares ranging from tile to faux finishes. The lobby was recently used as an exhibition space to showcase the work of student art from Texas State University, San Marcos.
A possible model for how to incorporate design and art in downtown Austin could come from the design district of Miami. This area of downtown Miami was once a stronghold of the Craig Robbins family. The area went through various changes, but with the intense redevelopment of downtown Miami, it has snapped into shape. It has directly benefited from urban growth — not just as a shopping district, but as an integrated space for social interaction. This area of Miami has both a day and night life, which derives from its central focus on design.
Recognizing that Austin is going through a similarly rapid urban redevelopment, the city should be reminded that part of its strength lies in the local talent that can afford to live there. “Keeping Austin Weird” will get tricky in light of the mayor’s proposal to add occupancy for some 25,000 residents in the downtown area over the next 10 years. Hope is in the air that this change will accommodate the limitations of local resources and the voices of local residents.
Edwin Stirman is an art historian currently living in Austin. Stirman is orginally from Miami.