American Design Stories: Michele Oka Doner
The legendary New York artist reflects on American design’s past, present, and future
In the American Design Stories series, we ask designers from across the Americas to share their insights on American design today, along with three images that represent their vision of American design.
For this installment, we’re proud to present a conversation with legendary artist and designer Michele Oka Doner. With a career spanning over five decades, the Miami Beach-born, New York-based Oka Doner is known for romantic, thought-provoking works that reflect on the natural world, executed in a seemingly endless range of form—public art, functional objects, costume and set design, drawings, video, and beyond.
What does “American design” mean to you today?
American design, like everything American with the exception of native plants, is an amalgam of the many cultures that washed up on our shores after “discovery.”
As a new nation, we had no cultural inheritance, with the exception of the indigenous—tragically dismissed as primitive—and so initial phases of production to meet the needs of a new nation copied European designs. Then, the story goes, a group of industrial designers got together, a call to action after having no national identity with which to join the Paris Expo 1925. America had been invited, but couldn’t respond with a national pavilion that met the criteria and had to decline. There was embarrassment. That same year, George Booth began to organize a dedicated design community, Cranbrook—a special world constructed in the service of a higher ideal. These two events converged, and in the outskirts of Detroit, Cranbrook became fertile ground for forging an entity worthy of the moniker “American Design.”
Does that notion of America or American design figure into your own work?
The Cranbrook vision explored the integration of daily life, social values, and the act of production. It believed that good design could actually lay the basis for an ethically responsible collective life. Inversely, it believed bad design actually had the power to stunt. This thinking elevated the role of design beyond aesthetics to a level that included social responsibility.
When I arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan to study at the School of Architecture and Design in 1963, I took classes with professors who had come from Finland with Eliel Saarinen to create the Cranbrook community, and young teaching fellows who were educated at the Academy with these ideals. The idea that design serves was instilled in us. To this day, I carry this enlightened DNA. A Walk on the Beach, almost two miles of bronze images embedded in terrazzo with mother-of-pearl at Miami International Airport, is a work of art that speaks to this sensibility, a transformation of the utilitarian to the realm of pleasure, even injecting the possibility, the presence, of meaning beyond its function as a floor.
What American stories are you telling with your work?
The reaffirmation of the hand was a significant factor in the arts and design education at Cranbrook. In addition, the presence of Pewabic Pottery in Detroit—still in existence today, the only surviving ceramic manufactory of last century's Arts and Crafts movement—added to the aura of excitement emanating from the creation of beautiful objects and spaces for living. Begun by a woman, Mary Chase Stratton, in 1903, Stratton’s ability to run a business while developing her signature lustre glazes had profound influence in the region as well as the country. It is because of her that the ceramic department at the University of Michigan where I studied was established.
Years later, when I moved to New York City, I was able to access philosophies generated from both Pewabic and Cranbrook in response to a request for a proposal from the MTA for the 34th Street Station at Herald Square, the busiest transit intersection in the world,1987. With samples of the seductive Pewabic Pottery handmade tiles, and a brief paragraph of intent to create an inversion—to descend into light instead of the darkness of the underground subway—I won the Arts for Transit national competition. Radiant Site, an installation of 11,000 golden tiles along a 165’ wall, was installed in 1990 and remains today—creating visual warmth, a metaphoric hearth in the center of NYC.
What is an example of the best of American design?
If Cranbrook opened the door for thoughts, shapes, and materials new to the continent, yet based in the Old Country, the River Rouge Plant for Henry Ford, designed by Albert Kahn, was uniquely American. Designed in 1917 for assembly line production, it was a living, belching machine that spoke loudly of America’s shift from a rural society to an industrial nation. The monstrous furnace inside was never shut down, 24/7. The use of reinforced concrete made possible the scope of activity necessary to create this engine of American economy, our burgeoning might.
Many years ago, mid-1960s, before insurance companies dominated the landscape of possibilities, I drove from Ann Arbor into the Rouge Plant parking lot and wandered in during a morning shift. It was a scene out of Dante’s Inferno; the sound of the furnace, an inhuman roar, was deafening. I had seen a slide of Charles Sheeler’s painting of the plant, titled American Landscape, in an art history class, but it was actually the description of the image by the professor that struck a deep chord. I had to go see it for myself. Indeed it was something unseen before—radical, innovative industry, hard-edged forms, a new American experience. Today it is designated a National Historic Landmark for its role in building the might of America.
How can design support a more equitable society?
There are seeds of an answer to this question in my earlier mention of Cranbrook’s utopian vision. Saarinen’s Finland is part of the Nordic Democratic Socialist ideal, where ideas of community are embedded deeply in the teachings. It is not surprising that a mass market home furnishing behemoth arose from this region, a wastepaper basket for everyone. There is enough bandwidth in this country to give every architecture school a mission to address derelict blocks in their neighborhood and reimagine.
There is enough imagination. This the beginning of a new era. The university programs I am familiar with are all engaged in community. This initiative will expand as millennials are reportedly more community-minded than their predecessors.
To whom or what should the design community be paying attention right now?
The future is in our cities. More and more people are leaving the countryside for urban living. Low-cost housing is a great frontier. The greening of our cities is a necessity. The MillionTreesNYC program has been a great success, for example, and pocket parks are game changers. Together they offer shade and protection as well as respite. Concrete sidewalks are being replaced with new materials that are actually water permeable, responding to climate change. Biblical Hanging Gardens returned, a New Eden’s tree canopy to remind us of our origins? The possibilities are both endless and available.
What are you most proud of in your work to date?
I am happy to have had the opportunity to create public works all over the world, to be able to steady myself on the shoulders of those who educated me and those who came before me. I am an American creation. Nowhere else could Doner Studio have thrived for half a century. The opportunity to test one’s creative voice was unprecedented.
Soho, where I live, generated the model of a live-work dynamic now replicated all over the world. It brought together the creative community. Like Cranbrook, it was a utopian vision, and like Cranbrook, the heated moment has passed. I look forward to America writing a new story for the 21st century, and I hope it uses green ink.
Thank you, Michele! ◆
Michele Oka Doner’s work is fueled by a lifelong study and appreciation of the natural world. She is well known for creating numerous public art installations throughout the United States, including Flight at Reagan International Airport, Washington, DC and the mile-and-a-quarter-long A Walk on the Beach, a bronze and terrazzo concourse at Miami International Airport.
Oka Doner’s work is found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Victoria & Albert Museum, Yale University Art Gallery, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and The Detroit Institute of Arts, among others. She lives and works in Soho, New York City.
Inspired by the 2020 Design Miami/ Podium theme America(s)—and all the complexities that go along with it, especially in this moment—Anna Carnick and Wava Carpenter of Anava Projects connected with a selection of outstanding designers with personal ties to the Americas to get their take on “American” design today. Their responses were insightful, inspiring, and diverse: From thoughts on the most pressing issues and challenges facing designers now, to hopes and suggestions for a more equitable future, and reflections on their own American design journeys to date. Each story is accompanied by images provided by the designer that embody what America(s) or American design means to them.