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Design Matters



DESIGN MAKES A DIFFERENCE IN OUR LIVES. That's easy to forget, because great design is often invisible. The iPod receives obsessive press, but who gives a second thought to more prosaic items--a rice paddle, for example, which does a simple job perfectly? Who really ponders our city's elaborate system of traffic lights, so long as it keeps traffic moving smoothly?

Because often, it's only when something fails, either functionally or aesthetically, that we take notice. Who designed this, we suddenly ask. What were they thinking?

Design can make or break even entire communities. Kalihi Valley Homes was recently renovated by Group 70, turning bleak public housing into a functional, attractive neighborhood. photos: courtesy group 70

In 2002, for example, the state Department of Transportation installed new, bright yellow signs at Honolulu International Airport, aiming for greater legibility. The DOT also replaced the familiar terms "departures" and "arrivals" with "ticketing" and "bag claim," thinking these were more accurate. But no one got it.

In fact, the public raised such a fuss over the changes that the DOT was forced to bring back the original wording, at a cost of $140,000.

Bonnie Sakai, president of the Honolulu chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, says the fiasco could have been avoided by doing more research on the needs of local residents. "They were trying to use an international language, but it ended up being very confusing to some people. When you're designing signage, you need to, of course, consider whether it's legible and adhering to ADA standards, but also how that signage fits into its environment."

Properly executed, design can save the day. Michael Ching, owner of Clara Confectioners, believes that design helped save his shortbread cookie business.

In late 2001, Ching found himself in dire straits. Aloha Airlines, the largest client for his chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies, had cancelled its orders in the wake of Sept. 11. Ching needed new customers--and fast. With a limited budget, he gambled on a branding and packaging revamp by designer Stephen Goss, then at Studio Ignition. "I needed to get my product on new shelves. The packaging I had was all right, but I wanted it to look at home on the shelves of a luxury boutique in Chicago," Ching says.

Goss had two challenges: reposition the cookies as a high-end, gourmet experience, and make sure the cookies were recognizably, but subtly, Hawaiian. The Island pedigree was a selling point, but Ching wanted to avoid tourist clichés.

Goss started from scratch: his first step was to bestow a new name on the company. "Hawai'i Gourmet Cookies" sounded generic, but "Clara Confectioners" gave the product class and evoked the name of Ching's mother, who had created the company's shortbread recipe.

For the packaging itself, Goss commissioned colorful paintings of indigenous Hawaiian birds from local artist Michael Furuya, and chose a sectional box that laced up like a present. The result: an original, sophisticated presentation.

Even the cookies themselves got the royal treatment, each one individually wrapped. "It forces people to take their time. They open one cookie; they savor it. The design actually changes the experience of eating that cookie," Goss says.

Ching's gamble paid off: Even without any other advertising, Clara Confectioners' sales jumped more than 100 percent within a year. Today, his cookies sell in Neiman Marcus Ala Moana and select Neiman Marcus locations on the Mainland, and Ching last month opened a shop in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

"There's no question the packaging has helped the expansion into the Mainland market," he says. "It doesn't matter if you have mom's best home-cooked recipe in the box; unless the package has that appeal, it won't even get into people's shopping bag."


More than solving problems, design gives us our identity. Just as the Islands' pali and coasts bound our lives and give them shape, so too do our buildings, tools and toys define us. From the outrigger canoes and tapa of ancient Hawai'i to the Dickey roofs and aloha- wear of the 50th state, each era has produced its own design icons. The styles that have gone before give us unique design traditions. But design is always evolving, and today's artists are kicking at the boundaries.

Graphic artist Stacey Leong says, "Designers don't like to be told that we have to have Diamond Head in the logo, or coconut trees or a sunset. We want to challenge ourselves, and our audience, to think in a different way about what Hawai'i is."

Clients such as Kamehameha Schools have allowed her this freedom. "They've been very receptive," she says. "Modern and tastefully done design is respectful to the Hawaiian culture, because it recognizes that the culture is modern and evolving."

Even as she strives for clean, modern design, Leong draws inspiration from the 'aina, but says she likes an oblique approach, one that inserts kaona, hidden meaning, into her work. "It's enjoyable to break the puzzle a little bit. Things don't have to be so literal all the time."

Leong points to a Hawaiian-language wall calendar she created, intended as a primer on common Hawaiian vocabulary. Within the confined format of the monthly chart, it's easy to grasp that lapule is Sunday, po'akahi Monday. Leong christened the calendar "O ke Au," which means, "of the time." But really, she says, "I used it because it's the first line of the Kumulipo, the creation chant. People who saw this understood that I was making a play on the words. It gives it a bit of depth."

Few local designers have overseen as many changes in Hawai'i and its design aesthetic as Clarence Lee. He's been practicing here since 1966, when he gave up a fast-track East Coast position to raise his children in his hometown.

"There was really no design industry in Hawai'i when I began. It was so small, I could count the designers on one hand." When Lee first moved to Honolulu, his colleagues thought he was throwing his career away. "All my friends were teasing me, telling me that I was going to be painting coconuts in Hawai'i."

But Lee landed on his feet, catching the beginning of what he calls the golden age of design in Hawai'i, when business was booming and Hawai'i's economy was shifting from agriculture to tourism and real estate. It was a brand-new era, and everyone needed new logos, new business plans, new identities.

His first big break was the Amfac logo redesign, and he would go on to do such projects as designing the signs and promotional materials for the new Mililani Town. By 1980, Lee's company had become the first million-dollar design firm in Hawai'i.

The rest of the design industry was growing as well--today Hawai'i supports a wide variety of creative types, who craft everything from innovative aloha- wear to flashy Web sites. Even so, Lee sees a common thread that unites local designers: "We use so many elements of the environment around us: the sky, the ocean, the foliage, the people of Hawai'i. There's a certain shared feeling of compassion, although we are so diverse. It's this diversity that helps us to be sympathetic and understanding, because there is no majority."

Of course, the mix of design in Hawai'i inevitably mirrors our larger economy--light on industrial design and heavy on tourism-related design. The tourist industry tends to capitalize on nostalgic images of a bygone Hawai'i, but even here there is room for forward-thinking design. Jim Guequierre, an architect at Wimberly Allison Tong and Goo, specializes in Hawaiian-themed interiors. He consults kŸpuna to ensure he's utilizing Hawaiian elements correctly, but he's not just rehashing old tapa prints; he's incorporating new work from young, inspired, Hawaiian artists.

For his renovation of the Marriott's Ko 'Olina Beach Club Villas, Guequierre commissioned a set of grillwork screens for the entrance from local artist Herman Pi'ikea Clark. "They tell the story of the migration of a type of fish from Ko 'Olina around to the other side of the island and back, complete with information about the winds and their direction," Guequierre says. "This is a new work of art; there are no screens like this anywhere on these Islands. And yet everything about this is traditional."

Bad design can literally ruin lives, good design can save them. Consider the case of Kalihi Valley Homes, a long, prominent stretch of low-income housing along the 'Ewa side of Likelike Highway. It's one of the largest public-housing projects in the Islands, next to Kuhio Park Terrace. By the turn of this century, the 1953 structures looked like some sort of Soviet housing project--squat, utilitarian, concrete bunkers worn down, inside and out, by years of use.

In 1998, the Housing and Community Development Corp. of Hawai'i (HCDH) brought in architectural firm Group 70 to renovate the housing and, at first, even the residents didn't know what design could do for them. "The first thing we did was to hold a meeting with the community," recalls Francis Oda, Group 70's chairman. "One woman stood up and said, 'We already know which bathrooms, kitchens and doors are broken and need to be repaired, why don't we just do it?'"

Oda replied, "The reason I'm here is not to talk about doors and windows and toilets to repair--though we will do those things. I'm here to talk about how we can build a healthy community." In the hours that followed, Oda and the residents of Kalihi Valley Homes talked about the breakdown in social networks they'd experienced, about jobs, about safety. "Only then did we start talking about architecture and planning."

At the first break, the same woman from the audience greeted Oda with a hug. What flowed from that first meeting was a reinvention of the community. The bones of the old buildings had to be kept for budget reasons, but everything else was open to change. Group 70 gave the structures colorful, homey new facades; integrated new lanai so the residents would feel safe and comfortable being outside together, created views onto common areas so people could keep an eye on the children as they played; even broke up large, forbidding parking lots into smaller, more easily monitored lots.

The result is obviously much more attractive, as anyone driving up Likelike can see. But Oda says the improvements aren't just about putting up pretty buildings.

"The architecture is a reflection of the community as it aspires to be," he says. "And what's there now is night and day from the physical sort of bondage they were in, because the physical environment they had before said things to them that they did not like--things that became a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Design is many things--problem solving, collaboration, scene setting. But it's also destiny. That's why, as Oda says, "Everybody needs good design."

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Honolulu Magazine November 2019
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