Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Designers, interrupted: NeoCon 2009 and the Great Recession

Cocktail Party NeoCon 2009

Beneath the festival atmosphere at NeoCon 2009, there was a sense of sadness. I ran into a designer I know and he told me how hard it's been lately, as did the 2 architects and 2 designers he introduced me to. And on the morning of the ASID Career Exchange, well coiffed and well heeled design grads flocked to the 7th floor cafe with their portfolios in hand and panicked expressions on their faces. Would they find good jobs? Maybe not. Times are hard, and many firms are not hiring now. At least they had the decency to tell us so.

Veteran attendees of the trade show quickly realized that the lavish parties the showrooms had given in previous years were scaled down significantly. And so amid the live jazz, flowing champagne, tinkling cocktail glasses and platters of hot hors d'Ĺ“uvres, there was still a palpable air of melancholy. What will become of interior design? Where are the clients? Where is the money? Who can afford to hire us now? If only things were different...

The unfortunate reality is that few of my fellow design alums are working in the field, and neither am I. And after three solid days of immersing myself in the interior design milieu once again, it hit me: I miss working in my field. It breaks my heart to not be a part of it anymore. Even listening to the textile showroom reps talk about how many double rubs their upholstery fabric could withstand made me feel sentimental; I had sold and specified upholstery fabric once. Every piece I liked I wished I could specify for a client. But I don't have any clients.

Our design careers have been interrupted by the unfavorable economy. We are all part of the great diaspora of displaced designers who are doomed to labor in the dreary world outside the field of design until the economy improves. But we found solace at NeoCon this year, discovering that we are not the only ones.

My quest to find work as an interior designer has been like an unrequited love affair. Being excluded from a field that you are passionate about is just as painful as being in love with someone who does not love you in return. It engenders the same sense of heartbreak. The Merchandise Mart is like a monument to that heartbreak, a mausoleum for my dead dreams of design. And now, even though a week has passed since I attended NeoCon, I still long to be a part of that world. But instead I have returned to work at a job that has nothing to do with design. It's a good job, and I am glad that I have a job at all in these circumstances, but it is not interior design. But at least when we moved into our new office space last year they let me put a few finishing touches on things.

Still, I am hoping that NeoCon 2010 will be a much happier occasion for all of us. I hope that what has happened now will prove to only be an interruption, and once it is over we can get back to doing what we do best.

By the way, if you are a displaced designer, check out the free Rework career workshops, sponsored by The Mohawk Group. The one in Chicago will be held Thursday, June 25th. Click the link above for all the details.

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