Yelena Baturina, construction billionaire and wife of the former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, left Russia two years ago and now divides her time between London and Austria. Amongst a number of other enterprises, last year she launched a new design think tank, BE OPEN. Other Russian oligarchs, finding themselves for one reason or another in exile, have also turned to educational or humanitarian efforts to while away their time and fortunes, but BE OPEN is different: Its focus isn't Russia and it combines practical efforts to improve design and design teaching with grand plans of making the world a better place.
Many such initiatives are just elaborate PR campaigns, but the BE OPEN project is so complex, convoluted even, there must be easier ways of getting publicity. Whether it's a business venture isn't clear either, and Baturina has been too vocal about her ideas for it to be a matter of just parking her money somewhere.
Coming away from any interview with her it's hard not to avoid the conclusion that everything and nothing has been discussed. Sophie McBain writing for Spear's in 2012 was clearly perplexed by all the grand intentions around the launch of BE OPEN`s programs. Lianna Brinded interviewing for International Business Times during Milan Design Week 2013 also struggled with the concept to promote "all these different sectors."
So via the magazine Russia! I talked to Yelena Baturina about her project.
BE OPEN's mission statement on its website declares that it "has been set up to harness creative brain power through a system of conferences, talks, competitions, exhibitions, master classes and cultural events." So far, so good, but then Baturina's claims about changing the world through design to allow "the next generation to live in a beautiful, kind world" (another one of those breath-takingly ambitious interviews, this time with the Financial Times read like a party manifesto rather than a business plan.
When we asked about a 5-year plan for the Foundation the reply was surprisingly candid: "Right now we are focused on creating a ranking of the world's design programs," she asserted. "The idea is that students will have at their disposal a useful and smart ranking system which will allow them to better understand the schools and available programs around the world." Another purpose, we are told, "is to identify and eventually support the most outstanding education programs for creative professionals."
We're on solid ground here, and she was equally forthcoming on how this ambitious plan was to be evolved: starting with a study of major European "creative education" centers, with a particular focus on how programs foster creative thinking in their students. She then stated "[w]e are still developing methodology."
I bet they are! To give them their due, talks have been given, round tables convened and installations erected in prime sites, and BE OPEN sponsorship has been in evidence in design fairs from London to Milan to Miami. A design competition has been inaugurated and its first winners announced last year. The site claims with its increasingly familiar hyperbole that its ranking system of design institutes will stretch "to the four corners of the world."
There are good arguments for a design basis to complement many of Baturina's new ventures, particularly in the very design-oriented luxury hotel market, but when asked, she denied any such link.
BE OPEN has attracted an interesting array of notables to speak at conferences - Ron Arad and Julian Schnabel were at its inception at least, and British design aficionados' coffee-table tablet of choice, *Wallpaper, supported a number of special events in the 2012 London Design Festival, including Arup's impressive Sound Portal in Trafalgar Square. As Baturina told us, "for many months we collaborated with UAL [a consortium of design schools in London] in running a series of master-classes and workshops related to the study of sound," adding "It's been calculated that over 55,000 people took part in the master-classes and events organized by BE OPEN."
Yet BE OPEN did not return to the London Design Festival in 2013, and its collaboration with *Wallpaper seems to have been a one-off. BE OPEN held an installation and a series of round tables in Milan: an interactive show called The House of Senses at the State University of Milan and The Food Theater, part of the foundation's sensory program, but didn't present any other activities in 2013 that we know about. Inside the Academy, its educational program, sounds all very good on paper in its aim to "to establish a long-term relationship with young creatives worldwide, through partnerships with universities... as well as via a dedicated awards scheme," but only a handful of partnerships have been mooted and only one or two young creatives a year will benefit from its award scheme.
We are curious to see what form BE OPEN will take in two or three years as it seems to change alarmingly fast: For the last year the foundation has made statements about "designing for the five senses... leading us closer to that mysterious sixth sense, intuition." Now they seem to have abandoned this goal (or Baturina's keeping mum about having found the holy grail of intuitive design) and have moved on to a new project called North-South-East-West, finding a place for traditional skills in the future. It will be show-cased in New Delhi early in 2014 with the aim of bringing time-honored crafts to a wider audience, or as Baturina put it: "Nowadays the marketing of a product is vital to its success, so we will present new crafted objects in the right environment and with the right branding to make them appeal to a sophisticated consumer."
When BE OPEN's founder speaks she has an impressively joined-up vision: "I simply believe that the next era will be design-centered," she said, "and most of the added value will come from design -- it applies to development and construction, medicine, transportation, banking even." However, those who have it should spend money on the arts, and promoting design in particular has practical applications which can really improve the lives of people. Coverage of BE OPEN`s latest activities is limited. Critiques are few. Whatever splash it made is rapidly rippling away, perhaps, I would suggest, because it promises too much to deliver and no one quite believes it.
The plan to 'make the world a better place' and to fill it with talented designers is wonderful, and we can't wait to see how Yelena Baturina makes it happen. Right now, the world is still woefully far from perfect and Ms Baturina has a lot of hard work ahead of her.
A version of this article was first published by Russia! Magazine