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|Sign of Design
by Jennifer Olshin
|"National Design Triennial: Design Culture Now," Mar. 7-Aug. 6, 2000, at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2 East 91st Street, New York, N.Y. 10128.
Millions of Americans wear Nike sneakers, ride Harley Davidsons, use Oral-B toothbrushes, Palm Pilots and Motorola cell phones. Many of us have stared into the cruel face of Scar in The Lion King, admired the graphics on a CD cover, been astounded by the universe when wandering through the Museum of Natural History's new multimedia display in the Hall of Biodiversity. And yet, rarely do we give a thought to designers responsible for these products and performances.
Few people outside the design world know that it was Tinker Hatfield (b. 1952), a trained architect from Oregon, who created the last 13 sneakers for Michael Jordan, or that Arlen Ness (b. 1939), a Californian with no formal design education and minimal exposure to motorcycles (he was forbidden by his parents and later his wife to even own one), is today the premier customizer of Harley-Davidsons in the United States.
The relative obscurity of the designer in an overwhelmingly material American culture is only one of the contemporary design issues addressed by the "National Design Triennial: Design Culture Now," on view at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, in New York. This inaugural exhibition includes everything from handbags and hairbrushes to a model for a hydrogen house. The result is ambitious in scope, diverse in material and essentially provocative in its content and organization.
Organized by Cooper-Hewitt adjunct curators Donald Albrecht and Ellen Lupton along with Steven Skov Holt, "director of strategy" at the Frog design company, the show features hundreds of images and objects created between 1997 and 2000 by architects and designers across America. While any given gallery contains a cross-section of new and traditional media, the whole show is organized around a series of eight "ideas" or "impulses" that the curators have identified as driving design today -- fluid, physical, minimal, reclaimed, local, branded, narrative and unbelievable. Each of these categories is proclaimed on banners labeling the galleries and printed in boldface in the descriptive label texts.
The exhibition's opening banner announces the show's true intent -- to present a "dictionary of ideas" -- and also sets the viewer to wondering. Wouldn't anyone recognize, for example, that an Apple ibook computer is minimal, fluid, physical and branded? According to Albrecht, the categories are deliberately open and allow for multi-faceted interpretations, as do the objects themselves. In Albrecht's words, the show is a "complicated design tapestry, a portrait of vibrancy, eclecticism and dynamism of American design and how it relates to everyday life." Albrecht's conceptual framework grants viewers the luxury of approaching the show from a personal, subjective perspective.
No one approach to design is condoned or condemned in the exhibition. Unlike the classic "Good Design" initiatives fostered by the Museum of Modern Art early in the 20th century, the Cooper-Hewitt team has created an open-ended dialogue. "Many directions are represented and they are all equally valid," Albrecht said, "the Rockwell Casino and the elegant store in the Piazza are equally valiant."
Indeed, examples displayed in the galleries illustrate contradictory impulses. The Steelcase Q Concept (Ideo, 1997) -- an enclosed car-like piece of furniture powered by a wheelchair motor and controlled by a joy stick -- is designed to protect the privacy of an individual at work. Conversely, the open-plan workstations from the Haworth design team (1996) are intended to alleviate the insular cubicle mentality that hampers cooperation in the workplace.
Certainly, Geoffrey Beene's pale gray-on-charcoal gray Millennium Dress (1999) embodies a minimal, forward-looking design philosophy, while Robert Egger's go-go bikes recall retro-American icons, as evidenced by the psychedelic pink roadster on view at the museum -- replete with a fitted compartment for Martini shakers.
Once the viewer accepts that design is everywhere and design choices are infinite, a few salient themes do stand out. Among the most interesting is the notion that contemporary designers are looking further into the human psyche to determine what products to create. The "emotional ergonomics" factored into Stephen Peart's Computer Cap (1996) and Frog corporation's publication, Form Follows Emotion, are indicative of these approaches. With these and other designs, the physical world is being reassessed based on both the visible and invisible, the real and the perceived.
Furthermore, "projected" design ideas -- targeted towards what the American consumer may be seeking in the future -- provide the most thought-provoking items in the show. Some favorite forward-looking designs come from Herbst Lazar Bell's design team. Bell's Gooru (1999) is an interactive device for kids that has a distinct personality and that provides advice, encouragement and entertainment -- like a digital teacher or big brother. Zuzu's Petals (1998) is a kind of whimsical docking station in the form of a flower in a pot whose petals are small digital components -- a sound recorder, a camera -- that recharge themselves through memory modules embedded in the "digital dirt." Replaceable parents? Rejuvenating plants? Are these concepts we can look forward to?
The Cooper-Hewitt's launch of a Design Triennial must be applauded as an important step towards recognizing the place of design in our everyday world. What's more, the objects selected for this show represent a curatorial survey of the challenges posed by today's modes and philosophies of living. With this initiative, the museum takes its place as a forum for examination of the social and design issues relevant to the contemporary world.
JENNIFER OLSHIN is a specialist in American decorative arts.