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Asking Questions, Solving Problems at D:center Baltimore

Collaborator Marian April Glebes at the D center at MAP - Photo  Arianne Teeple
Collaborator Marian April Glebes at the D center at MAP - Photo Arianne Teeple
What is design?

It’s not a question as often philosophized about as “what is art?” or “what is beauty?” but when applied to the disciplines tasked with improving urban living, it’s become equally perplexing and intriguing.

Like design itself, D:center Baltimore is nebulous and open to different interpretations. One of many definitions of design is “a plan or protocol for carrying out or accomplishing something;” another is “the arrangement of elements or details in a product or work of art.”

Both definitions as well as others can also be applied to D:center, the three-year old nonprofit design organization facilitating the design dialogue in Baltimore.

“We want to see how design is an element of problem-solving,” says Klaus Philipsen, president of the D:center board and founder of architecture firm ArchPlan, Inc. “The lack of awareness about design in the public is usually related to the fact that people think design is the frosting on the cake. It makes it pretty but it doesn’t serve any real purpose.”

The volunteers who make D center run disagree.

“Design, particularly the interdisciplinary approach, holistic approach, solves problems and is an intrinsic element of what has value in society,” says Philipsen.

D:center came into being as a result of part of the master plan developed for rejuvenating the Station North arts and entertainment district.

“One of the things that they put in the master plan was a big green box that said ‘design center,’ but they didn’t really explain what that meant, and Baltimore didn’t really know what that meant either,” says Marian Glebes, a graphic designer and the D:center’s treasurer. “So the design community in mass sort of got together, started holding these meetings and started saying well what is a design center in Baltimore? What does it mean? What would it do? And it really was built from the voices of all different disciplines, which has been absolutely core to the mission of d center, which is that it’s design in all its incarnations.”

Made up entirely of volunteers, D:center includes artists, architects, urban planners, and academics, among others, all focused on the way design can be woven into Baltimore’s fabric.

“Really what we’ve done is try to bring folks together,” says Glebes. “If you think of the design community as a network, there are lots of different people working on lots of different things that are similar. So often what D:center does is kind of a metaphorical handshake where we wind up introducing people to other people to make projects happen.”

The first way the D:center group went about doing this is with a monthly discussion series called Design Conversations. With guest speakers organized by rotating curators, topics have ranged from sustainability to food policy to social activism.

D:center has also held regular exhibitions, the latest of which, H2OMG, focused on the infrastructure of Baltimore’s waterways, including the Inner Harbor and the Jones Falls River.

The organization was also involved with Urbanite’s Open City Challenge, a discussion of solutions to the problems posed by the impending construction of Baltimore’s new Red Line transportation system.

But perhaps most importantly, D:center’s value isn’t in its thought-provoking conversations and exhibits, but instead in the bridges it builds.

“One thing that I think Baltimore could really use through the design center is the connection to the ‘next’ for individuals or potentially for firms, or for students or even for universities,” says Glebes. “I think often you come to a place, and that place can even be that time in the trajectory of your career or the trajectory of a project where you know that there’s a ‘next’ but you actually don’t quite know how to get to it. And one thing that D center has been able to facilitate in the past is making connections that allow someone’s ‘next’ to be possible.”

D center itself has had a year of reaching its own “nexts.” In June, the group found its first physical home at the Maryland Art Place’s West Saratoga Street building. Funded by a grant from the Downtown Partnership’s Operation Storefront, D:center @ MAP operates a gallery on the ground floor.

And although the tangible space is a major step for D:center, it’s the volunteers who work countless hours to organize programming that keep the organization running as well as  Baltimore’s design enthusiasts who seek out the chances to participate.

“I think it’s a matter of constant curiosity,” Glebes says. “I think there’s a movement of extending the boundaries of one’s own discipline that it’s almost like you … have to live someone else’s discipline to try to make it your own, try to understand it. And that all of a sudden the more you learn about what’s outside of what you are supposedly an expert in makes you keep questioning, and the more you keep questioning the more excited you are about the fact that there are other experts, other places that you want to keep learning from instead of staying inside the place where you know what you know.

“D:center, the reason it’s exciting is because it’s a great platform to ask questions of other people that you yourself admire and want to learn from. So every step we take as an organization, it brings all the individuals closer to more knowledge and more opportunities to find something that we didn’t know that we can know.”

Down the line, Glebes says she hopes the D:center can become something that fulfills the needs of all designers of different disciplines, perhaps as a place where people can come to use design software or as a platform for students and academics to connect with practitioners.

D:center’s next exhibition will celebrate its past, present and future, honoring those who have been involved in its development and inviting those who want to join the dialogue.

“Now is an amazing time to be in on this conversation,” Glebes says. “Now is the time. We’re starting to really figure out how to do the next year with the [National Endowment for the Arts] grant. We’re looking for so many more people to play with us, and we really want to thank the people who have been part of the D:center so far. And it’s not really so much to say ‘here, submit to this call,’ it’s really like if you haven’t asked your question before, ask it now.”

Staci Wolfson is a Baltimore-born, NYU-educated writer and editor based in Charm City. In addition to BmoreMedia, you can read her writing on Patch.com and her Just for Kicks & Giggles soccer blog.

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Photos by Arianne Teeple:

- Collaborator Marian April Glebes at the D center at MAP - Photo © Arianne Teeple
- The D:center at Map
- H2OMG Show at the D:center at MAP
- H2OMG Show
- H2OMG Show
- Collaborator Marian April Glebes at the D:center at MAP
- The D:center at Map
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