20 Years of Inform Awards

By Rab McClure.

When I moved to Richmond after graduate school in the mid-nineties, caring for a young baby at homeand putting in long hours at the firm, it was difficult to get out and see interesting new work in the region. Just discovering new design work and learning about the people doing it was difficult. The Internet was not the resource it has become; there was no such thing as Google; there were no blogs, no LinkedIn, no way to meet like-minded people on Facebook. National periodicals were stimulating, but magazines like Progressive Architecture felt disconnected from my world of practical experience—featuring projects designed in faraway places like the Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles, or Phoenix and built by attentive contractors for adventuresome clients, without pesky constraints like budget, site, and historic context.

At the time I discovered it, Inform was a breath of fresh air—especially the Inform Awards. Here was a magazine with an annual awards program featuring the best work happening in a region encompassing North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland—projects designed and built within a day’s car ride of my new home. I was inspired and heartened by the breadth and quality of work. The range of entry categories,which included interiors, objects, and—added a year later—landscape architecture, helped reinforce my firmly held belief in design as a universal language spoken across disciplines.

I was also struck by the fact that such excellent work was being done by people hiding in plain sight. In the first year’s batch of winners, two—Jeff Bushman and Jude LeBlanc—were teaching at the University of Virginia School of Architecture when I was a student, but I would not have known their work without the awards program. Another—Robert Tierney, AIA, whose project, “Light At Any Height” won a Merit Award—worked just down the hall at my firm when I moved to Richmond. He had designed and prototyped his project after-hours at home.

“Oh, no. Has it really been twenty years?” Tierney asks, with a chuckle (he’s now an architect with Baskervill in Richmond).

Light at Any Height

“It was a really important event. It had a big impact. Seeing the jury comments in print,”—juror W.G. Clark described Tierney’s project as “wonderfully inventive”—“really motivated me,” says Tierney. “It pushed me to refine the prototype and get the light into production.” Koch+Lowy, of Avon, Massachusetts, eventually manufactured the lamp, earning Tierney design royalties. “It inspired me to keep tinkering, drawing, and imagining at a different scale—in addition to the work I do at the office.”

Tierney’s story is the kind of success envisioned when the awards program began. According to Vernon Mays, Inform’s founding Editor-in-Chief and the awards program’s first organizer, the Inform Awards started with two main goals, which, in turn, reflected the magazine’s mission. “The first goal,” says Mays,“was about broadening the conversation—reaching beyond the architectural profession to appeal to a wide range of people—from clients looking for someone to design a house, to the public official running an institutional project, to someone out there looking fora good couch or well-designed tableware.” Mays, now a Senior Writer at Gensler and a Contributing Editor for Architect, continues, “The second goal had to do with breaking down boundaries—geographic, disciplinary, and those that separate design professionals from the public.”

Like Tierney, Mark McInturff’s career has grown in tandem with the awards program. McInturff, whose firm is a household name, now, had only started his firm six years before the first Inform Awards. Despite being a relative newcomer in 1990, McInturff Architects earned four awards, and the fi rm, as a result,was identified in the accompanying article as “the undisputed darling” of that year’s program.

“[The Inform Awards are] so vital,” says McInturff. “They allow us to see what’s happening across the entire region, and to see how our work measures up. It’s inspiring to see what people like Frank Harmon are doing, down in North Carolina, because it’s different from the type of project available to us here in Maryland and Washington, D.C.”

McInturff Architects continues to enter awards programs—they have won 277 awards so far—and to value the peer-review process.“The Inform Awards has always been a great program and it means a lot to us to have our work recognized.”

Twenty years on, the Inform Awards program remains committed to its original goals and its early categories: interiors, landscape, and objects. There have been minor changes—digital files replaced submission binders in 2008; winning projects appeared on readinform.com in 2010 (as well as in print); and registration fees have been modestly increased. Each year’s field of winning projects has a different feel, as well, selected year-to-year by a fresh jury pool—a diverse mix of rising stars, industry leaders, and seasoned professionals like Chicago’s Jeanne Gang, AIA (2002); MoMA’s former chief curator of architecture and design and director of the Miami Art Museum Terence Riley, AIA; Minnesota’s Julie Snow, FAIA; Olin Partnership’s Laurie Olin (1993); Steve Dumez, FAIA, of New Orleans’ Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (2010); Boston’s William Rawn, FAIA (1999); former editor-in-chief of Architectural Record and current CEO of the American Institute of Architects, Robert A. Ivy, FAIA (2006); and Linda Pollak, AIA, of New York’s Marpillaro Pollak Architects (2008).

By seeking out superlative design, identifying trends, discovering new talent, and inviting design-based comparisons across regional and disciplinary boundaries, the program continues to serve its readers with a broad range of projects and fresh perspective. Displayed and described in a manner designed to appeal to the professional, the academic, and the layperson alike, the awards program remains a vital resource to anyone interested in seeking out and understanding top-quality design work.

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