If you haven’t heard of Areaware, it’s still very possible you’ve come across their work—the design objects they produce are found everywhere from museum stores and local boutiques to the pages of the New York Times. Each of their seasonal catalogs is full of original works from small studios and independent designers, many of whom are being introduced to a larger audience for the first time. Lisa Cheng Smith, Areaware’s chief design officer, describes the company as the “connective glue between manufacturers, retailers, designers, and the public.”
I’ve long admired Lisa’s overarching design vision for Areaware’s products, but I hadn’t realized the level of detail, creativity, and critical thought she also puts toward the commercial and logistical aspects of her work. After studying both architecture and industrial design, Lisa shifted from a more conceptual practice to one focused on making good design accessible for the most people—to own, share, and pass down, rather than just appreciate. It’s clear in talking to her that her scholarship continues to inform her work.
In a conversation over email, she makes a case for why thoughtful product design should also have commercial value, and how considering art and commerce in unison can benefit the items we buy, our attitude toward material culture and our relationship with design.
Meg Miller: When and how did you start working with Areaware? What, in general terms, do you do there?
Lisa Cheng Smith: I started as Areaware’s creative director in May of 2014, three years ago almost to the day. My position has evolved constantly since that time. When I started, I was responsible for product selection and development, visual communications, and visual merchandising at industry exhibits and tradeshows. I had a team of three.
In May of 2015, I took on a larger role as chief design officer. It’s not the most descriptive title—I sort of view it like CEO-in-training. I currently oversee sales, marketing, product, and communications, which are all handled out of the Brooklyn office. We also have a Columbus, Ohio-based team that handles accounts, logistics, purchasing, and distribution. I work with them directly, but don’t manage that side of the business.
It’s been very enlightening and humbling to have all of these areas under my watch. I’ve learned so much about the industry ecosystems that products live in. It’s not just enough to make a great and desirable product, you also have to know how to communicate it, sell it, and deliver it. In fact, most products aren’t great at all, but they still do well because all other aspects of the equation are worked out, often at the expense of good design.
As much as I love to set the creative tone and direction of the brand, I have also grown to love the nitty gritty of resource and sales management. I don’t do any sales myself, but I do communicate deeply with the sales team. This provides me with a holistic view of the designs we produce—not just what designers and the press think of what we’ve done, but also how the consumers who are actually purchasing the products react to the choices we made. My ultimate goal is to make design products that designers can get behind and that the public want. To succeed in this is a constant exercise in listening and revising.
When I first announced my new role, a few friends were critical, like “How can sales and design be overseen by the same person? Aren’t they opposed?” I think that’s a common perception, but actually every company has to have someone who can see the big picture. I’m lucky that Areaware has chosen me—someone with a background in design. So often the lead is numbers-focused and the product becomes infinitely less interesting if design is sacrificed for other metrics. On the flipside, I still have a lot to learn about hitting numbers.
It’s hard to walk the line between art and commerce, but I want to enable designers to be represented in the marketplace successfully. I want independent designers to be able to compete with big box design-derivative brands. It’s one way to make a real impact on the material culture of our generation.
MM: Could you expand a bit on the Areaware point of view, or what makes a product an Areaware product?
LCS: We are looking to do a few things. We want each product to represent the studio it came from—to have a design process beyond pure form-making or market-gaming. Each product has to be special, beautiful, and original. At the same time, it also has to have commercial potential.
The overlap in the Venn diagram of commercial and original is not always easy to achieve. This usually translates to doing a lot of work to get a product ready for market, because it hasn’t already been done by someone else. We always talk about how difficult products to manufacture are some of the best to make. Even though they require a lot of investment up front, they are very hard to copy.