In the First Person
Alice Rawsthorn: «Design is a constant solace for your curiosity and a constant education»
Vera Sacchetti

When it comes to the world of design – what it is, what it represents, and what it is for – Alice Rawsthorn is one of its most internationally respected voices, with a global reach across social networks and debating forums. She has been a critic and columnist for some of the most influential newspapers and journals of our times including the Financial Times, International Herald Tribune and The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of classics such as the widely acclaimed Design as an Attitude. In this exclusive interview for Electra given to design curator and critic Vera Sacchetti, Alice Rawsthorn talks about her life and works, and outlines her views of the world and the future, showing in the process her overarching optimism in the face of the challenges and risks involved, and defending design as an ‘omnipresent force’ and ‘agent of change’.

alice rawsthorn

© Michael Leckie

According to the inimitable critic Alice Rawsthorn, design is ‘inextricably linked with and immersed in everything’ around us. Over her long career, Rawsthorn has written for the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune, and has contributed to public debate about design that has changed the world over the past twenty years. Her books Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, and more recently, Design as an Attitude, explore the ways in which design manifests itself on different levels globally, and have been widely recognised. Through global forums such as TED and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Rawsthorn has contributed to promoting design as a transformative tool with potential worldwide impact. She also speaks to younger generations, who make up a large part of her over ninety thousand Instagram followers, and who eagerly follow her informative and fascinating posts.

Rawsthorn’s most recent project Design Emergency was born out of the first months of lockdown in 2020, in collaboration with Paola Antonelli, her friend and the head of I&D at MoMA. From an Instagram profile, the project grew to becoming a book, which will be published in Spring 2022. As a ‘demonstration of creativity and engineering in design’, Design Emergency is perhaps Rawsthorn’s most ambitious project, emerging at a time when the effects of the pandemic have been so decisive. Like a guide to the present she leads us through the ‘global process of radical redesign and reconstruction’ we are all experiencing, in which design has an important role to play.

Vera Sacchetti  I know that you did not study design originally. How is it that you started writing and started on your path to being a critic?

Alice Rawsthorn  I’ve always loved writing, reading, stories and narratives of all types ever since I was a child. Writing and talking has always been my way of expressing myself and reading the writing of others is a great joy for me. I also had a fairly scrappy formal education, so writing and reading were ways of educating myself. I went to Cambridge University and began by studying law. In the 1970s, clever girls were told to study either medicine or law so they could have a formal career, which was ridiculous because both sectors were intensely misogynistic at the time. All my female friends who became doctors or lawyers had a really tough time. I wanted to be a human rights lawyer, but realized that studying law in order to train to become a professional lawyer wasn’t giving me the kind of intellectual stimulus I felt I’d lacked at school and desperately wanted from university. So luckily at Cambridge, you can do two part degrees. And so for the second part, I read art and architectural history.

The course was incredibly old-fashioned. This was the late 1970s, the punk era. But the Cambridge art history course was very much stuck in the 19th century, or so it seemed to me. There was no possibility of studying modern or contemporary art at all. But it did give me a wonderful introduction to art history and it had an amazing library full of art, design, architectural books from all over the world. Among the subscriptions were Italian magazines such as Domus and Abitare. At the time, Domus was edited by Alessandro Mendini, and Ettore Sottsass was the art director. It was a particularly dynamic time for the magazine when postmodernism was really exploding in architecture, and Mendini was an extraordinary editor, very intellectually nimble and agile. This was my introduction to design, which was not a phenomenon much discussed in Britain in the 1970s, certainly not in cultural terms as this medium inextricably linked to and immersed in all the things I was completely obsessed about at the time – film, literature, politics, psychology, style culture, music, social sciences. And that’s how I’ve thought of it ever since, as this immersive discipline that’s engaged with every aspect of our lives, a ubiquitous force that influences everything we do in every possible context.

"And that's how I’ve thought of it ever since, as this immersive discipline that’s engaged with every aspect of our lives, a ubiquitous force that influences everything we do in every possible context."

mohammed Fayaz

Poster by Mohammed Fayaz for the "Brooklyn Liberation" march in support of equal rights for young trans and non-binary Afro Americans, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

hello world

Hello World: Where Design Meets Life
Cover by Irma Boom. Courtesy Alice Rawsthorn and Hamish Hamilton

VS  After you left Cambridge you worked as a journalist focusing on contemporary affairs, but not specifically connected to design, correct?

AR  When I left Cambridge, I got a place on the graduate training scheme run by the company that owned the Times Newspaper group. It was a very old-fashioned, but very pragmatic and very effective introduction to journalistic practice. I then worked for the Financial Times for nearly twenty years, writing about economics, politics, and corporate affairs. I worked as a foreign correspondent in Paris, and when I returned to London in the mid-1990s, I wrote about the creative industries. They were really exploding in Britain at the time, becoming an increasingly important economic force. They’d never really been taken seriously until then, so it was a great opportunity for me to pioneer a new area of coverage for the FT that was very much aligned with my own passions. Throughout this time, I sustained my interest in the visual arts, architecture, and design that I’d discovered in Cambridge. I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. So I read all the design books that were available, and spent a week on a design history research programme at the National Art Library. And after nearly twenty years at the FT, I had an opportunity to reinvent my relationship with the paper and become design and architecture critic. In 2006, I joined the New York Times – or what was then the International Herald Tribune, the international edition of the paper – and worked there for twelve years as design critic. I wrote a weekly design column, which was a fantastic opportunity because the IHT had never had a design critic before, and they were completely open to me writing about it as I wished. I wasn’t constrained by the usual clichés of design writing, predominantly focusing on interior design, product design, or furniture design. I could write about them if I wanted to, but I could write about my broader vision of design as a social, political, and ecological tool as well. I made it clear from the start that I would need to be free to be critical of design. At the time, most design writing tended to focus on good design, and on championing design, which was understandable because it was a very marginalised discipline. However, I believed that if we were to have a really robust critical discussion about design, it needed to address the negatives as well. And the paper was completely happy to allow me to do that.

I’ve always felt that I’ve treated my role as a design critic as being a foreign correspondent, where you have to analyse anything and everything that can happen at any given moment. One of the things I love about design is that you have to dive in and out of so many different fields. It’s a constant solace for your curiosity and a constant education, and the practice and possibilities of design are continually reinvented. Your thinking can never be static; you always have to reassess it, which is very exciting.