Review of "The Target Aesthetic" talk at IMA 

Finish this statement from one of America's leading designers: "I've waited my entire career to do something at --."

Would you guess Target? According to Jeff Carter, senior designer for the corporation, he hears this often from top artists who partner with the red bull's-eye. Last Thursday, Carter spoke at the Indianapolis Museum of Art about the attraction of the Target aesthetic.

In recent years, Target has built a reputation for bringing famous designer style to affordable price points. The store's impressive design roster includes Michael Graves, Phillipe Starck and Orla Kiely. Carter says that it can be challenging to deliver their products at a low price point "without offending their high end clients," but enough artists are willing to take that risk in the name of democratic design.

"It is the dream to touch a lot of people," Carter said. "It sustains me as a designer to bring something to people's life that will enhance their life and is affordable." Carter gained experience in the discount store industry designing for Martha Stewart's Kmart line. He joked, "I used to call myself Robin Hood," for stealing design from the rich and bringing it to the masses.

Discussing Target philosophy, Carter rephrased the company motto as "Expect more (through design) and pay less" and explained some of the business principles that guide him. Affordability is the No. 1 rule for a product. It also needs convenience -- and not just for soccer moms' mini vans. Carter imagines urbanites like himself toting a Target home item in a small car or NYC cab. He showed (via an online FlowingData growth chart) how Target historically caters to a more urban, coastal audience than competitors. He also explained that "guests" should expect more out of the same product; for example, the newest Target line by Dror Benshetrit features a pillow with reversible ruffles. You can change its pattern with the brush of a hand.

Perhaps Target's strongest aesthetic philosophy is hiring team members who are obsessed with art. Although Carter didn't speak much about his actual role as senior designer (disappointing), he shared vignettes from his artistic career that struck a geeky nerve with the IMA crowd. Tales of working in Frank Stella's studio caused Carter to look up at the old photos on his PowerPoint and exclaim, "What a beautiful form!" He appeared so pleased by simple things, such as the shape and movement of cigar smoke rings. His greatest influence designing home items, he said, was the Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts, where he would spend hours poring over the details of old silverware and tools.

Design is not a career, but a worldview for Carter, who finds art in the ordinary. Under his Target leadership, design also becomes a lens for business, with beauty a new requirement for the everyday.

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