Fred A. Bernstein

Design Diplomacy: U.S. Rejoins World's Fairs

With a little help from its sponsors . . .

Published in The New York Times, November 5, 2004


SINCE the end of the cold war, the United States has given world's fairs the cold shoulder. In 1992, when Spain marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage with a huge fair in Seville, the State Department erected a tentlike structure that it had in storage. In 2000, the U.S. sat out the Hannover, Germany, exposition, which 181 countries attended.

Now the United States wants back in the game. But because Congress banned federal financing of world's fairs in 1999, major corporations will be picking up the tab for the American pavilion at the first major expo of the 21st century, which opens next March in Aichi, Japan. Thom Filicia - the wisecracking interior designer on the hit TV show "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" - will design the pavilion's V.I.P. suite, where sponsors like General Motors, ExxonMobil and DuPont will woo Japanese clients.

"The U.S. is a product I believe in," said Mr. Filicia in his NoHo studio. And with America's image suffering abroad, he added, "We could use a world's fair every month."

On the show Mr. Filicia spruces up the décor of a hapless heterosexual's living room. In Aichi, he said, he'll boost the United States brand with a "sophisticated collage of Americana," including chairs by Edward Wormley for Dunbar, marble and walnut "chunk tables" by Poesis of Norfolk, Conn., and sofas of his own design. Accessories, he said, will include bronze castings by Michele Oka Doner and lighting by Stephen McKay.

The hospitality suite will play host to corporate sponsors and guests, who will look down on the ground-floor exhibition from behind bulletproof glass. Most of the fair's expected 15 million visitors won't see Mr. Filicia's handiwork.

Historically fairs provided architects a chance to experiment with materials and forms. Some structures, though intended to be temporary, have stood the test of time: the Eiffel Tower was created for the 1889 Paris Exposition; at the Montreal Expo in 1967, R. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome wowed visitors to the American pavilion; the Space Needle in Seattle, a relic of the 1962 World's Fair, has become a landmark. In Hannover four years ago, architects including Peter Zumthor of Switzerland and Shigeru Ban of Japan created striking evocations of their countries.

Alfred Heller, the author of a 1999 book about world's fairs, called America's no-show in Hannover an embarrassment. Mr. Heller says that the government's ambivalence about world's fairs reflects a feeling that after the fall of the Soviet Union there was little need to burnish this country's image abroad.

When the Aichi fair was announced in 2000, the United States government did not sign on. But a private group - formed at the behest of Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda, the honorary chairman of his family's Toyota Motor Corporation and now chairman of the Aichi fair - was formed to make sure there would be a American pavilion.

When President Bush visited Japan last October, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi asked him if the United States would participate, said Daniel Berkowitz, the corporate and governmental relations director for the organizing committee, Aichi USA 2005.

The president said yes, although "the government had made a commitment that it couldn't fulfill," because of Congress's ban on public financing, Mr. Berkowitz said. "We were ready to fulfill that commitment."

The group had already chosen Bud Hollomon, a Jackson, Miss., architect, to design the pavilion. Mr. Hollomon, who runs a five-member architecture firm, is no stranger to American image building. He designed a show on American design that toured Russia in 1990. A former State Department employee who remembered him from that effort recommended Mr. Hollomon to the Aichi group. With so little lead time, Mr. Hollomon said, they preferred someone who had done this kind of work before.

Luckily, Japanese officials had already decided to provide a warehouse-style building for each of the 122 participating countries. The prefabricated structures will minimize damage to the site, in keeping with the fair's environmental theme. (When the fair closes, the the grounds will become a park and the buildings will be recycled.)

There will be no mistaking the United States pavilion: Mr. Hollomon has designed a billboard-size American flag to hang out front and a large L.E.D. screen with scenes like the Kentucky Derby and baseball games. Inside, the main attraction is a 250-seat theater, in which Benjamin Franklin (in the form of a video projection) will return for his 300th birthday. Franklin, according to the pavilion's prospectus, is "surprised and delighted at the ways that our innovation and discoveries continue to unlock nature's wisdom." Franklin will speak Japanese.

Walter Isaacson, the former chairman of CNN and the author of a Franklin biography, said Benjamin Franklin was a good choice for a pavilion authorized by the government but supported by corporations. "Benjamin Franklin loved public-private partnerships," said Mr. Isaacson, who is on the board of the organizing group. He said he would worry about the influence of corporate funds only "if they have Ben driving a Toyota."

Surrounding the theater are exhibition spaces that will feature a full-scale model of the Mars rover, a replica of the Wright brothers' plane and an operating fuel cell that will power part of the pavilion gift shop. Other attractions will depend on how much more money Aichi USA 2005, headed by Douglas West, a former Toyota executive, can raise.

Mr. Filicia declined to disclose the budget for the V.I.P. suite, which is dependent on donations, he said. To balance the budget, he said, pieces that aren't donated may be auctioned off after the fair. The 7,000-square-foot suite, Mr. Filicia said, will have a "clubby" look - with real leather floors donated by Edelman - and an industrial feel, since much of the building's warehouse structure will be exposed. Mr. Filicia said that Pier 1 - which he represents on television - will donate dishes for corporate entertaining.

Mr. Filicia, who is 35, got on board after Mr. Berkowitz, 27 and a fan of "Queer Eye," placed a cold call to him last spring. Mr. Filicia's celebrity status is helping secure contributions for the suite, Mr. Berkowitz said.

Lisa Guillermin Gable, the commissioner general for the American pavilion, said sponsors may use the suite for board meetings, dinners or cocktail parties. The Web site,, tells potential sponsors that participating might "increase exposure to the Japanese marketplace" and "reinforce a positive U.S. image abroad."

Ms. Gable said that a successful pavilion in Aichi could build momentum for American participation at the next big exposition, in Shanghai in 2010.

If the United States takes part, would Mr. Hollomon want to design the pavilion? "We're very patriotic in Mississippi," Mr. Hollomon said. "Any time we get a chance to do something for our country, we do it."