A product designer, a fashion designer, and an architect walk into the White House. That's not the opening line of a bad joke but the actual scene one afternoon last week in Washington, DC, when First Lady Michelle Obama invited the winners of the 2012 US National Design Awards over for lunch.
Now in their thirteenth year, the honours are organised by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The New York-based institution is part of the august Smithsonian but functions more like its cool, brainy cousin under the leadership of Bill Moggridge - a designer himself who went on to co-found IDEO.
This year's slate of winners in 11 creativity-spanning categories includes Thom Browne (fashion design), Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects (architecture design), Evan Roth (interaction design), Scott Wilson (product design), and Design that Matters (corporate and institutional achievement).
A string quartet from 'The President's Own' U.S. Marine Band welcomed winners and guests to the state floor entrance hall, where Simmie Knox's 2011 painting of President Bill Clinton proved a popular photo op. A few steps away in the cross hall, cocktails were consumed rather giddily on the distinctive scarlet carpet (familiar from those photographs of purposefully striding presidents) until it was time for lunch.
The vibe in the East Room, the largest in the White House, was simultaneously regal and summery. Chief floral designer Laura Dowling conjured garden-style bouquets at each of the round tables. Her controlled bursts of sunflowers and yellow roses were punctuated with deep purple blooms that matched the plum cardstock of the event programs placed at each seat (chiavari chairs tufted in purple moiré silk).
'Every day, these visionary designers are pushing boundaries, creating or revealing beauty where we least expect it, and helping us all lead healthier, more sustainable lives,' said the First Lady, who serves as the honorary patron of the awards. She got a big laugh from the crowd after deviating from her script to describe lifetime achievement award winner Richard Saul Wurman as 'quite dashing and sassy, I must say'.
While citing the examples of Design that Matters' neonatal incubator made of spare car parts and the nature-inspired advances dreamed up by biomimicry expert Janine Benyus (winner of the 'Design Mind' award), the First Lady also spoke directly to the high school students in attendance, fresh from the Teen Design Fair held that morning. 'What you guys have to understand is that these honorees weren't born brilliant designers,' she said. 'They're here today because they had a dream and they put in long, hard, exhausting work, all that it takes to follow that dream.'
Later, as guests settled into a lunch of carpaccio of fennel with apples and arugula, followed by Reggiano-crusted Chesapeake rockfish, 'dream' seemed the operative word. After all, it's not every day that one enjoys Barolo risotto on state china from the Truman administration. Eric Rodenbeck, founder and creative director of San Francisco-based Stamen and a juror for this year's awards, surveyed the scene as he savoured a last morsel of lemon marjoaline. 'In the end, the decisions were difficult, but we tried to make it about what the country values,' he said of the judging process. 'The National Design Awards - it's not a small thing.'