A NEW MUSEUM is opening in Portland, but it's probably not what you expect. Exhibitions are free. There are no white walls, no pedestals. It has no physical building: sometimes it's in parks; sometimes it's in city hall. Design Museum Portland began as a nonprofit, decentralized museum in Boston. Still in fundraising mode for its Portland location, the organization will begin its unique Portland programming in 2014, with their first major event to be announced during a launch at ADX as part of Design Week. As a roaming museum, it's a curious concept, although one that should find a comfortable home in Portland—a city plenty comfortable with mobile business models (see: proliferating pop-up shops and food carts).
We picked the brain of the Design Museum's co-founder and executive director, Sam Aquillano, to get the scoop on this ambitious project and its precedence.
MERCURY: The term "design" is broad: It can mean graphic design, architecture, urban design. It sounds like the Design Museum covers all of design?
SAM AQUILLANO: The process of discovery—that is my definition of design. We exhibit, promote, and do programming around every type of design, including business-model design, experience design. Our audience is the general public. We have an exhibition right now at the airport in Boston called Getting There. Everyone travels, but you may not think about how design has shaped that experience, whether it's how your luggage is designed or the flight attendant uniforms. We have all that stuff in the exhibition. It's a lot more accessible than saying, "We're going to do an architecture exhibition"—if you do something that academic, they [the public] aren't going to know how to plug in.
What does a Design Museum exhibit look like? For your exhibit at the Boston airport—do you show blueprints of the airport? Is it interactive?
We show architectural drawings of the airport; we show sketches of luggage design. So, fun process stuff. We also have a lot of historical stuff, too. We talk about how the experience has changed. We have some infographics about deregulation—why is that in a design exhibition? Well, when they deregulated the airlines, it opened the airlines up to have a lot more passengers on a single plane, which dovetailed nicely with technology—they could develop these bigger engines. All of a sudden the experience completely changed. Instead of having 20 people on a plane and five flight attendants, [it went] to 200 people on a plane with five flight attendants. We really go into the cultural, economic, and technological changes that shape that experience, that designers have to respond to.
What informed your decision to have a Design Museum in Portland?
I founded the museum four years ago in Boston around the fact that design is so important in our lives—it's everywhere—but the public doesn't really think about design as deeply as we should. Normally people only recognize design when it's bad: if a chair is uncomfortable, or if you get lost in an airport. But good design is invisible. If we thought about design more, maybe we could design a better world. We started the museum around, "Design is everywhere, so we should be everywhere." We want to be out in the public, not holed up in a single building, because we can provide great contacts in the actual places. I met some folks from Gerding Edlen based in Portland; they developed the Indigo building in Portland. They started developing some work in Boston, and they reached out to see if we wanted to be part of one of their new developments; the conversation kept moving forward to, "Why not have a Design Museum Portland?" There are a lot of similarities between Portland and Boston—the design community is really strong in Portland, and there's great higher-end institutions teaching design. As our new city, it makes sense.
Design Museum Portland launch at ADX, 417 SE 11th, Tues Oct 8, 6:30 pm, free.