Bernard McCoy founded Modern Atlanta almost a decade ago as a haven for contemporary architects. This week I sat down with him and his assistant, Jessica Steele-Hardin (a recent graduate of the Georgia Tech School of Architecture), at Perkins + Will’s impressive new digs. With Design Is Human Week about to kick off, and with a fifth-floor view of the High Museum, we discussed the origin of Modern Atlanta—affectionately called “MA”—and what needs to happen for the city to become a true design destination.
How was Modern Atlanta born?
I had been living in Europe when I moved to Castleberry Hill in 2003. I wanted to meet likeminded people who cared about design and architecture, so I got some friends together to meet about once a month. It was about 20 people, mostly architects, having an ongoing discussion about the Atlanta design scene. At the time residential contemporary architects weren’t sure they could even do it as a steady gig. So a lot of the discussion consisted of, “Is there work?”
(Bruce McEvoy and Bernard McCoy)
How has the design climate in Atlanta changed since then?
If I’m honest we have a long way to go. Design cities like New York, London and Milan have such a great infrastructure where all the disciplines are represented. Here in Atlanta we have infrastructure, but it’s not anything that the rest of the world is looking at. So part of our mission is to change that perception. We’re starting to define a design language that people will look at and say, “That’s Atlanta.”
What will that unique Atlanta contribution look like?
We’re in a great example right now. The Perkins + Will office is the greenest building in the northern hemisphere. But that hasn’t manifested yet in the other disciplines. We need more stories. [Design Is Human Week] aims to make Atlanta a host city for ideas from all over the world. Atlanta is the hub of the southeast region and the young designer is the future, so when we find new talent we try to embrace them by giving them coverage and exhibits. The movement becomes a vehicle to launch careers.
Like Jessica here.
Exactly. Jessica doesn’t just want a job; she wants to find what it is she can offer the world. Through MA she can experience what it’s like to get feedback from the public. That’s important for gaining confidence but also competing with the rest of the world. I want to find the next designer from Atlanta who’s hungry, and I want to be a part of their success early on.
I know you’re pushing for Edgewood Avenue to be the next design district.
We’re having a lot of events there during Design Is Human Week. Edgewood represents new to me. If we can show that this young, vibrant part of Atlanta has great potential, then young designers will say, “I want to flock to here.”
Who should we keep our eyes out for on the local level?
I call Skylar Morgan Atlanta’s poster boy. He’s always communicating originality through reuse but he’s also very open to collaboration. Michael Courts is a Dutch designer based in Atlanta; I think we’re going to see some things come from Michael that we haven’t seen before. For the past few years I’ve been pondering, “What is Atlanta design?” In working with local designers I’m starting to see a pattern of using old materials, wood especially, and often re-use wood, which is actually very Dutch.
Tell me about MA’s new partnership with Mini.
We say we’re business-to-business because we’ve attracted companies like Mini and also Hansgrohe, a German manufacturing company that makes bathroom fixtures. From a business side, these brands see the value in our platform, where they can tell stories to a like-minded audience. From our perspective, we hope our designers can relate to manufacturers and even collaborate with them on new products and methods. So the partnerships are generating a lot of good energy.
I know it’s been important to MA to be interdisciplinary. How can something like architecture inform, say, graphic design?
You have to take a 360-degree philosophy. Architecture for MA is the glue. Here we are sitting and talking—in space. In a building. Hans Hollein said that everything is architecture. Once you recognize architecture’s contribution all the other disciplines fall into place. You open up the conversation to talk about interiors and product design. An object, a dress, everything has a structure. What you do as a writer is architecture. You’re building something.
As Design Is Human Week kicks off, could you pick out a few highlights for us?
Dutch DFA (Design, Fashion, Architecture) is bringing us 27 amazing short films about Dutch designers. I’m a huge fan of Dutch design and re-use—making things you would discard become desirable again, so that’s a highlight.
Second, part of that 360-degree philosophy is the design of food. A London studio called Design Marketo is bringing us an event called Bar Alto. It’s based on Bar Basso in Milan, which is frequented by all kinds of designers, and it will be the first in the USA. They’re also doing a Bread Workshop; both will be at Space2 in the Sound Table.
If there’s one more thing it’s the Yale School of Architecture. They’re coming to do a lecture and a panel discussion. They have strong ideas and great thought power, and their approach to problem solving is unique. Yale’s alumni are some of the brightest minds in the world, so that has me excited too.
Lastly, how would you sum up MA in one sentence?
MA is about Atlanta being a destination, a host city for big ideas.
Design Is Human Week will host talks, exhibitions and home tours around Atlanta through June 10. Most of the events are free, but you can purchase tickets to the modern home tour on Modern Atlanta’s website or at Octane.