Original Article Published October 8, 2013
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|According to Shashi Caan—design advocate, educator, and principal of her eponymous design collective—the needs of tomorrow hinge on the design efforts of today. Caan is the president of the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers (IFI), an executive committee member of the International Design Alliance (IDA), the former chair of the Parsons interior design department, and a sought-after speaker at conferences and universities across the globe. The Shashi Caan Collective, where she is principal, offers innovative solutions in the areas of architecture, interiors, product design, and brand development. Here, we ask Caan—the Otis College of Art and Design‘s 2013 Donghia Designer in Residence—about trend, the significance of today’s design challenges, and the inner workings of her very own “United Nations.”
Interior Design (ID): What are the principles at the heart of Shashi Caan Collective that unify architecture, interiors and product design?
Shashi Caan (SC): The collective is an idea that wanted to be born, in response to 21st century design practice. Since the discipline of architecture was first practiced, buildings have been delivered through a linear process. Recently, as a culture, we have changed. We can’t afford to deliver creativity in a linear format anymore. In the last decade to 15 years, there’s been a major thrust to obtain life balance and deliver greater creativity, faster than ever before. It’s pervasive within the design community to work around the clock. In my previous position at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, I worked with teams of people and, all around me, designers were exhausted. I left SOM after 9/11, at a time of great introspection, and sought to start a practice fundamentally structured to offer thoughtful solutions and cultivate teams of people in our community that are happy, collegial, and collaborative.
I am proud to say we have happy and curious people working for us. It feels a bit like the United Nations. When we get a project, we compile a team that is entirely dedicated to seeing it through. That team is challenged to deliver tremendous in-depth research. We’re not known for just one kind of work; we do a broad cross-section, and we do a lot of research. It can take six months to two years, and at the end we like to give credit to every single person who participates. We believe that two minds combined give you the results of 10 alone.
ID: You teach concentrated masters classes at Parsons and have held positions at numerous design institutions through the years. What would you say are the opportunities available to designers and architects just entering the field today?
SC: What young people bring is freshness, and naivete is actually a big plus. Someone more experienced may not want to test or try ideas that young people have no fear of trying. My advice is to enjoy what you do and bring enthusiasm. The best projects happen when you have a diversity of age—people with five, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 years experience, all showing their value.
ID: And what would you say are the biggest challenged for young members of the community?
SC: The biggest pitfall is impatience. They want to get titles, and feel entitled faster than is realistic. You have to remember that when it comes to anything having to do with building, it’s an older person’s environment. Mistakes will get made if you haven’t had a lot of experience. You need experience to develop judgment, and expertise that offers a depth of knowledge. I encourage young people to team up, even if not formally. Seek out mentorship. Ask a lot of questions, with humility. When you’re 20 years old, you feel you need to know things already and that’s part of being young. The older I get, the more I questions I ask.
ID: What was your experience as this year’s Donghia Designer in Residence at Otis College?
SC: Otis started the Donghia Designer-in-Residence program, and I was selected to be the 2013 designer in residence—which involved teaching a semester’s worth of work in one solid week. I was very honored to be selected, and I took it to heart. Rather than give the students a design brief to analyze, I gave them a brief and challenged 14 students to create a project as a group. It was pretty complicated and very open ended. It was a large, urban scale project. I didn’t have the answers. . .Rather it was an experiment to see what we could do in this setting. In the end, it was truly magical. The students did a lot of research, and everyone participated equally. . .The project speaks volumes, as it addressed product design, engineering, interiors, urban master planning, and architecture. I knew we could stick to it, and I am very proud of this work.
ID: How crucial is it for architects to stay curious about and engaged in conversation about city planning?
ID: Given your focus on object and furniture design, what’s your take on “democratic design?” How does strong design, available at a range of price points, affect the industry?
ID: What do you consider the new priorities of the design world, versus those of ten or twenty years ago?
ID: In what ways were you inspired as a young person to become the professional you are now?