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Forms That Put The Fun Back in Function

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2000; Page C01

NEW YORK—For nearly a century, modern design has been defined by a sober marriage of form and function. Toss that notion into the nearest designer wastebasket. Good design has morphed into a dynamic pop-culture experience.

Design is a new entertainment medium. It's creepy digital creatures erupting through the floorboards in a scene from "The Haunting." It's a Las Vegas casino "night sky" that lightens to dawn in just two hours. It can be a colorful ergonomic toothbrush designed to turn brushing into an event.

This is the new age of design on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. The museum's first National Design Triennial opened this week under the banner "Design Culture Now." The provocative show provides a snapshot of ideas percolating in America's design studios. At three-year intervals, sequels will provide new understanding of how designers, studios and companies are altering our man-made landscape.

For now, works by 83 designers fill the museum with a visual cacophony. Advertising graphics, album covers and set designs, architectural models and industrial products, tools and toys are on view through Aug. 6. Exhibition designer Michael Gabellini showcases consumer goods like art under glass or art suspended in air; visionary concepts and Web designs flash on screens.

"These are the 83 designers working where the culture is throbbing," says Susan Yelavich, the museum's assistant director for public programs. New York is home to 27; another 27 are in California.

Steven Skov Holt, one of three curators and a San Francisco-based strategist for the industrial design firm frogdesign, calls design "art, science and magic." In this context, it "tells us about our moment in time."

He means the digital era. Most of these designers are under 45 and almost all are empowered by computers. If you can't operate a Sony PlayStation, or still think type is only readable in a straight line, you're way behind this design curve.

The show combines the new and the normal. Martha Stewart's seed packets, art-directed by Gael Towey, were photographed as artfully as her magazine covers. Swingline's colorful plastic staplers, designed by ACCO, make fashion statements on desk tops. Oral-B's Cross-Action toothbrush, by Lunar Design, is art for every day.

But the revolution is upon us. Architects Sulan Kolatan and William Mac Donald have used the computer to "deform" a basic colonial house into a blob. The model resembles a well used bar of soap. A video they designed shows blob buildings seamlessly inserted into the backdrop of a television commercial for Morningstar Farms.

"We will see this," assures Donald Albrecht, adjunct curator of special projects and the show's eye on architecture.

Slightly more conventional is the suburban vision of Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects of New York. For the Triennial, the architects proposed to solve the "big box" problem by constructing houses, yards and pools on warehouse store roofs. They point out that the store grid of aisles mimics the grid of streets. They would link the swimming pools into one great neighborhood lap lane.

An interactive book displays knowledge into infinity. For a doctoral thesis at MIT's Media Lab, David Small combined a portion of the Talmud with an essay by a French philosopher commenting on the sacred writings. By shifting scale, focus, line spacing, transparency, even the color of text against a black void, he made vast amounts of the text readable, or if not still legible, within visual and intellectual grasp. His point is to move us beyond the notion that a computer screen is just a sheet of paper.

Architect Greg Lynn of FORM in Los Angeles let a computer calculate the shape of a planned exhibition hall. One side is layered like an armadillo, a visual reflection of the ebb and flow of traffic on a highway next to the site.

Even the hardcover catalogue (Princeton Architectural Press, $50) is offered as a designed object. Its lime, silver and red cover has a sculpted see-through window conceived by Karim Rashid, a prolific New York artist-designer whose Issey Miyake fashion bags and plastic bowls are featured in the show.

All the designs were accomplished over the past three years. They capture a trend away from the ubiquitous "black box" of minimalism. "Zuzu's Petals," a concept for a personal digital assistant by the Herbst Lazar Bell design studio in Chicago, is an example of the new drift toward color and enjoyment.

Zuzu looks like a flower in a pot. The stalk turns out to be a docking station. Portable flower petals would function as digital camera or voice recorder or device for satellite access. It was inspired by a flower in the 1946 film classic "It's a Wonderful Life."

"This is a generation for whom technology is a given," says adjunct curator Ellen Lupton of Baltimore. "They're reinventing to make it more human."

So fast is the culture of design progressing that the revolutionary iMac computer, introduced to the public just a year ago, already seems like an old friend.

The exhibition makes an overt bid to become part of the entertainment world by reaching out to stage and screen. Set and costume designs by Julie Taymor from Broadway's "Lion King"production and the film "Titus," with Dante Ferretti, are on display. A video of "The Haunting" shows the horrors generated by Tippet Studio computers. Gary Lloyd's casino "sky drop" paintings are used to create environmental theater with light and special effects.

"By pulling in film and theater, we're saying the links are stronger than you think," says the museum's Yelavich.

Designers have yet to achieve star status, except in fashion. Kate Spade's ubiquitous tote bag and a Geoffrey Beene dress were on display in a room devoted to minimal design, but they made stronger statements as name brands.

"I think we're right at the beginning of the point where designers are the new rock stars," suggests co-curator Holt. "There's a younger generation in their twenties about to come out blazing."

There's little question about the spotlight the exhibition offers designers. It could also provide a higher profile for a small Smithsonian museum.

The Cooper-Hewitt began in 1897 as the Cooper Union Museum for the Arts of Decoration. Its mission was to elevate taste in traditional decorative arts. A collection, housed in the historic Carnegie Mansion, has grown to more than 250,000 items, from wallpapers and textiles to industrial arts. Though under the Smithsonian's umbrella since the 1960s, it has no Washington presence.

By drafting a plan for a triennial, Dianne H. Pilgrim, the museum's longtime director, grafted a new mission onto the old: to become the nation's showcase for contemporary American design. Before she stepped down to become director emeritus in January, Pilgrim also set in motion a program of National Design Awards, which will be announced in the fall.

"As people trained to bridge the gap between technology, science, art and the humanities, designers are in a unique position to be a powerful force for positive change," Pilgrim has written in a foreword to the catalogue.

And change will come. Co-curator Albrecht points out that architect Frank O. Gehry's idea for a Times Square building--the model shows a tumble of metal and ad placards--has already come to pass. "This is what it looks like now," he says.

Thus, Gehry stands as the exhibition's Grand Old Man rather than a designer at the frontier. The convention-shattering curves of his Guggenheim Museum Bilbao already have become a norm in the new work, though much of it remains unbuilt.

The curators had at first intended to set out conventional categories of architecture, products, posters and the like. What they found convinced them that the lines were blurring between design disciplines. They settled on a "dictionary of ideas": fluid, reclaimed, physical, minimal, local, branded, narrative and unbelievable.

Whatever they call them, this is designed to be experienced. Visitors, for example, cannot escape an entertaining flash of blue to pink from an LED light box designed by Richard Gluckman of Gluckman Mayner Architects in New York. The light technology is a suggestion of the project he is doing with designer Robert Wilson to enhance the urban fabric of downtown Pittsburgh by installing light screens over worn masonry buildings.

Here, against the dark carved paneling of Andrew Carnegie's 1902 mansion, the Gluckman light box could be read only as a passing of the design torch.

The Triennial runs through Aug. 6 at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, 2 E. 91st St., New York. For details: 212-849-4800 or www.si.edu/ndm.

Design Online: Join Linda Hales live online Thursday at 2 p.m. Send questions and comments to www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline starting Sunday.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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