Growing Up with Contract

With September approaching we would normally be asking, “What are we submitting to Contract this year?” By which we would mean what projects would be best to compete for a Contract Design Interiors Award? Contract’s breakfast gala in January at the Cipriani Hotel in Manhattan always kicked off the design year warmly. The idea of having your awards ceremony so early in the morning—and on such a cold morning—was typical of Contract’s up-and-at-‘em spirit. Early was the way they rolled—always on the lookout for new design talent, new directions in the industry, new uses for design.

When we got the news at O+A that Contract Magazine was closing its doors after 60 years of publication we felt as if a member of our family had passed. In a very real sense we grew up with Contract. When the magazine named Primo and Verda Designers of the Year in 2011 it was a turning point for our firm. That this magazine noted for early recognition of design leaders such as David Rockwell, Michael Graves Shigeru Ban, had noticed our company far from the East Coast centers of influence seemed significant, not just for us, but for the kind of design we practiced.

Over the years we became friends with Contract’s publishers and editors John Rouse, Karen Donaghy, Jennifer Busch, John Czarnecki and Paul Makovsky. Primo joined Contract’s Advisory Board and took part in the Contract Forum, a summit of thinkers and leaders that landed each year in a different city to talk about where the profession was going. With an ever-growing cohort of Designer of the Year alumni we came to understand how interconnected the design universe is, how in pursuing individual dreams every designer is also part of a collective project: making the built world better.

Contract’s role in that project was always significant and its methods reliably forthright. There was something endearing—and a little quirky—in its insistence that design award applicants not reveal their firms when submitting projects. Industry buzz must have tipped jurors to who was responsible for what, but Contract’s adherence to blind judging put the work first, let the work speak for itself.

Similarly the magazine’s commitment to education exemplified another kind of integrity as champions of change. Primo’s “Letter to a Design Student,” published in Contract in 2018, focused not just on the promise of the next generation, but on what their perspectives could bring to the table. “One of my favorite exercises with students,” he wrote, “is to ask them to think of a favorite space and to analyze what specifically creates the experience that makes it a favorite.”

Specificity of experience was a theme Contract explored for 60 years. Right to the end their Multivitamin column gave designers a forum for raising real-world issues. Our own Dani Gelfand wrote about working from home during the pandemic while also taking care of her son; Mindi Weichman wrote about wrapping up a distant project when travel and site visits were problematic. These nuts-and-bolts of the design profession were Contract’s beat. So too were the industry’s flights of imagination. Contract’s Inspiration Awards grants (including one this year to Food for Thought Truck) supported efforts to make design a tool for social justice.

It’s regrettable that we should lose Contract at the moment when commercial interiors are undergoing their greatest transformation ever. A wholesale rethinking of everything the industry thought it knew is precisely the kind of exercise the magazine relished. To the extent that our firm and others meet the challenge, we will do so well lit by Contract’s example. To Contract’s team and alumni: our gratitude and best wishes.