National Design Awards—Glamorous and Brainy

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What to wear? Or more importantly, perhaps, what not to wear?

That perennial nagging question so often pondered by the fashion pundits and superstars that walk the red carpet at the Oscars and the Grammys was perhaps nowhere more appropriate than at the slightly more brainy East coast affair—the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Awards gala, which took place this past Thursday in New York City.

High fashion was in full swing as hundreds of glammed-out gala-goers flooded into Cipriani, an Italian restaurant and event hall on 42nd St. A few insiders in the know even dressed in garments made by Rodarte, the label that would win the Fashion Design award later that evening. I was wearing a silver frock that I bought online and that serves as my go-anywhere party dress and a pair of painfully high heels, but I made my way into the throngs of the stylishly turned out and took my seat.

Pink lights lit up the defunct teller windows of the cavernous hall (relics from when the venue was the Bowery Savings Bank in the 1920s). Waiters served fruity cocktails in champagne glasses as guests weaved in and out of brightly colored ribbons that hung in a crisscross pattern from the 65-foot-high ceilings down to the tables on the floor. News broadcaster Paula Zahn took the stage to emcee draped in an elegant purple ensemble, but attention quickly shifted to the awards themselves.

The awards spanned ten different categories, from communications to fashion to landscaping. The first entitled, "Design Mind," was presented by the renowned Milton Glaser to veteran critic Ralph Caplan. Glaser, 81, lauded Caplan as "the best living writer on the subject of design."

"Sure, if you can call this living," joked Caplan, who is now 85 years old.

Wry humor kept rolling throughout the rest of the show. Lisa Strausfeld, winner of the Interaction Design award for her work designing digital information, thanked "the recession of the early 90s" for her ultimate defection from architecture to her current niche. William Sofield, who won the Interior Design category, reminisced on founding his company in the late 1980s, "back when the meat packing district used to pack meat." Even comedian and pundit Stephen Colbert made a short video appearance to introduce his friend and the designer of his own book, Stephen Doyle, who won the award for Communication Design. "Now they say you can't judge a book by its cover," said Colbert, "but Stephen's design for my book accurately reflects my excellent writing within: thoughtful, incisive, and—let's face it—easy on the eyes."

There was also an earnest side to the evening, however, in which designers emphasized the importance of design in the lives of all people. "Good design is not just a luxury," said Sofield. "It is essential to the quality of our lives." This was perhaps most evident in the winner of the People's Design Award, Leslie Ligon of At First Sight Braille Jewelry, whose winning piece, a bracelet showing the braille alphabet, was reported on last week by ATM blogger Megan Gambino.

The Lifetime Achievement award concluded the program. The winner, Jane Thompson, founding editor of I.D. magazine, became the second woman to win the award in eleven years. "The trend is moving in this direction," said Thompson. "Women are being rewarded."

As the show ended, guests milled about towards desserts and dancing in the bar area. Many of the chic attendants gravitated towards down-to-earth fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of the increasingly popular line, Rodarte, but other award winners received their own fans as well. Guests slowly trickled out through the revolving door and onto the city streets.

Content that I hadn't spilled anything on my dress or wrenched my ankle teetering in my heels, I snagged one well-designed fruit tartlet for the road and then bid fond farewell to the party. Nothing like some delicious pomp and circumstance to go with all that innovation and design.

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