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Not Gathering Dust

For travel addict Fred Dust, a partner at the innovation and design firm Ideo, life is a series of memorable experiences.

Fred Dust of the design firm Ideo.
Michael Chung
By Heidi Mitchell

When the room-service cart is rolled into your suite, you probably aren't thinking about why an Alvar Aalto bud vase or red Laguiole flatware was chosen to go with your Continental breakfast. The night before, you likely hadn't noticed that the music pumped into the lobby changed subtly between teatime and dusk. These details, however, are precisely what Fred Dust, head of the Smart Space team at the cutting-edge design firm Ideo, spends his days agonizing over.

Dust is what he likes to call an experience designer, someone who delves deep into a brand to figure out what consumers love about it and how a company can capitalize on that devotion. Working as cultural anthropologists, Dust and his team may accompany shoppers to find out why they crave Allen Edmonds handmade shoes, or they may hole up with hotel valets to determine why the wait for your car after checkout seems interminable. Once the research is done, Dust will "create a moment," he says, turning the situation into something memorable and, most of all, unexpected. That's why these days, at the Ritz-Carlton, Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., a string quartet may be playing while you're waiting for your Lexus.

To give fellow travelers a snapshot of his way of thinking, Dust is publishing a series of guidebooks, Ideo: Eyes Open, which (for now) consists of a volume on New York and one on London. The guides capture each city via an array of small moments; what emerges in the end is a fully realized picture of a place you thought you knew well, but through a surprisingly different lens.

Being on the road is an occupational hazard for someone who trades in experiences — Dust, a Chicago native and California transplant, traveled more than 200 days last year, to at least twenty cities — but he wears his airline miles proudly on his sleeve. In fact, a fortune-teller whom Dust consulted on a recent trip to India immediately sensed he was a jet-setter. "Through a translator, he said, 'I see that you are a pilot,'" Dust recalls. "When I shook my head, he tried again: 'Your family owns an airline?' He finally settled on 'devoted traveler.' I just nodded in agreement."

How do you like to travel?

Really heavy, the way you imagine people did during the golden age of cruising. I pack everything in a four-wheeled Rimowa suitcase: winter clothes, running shoes, candles, three hardback books. I am often away on two-week trips; one may include Houston, London, Munich, New York and L.A. That combination requires a lot of clothing; plus all the stuff actually soothes me. I have whatever I want, whenever I want it.

What sorts of places do you stay in?

It is tough for me to fall in love, but if I do, I will commit. In New York I adore the Gramercy Park Hotel; it's spacious and comfortable. In Munich there is a terrific hotel called the Cortiina, tiny and traditional. I like the Zetter, in London, but only if I can get a room on the top floor, which is covered in glass and overlooks the city. It's like having my own penthouse apartment.

You talk in your books about making comparisons. What do they reveal?

I try to visit places that seem the same but are quite different. In New York, for example, I might look at the way candy is presented. I could go to Dylan's Candy Bar, on the East Side. Then I could go to Chinatown, to one of those crazy candy stores that are like flea markets, and to Economy Candy, on the Lower East Side, an old-world candy shop. They are all reflective of their neighborhoods, the people who run them, their history. Another great New York comparison can be made through music. I may spend a night at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola — which is supposed to be a simple jazz club, even if it's run by Lincoln Center — and another evening head to the Amato Opera, in the East Village. The Amato is a storefront, so this incredible high art is done in a bare-bones way. Or I may visit three one-off stores in various parts of town — say, S'Mac (for mac and cheese), Rice to Riches (for rice pudding) and One Girl Cookies — to see how New Yorkers view indulgence.

How do you seek out authentic experiences in places you've never visited before?

I keep a journal, one page for every day. I don't write a lot, just the highlights, but the impact is enormous. Carrying a digital camera also reminds me to look for interesting things. There are negative aspects to whipping it out — it's touristy, and you step out of the moment — but a digital camera actually lets you snap a picture without missing anything, and you can capture behavior. I was in London on the Millennium Bridge recently and stopped to see this group of kids practicing parkour, which is like gymnastics done on buildings and bridges. I photographed them, as well as the people who were stopping to watch them. A camera helps you notice things, so I always send everyone on my team out with one.

Do you have your own way of finding the essence of a new city?

I realized recently that when I'm on a phone call, I don't need to be trapped in my hotel room. The person on the other end doesn't know where I am, so I like to walk around the city while I'm chatting. At least I get to be on the ground exploring. You may ask if I can really take in anything if I'm doing five things at once, but walking around does beat sitting indoors. I always go jogging, too. I was in Munich in January and went for a morning run through the English Garden, which is the most beautiful part of town. It was 7 a.m.; the garden was covered in mist, the ground was frosty and white, and the duck ponds were frozen. The German runners were wearing lights on their heads, because it's always dark on winter mornings. Running very early in a strange city gives me a sense of a place that I might not otherwise have.

What is the biggest trend you've encountered while researching your books?

The rise of regionalism is huge. Many people are worried that experiences are becoming sanitized by globalization, but I see just the opposite: locally inspired experiences are cropping up more and more. Regionalism does matter. I was in Houston for a couple of days and went for a run in the Museum District. The city is very green; the people are very nice. It felt like Houston should feel, and like nowhere else. When I'm at home, I split my time between Los Angeles and San Francisco, two cities where you can discover so many things in one that you'd never see in the other. And just the other day, I was at Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery, on Houston Street, in New York — a store you'd find nowhere else in the world — where I overheard a mother actually say to her son, "This is a real experience." A real experience can be small, it can take ten minutes, but if it's orchestrated perfectly, then it's memorable. What always strikes me, though, is that truly phenomenal moments are made by everyday people doing everyday things. Discovering those has been highly inspirational.

FRED'S FAB FIVE IN LONDON

Dust divulges his favorite quintessentially British spots.

Between Dog and Wolf

"The owner's obsession with gardening is reflected in her choice of a few precious items, like garden tools and statuary, laid out on one massive table. The shop is open only on Sunday during the Columbia Flower Market and is hidden in back of the flower stalls; you may never find this place, and it may not be open when you do." 130 Columbia Rd.; 011-44-79-6141-5460.

Beyond the Valley

"This gallerylike shop is the best store for unique handcrafted items, especially jewelry. Most important, it's the place to go for discovering the best place to go next." 2 Newburgh St.; 011-44-20-7437-7338; beyondthevalley.com.

Loungelover

"You'll think it's Mardi Gras at this cocktail bar in Shoreditch: every nook, outfit and drink is done up in total excess, which makes for a perfect evening out. When you go here, you feel as if you'd spent a whole night barhopping, but in one place." 1 Whitby St.; 011-44-20-7012-1234; loungelover.co.uk.

Moro

"If I'm alone in London, I head to Moro, in Exmouth Market. It has an international reputation but is entirely local. Enjoying a glass of wine and some tapas at the bar is a fine way to experience this lively neighborhood." 34–36 Exmouth Market; 011-44-20-7833-8336; moro.co.uk.

Serpentine Gallery

"It's a hike to get to this gallery, in the middle of Hyde Park, but once you arrive, you're rewarded with cutting-edge art in a casual, intimate setting." Kensington Gardens; 011-44-20-7402-6075; serpentinegallery.org.

Published on 5/1/2008
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