A Design of the Times


In today’s world of design, Form may still occasionally follow Function, but more than likely, Entertainment struts before both. At Cooper-Hewitt’s latest survey of everything from wallpaper to scramjets, the museum’s third triennial and the biggest yet, that urge to please couldn’t be clearer: From all corners, products and concepts joke, wink, coddle, grin, and dance. It’s a three-floor amusement park of a show that leaves you giddy (and exhausted), but wondering, in the end, if the big bold ideas have gotten lost in all the clowning around.

Still, it’s hard to resist the fun. Electroland’s cheerful stairway installation, a snaking panel of boxed white lights (resembling a keyboard turned on its side), treats you like a game-show champion, flashing bright sequences and playing mellow tones as it follows your steps—a mood booster for a run-down public. Not surprisingly, a similar device will try to energize weary travelers at the new Indianapolis Airport. In other motion-activated light and sound, J. Meejin Yoon’s vertical grid of blue LEDs expresses patterns under ambient music, though it doesn’t represent the designer at her best. A small sample of the kind of meditative piece Yoon has created for public spaces, and intended for nighttime viewing, the work’s effects barely register in the poorly chosen glass-roofed conservatory. Just as calming, and also employing LEDs, is James Carpenter’s Landscape/Light Threshold, which transforms daily video of the museum’s garden into an
impressionistic scene—a latter-day Monet for plug-‘n’-go geeks.

Household objects, too, are ingratiating in various degrees of whimsy. Brooklyn designer Jason Miller evokes a frat-house style with trompe l’oeil effects: an armchair patched with duct tape (sewn-on gray leather), a broken mirror repaired with Scotch tape (cleverly applied strips of glass). Green triangular coat hooks from Michael Meredith interlock and crawl along the wall like ivy (though their plastic spindles don’t appear capable of supporting much more than windbreakers). Elsewhere, Ron Gilad gives us an arachnid chandelier constructed from black desk lamps, as well as objects of what might be termed accidental design: Run Over by Car metal vases, which are exactly that.

There’s also humor, intentional or not, in Greg Lynn’s flatware: Shaped like leaves and shoots, the knives and forks seem to suggest that fantasy-garden lushness of art nouveau, but their textures are actually kind of spooky, not so much Mucha as Munsters. Frankly, after all the smirking, it comes as a great relief to encounter a little straight-faced utility. Leon Ransmeier and Gwendolyn Floyd’s designs—a snap-on sphere that becomes a light shade, for example, or a portable air-purifier for hoodless stoves—bear that austere elegance we associate with the Netherlands, where, it happens, both Americans have set up shop.

Upstaged by the wit, a sense of the new also gets waylaid by retro visions. Herman Miller’s basket-shaped booth, with molded foam seats, an oval table, and screens of a pale-green mesh, looks like an homage to a ’60s bar. Two kinds of reflective material, both in the form of polymer sheets, embrace 1975 (or thereabouts) in their names alone, Panelite and Sensitile; walls of the stuff—orange, sparkly, smooth, or bulging with parabolas—may appear for some to be an acid flashback. Planet Propaganda, a graphic-design firm, mimics and lampoons vintage styles, while Thom Browne does much the same with suits, saluting and grinning at narrow cuts, high lapels, and “flood” cuffs. You can imagine such an outfit on a man in the Up! House, a prefab box on stilts that looks like a decades-old conception of the future.

If the show feels light on innovation, maybe it’s because we live with so much already. The obvious choices—Google, Apple, Pixar, NASA—probably should have given way to the lesser-known, but they serve as reminders for how much good design we take for granted every day. There are a few standouts here, though, and two of them might save your life. An idea for pill bottles (colored the deep red of Target stores, where you’ll find them) makes dosage information easier to read by flattening the surface for the label, and a device for organ transport improves on the Styrofoam cooler; rounded and compact with various controls and monitors, and colored blue and white, the sleek container gives iMac flair to the freshly extracted kidney. Downstairs you’ll find a robotic lobster that one day (if it avoids the robotic bisque) might search for underwater mines. And in architecture, Santiago Calatrava’s design for the WTC Transportation Hub may be old news, but a virtual “fly-through” of the place—far better than the dull and contextless plastic
models that represent other buildings— reconfirms its magnificence.

Even with all the professional cleverness, the most intriguing designs might be those of the hands-on, do-it-yourself variety, as described in magazines Make and ReadyMade, which get separate displays. Like nerdy versions of Martha Stewart Living, they tell you how to create a slick light-cluster from Voss water bottles, iron those plastic newspaper wraps into a messenger bag, and take aerial photos using a kite, a disposable camera, and a shutter device that includes rubber bands and Silly Putty. Now that’s ingenuity.