Searching for a Premise

As visitors to the current Triennial climb the old carved-wood staircase in New York’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, fluorescent tubes sheathed in plastic light up behind them, creating a kind of interactive disco effect. Something about this site-specific piece, by Los Angeles–based Electroland, seems oddly oblivious to the Georgian-style Carnegie mansion to which it is attached. Perhaps the last Triennial’s stairwell project has cast too long a shadow: in 2003 Antenna Design pulled off a decorative match for the elaborate, gloomy interior by erecting a cylindrical screen in the double-height stair space that displayed falling digital cherry blossoms triggered by visitors passing surveillance cameras. Now it was as if Electroland had tried to destroy evidence of the Old World interior and lost the battle. It made for a tempting analogy for the state of the Triennial itself, losing a war with the creaky institution that hosts the show.

Comparison with Triennials past is unavoidable since the show, now in its third appearance, arrived in 2000 with such promise: outgoing director Dianne Pilgrim had introduced the idea of an exhibit that, as a counterpoint to the museum’s historical archives and exhibits, would “examine the pulse of the design world on a regular basis,” asking questions like, “How are such factors as cultural diversity, the aging of our population, globalization, and the environment influencing the theory and practice of design?” Three curators, guided by assistant director Susan Yelavich, scoured the United States for work that seemed exemplary of the time, and organized the mixed bag of objects, buildings, and spaces (digital and physical) into thematic categories that produced some provocative juxtapositions: under “Fluid,” a Karim Rashid chair sat alongside a Jim Seay roller coaster; under “Reclaimed,” a brownfield reclamation project by Julie Bargmann shared a gallery with Boris Bally’s plates made of traffic signs.

In the current show the themes have been abandoned alongside any sense of a guiding curatorial voice. A mannequin sporting a shrug, designed by Tom Scott, sits next to a disassembled foldable kayak by Clear Blue Hawaii, but it’s not clear why. Greg Lynn’s sinuous flatware prototypes for Alessi share space with a model of Boeing’s upcoming 787 Dreamliner; but while Lynn’s project is accompanied by a feasible account of how the project evolved—following his acquisition of a computer-controlled milling robot—the Boeing project only gets sales copy: “For the first time in aviation history, the airplane has been redesigned with the passenger’s comfort in mind.” This is not even true. Passenger comfort has influenced aircraft design for at least six decades, or since Douglas introduced pressurized cabins in its DC-6 to allow smoother rides at higher altitudes. (Boeing itself pioneered eight-foot-high ceilings, upper-deck lounges, and on some airlines, fully reclining swivel seats in its 1969 Jumbo Jet.) The lack of an informative mediator between exhibit and audience gives the exhibition a laissez-faire feeling: the vast array of diverse things from the built world has simply been left for visitors to make of it what they will.

The absence of organizing themes pulls the rug out from under the exhibition, exposing the lurking question, “What is design anyway?” This has happened before: in response to the 2003 show, which also lacked a thematic lexicon, critic Herbert Muschamp argued in the New York Times that “the curators have cast their nets so wide that the catch ceases to resemble design per se. Rather, it has drawn forth too many visual by-products of other enterprises.” My feeling at the time was that the show ducked such criticism by pointing to evidence of new trends (notably the reemergence of ornament) and by demonstrating that design is better off without rigid boundaries—those increasingly arbitrary-seeming lines in the sand that grant inclusion to, say, airplane interiors but not engines, to motion graphics but not commercials, to clothes but not models (and in Muschamp’s case, to OMA but not HOK). The great conceit of the Triennial is that design is an act, a process, a verb. Such a concept admits inventions as brilliant as neuroscientist Joseph Ayers’s “robolobster”—a data-gathering underwater robot that mimics the ability of a lobster to adapt to variable tidal conditions—or engineer-artist Natalie Jeremijenko’s Feral Robotic Dog Project, toy-store robot dogs reengineered by high school kids to sniff out pollution. But in the current Triennial the sprawling agglomeration of stuff becomes incoherent, begging for evidence of guiding principles.

In lieu of a thesis, the Triennial’s curators offer a jumbled array of postrationalized observations in the exhibition catalog. Barbara Bloemink and Matilda McQuaid cross paths with discussions of biomimicry in their essays on, respectively, “intelligent design” and “transforming design,” while Brooke Hodge explores “Craft and Community in Design.” Thankfully, Ellen Lupton, the only curator to have sat on all three Triennial juries, makes a fresh argument in “Design and Social Life” that design is a “social activity, arising in response to a problem, opportunity, or circumstance in the world.”

Lupton’s premise would have produced a more cogent exhibition on its own: her essay cheerfully and sweepingly characterizes design as something practiced by professionals and amateurs alike in increasingly DIY modes and collaborative settings. Grouping together the new DIY mags, Web sites, books (ReadyMade, Make, Church of Craft), blogs (Speakup, Design Observer), and programming (Casey Rees, Ben Fry, Golan Levin, Joshua Davis), Lupton seals the package with an Oprah-esque take-home message: “People have more access than ever before, not only to well-designed products but also to the tools and thought processes that designers use every day,” she concludes. “Such citizens are well equipped to face the future.” Alas, this was only one voice in a noisy show.

My plea for an explicit agenda and a singular curatorial voice may seem quaint in the age of participatory media. Here’s an exhibition, the Cooper-Hewitt might argue, that lets you make up your own mind about new directions in design; it even allows you, the public, to contribute via a blog-style Web site. (Public suggestions through the blog brought Electroland, Nicholas Blechman, SHoP, and Marsha Ginsberg to the exhibit, according to the museum.) I’d be more convinced if the model were genuinely participatory, à la Wikipedia. If the public had been allowed to contribute to the actual exhibition rather than the initial sweep for entries, perhaps it would have appointed a Jimmy Wales type to oversee the curators or filled in the blanks left by the skimpy explanations: What is that large installation of nylon strings and lead weights in an acrylic box on the ground floor? (The caption says Predock Frane’s Central California Museum of History; the catalog says otherwise.) Why are there only renderings, and no real photographs, of Bernard Tschumi’s Lindner athletic center for the University of Cincinnati, which opened in May 2006? What does Tschumi mean by the phrase, “Context and content are neutral”? Does the military actually use the training video games designed at its Institute for Creative Technology? Who commissioned SHoP’s Camera Obscura, and why? What happened to James Carpenter’s special installation (dead as a doornail on week two of the Triennial)? If the show’s inspiration is the magazine design review, then it might consider the basic questions that magazine captions address, such as: Does it exist? Who commissioned it?

Ultimately, the lack of a curatorial or editorial director on this show might have been less a purposeful act of distributed creativity than a result of a lack of funding or vision. The Cooper-Hewitt’s parent, the Smithsonian Institution, has been struggling to come up with money to repair its buildings, and last year the museum abandoned its ambitious underground-expansion plans for a more modest renovation. Director Paul Thompson told the New York Times that rather than attempt a “huge architectural extravaganza,” it was “better to fix the car you have.” Such diminished expectations, though logical, leave one to wonder whether a public institution like the Smithsonian can foster the kind of insane but visionary leadership that a museum needs to stay on the international map.

Back in 1989, when the Design Museum of London first opened its doors, visitors were confronted with a show that tackled head-on the thorny issues of museum patronage in the age of shopping, in director Stephen Bayley’s Commerce and Culture. Noting that the distinction between “life and art” had been eroding, Bayley attacked the Romantic idea of art being distanced from consumerism. This opening exhibition set the stage for a museum that didn’t think of design as another form of art but viewed it in its larger social and cultural contexts. Sadly, design museums like the Cooper-Hewitt are still stuck in the mind-set that simply hanging everyday objects on the walls is enough to make a design exhibition.

A digital rendering of another Electroland interior, an interactive elevator lobby for Target that produced red targets in visitors’ wakes, captured the state of the modern design museum: virtual people staggering around under the red circles as if drugged or semiparalyzed by the presence of commerce.

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