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Essays

Dan Rubinstein on The Value of Design
22.02.23

Essays is a compilation of musings that examine the broad yet impactful role design plays in contemporary life. Leading design writers, commentators and thinkers are invited to contribute an individual perspective – accepting or challenging the notion that design does or should embody greater “value” by drawing on personal experience, expertise and knowledge. Contributors are encouraged to explore design’s influence and application in domestic and commercial settings, across history, culture, politics, and its power to impact all aspects of life from small gestures of the everyday, to the future and sustainability of our planet.⁠

We’re pleased to share the musings of Dan Rubinstein, a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York specialising in design, travel, art, and culture. His podcast, ‘The Grand Tourist with Dan Rubinstein,’ recently launched its sixth season of weekly episodes, featuring guests such as chefs Daniel Boulud and Francis Mallmann, architects Bjarke Ingels and Annabelle Selldorf, designers Philippe Starck and Patricia Urquiola, artists Antony Gormley and David Salle, and collaborations with brands such as TEFAF and Fritz Hansen. Prior to launching the podcast, Dan was the Home & Design Director at Departures magazine and was previously the Editor-in-Chief of design magazine Surface. With more than 20 years of experience in media, he has contributed to publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Air Mail, Architectural Digest, and L’Officiel, informing his inquisitive approach to design culture.

Portrait by Isaac Anthony.

The Value of Design by Dan Rubinstein

At the beginning of every episode of my podcast, The Grand Tourist, I mention that I’ve been a design journalist “for nearly 20 years.” That’s not exactly accurate, as my husband recently reminded me. It’s more like 23. I’m sliding into that age group where dates get fudged to conceal how old I am.

I’m here to confess that the more I learn about design, the more complex the subject becomes for me. While I don’t know exactly how to define good design, I have learned what conditions good design needs to flourish.

Podcast, The Grand Tourist with Dan Rubinstein.
Image courtesy of The Grand Tourist.

The premier episode of The Grand Tourist, season 6, featuring artist Nick Cave.
Image courtesy of The Grand Tourist.

“I’m here to confess that the more I learn about design, the more complex the subject becomes for me. While I don’t know exactly how to define good design, I have learned what conditions good design needs to flourish.” – Dan Rubinstein

On my podcast I interview a wide variety of leaders and creatives, from chefs and architects to designers and hoteliers. There are many well-regarded luminaries who have been written about endlessly, but they are rarely documented with in-depth interviews that reveal something new about their work that’s unpolished, intimate, and significant.

The more personalities I encounter, the more commonalities I discover among them. I’m convinced there’s little difference between French chef Daniel Boulud and British architect John Pawson. Or between artist Antony Gormley and interior designer India Mahdavi. I think all their successes across different fields are directly linked to three values.

Barbican Apartment, London, by John Pawson.
Photography courtesy of John Pawson.

Barbican Apartment, London, by John Pawson.
Photography courtesy of John Pawson.

The first is a monk-like devotion to craft, where caution is always valued over speed. One recent thought I learnt from MoMA curator Paola Antonelli: The opposite of good design isn’t ugly, it’s lazy. This applies equally to a small company making hand-painted wallpaper, where hurrying craftsmen or cutting materials costs would destroy the whole point of the brand, and to a large architectural firm planning a massive football stadium, where drafting blueprints before analysing the local design culture and urban plan would ruin the project before it’s begun. Great care, planning, and precision create design that transcends trends. Can you design an amazing desk using old banana peels? With enough time, yes.

“One recent thought I learnt from MoMA curator Paola Antonelli: The opposite of good design isn’t ugly, it’s lazy.” – Dan Rubinstein

MoMA curator Paola Antonelli.
Photography courtesy of MoMA.

Another essential value is a boundless sense of curiosity. No design-led organisation can be closed off from new experiences, points of view, forms of art, or places to visit. In my interview with interior designer Vincent Darré, he spoke about how he fuelled his career through a notorious circle of famous friends in French society, and the many nights out on the town he spends with them. While guest, John Pawson, isn’t someone you’d find out clubbing late at night, his curiosity about food led him to recently release a cookbook with his wife.

Excerpts from Home Farm Cooking by John Pawson.
Photography courtesy of The Modern House.

Excerpts from Home Farm Cooking by John Pawson.
Photography courtesy of The Modern House.

The last value I’ve discovered from my guests is a little counterintuitive.

If you’re a fan of design, you’re probably familiar with the great modernists of the 20th century and their visions of utopia. They created new theories about architecture and urbanism that they believed were evolved and correct. Today, I think many people view design as the belief that one style or method of creation is simply better than others. But what I’ve learned is that great designers or artists rarely believe their work is superior to anyone else’s. They don’t like to give advice or make predictions. They might not love everyone else’s work or products, but they understand that their own work isn’t necessarily for everyone.

So, I’ll call this last value humility. By freeing themselves of the need to create something universal or definitive, the best designers create something highly personal, and therefore utterly unique. Many people I interview have a hard time explaining the design decisions they make. Sometimes it can be a bit frustrating, but I’ve come to understand it’s a mark of creating something so intuitive it can’t be externalized. Instead, it must be experienced.

My hope is that in the next 20 years of my career I’ll discover more shared values of design. But it might take 23.

“By freeing themselves of the need to create something universal or definitive, the best designers create something highly personal, and therefore utterly unique.” – Dan Rubinstein