Disegno #22

Awards Season


30 July 2019

In 2012, as it approached its 10th anniversary, the British architecture and design magazine Icon decided to set up a jury-adjudicated award scheme. “It was part of an idea to make Icon more of a brand, rather than just the print magazine itself,” recounts former senior editor Riya Patel. “And it had been a while since we had run an event.” The initiative was limited initially to projects and products that had featured in the magazine over the past year. “It was a chance to celebrate the architects and designers we had written about,” says Patel, “and, of course, a chance to have a party.”

The Icon Awards came to an end in 2014 and that might have been that. Yet looking back half a decade later, the scheme appears to have been something of a pioneer. Around the time of the Icon Awards’ demise, the architecture and design bimonthly Blueprint launched its own awards scheme, which this October celebrates its sixth year. The Architects’ Journal, which had previously run a set of specific honours, threw its hat into the ring in 2017. And 2018 saw two new contenders entering the field, run by online platform Dezeen and the Amsterdam-based interior-design magazine Frame.

Design – like almost every sphere from Hollywood to canine acting, scientific research to kebab-making – did not previously lack for awards.1 There are schemes run by public institutions and professional associations, by charities and foundations, by museums and academic establishments, and by design weeks and fairs. They come in all shapes and sizes, with a bewildering array of systems and entry criteria. Type “design award” into Google and you’ll likely run into a cluster of blandly named companies like the Good Design Awards and the iF (International Forum Awards). These initiatives, the oldest of which date back to the 1950s, give out an enormous swathe of prizes annually and function as a sort of industry- recognised seal of honour. One recent arrival, the Como-based A’ Design Award, handed out 7,614 accolades in its first decade.

The new cohort of publication-based design awards, by contrast, operates a model familiar from such long-established extravaganzas as the Booker Prize. A longlist is drawn up and then whittled down to a shortlist, from which a jury that is generally composed of prominent figures from relevant fields debates a winner. There are invariably sponsors, supporting either the entire ceremony or a particular award. In some cases – such as that of Frame, which runs a People’s Choice award parallel to the jury’s selection – an element of public voting is included, opening up participation to the readership. Though the exact focus differs in line with each publication’s editorial remit, there is some overlap. One of last year’s big winners, for instance, was Heatherwick Studio’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, which was nominated by Frame, Blueprint and Dezeen. In the event, it took home both the Frame and Blueprint gongs, but lost out on a Dezeen award to the Thai practice Chiangmai Life Architects’ Bamboo Sports Hall.

This balance of winners, captured by the distance between an internationally renowned star-designer and a little-known Thai studio, is one of the defining commonalities of these schemes. Blueprint’s 2018 winners feature a range of high-profile architects and designers – Heatherwick, Oki Sato of Nendo, Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects, and Foster & Partners – along with several others, such as Portugal’s Tiago do Vale architects and London architect and designer Adam Nathaniel Furman, who have yet to achieve such prominence or exhibit the same financial clout.

This inclusivity defines the new breed against what could be called traditional design awards, which tend to be known for exclusivity. This is enacted in their fees. Take Germany’s Red Dot Award, one of the most prominent of the old guard. Entrants must pay between €300 and €510 to submit an entry, depending on timing, with a further €500 fee for “outsized” products, as well as permanently donating a copy of their chosen item. That’s it for the losers, but winners must then stump up €3,950 (for a standard award or honourable mention) or €5,995 (for products decreed “Best of the Best”) to receive their prize. “They make the entry processes difficult and expensive, so that it becomes exclusive, and then they make the event expensive so that becomes exclusive,” explains Dezeen’s founder and editor-in-chief Marcus Fairs. “If you’re in that world it becomes something of a virtuous circle; if you’re not it becomes a vicious one.”

Submissions to the Blueprint Awards cost a comparatively slim £130 plus VAT, while the Dezeen Awards charge between £150 and £200 plus VAT, with halved rates for entrants with 10 or fewer employees. “We analysed all the other award programmes that had some kind of meaning, some kind of importance, and we put our price at the bottom of that bracket,” explains Fairs. “We wanted all the small studios, the international studios and people from across the world to feel it was right for them.” Frame, which averages €300 a submission, is slightly more expensive, although that cost takes into account a live judging session and a ticket to Frame Lab, a two-day programme of talks and exhibitions. “The Frame Awards,” says founder and director Robert Thiemann, “is the answer we felt needed to be given to traditional awards shows, which only recognise big-budget work with big-name clients.”

These loftier motivations sit in dialogue with a rather less exalted one. Much ink has been spilled on the ongoing contraction of print media owing to the interlinked triad of decreasing circulation, declining advertising revenues and increasing costs – effects predominantly driven by the growth of the internet. In turn, online advertising has transitioned towards the data-farming models of Google and Facebook, meaning that what may have felt like the way forward a decade ago has given way to what Thiemann describes as “an increasingly impoverished landscape”. Although award schemes can demand a significant outlay – building a platform for entrants, convening juries, commissioning trophies, arranging ceremonies and perhaps even (as with Dezeen) hiring additional staff – they can also go some way to providing an alternative source of revenue.

In the tumult of the present-day magazine industry, awards represent one way in which a title can test out models for the future – something Johnny Tucker, editor of Blueprint, succinctly calls “brand extension”. The decline of print has forced many journalists and editors to reassess the nature of their publications. For Frame, this has involved a transformation into something more nebulous. “Like many of our competitors,” Thiemann explains, “Frame has had to evolve from perceiving itself as a print-first publisher with a website to more of a ‘platform’ that places equal emphasis across all our channels, be they digital, live or the magazine that you see on the newsstand.”

Award schemes are a natural way for magazines to commence this evolution. The format has proven appeal: the appetite for awards is enormous. The present edition of Gale’s Awards, Honors and Prizes, a 1,492-page catalogue collating awards from across the world, lists some 24,000 honours. “Everyone,” says Fairs, “wants to win an award. Everyone wants to win something.” For specialist publications – a medium nominally built upon trust in an ability to discover, select and report the most worthwhile things in the relevant industries – the process of evaluation might appear a common thread.

The boundaries between editorial practice running alongside award adjudication are more ambiguous. Design publications are generally reactive, reflecting from the sidelines; award schemes represent a leap onto the main stage. Some publications welcome the chance. “[We aim] to be less merely descriptive of the industries we cover,” says Thiemann, “and more prescriptive. We don’t think there is much mileage left for publishing brands who aren’t willing to put a stake in the ground and make their opinions clear.” Although juries take the ultimate decisions away from editorial hands, writers and editors often have a role in choosing what the judges see. The Dezeen editorial team, for instance, are involved in long-listing. “There’s an editorial eye that needs to be passed over things in order to get the quality of shortlists and winners that meet the mark,” says Fairs. “None of our winners were shit.” The Icon Awards began accepting free submissions in its last year, but quality control saw few reach the selection stage. “Many of the entrants were second-rate,” says former deputy editor John Jervis, who joined the magazine just before the awards’ final year. “There were a lot of second-rate British furniture companies.”

A prize scheme can also prompt self-reflection. The Blueprint Awards has served as something of a reader audit. “A magazine is a static thing,” says Tucker. “They get so little feedback. You finish them and send them out into the wilderness.” After the inaugural edition of the Blueprint Awards, Tucker was surprised by the volume of responses from Asia and Latin America, and with the quality and quantity of residential entrants. The latter of these prompted further coverage of such small projects. “It was certainly eye-opening,” says Tucker. “It gave me insights into the magazine I would be unable to access otherwise.”

Brand extension, of course, can work inways that are not directly commercial. Since launching its awards, Blueprint has inaugurated two further schemes: the Blueprint Architecture Photography Awards (2017-) and Blueprint for the Future (2018-), a competition for Part II students at British architecture schools held in Clerkenwell showrooms. With a background in photography, Tucker sees the former as a passion project. “It’s not for money,” he says. “It’s only £10 to enter for amateurs, £30 for professionals. And we wanted to do something creative.” The latter, although it does speak to the magazine’s readership within the educational sector, is also non-commercial. “It’s satisfying to see the cross-pollination between groups, classes and different schools,” says Tucker. “I’d like it to feel like a focal point for the end of the academic year.”

It is important not to underestimate how the impulse behind an award ceremony may stem from a desire to bolster the strength of the design industry. When Thiemann launched Frame in 1997, it was explicitly to shore up a then-denigrated field. “At the end of the 20th century,” he says, “interior design was seen as a second-rate profession.” The Frame Awards, and indeed the conference-like Frame Lab within which they are couched, simulate the apparatus that was long ago built up around more traditionally valued fields. One way of doing this, of course, is to draw people together. “When we think about the Dezeen Awards,” says Fairs, “we think about how to make them meaningful, how to make them successful and how to make people feel part of the community.”

This formulation – one eye on the publication’s success, the other on inculcating an aura of inclusion – is difficult to dispute. Yet still to be settled is whether, in reducing the distance between the design industry and the press, publications might be ceding their ability to be independent observers that – nominally at least – offer evaluation. When everyone is brought inside, who is left to scrutinise from without? Awards may or may not signal the collapse of this compact, but they might prove another stone thrown in
its direction.

  1. For those interested, canine actors are honoured in the Palm Dog Award, while the UK’s kebab industry is onto the seventh iteration of the British Kebab Awards.