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What I Learned at the Design Leadership Summit, Washington D.C., October 2018

I learned about the Design Leadership Network, a community of architects; interior designers; custom builders and suppliers to the design trade who meet throughout the year to share best practices and once annually, at the Design Leadership Summit. This year, the Design Leadership Summit was held in my town, Washington D.C.

I learned about iconic buildings in Washington DC, prominent buildings which I’ve walked past a thousand times in the thirty-five years I’ve lived here. It takes out-of-town visitors to get me to be a tourist in my own back yard. Two of our DLS meetings were held in Smithsonian venues: The Arts and Industries Building and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Arts & Industries Building at the Smithsonian.

The Arts & Industries Building at the Smithsonian.

From presenter Ms. Zena Howard FAIA, LEED AP, Principal & Managing Director Perkins+ Will, I learned that the decorative bronze lattice exterior of the African American History and Culture Museum building was inspired by West African blacksmiths, slaves, who brought their craft to the early American colonies. The design team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith followed classical form for the building’s base and shaft, topped by a capital. But the capital is inspired by the three-tiered crown used in Yoruban art from West Africa. The museum’s main entrance is a front porch, derived from the American south.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture.

On the second day of the Summit we heard from the venerable Calder Loth, Senior Architectural Historian, Virginia Department of Historic Resources and respected contributor to TRADITIONAL BUILDING. Calder chronicled our capital’s architectural history, highlighting the good works of John Russel Pope; William Appleton Potter and Robert Mills. The theme around the discussion of Washington DC’s historic architecture was: “compromise.” Washington D.C. architecture is subject to the many layers of historic district commission process and approvals with building codes that restrict building height. “Compromise,” is more an architectural occurrence than a political one, in our nation’s capital.

My friend and ICAA colleague Ankie Barnes of Barnes Vanze Architects was part of a panel discussion titled “What Makes Design in D.C. Different.” Additional panelists included Richard Levy, the Levy Group and Amy Weinstein, Co- Practice Leader, Gensler. The moderator was Paul Goldberger, architectural critic for Vanity Fair. Washington is a classical city whose architecture expresses our democratic ideals.

I learned that interior designers are thinking about holistic interior design which address the inhabitant’s health and well-being. This picks up a thread I discussed in an earlier blog about the neuroscience of architecture. Designers can choose materials, proportion and ornament to soothe our spirit. Design is not just about functionality. It’s about creating a sanctuary for our feelings. This requires the designer to have a deeper understanding of what the client wants to express.

On the final day of the Design Leadership Summit, we broke into small round- table groups, to discuss a range of topics including: succession planning, business development and social media. Several designers I spoke with are stumped by how to reach new clients via new media. Everyone has a quality-product-service story to tell, but “it’s a story that takes longer to tell. How do get people’s attention long enough to explain quality and long-term value?”

The British Embassy, designed by Sir Edward Lutyens. 

The British Embassy, designed by Sir Edward Lutyens. 

The finale event was a cocktail reception at the British Embassy, the only Sir Edward Lutyens building in North America. Here, the British ambassador spoke to us about the “Architecture of Diplomacy.” The embassy is a grand symbol of the close relationship between England and the U.S. According to HRH The Prince of Wales, the British Embassy is "in the style of a Queen Anne country house with additional touches reminiscent of New England colonial and Virginia plantation architecture."

The British ambassador’s hospitality was the perfect segue to next year’s Design Leadership Summit which takes place in London, November, 2019.

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