When it was time for John Peterson (LF ’06), the newly appointed curator of the Loeb Fellowship, to give closing remarks at the Loeb 45th Anniversary Celebration and Alumni Reunion, he sat on a chair rather than taking the podium. The honest conversation that followed ranged from the highly personal–how his design journey shaped his convictions, his battle with sarcoma–to his institutional vision for the Loeb Fellowship. “I’ve spent the last 25 years getting ready for this job,” said Peterson, describing the program as “an exquisitely crafted car with a full tank of gas.”
Indeed, Peterson’s work building up the field of public interest design aligns remarkably well with the principle of the Loeb Fellowship–that design can and should engage the most pressing societal issues head on. As past curator Jim Stockard noted in his introduction, Public Architecture, the acclaimed organization Peterson founded, has pushed the field to “tackle the most interesting problems, which don’t have a clear solution.” Since 2002, Public Architecture’s 1% Program has facilitated $350 million of pro bono design work for nonprofit clients from 1400 firms nationwide.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Peterson’s career trajectory took many turns, both in terms of his work and his views on the roles of design. Raised in Kentucky, his background includes construction and training in Japanese gardening before he pursued architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduating from RISD “believing in separating social issues from design issues,” Peterson embarked on a traditional career, starting a small, high end design firm in San Francisco. It was when his projects grew to the scale of the neighborhood and began to have impact on entire communities that his “mind exploded,” pushing him to view those impacts as integral to design. Looking to his own neighborhood, South of Market, to ask “those questions that went beyond projects,” Peterson eventually founded Public Architecture as a vehicle to push the conversation and start shifting an entrenched culture across the design disciplines.
This mission turned out to be both cutting edge and prescient. Cities are once again in crisis, and designers have a unique toolkit at hand. Referencing the 1960s as a similarly watershed moment in terms of modernism’s (albeit maligned) engagement with social outcomes, Peterson noted that “this is the time to thrive. We should be absolutely thrilled and accept that we are ahead of the curve.”
Turning to the Loeb Fellowship as a unique platform for pushing conversation and action, Peterson then outlined his vision for building the institution–all while emphasizing his openness, that this is a vision-in-progress. Among the key initiatives will be articulating and broadly communicating the Loeb mission–which, surprisingly, has never been done–as well as aggregating and building on the valuable knowledge that has lived in the institution. Peterson also wants to leverage the impressive Loeb alumni network, both as thought leaders and as a corps of practitioners that can “work together toward change.” Finally, Peterson wants to amplify the Loeb Fellowship and Graduate School of Design’s voice in the conversation that is increasingly shaping the discipline today: the necessary integration of design excellence and societal outcomes.
The energy in the room following Peterson’s remarks was palpable; the alumni corps is ready to go. In response to one question, Peterson emphasized that this work is not only about problems and solutions--it must entail nuance, multigenerational vision, and a great deal of risk. Luckily, he has led an organization that “sprinkles risk on its breakfast cereal every day.” This is one more chance to turn the profession on its head, and Peterson is up to the task.