An interview with Dave Laubenthal


Alumnus, Dave Laubenthal, describes his journey from BridgeLab to Design Museum Portland.

Dave Laubenthal ’13, is about better problem-solving. Laubenthal is the Launch Director of Design Museum Portland. He does educational programming on the role of design which involves the entire city. His MFA Collaborative Design thesis, a hypothetical program called BridgeLab, is now a functioning entity at PNCA.

Laura DeVito: Can you tell me a bit of what you’re doing now?
Dave Laubenthal: I’m the Launch Director for Design Museum Portland. It’s a new non-profit in town, and we started at the first of the year. We like to call ourselves a distributed museum, which means there’s no brick and mortar Design Museum. Instead we put on our exhibitions, events, and education workshops all throughout the community, thereby turning the city into the museum.
The first one started in Boston almost five years ago, and it’s been a huge success. It’s in the tagline, “Design is everywhere,” and so are we. Design Museum thought, we do it all around Boston, let’s do it all over the US. And so they chose Portland as the second location, and we’re looking at Chicago and the Bay Area for next year.

LDV: Are there connections between your capstone and your work now?
DL: Yes, going back to school later in life after running my own design firm for almost ten years made me aware of something I could not ignore. It was the realization that there were some gaps in PNCA’s approach for achieving their mission statement of preparing student’s for a life of creative practice.
My undergrad degree is in the fine arts, and I had the perspective of an artist and a designer, so I wanted to create a hypothetical program that would address those gaps. This became my thesis project called, BridgeLab. There were community building attributes and features to BridgeLab, which runs in alignment with the Design Museum. The similarities are dense with PNCA and Design Museum Portland, but PNCA has over 600 in enrollment and alumni, and Design Museum Portland works with the entire city.

LDV: What advice would you offer students about to embark on a career in Collaborative Design?

DL: My take away from Collaborative Design is it’s an ideal, it’s not a thing. What I mean by that is, it’s a mindset and a strategic approach to whatever you’re doing. We talked a lot about systems thinking and design thinking in Collaborative Design, and depending on whom you’re talking to and the context, a lot of those things mean the same thing at the end of the day – it’s about problem solving better. It’s about incorporating multidisciplinary people and approaches into every consideration. So, if I was meeting with someone who was thinking about doing something like that, no matter what your focus or interest, this program and that way of thinking will help you with whatever you do.

LDV: How do you maintain your creative practice?
DL: Right now it’s challenging. There are creative aspects to what I do in my day-to-day with Design Museum Portland. But with my personal practice, there’s not a lot of time these days because we’re such a nascent organization that if there’s a waking hour, I’m usually working on something. However, there was an art auction a couple weeks ago for Harper’s Playground, and I love that organization. They asked me if I would donate a piece. And rather than donate something that was in my inventory, I made a new piece.  It was a lot of late nights and a messy kitchen, but it was fun, and stimulated my appetite to find more time to do that. Although, I would say more often than not, my creative outlets these days all revolve around how to do Design Museum better.

LDV: What keeps you motivated and engaged?
DL: I think what keeps me motivated and engaged now, as opposed to a few years ago before Collaborative Design, are successful collaborations, catalyzing community, and engaging someone in a new way. And knowing that the person you just collaborated with is walking away thinking going, “I would never have thought of that,” or “I’ve never looked at it that way.” It’s the broken record of teaching moments and learning moments being around us all the time, and when I’m teaching workshops or classes, I’m getting so much in return – as much as I’m giving away. I think that before the Collaborative Design program, I maybe didn’t recognize that.

LDV: Could you describe a moment or experience that profoundly changed your work?
DL: Part of the really great thing with the program, was it’s emphasis on presentation. I became a lot more comfortable hearing myself and confident in my pitch or presentation. This has definitely served me well in the role I am currently. I know I would not be in this role if I had not gone through Collaborative Design. I mean, part of it was the people I met along the way, but some of the intangible and soft skills that weren’t polished, got polished in that program.

LDV: Do you have any final thoughts?
DL: My final thoughts specifically to Collaborative Design, is I believe in it as much as I ever have, and I hope it continues to flourish. I appreciate the folks at PNCA that advocated for it in the beginning, because it’s a hard thing to explain to people. The ROI (Return on Investment) with that program is hard to quantify. Peter (Chair of Collaborative Design Program) being at the helm, as we both know, flies just enough off the radar, but he also has a ton of conviction. He’s not afraid to buck the trend, so to speak. And I think there should be more programs like that, and even though the content is a little bit different, I think the structure, or lack of structure (laughs), is a really great thing. Especially, since the education system, particularly art and design, is completely in flux.  Policy, education in general, and the economy are all in flux as well.  The nebulous nature of Collaborative Design, where we all were at one time in the program going, “What the hell is going on? ” were the moments we learned to embrace discomfort and undoubtedly serves us all well going forward. This is great training for the real world, and perhaps where ‘innovation’ lives. I’m glad it’s there, and I’m endeavoring to support the program as much as I can.

— Posted on 09/23 at 03:19 PM

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