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The first rooms of “Design Culture Now,” the inaugural National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt, hardly let on that a revolution is on display. The 500-year-old tradition of carefully constructed architectural drawings and models that flowered in the Renaissance with the advent of perspective is being eclipsed by computer-generated models, printouts, fly-throughs, and the fluid forms that designers are now imaging onscreen in digital space. Artfully composed drawings, even doodles sketched on the backs of envelopes, are hanging on only by a pushpin.

We are walking straight into a paradigm shift, the beginnings of a different way of showing and conceiving design. This new world is curved rather than straight, hybrid and complex rather than pure and simple. The deceptively understated exhibition, designed by New York architect Michael Gabellini, may look tame, but geometrically measured space and form are morphing into the flows and eddies of wilder shores. Not since language-based studies in meaning and interpretation invaded the visual arts a generation ago has a single phenomenon crossed so many fields, encouraging interdisciplinary thinking. In an evergreen American tradition, technology is driving invention, and the push is coming from a younger generation who are Mozarts at the keyboard.

Initiated by Dianne Pilgrim, the prescient former director of the Cooper-Hewitt, the Triennial is one of the few design rodeos anywhere, but it is even rarer for addressing the impact computers are making across design fields. It’s about time. Compasses, protractors, T-squares, and parallel rules started vanishing in the eighties as software became the standard means of production. Now the brain of the machine is teasing designers and architects, tempting them beyond rote working drawings: Will gigabytes of RAM power their imaginations? Can artificial intelligence boost the design quotient?

The purpose of the nation’s first design triennial is to canvass the field and report on the state of the design arts over the past three years. With an even hand, three curators – Donald Albrecht, Ellen Lupton, and Steven Skov Holt – searched the four corners of the country and found everything from movie sets and Internet radios to Websites and an interactive Talmud. They filed the work in eight thematic packets. “Fluid” – sandwiched between “Minimal” and “Physical” on the ground floor – deals largely with the computer. Rusticated upstairs are “Reclaimed,” “Branded,” “Local,” “Narrative,” and “Unbelievable.”

“If the computer is invading design big-time, the show remains boxed up in its categories and finally seems unaware of the larger picture implied by its own reportage.”

The curators have done due diligence, and the usual marquee billing of design stars does not overwhelm the show, allowing lesser-known figures a higher profile. The young New York firm Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects produced a set of conceptual designs in the “Reclaimed” section, and the most wry is a building-wide gym in a presumably recycled mid-rise outfitted like an environmental Nautilus machine: Counterweights rise and fall throughout the steel-frame structure as people pump iron. A bevy of bikes and motorbikes, one a cartoon of over-the-top streamlining by Arlen and Cory Ness, straddle two categories, “Fluid” and “Physical.” In “Minimal,” Richard Gluckman, a New York architect known for museum interiors, is represented by a house he designed for himself. It turns out this minimalist tends to complexity when he breaks out of the gallery and builds on his own.

The sectionalization of the show may help visitors thread their way through the 150 exhibits by 83 firms, but the computer, conspicuous by both its presence and its absence, permeates nearly all divisions, unsettling the organization with a powerful undertow. The service entrance has often proved the route to design revolution. Nineteenth-century train stations had tailored stone arches fronting long sheds made of glass and cast iron, and the functionalism hidden behind the classical façade came forward in the twentieth century to claim the entire edifice. With the computer, another potential takeover from the rear is challenging the field.

Front and center in the entry lobby, the poster project of the show is the computer-generated Hydrogen House, an exhibition pavilion for a site outside Vienna designed by architects Greg Lynn, Michael McInturf, and Martin Trebersperg. Certain computer programs tend to model contoured surfaces, and in this building, formed by a series of five juxtaposed carapaces, structure has merged into irregular shells with compound curves. The resin models on display are not handmade but digitally produced in a stereo-lithographic process, and a display terminal runs a hypnotic loop showing how the forms evolved almost biologically from a skeletal shape, as though staggering out from the primordial ooze of the screen.

Paying a computer visit to suburbia, Kolatan/Mac Donald Studio proposes single-family dwellings whose curved forms suggest a sequel to Disneyland’s Monsanto House of the Future. As a building type, the house is radioactive with associations of domesticity, and in a hilarious loop, the architects splice visions of their suave, sinuous homes into TV commercials suggesting assimilation into apple-pie culture.

If the small prototypes by Kolatan/Mac Donald look like objects intended for the contemporary dining table, it is not merely coincidental. Software developed for animation, automobile, and airplane design is being used in other fields, and the crossover blurs the boundaries between disciplines. Everything from a roller coaster to toothbrushes is displayed in “Fluid,” showing a formal convergence at all scales.

Having given pride of place to “Fluid,” the curators, strangely, don’t develop the theme. The work by Los Angeles architect Neil Denari, though shown onscreen, really belongs to a mechanical world rather than a digital one. Frank Gehry makes a cameo appearance with a proposal for the 1 Times Square tower, draped in a semi-transparent wire mesh that falls from the top. Gehry famously uses the computer as an instrument to build his complex visions, but he thinks through his hands and remains a Renaissance designer.

The curators have not really analyzed fluidity as a consequence of computer processes but simply give it a stylistic label that hardly leads to an understanding of the digital logic driving so many investigations. The computer, for example, is capable of handling great complexity, so why is it that Karim Rashid’s injection-molded polypropylene baskets and “Oh” chair in the “Fluid” section are as simple as the contoured fiberglass chairs designed 50 years ago? Conversely, in the “Narrative” section, New York’s resident architectural visionary Lebbeus Woods has designed a mazelike installation for an upcoming Berlin exhibition, and its fragmented complexity would appear the result of pushing the “random” button on the computer. But Woods, like Gehry, belongs to the Renaissance tradition: one hand, one desk, one guy, just sitting there using both hemispheres at the same time. Some brains compute without software.

If the computer is invading design big-time, the show remains boxed up in its categories and finally seems unaware of the larger picture implied by its own reportage. A secondary narrative about computers could easily have been woven through, maintaining the overview exhibition but with a double plot. While we read in “Physical” that graphic artist Edward Fella has reacted against the “slick perfection made commonplace” by computers when he uses “battered typefaces and disjunctive layouts,” we don’t learn that New York architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams only recently bowed to client pressure and allowed computers in their studio.

The show fails to point out interior tensions in the field as designers make their decisions to work with the computer or not. In their display for their Museum of American Folk Art in New York, Tsien and Williams exhibit highly tactile samples of a white bronze to be used on the façade. The architects ladled the metal onto the foundry’s rough concrete floor to inflect the surfaces with chaotic imperfections. Tsien and Williams, who purposely explore materiality, still keep the computer at bay. The airlessness of onscreen design often translates to bland surfaces in real buildings.

The jury is still out on the computer’s impact on design. There is some very provocative work in “Design Culture Now,” but there are no heart-stopping epiphanies. Designers using the computer with intuitive fluency have yet to fulfill the synergistic potential. The Cooper-Hewitt has distinguished itself with landmark shows that grounded works in the larger culture, a critical tradition that is Dianne Pilgrim’s legacy. The Triennial could have been the occasion to examine in greater depth the ramifications of digital thinking. The facile themes may give us handles to understand disciplines whose centers no longer hold, but the show pulls back from its own insight by shying away from interpreting this strange attractor now magnetizing all design fields.

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