Nine years ago, the founders of popular e-commerce website Etsy conjured what could only be described as a crafty plan: they built the first online shopping bazaar dedicated to selling handmade goods and curated vintage items. With a few clicks of a mouse, shoppers who were hungry for one-of-a-kind-finds could suddenly purchase a clay vase fresh from the kiln, or buy a 1920s cocktail dress without the hassle of pawing through a dusty secondhand store.
"People value things that have a story," says Randy Hunt, Etsy's creative director. "But even more so, something in which they are the story; where they are a participant in that experience."
More than a million vendors and $1.35 billion of merchandise sales later, Etsy has now been granted the 2014 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for Corporate Achievement. One of 10 awards granted annually by the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City, the prize is given in recognition of a corporation or institution that strategically uses design in its mission. In the past, it’s also been given to winners including the non-profit TED (of TED Talk fame), Patagonia and Nike.
Etsy was selected for its employment of design in everything from outreach initiatives to their sales. “Their user-friendly technology and innovative approach to retail brings craft and design into everyone’s home in ways both small and large,” says Cooper-Hewitt spokesperson Laurie Bohlk.
Design is an inextricable part of both Etsy’s founding aim and its bottom line. The site allows sellers to envision, create and vend their own goods. Its primary rule? Each item listed must be either handmade, a unique factory object or over 20 years old. (Ironically, the Etsy success has since spawned criticism due to overwhelmed crafters who can't keep up with hectic production demands without mechanizing their efforts.)
In just one shopping session, browsers can encounter the full spectrum of design—everything from the artsy and ancient to the eccentric, ugly and just plain weird. Sellers are charged 20 cents per listing, and are allowed to keep 96.5 percent of their profits.
But over the years, the company’s efforts have extended offline and into the community. Its headquarters—based in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York—host open crafting classes in the "Etsy Lab,” where DIY-notices and enthusiasts alike are provided with materials and instructions to make their own creations. Another initiative, the Craft Entrepreneurship Program, teaches low-income communities in Rockford, Illinois and New York City how to make, promote and brand items for sale in their own Etsy stores. Etsy plans to launch the curriculum in five other cities—three more in North America, and two in Europe.
Design, says Hunt, "is integrated into the product we have developed; the sort of brand experience that we create, but ultimately and more importantly, supports the community of sellers."
The 2014 Cooper-Hewitt Design honorees, representing multiple facets of the industry, range from architecture and fashion design to commercial media ventures:
- Lifetime Achievement: Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar, founding partners of the New York–based brand design firm Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. Since 1958, Chermayeff and Geismar have worked with clients such as Chase Manhattan Bank, Mobil Oil, New York University, PBS and Xerox. They've also garnered several prestigious awards, including the AIGA Gold Medal, the Yale Arts Medal and the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame honor.
- Design Mind: Witold Rybczynski, a writer and emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, has written 15 books and several hundred essays and reviews on architecture, urbanism and design. Rybczynski also won the 2007 Vincent Scully Prize.
- Architecture Design: Brooks + Scarpa. Angela Brooks and Lawrence Scarpa are partners in the Los Angeles-based sustainable architecture firm, which built the Solar Umbrella House, Cherokee Mixed-Use Lofts and Colorado Court (the first affordable housing project in the country to be LEED-Gold certified).
- Communication Design: Office. Led by Jason Schulte and Jill Robertson, the San Francisco-based studio has worked with companies including Google, Disney, Coca-Cola, Target and IBM.
- Fashion Design: Narciso Rodriguez. The well-known, New York City-based fashion designer has won three CFDA Awards, the Pratt Institute’s Fashion Icon Award and was named one of the “25 Most Influential Hispanics in America” by Time magazine
- Interaction Design: Aaron Koblin. San Francisco-based interaction designer Aaron Koblin creates new interfaces in crowdsourcing and data visualization. His projects include data-driven music videos for Radiohead and Arcade Fire, and the crowdsourced music video "The Johnny Cash Project." He leads the Data Arts Team at Google and his works are among the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Victoria and Albert Museum and Centre Pompidou. He has received National Science Foundation awards and multiple Grammy nominations.
- Interior Design: Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors. The New York-based design firm was founded in 1998 by two Hollywood set designers, Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch. Since then, the duo have built the Ace and Standard Hotels in New York City; the restaurants The Dutch and Lafayette with chef Andrew Carmellini; the Freehand Hotel in Miami; the Viceroy Hotel in New York City; and the news room and set for Huffington Post Live.
- Landscape Architecture: Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture. The San Francisco-based firm uses sustainable building practices to construct everything from single-family residences to hotels, wineries, affordable housing, schools and public parks. They have won seven Honor Awards and an Award of Excellence from the American Society of Landscape Architects.
- Product Design: LUNAR. Founded 30 years ago by Jeff Smith and Gerard Furbershaw in San Francisco, LUNAR is responsible for the Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush and brand-defining genetic sequences for Illumina.