The Consumer Aesthetic Research Institute: Unearthing the Forgotten Design History of the Recent Past

This event took place on Aug 17, 2019

** Free admission! **


** Join Evan Collins, Lead Curator / Architecture at CARI, for a presentation and discussion at NWFF, a Capitol Hill Neighborhood Design Crawl Hub! Co-presented with Design in Public on the occasion of their Seattle Design Festival **

CARI is an online research community dedicated to developing a taxonomy of recent and sometimes forgotten design aesthetics ranging from the 1970s to the present, interpreting and critiquing them in the context of societal, economic, and cultural trends. They’ll be presenting their findings of the past four years, and engaging in an interactive activity to apply the aesthetic categories they’ve been investigating to the local context of Seattle.

About Evan Collins

Lead Curator / Architecture

Evan Collins is an architect and design archivist based in Seattle. His early research into the ‘Y2K Aesthetic’ beginning in 2014 helped to lay the foundation for the many branching eras studied by CARI; he brings expertise particularly in the fields of graphic, industrial, and interior design of the 1990s. He holds a Bachelors in Architecture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a Masters in Architecture from Columbia University.

About CARI

The Consumer Aesthetic Research Institute (CARI) is an online research community dedicated to developing a taxonomy of recent design aesthetics in modern consumer culture, interpreting and critiquing them in the context of societal trends. Our work spans a series of online platforms, taking advantage of their unique formats & structures to engage the public in design discourse, and the development of the aforementioned taxonomy. Through the cultivation of a diverse group of designers, students, researchers, artists, musicians, and writers, we’ve been able to tackle a variety of fields. Currently, we’re in the process of creating a centralized website to collect and present our findings over the past four years in an accessible and engaging manner.

Our work began four years ago as an interest in developing a more cohesive understanding of an era we vaguely remembered from childhood, the turn-of-the-millennium. Through intensive research incorporating a wide range of digital and physical sources, we’ve been able to both repair the era’s infamous archival ‘black hole’, and formulate a detailed understanding of what we’ve termed the ‘Y2K Aesthetic’. An optimistic, techno-utopian style; it epitomizes that brief moment of dotcom fervor when the future was composed of shiny pleather pants, silver eyeshadow, rimless tinted shades, sleek computer-generated graphics, and blobby translucent electronics.

Building on this initial investigation, our work has since branched out to form a small universe of design research, constantly evolving as more contributors become involved. We’ve been able to expand on existing design history & research, filling in archival gaps and connecting more well-documented design movements with those that have previously been underexplored, or deemed too insignificant for study. For example, our research led us to rediscover a design aesthetic that seems to have been forgotten in the collective consciousness, one we’ve termed ‘Global Village Coffeehouse’. It’s that earth-toned, woodcut spiral, kokopelli figure, tribal-themed coffee shop style that never seemed to have a name, but was omnipresent from the late 1980s to the mid 1990s. Then there’s ‘McBling’, the maximalist reaction against Y2K that dominated the pre-‘Great Recession’ era, coating the design landscape with a layer of gold leaf, fleur-de-lis, flowery vector graphics, and oversized baroque-inspired furnishings.

These are just a few examples of the many aesthetic ‘channels’ we’ve been investigating. Our hope is that through further research we can develop a better understanding of the recent past; making design history and discussion more publicly accessible by dissecting the aesthetics of the consumer-driven world we occupy. For the SDF, we’ll be engaging in an interactive activity to apply these categories we’ve been developing to the local context of Seattle, and it’s ever-shifting design landscape.

Connection to “BALANCE”:

A core component of CARI’s mission is to educate the public about design, making it more accessible by dissecting the aesthetics of the consumer-driven world we occupy. The astonishing proliferation of designed objects, spaces, and experiences over the past 40 years has led to a collective sense of confusion regarding the economic, societal, and cultural forces behind their origin. By developing an understanding these forces, and breaking down the perceived impenetrability of consumer design, we can help restore the balance of power back to the public.

About Seattle Design Festival

Achieving and maintaining balance is essential for the well-being of our planet, our society, and ourselves. Our natural world provides the model: vast ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years to create symbiotic relationships that are in

Yet our world right now is fundamentally out of balance. Human needs and desires relentlessly compete with the needs of natural systems. Whether we are weighing the impact of our daily decisions on the future of our planet, working towards greater equity in our cities, or striving for greater balance between our work life and personal life, we are in a constant state of negotiation.

Balance is needed for our earth, our communities, and our families, but how do we achieve it?

  • Can design foster greater equilibrium with our natural world to restore balance?
  • How do we minimize environmental impacts on the planet through design?
  • What lessons can we learn from nature and how is it translated into design
  • What role does design have to help us achieve personal balance and live our best lives?

2019 is the year of Balance. From August 16–25, the Seattle Design Festival will gather together designers, community members and civic leaders to explore how we design for Balance.

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