When 10 designers and two dogs put their heads together on a summer afternoon, they can come up with some strange ideas. Like the squiggle on a piece of paper that turns into a design for an urban park. In this small converted warehouse in Raleigh, the members of Designbox are practicing for an upcoming charette at Exploris to discuss a vision for the future of Raleigh. This is where they meet once a week to brainstorm, discuss and stretch their creative boundaries.
Launched in May 2003 by designers Aly and Beth Khalifa, this collaborative brings together creative people from different disciplines: graphic design, architecture, landscape architecture, interior design, product design, copywriting, illustration and so on. "That's one of our criteria for accepting a new member," Aly says, "that they're different from us." The 18 current members are independent professionals, many of them freelancers, who crave the challenge of interacting with other creative people. They often bring to the meetings projects they're stuck on or don't know how to begin. "I think there is that need in a creative profession," he says. "You need that independence, but at the same time you need support."
Designbox meets in the office of Gamil Design, the Khalifas' small company. He designs sports equipment and she does graphic design and branding. They rent space in the office to freelancers, several of whom are Designbox collaborators. The walls are covered with photographs of past work, projects in progress and remnants of a recent gallery show. It's a few blocks away from Artspace and Moore Square, in the heart of the city.
In two years of existence, the group has done much more than come up with ideas. Each new Designbox member must curate a gallery show--not a show by a single artist, but one that explores a theme by inviting work from many different people--for the First Friday art walk. A recent show curated by Paul Friedrich, creater of the Onion Head Monster comic, explored the art of HELLCAR, a national comic book magazine. Other exhibits have probed civic issues, such as VOTE! in September 2004, which featured film by member Francesca Talenti, a short talk by Peter Walz of Democracy North Carolina and music by Milagro Saints. The Keep A Breast project brought together 70 artists who created plaster torsos that were displayed in 27 venues and auctioned at the gallery event, raising $10,000 for breast cancer charities.
Designbox is not a nonprofit. The group sometimes hires itself out to companies looking for a little more creative brainpower. But recently, Designbox has offered its services to the city for free, hosting charettes on planning issues, and in the process, diffusing political tensions. It began with the Khalifas' involvement in their Pullen Park neighborhood. "We're 27 homes and we're in the middle of the Dix property, so we're surrounded by amazingly huge interests of people who are just salivating to develop the hell out of the last green space in Raleigh."
Then a design problem arose: What do you do with 200,000 cubic yards of dirt? You could dump it somewhere all in a big heap and make the neighbors angry. That's what the city of Raleigh planned to do with dirt from the construction of the convention center by tearing out a stand of trees on the Dorothea Dix campus.
"That didn't seem like the most creative solution," Aly says. "And it was happening on a very fast timeline and immediately created an adversarial situation. So we thought it would be beneficial to jump in." He told Raleigh City Councilman Thomas Crowder, who had alerted the neighborhood to the dirt situation, that Designbox was willing to do a free charette. In the end, the neighbors came to consensus on a design that would preserve the trees and create an ampitheater, a soccer field and a breathtaking lookout point over the city.
"Aly is definitely one of those good spirits," Crowder says. "He's a consensus builder. He has enthusiasm and a positive energy." Crowder says the Designbox charettes have been a success at establishing common goals among citizens. "It gets people engaged rather than in debate." It's Designbox's commitment to the community, using creativity to benefit Raleigh's future, that shines out.
"The classic syndrome of a creative person is to be constructively discontent, or at least that's what we all hope to be," Aly says. "There's no way you can be creative and be content with your surroundings. The trick is finding a way to harness that energy for the solution. It's not magic and it's not altruistic; it's none of that. It's essential to being creative--you have to fix up this city, you have to fix up what's around you. That's what we're doing."