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Design Week Portland: A little guidance from festival director Tsilli Pines



For one week each April, most members of Portland’s design community probably don’t get much rest. Design Week Portland, taking place from April 14-21 this year, is a city-wide series of programs exploring the process, craft, and practice of design across all disciplines.

Sneaker design? They’ve got you covered. Architecture, interiors, landscape design? No problem. The festival is a kind of core sample, revealing the spectrum of designers calling Portland home and bringing them together, hopefully not just as a group of different tribes attending their own events but in a way that encourages cross-pollination.

Other cities have more wealth and are considered truer cultural capitals, but Design Week Portland may be one of the best ways to get a sense that Portland has in some ways become a design Mecca, wherein a combination of our collaborative culture and idyllic natural environments just beyond the urban growth boundary creates a pull for designers even when the might be better off basing their operations in New York, London or Los Angeles.

Tsilli Pines, festival director of Design Week Portland/Photo by Richard Darbonne

Recently the festival’s director, Tsilli Pines, agreed to answer a few questions about Design Week Portland as a primer for the festivities kicking off this weekend.

This year’s Design Week Portland has 170 events. In your mind, is there a right size for the festival? Or is it that you add as many good events as you can with the thinking that people will pick and choose events and the more choice the better?

Tsilli Pines: When you add in the open houses, we have a total of 300-plus events going on including talks, gallery showcases, tours, unique experiences, workshops and open studios.


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I spend a lot of time thinking about the number of events and formats as part of the festival. We need a large enough number and variety of formats to give people lots of different ways to feel included—and to contribute. Events sell out every year, which tells me that we have some room to expand yet and that we haven’t hit the sweet spot.

But having said that, 300 events across numerous design disciplines can be overwhelming for participants. One of things that we’ve focused on this year is to help people filter through the large number of events and find ones that map to their interests and work. We’ve done this is by developing focused itineraries. For example, we have pulled together a Built Environment itinerary to help architects and everyone interested in architecture-related content. These represent a breadth of Design Week experiences available for those with an interest in architecture, urban design and the built environment. And for fun, we’ve pulled together itineraries like Cheap Seats and Hungry/Thirsty. We like to promote participation in events across disciplines. So architects might also want to explore the events taking that have been organized for and by illustrators. There is truly something for everyone.

How might this year’s Design Week Portland be different from last year or other years past? How do you see Design Week evolving?

Last year was the most built-out version of the festival ever. What is new this year is that we are getting back to our roots and focusing on the distributed track of independent events and open houses—the roots of the festival. We wanted to strengthen this core element. We’re taking a break from building our headquarters and a fully curated set of talks via the Main Stage. Part of what is new with the festival, in lieu of the Main Stage, is our core programming track. It has brought a new form of collaboration for us. These events that will take place each day across six different venues curated by six different hosts. Discussions and activities range from the future of the city’s architecture, to the investigation of voice, to a talk show interviewing some of the most interesting design personalities in town.

The future of Design Week is to evolve into a year-round organization that can provide more of what we do during the festival all year round. We will evolve into Design Portland, for which Design Week Portland will always be a component. By taking a break from an HQ this year, we are able to do some needs assessment, listening and relationship building, which will allow us to expand our civic program. Our natural network has been the central city. This next year will be a lot about expanding our network and our lens.

Do you see an increasing number of people coming from out of town to attend Design Week Portland, or is it overwhelmingly a local thing?

This year some of the more notable designers traveling in to present include: Jessica Hische, type and graphic designer; Mike Monteiro, digital designer and owner of Mule Design; Philip Van Allen, interaction designer, and Don Cooper, GREC Architects.


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We do see designers coming into the market to attend the festival, however, overwhelmingly the attendance continues to be local designers. Of the 7,000 people participating in at least one event last year, 90 percent were local.

As it relates specifically to architecture, what are a few events that you see as the most exciting or intriguing for architects to attend?

Many architecture firms, including Works Progress Architecture and Holst Architecture, as well as Open Studio Collective, are hosting open houses and panel discussions. Skylab Architecture is hosting a conversation between makers to discuss and explore how individual crafts merge into production and to learn how to break boundaries. ZGF Architects is hosting a panel exploring how high performing, sustainable design enriches lives by promoting individual health and well-being, workforce productivity and economic resilience.

The annual AIA Portland Homes Tour is taking place during Design Week Portland again this year, which is always a great opportunity to see a sampling of some very best residential architecture in the market.

You forgot the panel discussion I’m moderating: Disrupting Design Thinking, but that’s okay! There’s a whole lot going on. Meanwhile, how much blending do you see among the different design professions as it relates to DWP events? Are there sneaker designers interested in urban planning, or interior designers interested in graphic design? Or do designers tend to stick with their own tribes?

We’ve seen so many collaborations come out of the festival. Time and time again we hear from designers that the festival gets them out of their silo—to really understand how different people are working in different disciplines and how it actually relates to the thing that they are doing every single day. This leads to more collaboration, which is something that we hear from designers that they particularly appreciate.
For example, this year Bora Architects is collaborating with fashion and apparel designers at Creative Capital Design, to experiment with fabric as a shelter. They are designing a nearly 400-square-foot structure, which will be on display at PICA. And speaking of sneaker designers, Steward Horner, previously at Nike, is giving a talk on how he changed fields completely and is now an interior designer.

Given the state of national affairs—both the conservative crackdown and the rise of the resistance—do you believe that DWP has become more politically oriented? Are designers out there more interested in becoming active than they were two or three years ago?


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Yes. We especially saw a spike in interest following the election in 2016 and we continue to hear from designers looking for opportunities to apply their skills for impact on some of the bigger issues facing the city and our community. We are looking to fuel this and for additional ways that we can engage. And as we think about scaling to a year-round set of events, imagine what we could do if we had the capacity to map the entire creative community and maintain a public resource that would identify what was happening in the city. Our lofty goal is to be that platform for connecting all those dots and for any given time.

During the festival this year, The Albina Vision Project is going to have some discussion. There are events that focus on—and talk about—designing for social good. “We the Dreamers” are amplifying the voices of undocumented immigrants during an exploratory installation discussion around art and activism, immigrant stories, and how to build community in the current political climate.

We have created an activism itinerary for anyone looking to find these kinds of related events. This is a very important component of our mission and focus as an organization.


This interview originally appeared on Brian Libby’s Portland Architecture blog. It is reprinted with his permission.

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