A Function in Need Of a Better Form At the Smithsonian

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 18, 2005

This week, the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum announced the latest winners of the National Design Awards.

Too bad nobody gets to see the collected works.

In five years, the Cooper-Hewitt has handed trophies and honors to more than 100 of the most creative people in the country. Collectively, they have helped foster a golden age of American design. That matters because design is the new competitive edge in business. It's also one of the only aspects of modern manufacturing that China doesn't yet own.

Here's how this amazing project unravels. Designers of monuments, museums, MTV stage sets, experimental cars, perfume bottles, high fashion, high-tech gear and even the lowly stand-up toothpaste tube are solicited from all 50 states. A jury winnows the field to about 20 winners and finalists. They are invited to the New York museum to bask in momentary glow at a pricey gala, which last year raised more than $750,000 for the museum. And, at the invitation of first lady Laura Bush, who serves as honorary patron, a select few pay their own way to Washington to attend a White House reception.

Applause is nice. So is lunch in the East Room. But if these are the Smithsonian's National Design Awards, shouldn't the Smithsonian have a national design exhibition?

I called Ned Rifkin, the Smithsonian's undersecretary for art and overseer of the Cooper-Hewitt, along with six other museums and galleries. He wrapped his answer ever so politely in the wet blanket of scholarship.

"I'm with you in spirit," he said. "Design permeates people's lives with genius and creativity. I think the [awards] program is trying to redress the lack of awareness, to heighten one's awareness that the world is designed."

But, in his experienced view, the idea of displaying award winners has no more curatorial heft or potential public appeal than a show of works by all the artist winners of MacArthur Foundation "genius" grants.

"I'm not saying it wouldn't be a good show," he said, "but how much insight would it offer?"

When few people can name more than one contemporary designer outside the world of fashion, there's plenty of argument for a merely good show. And the national design collection has all the makings of a visual thriller.

There is "Voyage," the twinkling 52,000-crystal Swarovski chandelier designed by Yves Behar, who won an award last year for updating the humble Birkenstock. His looping 15-foot-long, 2,200-pound light sculpture, installed Thursday at John F. Kennedy International Airport, is interactive. Two thousand motion-sensitive LEDs respond to the movement of passing travelers.

Architecture is the driving art form of our era, as the shimmering sculptures emerging from the studio of Frank Gehry -- the first lifetime achievement award winner -- show. But other signature styles, some aggressive, some serene, are shaping schools, museums and courthouses. They deserve to be seen.

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