Design for living in material world

N.Y.C. exhibition implies Consumers R Us

The good news on product design is that we're into a post-beige era. That's one message from the "National Design Triennial: Design Culture Now" on display at New York's Cooper-Hewitt Museum through Aug. 6. It features hundreds of objects produced by 83 designers and firms in the last three years that radiate tropical colors like tangerine and hot pink.

These candy coatings are designed to whet our appetite for possessions that an Orwellian - er, make that American - industry is eager to fill.

Every three years the Cooper-Hewitt promises to revisit the state of design art in the United States. This exhibit is the first, and it serves as a trenchant reminder of the need to look closely at the products that shape our daily lives.

Viewers can decide if they agree with the exhibition's curators, who state in the show catalog, "Design Culture Now," that "Consumers R Us."

As Steven Skov Holt (one of three curators) puts it, "Media-constructed, product-centric versions of the good life command an ever-increasing portion of our conscious mind.... They come to exert a psychic, unspoken level of pressure and expectation on all of us."

Yikes. Never before has the mantra of "material girl" pop-singer Madonna that "we are living in a material world" seemed so prophetic. Mr. Holt claims, "The active consumption of products has itself become almost religious."

You thought products were mere tools or toys? According to Holt, they are "the manifestation of our personal brand," compensating for "feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and an insatiable desire to belong."

Since products, in this view, establish identity, Holt argues, designers "become anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, and clairvoyants of contemporary culture."

Examples of a design-driven cult of consumption are up front in an advertising campaign for Rossignol snowboards by the late P. Scott Makela and his wife, Laurie Haycock Makela. Their billboard proclaims, "AROUSE AND GRATIFY." Using images with plunging diagonals to instill a sense of dynamism, speed, and risk, the print ads evoke mystical experience with texts like "Faith in Action" and "God is close to ya."

Design has always been a mixed bag, merging art, engineering, and commerce. This show highlights the commercial hustle. Some products employ design to make high technology more user-friendly, thus more marketable.

"Zuzu's Petals" is a prototype digital assistant shaped like a cutesy flower. It looks like a potted plant, but its stalk is a docking station for petal-shaped digital components. One petal is a camera; another, a voice recorder. Its base of "digital dirt" contains memory modules.

More chilling is the "Gooru" by the same Chicago firm, Herbst Lazar Bell. This electronic gadget for children ages 7 to 11 is intended as a substitute parent. Call it Uncle Hal, doling out instructions to do homework, wash hands, listen to a bedtime story.

These "mind control" gadgets don't dominate the show. Many objects, which run the gamut from industrial products to fashion and theater sets, fall into the category of Things We Need. Their common denominator is methodology.

From toothbrushes to buildings and letter fonts, computer software drives the design. High tech is everywhere, in the design process or materials. Architect Greg Lynn harnesses aerospace technology in his "Hydrogen House" proposal, which uses fuel cells and solar power to run the building's electrical and mechanical systems.

Celebrity influence also - surprise, surprise - sells. Designs for Nike's Air Jordan sneakers are inspired by fighter planes, Ferraris, and, naturellement, Michael Jordan. The Martha Stewart empire relies on Martha's impeccable taste.

"Physical" design emphasizes tactility, as in wall panels for the Museum of American Folk Art in New York by architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams. To create the textured panels, cratered like a lunar surface, they poured liquid bronze on the foundry floor, imprinting the panels with pockmarks.

"Minimal" motifs are still with us. Kate Spade's handbags are minimal to the max. The purses are your basic tote bag, a rectangle with handles.

"Reclaimed" strategies of design employ collage, mixing pop and retro imagery, another tactic that's been around for decades.

Boris Bally crafts traffic signs into bowls. "Garbage," says the Providence, R.I., designer, "is a resource." He transforms "raw American culture" into refined forms.

Using "narrative" appeal becomes a sales tactic. As curator Holt says, "Products have become containers for stories." A yarn's emotional wallop can separate the customer from his cash.

Another attribute of design today is "fluid" form, like the clamshell-shaped iMac computer. Even if you don't give a hoot for motorcycles, the peacock-blue "hog" by Cory Ness, called - in an understatement - "curvaceousness," will leave you goggle-eyed. Sleek never looked so va-va-voom.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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