Design For Working

For the Museum of Modern Art, our cherished repository of the modernist consciousness, Workspheres is a self-confrontational show: MoMA-threatening disturbances ripple just below the bland, placid melamine that covers many of the workstations. The revelation of architectural modernism was space, light, and abstract form, and the promise for the ideal workplace was ample sun, glassy openness, free flows, and machine-made furniture designed for the common man. But in this digital age, the computers on which we’re hooked shy from the glare of light and transfix space, telling us where to sit.

The spatial basis of modernism is evaporating. MoMA design curator Paola Antonelli raises the question of how to make the most of a new environment dominated by the photosensitive, antisocial little creature that now commands our gaze and locks us in an isolating one-on-one relationship. The potential for the show is to demonstrate how to take our space back from these little Napoleons.

No piece of furniture better epitomizes MoMA’s traditional modernism than the Eames chair, whose contoured planes wafted through space like freefloating sculpture. Ray Eames, who learned from her mentor Hans Hofmann to push and pull space in her paintings, sculpted wings of plywood when she worked on the chair with her husband, Charles. The two married an industrial ethic to a modernist aesthetic, capturing an entire ethos in a single seat. In “Workspheres,” Antonelli acknowledges a different ethos and the need for design to make sense of a workplace predicated on the new machine.

Antonelli invited six firms to speculate on the new environment, and unfortunately no messianic Eames chair emerges, only a number of anecdotal designs and several red herrings. LOT/EK created a large metal-clad DVD pod, the “Inspiro-tainer,” into which you step with great anticipation but little final yield: Squares on an interface panel trigger images in a virtual windshield, but the show fizzles, offering more bark than bite. Adding to the six original invitees, Finnish designers Teppo Asikainenen and Ikka Terho offer “Netsurfer,” a chaise longue in which a reclining sitter spreads his legs to receive a computer in a thrust position: The relationship between the computer and the supine user is, well, Freudian.

Meanwhile, rows of new swiveling, scuttling ergonomic chairs line the walls. But on the Eames scale of innovation and beauty, the efforts (which also include tables and lamps) fall short, and are often simple, perfunctory, and plain. Cumulatively, they do not represent the artifacts of a robust and insightful vision but rather designs that are, with some exceptions, thin and dry, tending to the immateriality we sense on our computer screens. MoMA has long been the chief oracle of design objectivity, and these chairs lack the subjectivity that would make them memorable. Even priests of design strangeness like Philippe Starck and Gaetano Pesce tame their usually surreal impulses.

None of the designs has an inherent spatial concept that helps shape a room like the Eames chair did. Together, the composite materials, the plastic laminates and the synthetic fabrics, add up to a near-virtual, artificial environment, as though onscreen visions were projected into space. The resulting physical therelessness of the show is underscored by simulated electronic skies hung on screens above several workstations by Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa: Some designers already assume the absence of a real sky and natural light in our workspaces.

As though subordinated by computer culture, the designers show a strange lack of desire and will to advocate a more physical environment, and only two exhibits break through the general reticence to critique the new, rather flat and airless world. In the penultimate gallery, guards are constantly barking “Don’t touch” to people who want to reach out to a touchy-feely “Bed in Business,” outfitted by Hella Jongerius. The mattress, with speakers on either side of a pillow lifted toward a movable screen at the foot, is made of paper-wrapped springs that invite contact. For another commissioned installation, “Mind’Space,” a group of four studios created a workstation that spirals up to a curving desk that is actually a screen; this spatializes the way we think by breaking out of the framed box. Like the Eames chair, the enveloping workstation carves space with unusual grace.

What is missing from this object-oriented show is a vision of how the pieces fit into a larger environment. We can gather from the wheels on many chairs and tables, and the flex backrests, that the new workspace amounts to a changeable and mobile action environment – that the lean, athletic chairs and tables are meant to career across floors like billiard balls.

Activity is the binder in what we might presume are open work-lofts. But the show is organized MoMA-fashion, like a taxidermists’ ball, with chairs lined up as specimens ready for inspection. For an explication of the show, we have to look at the informative catalogue, where various essays and photographs explain, for example, that the new design process “does not deliver finished space or fixed equipment.”

Had the furniture been set loose in mixed settings, and perhaps even programmed to slide on moving tracks, as Issey Miyake’s fashions were at last year’s ACE Gallery show, we could understand how the designs protest the “uniform, authoritarian models of the last 50 years.” Maybe the new, informal workstations break “with the fascination with modularity and puzzlelike precision” of the old cubicles and give way to a new “ambiguity and elasticity,” but we hardly understand from the show’s layout that we are occupying a new “negotiable environment.”

The division of territory at MoMA may have kept Antonelli from creating an architectural syntax that makes greater sense of the objects. We have the micro views but no macro vision – no sense of how the computer relates to light, how it might help create community, and how the furniture might relate to the basic tenets of modernism beyond task-oriented functionalism.

The show remains a charming collection of friendly objects, but the glue is missing from the collage. Like all of Antonelli’s shows, this one is challenging and timely, but it only glancingly addresses how the computer is eroding the hard-won humanistic qualities of modernism. The exhibits are disconnected, leaving the show disturbingly interruptus. We await the architectural sequel.

At MoMA through April 22.

Design For Working