The 14th annual DesignPhiladelphia festival took over the City of Brotherly Love for 11 event-packed days
The term “design fair” may call to mind a particular mise-en-scène: a constellation of temporary gallery displays full of limited-edition works by boldface-name designers, glossy catalogs, perhaps a few celebrity sightings, and the clink of Champagne glasses at an invitation-only vernissage. That may do for New York and Miami, but in the City of Brotherly Love, each October, the design festival belongs to the entire city: DesignPhiladelphia, organized by the Center for Architecture and Design, which this year packed more than 120 events into 11 days running October 3–13. Its programming emphasizes innovation, business-civic partnerships, and adaptive reuse. This year's theme, “Design Purpose,” sought to showcase emerging designers who are thinking globally and prototyping their ideas locally. Now in its 14th year, DesignPhiladelphia hit a new level of chic this season with dazzling light installations by Klip Collective, a keynote talk by graphic design legend Paula Scher of Pentagram, and tours of the city’s many distinct design- and antiques-rich neighborhoods.
This year, there were some new facets to the festival, including its first ever Best in Design competition, at which the top prize was awarded to Lia, the first biodegradable, plastic-free, and flushable pregnancy test. Lia was designed by Penn graduates Anna Couturier-Simpson and Bethany Edwards, and uses a proprietary coating that biodegrades in just ten weeks. Second place went to the design collective Onion Flats for its project The Battery, which is a model for a net-zero-energy microhousing development. The Battery takes aim at two challenges facing Philadelphia and other American cities: climate change and gentrification. Third prize went to Budmen Industries for its Budmen Buildini, a practical and affordable modular 3D printer that lends itself to experimentation. You’ll notice a theme here: The emphasis of this competition in particular and DesignPhiladelphia in general is not on luxury or style per se, but innovation, community, and problem-solving.
It’s fitting, then, that the festival's other big innovation this year was its geographic hub: the sprawling Art Deco Bok Building in South Philadelphia, which spans an entire city block. Bok, as it's known around town, started out as the Edward W. Bok Technical High School, and was completed in 1938 by the Public Works Administration.
The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. But over time, the building’s design became increasingly ill-suited to the needs of a modern high school, and it was closed in 2013. That’s when Scout, a Philadelphia development group led by Lindsey Scannapieco, reimagined the 340,000-square-foot building as a bustling hive of maker spaces. Five years later, Bok is now home to an array of clothing designers, milliners, jewelers, artists, nonprofit organizations, and furnituremakers, as well as a day care center and a boxing club. It has a café, its own rooftop watering hole called the Bok Bar, and a new restaurant called Irwin’s.
DesignPhiladelphia held its October 3 kickoff party on Bok’s roof against the backdrop of the city’s skyline, while visitors took in the DesignPhiladelphia Exhibit Gallery inside the well-lit ground-floor space that was formerly the girls' gym. Nearby, displays featured new projects by the students and faculty of the city’s academic design incubators, including Jefferson University, Temple University Tyler School of Art Architecture Department, Drexel Product Design, and the University of Pennsylvania Integrated Product Design. Bok’s light gray exterior looks every bit the classic schoolhouse, and its interior walls, clad in original white subway tile and vintage signage, still bear some of the colorful graffiti from its former life. It’s a layered, living slice of South Philadelphia history, that honors its heritage as a vocational high school by making space for crafters and artisans of all kinds.
Other memorable events of this year’s festival included a keynote talk by Walé Oyéjidé, who founded Ikiré Jones, the Philadelphia fashion house; a “Sensory Design” exhibit spanning 12 galleries in Olde City that featured Marcel Wanders’ new Globetrotter collection at Roche Bobois; and a designer show house by 36 Craven and Millesime on Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continually inhabited residential street in America.
And plans are already under way for next year’s festival. How to keep track of it all? Well, naturally, there’s an app for that.