Sophomore Jinx

Back to the Garden: At the Cooper-Hewitt, Cynthia Breazel's "Cyberfauna" raises the issue of interactivity by responding to the viewer's gestures.Photo: Rendering by Ryan Kavanaugh

In its second triennial exhibition, Inside Design Now, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum presents the work of 80 designers assembled by four curators across a half-dozen fields. Expansive surveys are always difficult to curate, and “Inside Design Now” amounts to a two-story sampler of chocolates—delightful and even intellectually chewy but pointless. This is not a focused, in-depth selection that allows a comparative evaluation within a comprehensible range. We stray from one designer’s world to another’s, flitting from one goodie to the next without being able to make any larger sense of contemporary design. There are just too many dots. The curators—Ellen Lupton, Donald Albrecht, Susan Yelavich, and Mitchell Owens—never offer a convincing theme establishing how the exhibits relate, but give the impression instead that design in America today is permissive and even promiscuous.

At MoMA, design means largely the Darwinian evolution of chairs, but from the beginning, when it opened its doors with an exhibition of breads from all over the world, the Cooper-Hewitt has interpreted design broadly, addressing virtually everything man-made, down to the humblest artifact. “Inside Design Now” presents graphics, architecture, interiors, products, transportation, textiles, and fashion in exhibits that range from the basic walking shoe and coffee pot to documentaries, digital music, and typefaces. The unhierarchical, one-of-everything mix flattens the show into a Kansas of design.

A trend or two ago, the cold war raging between modernism and postmodernism directed design debate, but since the collapse of postmodernism, no such overriding confrontation structures the discourse. “Inside Design Now” starts off with Kelly Christy, a traditional New York milliner, offering spiffy little hats featuring tobogganing scenes and birds’ nests. The Demeter Fragrance Library gives us bottled scents delivering conceptually fresh whiffs of tomato, dirt, snow, and ginger ale. Frank Nuovo of Los Angeles creates cell phones in high-voltage colored plastics and precious metals like platinum. New York’s Ted Muehling displays hand-cut amber earrings in teardrop shapes. The Target Corporation builds a zesty ad campaign around the bull’s-eye. In “Planet of the Apes,” Los Angeles makeup designer Rick Baker ingeniously fits dentures into the mouths of actors so they can simulate simian facial expressions.

The curators pick pop objects that are warm, fuzzy, and hip, but the show has no center of gravity. In fact, the exhibition brims with other themes that invite elaboration that would give interpretative depth. For example, in MIT Media Lab assistant professor Cynthia Breazeal’s garden of mostly machined-aluminum delights, the subject of interactivity permitted by electronic gadgetry and artificial intelligence is raised brilliantly, if only passingly, with robotic blooms in a “flower” bed that move toward you or shy away when you wave a hand. The perennial issue of abstraction versus narrative is raised by New York fashion designer Gene Meyer, who erases the human figure with slashing geometric patterns, in contrast with another New York designer, Tess Giberson, who overlays her clothes with lace and embroidered flowers and stories about birds.

The opposition of the momentary and the timeless is another major design theme wittily suggested by window-display director David Hoey at Bergdorf Goodman, who hangs real toast in a gradient from pale to burnt in the background of one display. Design firm Blu Dot, specialists in cool design for the masses, display smart, cheap storage units: The Ikea revolution as a subject might have commanded the whole show.

Cooper-Hewitt’s first triennial emphasized technology, and with the advent of the computer as a design tool common to virtually all disciplines, the theme was valid and worked in every field that was represented. This time, the curators could easily have revisited the theme with greater depth—after all, new technologies have only heightened our sense of the ongoing change that permeates all design endeavors. New York designer Alexandre de Betak creates spectacular sets for fashion shows dependent on complex lighting effects coordinated by computer-driven electronic control panels. The architects at New York’s Asymptote think through the computer; animation software becomes their silent design partner. The riveting plastic-and-titanium Implantable Replacement Heart by Abiomed, Inc. beats to an electronic pulse when placed in the chest cavity. The swervy music notations you can draw at a nearby computer installation by Tod Machover, another MIT Media Lab artist, passes through software programs that translate the drawing into music you can hear on earphones. Another digital artist, Austin-based Bob Sabiston of Flat Black Films, uses his copyrighted software to convert films shot with actors into animated cartoons. The art is in the design of the program, not just the staging and performance.

The undisciplined generosity of the show wears down the senses and finally degenerates into noise, so it’s difficult to know when an idea tinged with greatness comes along. One of the truffles hidden in this messy assortment is Wave Garden, an energy-generating “plant” made of a cluster of pads looking like water lilies riding sea swells off the shores of Southern California. The floating pads, created for a Princeton architecture school thesis by Yusuke Obuchi, harvest the energy of waves. During the week, the pads act as pistons rising and falling with the ocean, and on weekends, they form visitable islands.

Too many interesting designs remain stand-alone one-liners. Nobility and maybe even idealism have long since passed from the cultural agenda, but insight and point of view, not to mention a little advocacy, are still in order. The attitude here is passive and anecdotal, lacking curatorial will. Part of the problem, no doubt, is that an exhibition by committee loses edge, and the cramped Cooper-Hewitt needs much more space for this type of show to succeed. But having stretched the subject to all corners of design, the curators fail to shape the results into an idea. Staging a biennial or triennial is an elusive skill, one that the Cooper-Hewitt hasn’t yet mastered.

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Sophomore Jinx