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.

The awards also reflect the high-low contradictions of contemporary chic. The well-to-do find fashions at Target, a corporate winner, that would not look out of place at a boutique hotel created by Andre Balasz, honored as a "design patron."

A consumer society needs an endless supply of iMacs, Tupperware, paddling gear, back-saving chairs, all enhanced by innovative designers. All of these have touched the lives of baby boomers.

An emerging generation of designers is pushing the edge for today's preschoolers. Milton Glaser, a lifetime award winner, created the famous poster of Bob Dylan for his 1967 greatest hits album. Now John Maeda is pushing the frontier of art and computer science at MIT's Media Lab. Eva Zeisel, named this year's lifetime achiever on Tuesday, defined modern style with mid-century ceramics; the porcelain designs of Ted Muehling do the same today.

Matters of conscience emerge, though perhaps not as many as one might expect. The values of environmental architect William McDonough, author of "Cradle to Cradle," and the late Samuel Mockbee, founder of the Rural Studio in Alabama, are worth sharing.

The impact of design is not lost on Cooper-Hewitt Director Paul Warwick Thompson, who has always championed the awards as an opportunity to send "a much broader signal out to the public."

The museum staff has stretched to set up studio tours and a few lectures in New York. This fall, a partnership with Western Interiors magazine will fund a panel discussion with past winners in Los Angeles, moderated by Behar.

Jodi Imburgia, awards program director since December, responded positively to the idea of holding a public program in Washington on the day of the eventual White House reception. But nothing is in the works.

"In the private sector, it's much easier" to organize, said Imburgia, who worked for the Herman Miller furniture company. "We pay for things. We pay for speakers, we pay for facilities. We can solicit in-kind donations for products or whatever."

Thompson believes public access to design winners is more logically expanded through film. He has engaged in exploratory talks with a production company and envisions a six-part series, ideally on public television, with a celebrity emcee who would walk viewers through buildings, talk to users, interview detractors and ultimately let the audience vote up or down. It sounds dangerously like a design-world version of reality TV.

He is not worried about letting Washington in on the national design collection. "You have TV sets," he said.

In Washington, form often follows funding. The cost of the design awards program, which is sponsored by Coach, was not disclosed. The most basic temporary exhibition would cost "hundreds of thousands of dollars," according to Rifkin, and space would have to be found "God knows where."

Pick any tunnel in the vast Land of Smithsonia, I wanted to say. Or work toward 2006, when the embattled but splendid, high-design canopy by Norman Foster might cover the courtyard of the Old Patent Office Building, home to the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.

As the Smithsonian has discovered with the Foster project, good design is worth fighting for.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company