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Seattle Design Festival 2023 Sparks Curiosity & Encourages Community Collaboration in Design

Updated: Sep 21, 2023

Edited by Marian Mohamed

The SDF 2023 block party brought visitors from throughout the city to engage with dozens of design installations. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Design is in every aspect of our lives and has the power to shape our cities for the better. Seattle Design Festival (SDF) recognizes that. As the largest design festival in the Pacific Northwest, SDF aims to “unleash the design thinker in everyone” through bold conversations, collaboration, and community empowerment.

Watch the full video feature, edited by GZR videographer Kai Lewis, about the 2023 Seattle Design Festival

This year, the 13th Seattle Design Festival returned with several exciting events open to the public from August 19-24. With over 10,000 attendees spread over six days of activities, SDF 2023 kicked off the festivities with its weekend block party, on August 19-20, at Lake Union Park.

The two-day block party featured live music, dozens of interactive exhibits, and hands-on workshops centered around this year’s festival theme of ‘Curiosity.’

This year’s Seattle Design Festival block party was held at Lake Union Park. Attendees gather for the next live performance on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Musician Alexandria Boe performing on the music stage at the block party on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Throughout the weekend, attendees were encouraged to participate in various pop-up experiences on how innovative design can influence our future and create a more equitable and inclusive Seattle.

Started in 2011, SDF, formerly known as ‘Design in Public,’ began as an initiative of AIA Seattle, a chapter of the American Institute of Architects; a non-profit professional association of architects and fellow creative partners. The goal of SDF was to encourage public participation and dialogue on how intentional, community-centric design can improve life in urban cities like Seattle.

Attendees add their own art to this installation from LUMA on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Attendees paint a piano at the “Piano Play” installation presented by the Cornish College of the Arts. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Outside of the Block Party, the festivities spilled over to the following week of August 21-23, with in-person mixers and an online ‘Virtual Mainstage’ featuring a live lecture series on topics of community design on the SDF YouTube channel.

“We forget that everything around us is designed. Our built environment, the technology we use, the clothing that we wear,” said Annalee Shum, Associate Director of Engagement and Programs for AIA Seattle. “And so having [this event] out in the public is a really accessible way for people, who might not usually engage with designers, to either come out and join us, or stumble across us during their time in the city.”

Shum, out in the sun, at the SDF 2023 block party on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Past festival themes have included ‘Power’ (SDF 2017), ‘Trust’ (SDF 2018), ‘Emerge’ (SDF 2021), and ‘Connection’ (SDF 2022). Shum shares the inspiration behind this year’s theme of ‘Curiosity.’

“Over the years, we've had some pretty serious themes,” said Shum. “And what we found right now is people are looking for something fun, and they're really starting to ask themselves: what if? What next? How can I be a part of a change? And so this idea of finding your passion through curiosity came out really strong. And what I love is, people are responding to it in different ways.”

Attendees take part in an installation presented by Seattle Design Nerds called “Icebreakers” on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Visitors exit after exploring another installation titled “Amazecity” at the SDF block party on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

The colorful rainbow world of the “Inside-O-Scope” installation at the SDF block party on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Visitors learn more about Lake Union’s history and habitat at the “Lake Union: Below the Surface” installation at the SDF block party on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

With a theme as broad as ‘Curiosity,’ this year’s designers chose to tackle topics both big and small. Many took the opportunity to explore what the future of Seattle looks like and how design can help our communities thrive.

As pictured, the theme chosen for SDF 2023 was ‘Curiosity.’ (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

For Alan Knue, from Northwest Universal Design Council, his team’s installation, in collaboration with architect firm Jensen Hughes and Age Friendly Seattle, is titled, “How can design drive inclusivity in our homes and neighborhoods?”

This installation portrays a model bathroom built with features of universal design, thus encouraging attendees to consider how design can be utilized to make our homes more accessible.

Knue’s installation allows attendees to explore a model bathroom inspired by universal design. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

“We felt it was important to talk about the concept of how universal design impacts spaces, both public spaces and private spaces,” said Knue. “And how when you incorporate concepts of universal design, you make it usable for a wide array of people with varying abilities and disabilities.”

Knue hopes this exhibit inspires attendees to learn more about the positive implications of universal design.

Knue stands in front of posters explaining the principles of universal design. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Another installation that stood out at this year’s design festival is titled, “Story Boards.” This installation, which features three 4’ by 7.5’ ft tall boards with photographs, text, and graphics, shares the stories of residents from the historic Central District (CD) through oral history recordings, music, and art. The intention behind this installation is to encourage design thinkers to reflect on the personal impact that changes in infrastructure have on the residents of a community.

Visitors stop by to view the “Story Boards” installation on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Local muralist Perri Rhoden was contacted by members of the project’s design team, Architects without Borders, local musician Yirim Seck, and non-profit Wa Na Wari, to paint the art on the outside of the three “Story Boards.”

For Rhoden, working on this project provided a chance to share an important story. Through the art on the boards, Rhoden wanted to not only paint her interpretation and understanding of the history of the CD, but also showcase the impact of gentrification and displacement on the community.

As part of Rhoden’s creative process, she listened to the audio and stories from Wa Na Wari’s story project and Yirim Seck’s songs about the Central District. The recordings Rhoden reflected on are from the Shelf Life Community Story Project; an archive of oral histories sharing the stories of residents, past and present, in the Central District. Rhoden also drew upon her own personal experiences while creating the art for this installation.

“I really tried to tap into my own experiences of growing up not only in South Seattle, but also being raised in the Central District…going to Garfield High School, and just what the city used to feel like as a teenager,” said Rhoden. “I'm 32, so gentrification has just changed the way that Seattle looks…and so each board represents for me: the CD, what displacement feels like, and then also what gentrification feels like as well.”

Rhoden stands in front of one of the three boards she painted. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

For this project, Rhoden appreciates the artistic freedom she had to express her ideas.

“I had full creative agency to use whatever colors I wanted,” said Rhoden. “Part of my process was listening to some of the stories to feel the emotional weight of what my elders said the CD used to feel like. And yet, I still wanted people to look at the art and not necessarily feel sadness, but to see the fullness of all of the different emotions of joy, of a sense of loss, of like just…movement and rhythm and love.”

Rhoden enjoys seeing others interact with her artwork. She hopes the installation inspires attendees to pause and get a sense of just how much Seattle means to the communities who have called it home for generations.

“Although it looks different, there’s still people who have that feeling of home,” said Rhoden.

Alongside the plenty of standing installations, there were also quite a few interactive design experiences that encouraged attendees to get involved in the creative process. One such experience was the “Play, Resist, Make: Stories that Connect” installation.

This experience invited attendees to learn more about the art of resist-dyeing; a traditional form of dyeing patterns onto textiles. At this installation, both adults and kids flocked to the table to create their own special indigo-dyed fabrics. The unique, age-old art tradition at the center of this experience draws from two different cultures: the people of the Kutch District in Gujarat, India, and the indigenous Coast Salish.

The art of resist-dyeing is portrayed in this installation on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

For Indian fashion designer Kadambari Mathur, being a part of this installation was a unique opportunity to participate in a cultural exchange and bridge the gap between nations and communities through collaborative design.

“I'm from India, and we practice Indigo dyeing there, but Indigo is a worldwide phenomenon,” said Mathur.

Mathur, who was introduced to the practice while working with artisans in Gujarat, was excited when she visited Seattle and saw the blue of this art form reflected in the serene shades of the city. While in Seattle, Mathur connected with artist Myrna Crossley Elliot, a member of the Salish tribe and a distinguished practitioner of the Salish Arts.

Mathur smiles while capturing photos of participants with their indigo fabric designs. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

“The story which is being connected here is one that is from India, and one that is from America,” shared Mathur. “And we've used Indigo to connect to both.”

Elliot (on the left) and Mathur (on the right) in front of their installation on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

Mathur hopes this year’s SDF theme of curiosity inspires attendees to take the time to learn about the distinct art and design traditions of other cultures.

Elliot, who practices the art of Coast Salish weaving, was excited to collaborate on this installation with Mathur.

“What we brought to the table were the basic design elements…but how we put them together makes it Coast Salish,” said Elliot. “So, we have the crescent, the darts, the ovals, the circles, and then also the weaving that I do.”

For Elliot, this year’s SDF theme of ‘Curiosity’ was the perfect route to open the door to an exchange of cultures.

“Everybody that has come up has been very curious,” said Elliot. “And they’ve all left with experiencing the cultures of India and the cultures of our First Nations people of this area just by sharing their own ideas on paper.”

Elliot was glad to see people of all ages stop by to participate in the installation and described the experience as grounding and meditative.

For quite a few designers, like UW Seattle students Sydney Lai and Ray Song, this year was their first time showcasing their work at SDF. Lai and Song are part of the DXARTS Collective; a collaborative space and community for students interested in digital arts and experimental media. Upon learning about this year’s Seattle Design Festival, the collective was thrilled to submit a proposal for their “Collaborative Pillars” installation.

The goal for this installation was to get attendees to understand and experience the power of collaboration. For instance, in order to inflate the installation’s large, white columns, attendees would need to form a physical connection, such as holding hands.

Lai (on the right) and Song (on the left) show how their installation works through connection. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

For Lai, the interdisciplinary nature of their design installation, the cross-section between art and science, made the creative process enjoyable.

As a design collective of students across different majors, Song hopes this piece will communicate the sense of unity he feels when collaborating with his peers.

“So, we came up with this idea of what if people can hold hands and achieve something…and see the pillars standing up,” said Song. “A feeling of working together and connecting with each other to achieve something.”

Stepping away from the whole, some installations examined our connection to the smaller insect habitats that make up our community. One such design project was the Cabinet of Curiosibees. This installation encouraged attendees to consider how we can design more urban spaces that support biodiversity and prevent insect habitat loss. At this installation, the focus was on our connection to the environment, not just each other.

“A few of the things that we really wanted to accomplish with our installation was making it interactive, and also making sure that it had a use after the festival,” said Avee Oabel, one of the members of the project’s design team, who works at the landscape firm Site Workshop.

Oabel at the Cabinet of Curiosibees on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

According to Oabel, there is no such thing as ‘good design.’ Oabel believes that what mattered most for this project was getting people passionate and involved in adding to the art.

Throughout all the installations and conversations with designers, one thing is clear. The strength of SDF lies in its community driven elements.

Visitors curiously walk from one installation to another at the SDF block party on August 19, 2023. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

With so many installations to explore, the SDF block party was spread throughout the weekend of August 19-20. (Photo/Gurjot Kang)

“[SDF] isn't just for designers,” emphasized Shum of AIA Seattle. “This is really an opportunity to engage with designers. Ask them: ‘hey, why did you build that? What went wrong when you were building it?’ And just learn more about the design process because design is ‘good design’ when everyone who uses the design is engaged.”


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