What is an anniversary?
Certainly it is an opportunity to celebrate the past, as we have done in spades in this commemorative issue marking Contract’s 50 years in publication. Here, we have approached the telling of our history with the acknowledgement that the story of the last five decades of the magazine really is not about us, as much as it is about the history of commercial interiors and the firms, practitioners, and related industries that designed and built post-war corporate and institutional America.
The story that has unfolded in our pages from our first issue in November 1960 until the present (which a thorough examination of our archives reveals we have chronicled remarkably well) is one of triumph, challenge, and tremendous change, as the reminisces of our coterie of industry icons—all highly respected designers who were there at “the beginning” and practiced successfully for decades (some of them continue to practice)—most definitely confirms (see Perspectives, p. 28). The early influence of the design community on the companies and organizations that helped propel the United States to superpower status in the second half the 20th century is evident throughout our archives. But present circumstances indicate that the role and status of the designer definitely has changed—even diminished—over time.
A small, congenial, and civil industry has been transformed by passing decades into a highly competitive business that has forced the reduction of fees, unfortunately, often with the profession’s own complicity. The direct access to top management at the client organization that the A&D community used to enjoy has been eroded as layers of consultants have wedged themselves between designers and the executive suite. Economics has forced the acceleration of schedules and the reduction of budgets and fees, often at the expense of strategizing and conceptualizing, the designer’s most valuable skills. And the growth of mega-corporations and the rapid advance of technology have resulted in a dramatic increase in project complexity that muddies the chain of command and responsibility.
But these challenging forces have created opportunities too, and in the last 50 years the A&D community has shown remarkable resilience in its ability to reinvent itself, taking a lead on such issues as universal design, ergonomics, sustainability, and social responsibility. It has grown more sophisticated in its use of products and materials. It has conquered geographic boundaries, grown incredibly tech savvy, and shown the ability to separate fads from trends from sea changes, then understood how to apply them all to meaningful work.
An anniversary also is a time to look to the future, and, present economic circumstances notwithstanding, ours looks bright and ripe for designers to assume a new leadership role as more organizations hopefully begin to understand that business solutions based on collaborative, strategic, innovative, long-range thinking—design thinking—trump short-term, profit-grabbing, precedented, bottom-line decisions. With everybody taking the opportunity to reconsider the way they do business, now is the time for designers to reclaim their role as valuable consultants to business and industry. For the magazine, the opportunity to encourage and chronicle these developments will be realized across multiple platforms (print, online, face to face) that reflect the new ways our multi-generational audience consumes and processes information.
In retrospect, the history of commercial design is really the history of modern American business and the social, political, cultural, and economic forces that have driven our ingenuity and prosperity and will continue to do so.
Contract is at once proud and humbled be a part of it.