Design is playing a more integral role in Los Angeles, from the obvious shaping of public places and buildings to the more subtle styling of fashions and furnishings.
As Los Angeles grows and presses in upon us, we become more and more conscious of what academics call the man-made environment, the places where we live, work, shop or play.
This has spurred a heightened public interest and involvement in design issues, as evidenced by the proliferation of local planning and design review boards, the popularity of architecture exhibits and house and garden tours, and the blossoming of shelter and fashion magazines.
Also stimulated on another, more substantive level has been the urge to better shape and style the man-made environment to be more comfortable, useful and reflective of our tastes, position and wealth, be it building a house, planting a garden, decorating a room, selecting a new chair, choosing a spring outfit or simply setting the table.
As we wade through this increasingly man-made environment, it is important to understand the difference between design and style. Simply defined, design is concerned with how things work, and style how they look.
How these concepts are applied to, say, a building, a table or a tea set, is grist for the design profession's varied mills.
"And there is certainly a lot of grist," commented Patrick Ela, director of the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum and a longtime observer of the emerging design field.
"How it is milled, whether it integrates design and style into a tasty, nutritious concoction or into an attractive yet insubstantial fluff is the challenge," he said.
The increasing demand for design has created a mixed bag of products, Ela said, from the ubiquitous Postmodernist-styled mini-malls to the tea kettles that look interesting but drip hot water in your lap.
As Ela and others note, there is an obvious need in the design community for a better understanding of its own processes and who it serves--particularly in Los Angeles, which--if you haven't noticed because of the glitz and glitter--has become a trend setter in an increasingly style-conscious world.
The need for this understanding is the focus in part of Westweek, the three-day design show and symposium opening Wednesday at the expanded, glistening blue and green Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood.
Expected to attend are some 35,000 people, including architects, graphic artists, interior and industrial designers and manufacturers, as well as the curious.
Westweek has grown much like the local design community.
What began modestly 14 years ago as an office furniture and furnishings show appealing mainly to Southern California is now a major event in the world design community.
It now attracts the top professionals in the field and generates considerable interest in both the new products unveiled and the ideas discussed.
"We are trying at Westweek to set up a situation that goes beyond marketing to stimulating ideas in the showrooms, in the symposiums and in the social events," the design center's president, Richard Norfolk, said.
Speakers from Japan, Italy, France and Mexico, as well as the United States, will discuss aspects of the show's theme, "Critical Choices: Intuition and Reason in the Design Process."
"The design industry has been expanding at such a rate that it needs a Westweek," Norfolk said, "so those involved can take a breath, look around at what others are doing, listen to what leaders in the field are saying, and by doing so, generally aid their creativity."
For Massoud Amini, who operates the trend-setting Massini showroom in the center, Westweek also is a time to display the latest in innovative European designs he has gathered over the last year.
"To me, Westweek is like a medieval fair, a place to show your wares, to see and be seen," says Amini, who shuttles back and forth between Los Angeles and a home in Geneva.
Very much in the spirit of such a fair are the varied exhibitions and the award programs of a collection of trade publications.
Of general interest is an architectural art exhibit inaugurating the new gallery designed by Cesar Pelli on San Vicente Boulevard to honor the late Murray Feldman, who for years guided the center.
Also on display, and of particular interest, will be the models and drawings from the hotly contested Disney Concert Hall architectural competition, in which Frank Gehry won out over Hans Hollein of Austria, Gottfried Boehm of Germany, and James Sterling and Michael Wilford of England. All second-guessers welcome.
Another exhibit features a selection of the recent winners of the first Design Excellence awards for civic architecture.
The awards program is a welcome gesture by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Commission to recognize and encourage innovative design in the public sector which in the past seems to have too often rewarded mediocrity.
That the city is sponsoring the exhibit at Westweek displays a certain confidence that also is welcome.
But why not at Westweek?
After all, it is a time when all those involved in the design profession, including critics, ought to be looking, listening and learning.