The future of Chicago design as activism
By Rick Valicenti
Producer, Director, Collaborator
I remember when I first saw “design activism” on display. I was entering the Chicago Cultural Center’s Washington Street brass doors and there above the panic-bar handle on the other side of the glass was that ubiquitous subsurface-sticker depicting a handgun violated with a red stripe slicing through it. This glyph targets those concealing their carry and asserts that this building does not allow your guns. In your face! It’s the deluxe version of design activism—a simple, direct shot.
So there you have it—design activism living anywhere we’d never expect to confront it. I am always caught off guard when I come in contact with this li’l handgun leaving me subconsciously feeling more on guard. Leveraging the repetitive and appropriating abstraction means that any future graphic design activism has been benchmarked. But keeping me on edge by taking potshots at my peripheral vision is not really sustainable enough to keep me on edge.
Sure, the most transcendent sensory impact happens when the interventions or protests, or whatever, is already familiar. And yes, without singing from the familiar hymnal, the public’s enemy may never pay attention until the world of hackers and hacking get more design-emboldened and have their activist ways fucking with the stranglehold of promotional messaging and media-sanctioned narratives. Subversive surprise—the radical force.
Rick Valicenti is a producer, director and collaborator working with a wide network of designers and artists. Formerly the founder and design director of Thirst, a venerable Chicago design studio, Valicenti is a recipient of the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) Medal, 2006, and the Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, 2011. Rick is also an invited member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale).
Valicenti shares a studio with Anna Mort and together they provide catalytic invention and design.
The future of retail
By Eric Williams
Founder and Creative Director, The Silver Room
The death of retail has been greatly exaggerated.
Every other day headlines scream of mall closures, big-box retailers shutting their doors, high-end boutiques filing bankruptcy and national chains liquidating assets. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), over 12,000 stores closed nationwide in the last ten years, and more than 140,000 retail jobs were lost in the last three years alone.
How we purchase goods has changed since the advent of e-commerce, but I’d like to offer a less bleak view of the future. There is a false assumption that most retail purchases are made online, even though e-commerce currently accounts for only ten percent of total retail sales. The majority of the top fifty online retailers also have a brick-and-mortar presence.
Online retailers such as Amazon, Warby Parker, Boll and Branch and Casper— just to name a few—have opened brIck-and-mortar stores in recent years. As retailers embrace technology to increase online sales, e-commerce sites are doing their best to make the online shopping experience resemble the feeling of shopping in a boutique. If the future of retail is dying, why would these online behemoths open up traditional physical storefronts?
One word: Experience.
As we move into a new decade, online retailers realize the one thing that can’t be duplicated through algorithms, artificial intelligence, facial recognition software, geo-locators or any of the latest consumer tracking technology: human connection. Shopping is therapy. People shop for reasons beyond transactional purposes.
There is a rush of adrenaline, not from finally making a purchase, but from merely entering a retail environment and experiencing the sensations that it offers. A great retail experience feeds the senses and transports you into a new place, one that for the moment allows you to forget the outside world. Retailers that create a unique shopping experience through a knowledgeable, friendly staff, well-curated music playlists and quality, unique offerings can win the future.
What retail will look like in 2030 is not preordained. They say online shopping is the future because it saves so much time and money, but it seems like everyone is still too busy and too broke to see where it has gotten us. As a society we have to ask ourselves, what do we value in our cities and communities? Do we let the local bookstore go out of business to save three dollars on a book from Amazon? Is saving thirty minutes by shopping online worth seeing our neighborhood dressmaker go under? Are we so transfixed on the transaction and not the experience of shopping that we don’t financially support small businesses in the neighborhoods that we claim to love?
Before I moved my business from Wicker Park to Hyde Park in 2015, I noticed the shopping habits of the new residents changed as the neighborhood gentrified. Many of the new residents wanted little or no human interaction.
A simple “How are you?” was rebutted with a “I’m just looking.” Great, I was just saying hello.
As neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Bucktown, West Loop, Logan Square and many others continue to gentrify, many retailers will go out of business because bars and restaurants are the only concerns that will be able to afford skyrocketing rents—they’re immune to e-commerce. Food halls will replace meatpacking houses, bars will move into the old bodegas, and restaurants will replace your local dry cleaner. Shifts in the retail landscape will continue, but it will be up to us to say what that looks like.
I hope that we will think about what real support for local retail looks like: buying a Christmas gift from the local jeweler, surprising your husband with shoes purchased from the bootmaker down the street, or ordering the custom hat from the milliner who just graduated fashion school. If we don’t shop locally and with intention, we will see more shuttered businesses and empty storefronts and blighted commercial corridors in our communities, and that’s not good for anyone.
Or you can just keep giving Jeff Bezos your money because at least he won’t ask how you are doing.
Eric Williams is the founder and creative director of The Silver Room, an innovative retail, arts and community events space opened in 1997. The Silver Room intersects the worlds of fashion, music and visual art, and operates as a boutique, gallery and community arts center. Williams founded The Silver Room Block party in 2004 (and in its sixteenth year attracted more 40,000), co-founded Grown Folks Stories, a monthly storytelling event, The Harper Court Summer Music Series and Connect Gallery and arts festival. Williams is strategizing concepts that will revitalize South and West Side communities and fuel their economic growth through retail, arts and culture. Williams holds a degree in finance from the University of Illinois at Chicago.