Every year, The Henry Ford partners with the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) on their International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA). The Henry Ford receives and processes the entries, and then hosts dozens of jurors—including The Henry Ford’s own Vice President of Historical Resources and Chief Curator Marc Greuther. Those products that win become part of the permanent collections of The Henry Ford.
Google Pixel Slate, IDEA bronze award winner in the consumer technology category, 2019. / THF185319
While asking Greuther and IDSA Executive Director Chris Livaudais about the relationship between the two institutions, we also took the opportunity to ask them about the judging process. In addition, Greuther shared the rationale behind some of his “Curator’s Choice” award picks from previous years.
Do you think the concerns of the IDEA jury have shifted over the years? If so, how?
Chris Livaudais: The IDEA jury rotates each year, but it is always composed of designers who are at the top of their field. In many cases, their work is what drives our profession forward and sets the bench other designers follow. As such, the interests of the jury do tend to shift with current trends or conversations within the industry. Sustainability and circular design are huge areas of interest right now, for example. To counter this, IDEA uses the same core judging criteria [see box below] each year. This consistency helps keep things rigorous, while still providing a little room for interpretation and influence from current forces impacting design.
IDEA Judging Criteria
Design Innovation: How new is the product or service? What critical problem is it solving? How clever is the solution? Does it advance a product category?
Benefit to User: How are users’ lives improved through this design? Can they accomplish things not previously possible?
Benefit to Client/Brand: What is the business impact of this design? How has leveraging design proven to be a key market differentiator?
Benefit to Society: Does the solution consider social and cultural factors? Is it designed/manufactured with sustainable methods/materials?
Appropriate Aesthetics: Does the form of the design adequately relate to its use/function? Are the colors/materials/finishes used befitting its purpose?
From your perspective, what are IDSA jurors looking for?
Marc Greuther: I think over time, I’ve seen two distinct lenses that get played out in the jurying process. One is rooted in “good design is good business” and responsibility. So it’s about utility, user interface, user experience. It’s about effectiveness, about durability. It’s about the use of appropriate materials.
The other has got much more to do with industrial design as a discipline and a certain kind of design purity, and it gets to how well-finished something is. Where are the part lines on there? How do dissimilar materials join in a way that’s pleasing? If you’re in the wrong mindset, you can start looking at it as being incredibly fussy and overly judgmental, but it’s really the design discipline’s roots in craft.
NordicPul: all-weather women's work gloves, IDEA bronze award winner in the student designs category, 2010. / THF154924
Part of what IDSA’s done well is put together a jury that has a wide range of backgrounds. People who know about assistive technology, the medical arena, gamers, and all the rest of it. That’s part of the secret of its effectiveness—ensuring that such a wide range has got a presence.
How do you approach the Curator’s Choice?
Marc Greuther: I’ve never tried to take it on as a kind of contrarian, but I’ve definitely seen things where I’ve felt like, “Holy cow, that’s been disregarded or knocked out of the spotlight for pretty poor reasons, and it needs to be rendered visible.”
I have the great advantage of not having to ask permission for the ones I award. I just try to ensure that my winners are thinking about the use of good materials and the appropriate deployment of objects: their sustainability, their usability, their understandability. It’s an interesting motley crew of things.
Year: 2011 Description: Water-filtering pouch that becomes a flavored drink rich in electrolytes Designed by: HTI Water
Why Greuther picked it: “This was for use in disaster situations to purify water. It hadn’t been given the recognition I thought it deserved. There were some designers who said it wasn’t designed. That, to me, was of interest, because sometimes you don’t need to design any more. Why? It was that notion of design almost getting out of the way. It’s about exercising restraint. Less is better in this instance.”
Year: 2012 Description: Wood-burning stove for use in developing countries as a replacement for cooking over an open fire Designed by: Ergonomidesign, Mårten Andrén, Håkan Bergkvist, Jonas Dolk, August Michael, Stefan Strandberg and Elisabeth Ramel-Wåhrberg for Creative Entrepreneur Solutions
Why Greuther picked it: “This was about cleaner, more efficient use of existing resources in places where people would be improvising all manner of ways of cooking or heating. It wasn’t trying to be the complete solution. It was partially reliant on charity and the local skills of the users. I liked that it seemed hackable and that people could bootleg this thing. It was about effecting change.” Sonos SUB
Photo by Dave Lauridsen
Year: 2013 Description: Wireless subwoofer Designed by: Mieko Kusano and Rob Lambourne of Sonos Inc., and Wai-Loong Lim of Y Studios LLC for Sonos Inc.
Why Greuther picked it: “Sonos had committed themselves to backwards compatibility, and they were building things that had enough redundancy in them that new functionality could play out in them. The SUB sounds really good. It’s a very enigmatic looking thing, and it was designed to work with their earliest equipment. It’s got kind of a Kubrick-like quality to it.”
Year: 2014 Description: Delivery and management service for people with multiple medications Designed by: TJ Parker and Elliot Cohen of PillPack, and Jennifer Sarich-Harvey, Sophy Lee, Katherine Londergan and Gen Suzuki of IDEO
Why Greuther picked it: “This is rooted in my sense that as medications have proliferated as conditions become treatable in one way or another, the complexities of managing those medications almost exponentially increase, and the chances of missing a dose or peculiar interactions increase as well. This was a way of managing that complexity. It’s almost infrastructural.”
Year: 2015 Description: Handline fishing reel Designed by: Brandon Liew, Robert Tiller and Lisa Gyecsek of Tiller Design for Squiddies Pty. Ltd.
Why Greuther picked it: “This was an interesting use of new materials. It was very minimal. The irony for me is that I don’t fish. I’ve never fished. I never intend to. But I did like the idea that this was something that could be easily pocketed, casually used. I like that notion of design that just slips into its place, because it’s so usable and so readily apparent in its usage.”
Year: 2018 Description: Robotic bassinet Designed by: Yves Béhar, Qin Li, Michelle Dawson and fuseproject design team, and Dr. Harvey Karp of Happiest Baby
Why Greuther picked it: “It’s a beautiful object. Part of what I liked about it was that it was robotic. When you look at robotics from a cultural standpoint, it’s almost always very threatening. This is robotic technology, but it’s designed to take care of newborns, something incredibly vulnerable, so the robotic element is appropriately stated and deeply camouflaged. I thought that was an interesting kind of paradox.”
Every year in the spring, the boxes begin to arrive from all over the world. Just a few at first…. Then more and more, day after day. They are carted from the loading dock down a long hallway and into The Henry Ford’s Main Storage Building. There, they will fill dozens of shelves and tables. In each, a product: computers and smartphones, sporting goods and medical supplies, appliances and tools, all manner of things solving all manner of problems.
Google "Daydream View" virtual reality headset, IDEA gold award winner in the consumer technology category, 2017. / THF174007
These are finalists in the Industrial Designers Society of America’s International Design Excellence Awards (known as IDSA and IDEA, respectively). Over the next several weeks, museum staff will process and sort them into 19 categories ranging from Automotive & Transportation and Service Design to Social Impact. Eventually, 41 esteemed jurors—representing a microcosm of the wide-ranging practices and interests of the industrial design community—descend upon the entries. The best will be declared winners and accessioned into The Henry Ford’s permanent collection, as they have been since 2010.
This ongoing partnership was the result of a 2009 meeting former Chief Historian Christian Øverland and current Vice President of Historical Resources and Chief Curator Marc Greuther from The Henry Ford took with Clive Roux, IDSA’s executive director at the time. At the meeting, Øverland and Greuther pitched the idea that there could be a relationship between The Henry Ford and IDSA based on the latter’s yearly IDEA judging process. The storied professional association agreed. Greuther was asked to select the recipient of a Curator’s Choice Award each year and was eventually given a spot on the jury.
The Henry Ford’s Vice President of Historical Resources and Chief Curator Marc Greuther. / Photo by Roy Ritchie.
Below, Marc Greuther and IDSA’s current executive director, Chris Livaudais, answer some questions. We talked to Greuther about The Henry Ford’s relationship with IDSA, IDEA, and curating through the eyes of designers. Livaudais provides his own perspective on IDSA’s partnership with The Henry Ford, how IDSA helps to promote sustainability in industrial design, and more.
IDSA’s Executive Director Chris Livaudais.
Why did The Henry Ford’s relationship with IDSA come about?
Marc Greuther: It partly came about because of a deeper institutional interest in design. That heightened a lot in the ‘80s under [former president of The Henry Ford] Harold Skramstad, who’d done work with the Eames Office. There was a deeper sense that The Henry Ford had good design holdings that got to the origins of the industrial design profession—and we wanted to continue building those collections.
I think a lot of how I’d looked at it at the time related to the proliferation of designers and design in everyday life. I wanted to ensure that we could stay current but also work more closely with designers, partly to get their take on things but also to make them aware of us as a resource. Unlike many museums, we didn’t just collect spectacular things to put on a plinth. We were quite eager to collect prototypical material and process-related material. It could be drawings, sketches, false starts, dead ends. We were aware that designers could look at that and it would be useful.
Starkey Laboratories S Series behind-the-ear hearing aid, IDEA silver award winner in the medical & scientific products category, 2010. / THF166375
It was based on real mutual benefit. Because design is a discipline that touches people’s lives, IDSA was interested in being more visible, so their work was better understood. Industrial design for many companies was still seen as a styling exercise. But the design discipline had evolved to a point where, no, there’s human factors—the benefits of technologies can be rendered in more usable ways if people’s needs are being better anticipated. Designers are intermediaries for those kinds of processes.
How has the partnership with The Henry Ford benefited IDSA?
Chris Livaudais: IDEA [celebrated] its 40-year anniversary [in 2020], making it one of the oldest design awards competitions around. Our collaboration with The Henry Ford provides an additional level of credibility to the program and helps preserve the legacy of design’s impact on our society. All winning IDEA products can be entered into the museum’s permanent collection, so this is a unique and huge incentive for designers to enter their work into the competition.
Model of "Pico - The Projector Camera," IDEA bronze award winner in the student designs category, 2010. / THF171351
How does the IDSA collaboration relate to and benefit The Henry Ford’s mission and collections?
Marc Greuther: We’ve been able to acquire items that we might not necessarily know about—because of the markets they serve—or even be able to encounter. I think if we can build our collections in a literal sense, we’re always going to be able to get things out in front of the public that serve our mission to inspire people through America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation.
The vast majority of the designers we’ve met are interested in the design discipline as a way of making the world a better place. And that’s a good subtext for our mission. We’re not simply trying to document new or novel things; we’re looking at the deployment of human creativity and imagination.
Stone Cold Systems ice-less vaccine refrigerator, IDEA bronze award winner in the social impact design category, 2018. You can get two curatorial perspectives about this artifact here. / THF185488
One of the jurors once said that one of the things he loves about going to the IDSA conference is that you’re hanging out with optimists. I think that’s another slant on our mission, which is optimistic. It’s that sense that things can be improved. I think that’s one of the best readings of how Henry Ford collected for the institution and how we’ve built off that.
Collecting via IDEA seems to create the potential for incredible contrast between the totally new and untested and the iconic artifacts already in the collection. It allows us to play with that edge, because we’re doing it through an industrial designer’s eyes. That’s why I value some of the earlier smartphones and gadgetry that have come in. You look at it and think, “Wow, I wouldn’t collect that now. That’s such a flash in the pan.” And it’s a good job that I didn’t collect it then with a future perspective of my own, because I would’ve been wrong. But it was the best guess of an industrial designer, and that has value.
LG Electronics "CordZero C5" cordless canister vacuum cleaner, IDEA bronze award winner in the home & bath category, 2015. / THF176286
One of the first exhibits I enjoyed at The Henry Ford when I first visited in 1986 was called Yesterday’s Tomorrows. It was all about past views of what the future would be like. That applies to some of the IDSA materials we’ve got. It’s that notion of “Journalism is the first draft of history,” right? It’s going to get superseded pretty quick, but it’s still got value. Our IDSA collections are the first draft of an industrial designer’s sense of what’s important.
When you’re talking about an institution that has the kind of collections that The Henry Ford has, the relationship with IDSA is an incredible asset. In 10 years, if one IDEA award winner is a huge success, the museum might have the prototype already.
Marc Greuther: Or we might have the very first production model. It gets to the fact that the institution is obviously very much wanting to see things through a lens of innovation, and innovation takes place across all of our collections, but it’s apparent in some more than others, simply because of the nature of what’s going on technologically in the world.
It is interesting to think about how IDEA has grown collections that seem incredibly workaday. If you think about the impact of ergonomics and human factors research into the design of handles for ladles and traditional kitchen utensils, that grows our collection in those areas that seem utterly everyday. That’s where design is an interesting discipline. New materials come along, or new knowledge about the way the body works or doesn’t work. All the work that’s been done by companies like OXO Good Grips is deeply informed by research into arthritis and rheumatism, and just the sheer inappropriateness of so many everyday utensil designs.
OXO SteeL CorkPull, IDEA bronze award winner in the home furnishings category, 2010. / THF166376
As someone who’s been on the jury for many years now, you get these things that come up—brand-spanking-new, out-of-the-box office concepts—and you’ll look at it and say, “Yeah, OK. I saw that in a Robert Propst drawing from 1962.” It’s good to be able to wield that historical perspective and say, “Hey, you know what? That’s been noticed before, and this is how it played out.”
How does IDSA hope to promote the continued growth of sustainable design practices going forward?
Chris Livaudais: IDSA has long been active in promoting responsible and sustainable design practices to the design community. In 2014, for example, we supported the development and distribution of Okala Practitioner, a comprehensive resource for designers on materials and best practices related to the ecological impact and footprint of a given product or service. We also have an Ecodesign special interest section, which allows subject matter experts in this space to connect and generate content for publication throughout IDSA’s networks. It is very important for us as a professional association to advocate for this topic and to show that having responsibly designed products can in fact be positive for our planet, the people who use the products and the bottom line of the business.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, 2018 / THF185488
People might think that curators look at objects in the same way. In fact, every curator at The Henry Ford has a different background and range of expertise, and we interpret things through a varied set of lenses.
Take, for example, an artifact in The Henry Ford’s collection that is related to a top-of-mind subject right now—vaccines. We were asked to offer two interpretations of the Stone Cold Systems Ice-less Vaccine Refrigerator, a 2018 IDSA (Industrial Design Society of America) winner (you can find out more about The Henry Ford’s relationship with IDSA here). Here are our thoughts.
Katherine White, Associate Curator, Digital Content:
At its best, design solves problems. Good designers are problem solvers, creatively working through a problem’s constraints towards a competent solution. When I first became familiar with this artifact, the Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, I was taken with its functionality and potential for social impact, all wrapped in a sleek case. This vaccine refrigerator, built within a siren-red carrying cage, aims to improve vaccine distribution to hard-to-reach locations.
The invention of vaccines has had an incredibly positive impact on global health. The World Health Organization estimates that 2–3 million deaths globally are avoided due to immunizations each year. But, perhaps surprisingly, vaccines can be fragile. They often need to be kept at a stable temperature (usually cold) without exposure to light or significant environmental fluctuation. The efficacy of the vaccine could be compromised should these factors not be met. The journey from the scientist’s laboratory to the arm of someone in New York City is a long one—and an even longer journey should that someone live in a rural area or developing country.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator Quick Start Guide / THF621440
This vaccine refrigerator aims to increase access to immunizations, regardless of where one calls home. It utilizes a more reliable iceless thermoelectric cooling technology and is rechargeable by multiple methods, including solar energy, so can be used anywhere. Although developed prior to the global COVID-19 pandemic, its future in fighting the pandemic is clear.
The late design critic Ralph Caplan is noted as saying that “design is a process of making things right.” Creation of a product which facilitates access to effective immunizations for all people—even far from a modern hospital building—is certainly one way to make things right.
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life:
This vaccine refrigerator immediately brought to mind the recent research I’ve been doing on Dr. Alonson Bingley Howard, a 19th-century country doctor whose office is now located in Greenfield Village. At the time Dr. Howard was practicing medicine (1855–83), people didn’t understand the nature of germs and contagion, or that diseases were transmitted this way. As a result, infectious diseases—like cholera, tetanus, yellow fever (or malaria), measles, dysentery, scrofula, and typhoid—were the leading causes of death at the time. These often reached epidemic proportions and people constantly feared that they, or members of their families, might contract them. But, without knowledge of what caused and spread disease, or modern pharmaceuticals (including vaccines), safe drinking water, and improved sanitation facilities, 19th-century country doctors constantly fought an uphill battle.
How relevant this is, I thought, to our lives today—to the COVID-19 pandemic; to people fearing they or members of their family might contract the virus; to our current knowledge of germs and our understanding that washing our hands, cleaning surfaces, and wearing masks reduces their spread; and to our hopes for combatting this disease through the application of successful vaccines.
Stone Cold Systems Ice-Less Vaccine Refrigerator, alternate view / THF185489
What about those deadly infectious diseases of the 19th century that Dr. Howard was attempting to treat, like cholera, yellow fever, and typhoid? One might assume they have disappeared—but they haven’t. Many of them still exist, especially in developing countries that have limited-to-no access to modern medical treatments, sanitation facilities, and vaccines. This refrigerator was, in fact, designed to hold vaccines where there is no electricity—in these very countries.
Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford. Donna Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.