The New York Times.
March 26, 2000
The Dionysian Drama of Today's Design
By HERBERT MUSCHAMP
Design has abandoned Socrates for Nietzsche. This is the take-away idea at the first edition of the National Design Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. No more pure geometric shapes. No more strict correspondences between form and function. No more efforts to refine materials and production methods to their pure Platonic essence. Instead, we behold room after room of dancing stars. Fluid shapes. Appetizing colors. Laughter in the dark. Flesh.
Norman Y. Lono for The New York Times
The Boym Design Studio's "Disaster Buildings": "Three Mile Island 9/28/79," left, "World Trade Center 2/26/93," "Unabomber Shack 1997," "Watergate 6/17/72" and "Murrah Building, Oklahoma 4/19/95."
Organized by the curatorial team of Donald Albrecht, Ellen Lupton and Steven Skov Holt, this is the first of a series of surveys to be conducted every three years by the Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian Institution's New York venue for the study and exhibition of design. The inaugural version, subtitled "Design Culture Now," presents projects conceived or completed since 1997 by 83 architects, designers and firms. In addition to the customary design fields -- appliances, graphics, furniture and assorted accessories -- the show includes fashion, architecture, interiors, landscapes, film, video, computer animation and sets for movies and theater.
The projects are not organized by discipline but presented in a sequence of eight themes: Physical, Minimal, Reclaimed, Branded and Fluid, to name a few. Fluid sums up the whole show. The themes flow and swirl into and around each other like dancers in a Dionysian revel. The operating logic here is intuitive rather than analytic, and it reflects the state of design as well as the sensibility of the field's leading figures. Even without including the work of European designers, this show makes design look like the most fertile artistic field in the world today.
The fluidity invites viewers to give the show some shape. Here's my contour. Design's movement in a Nietzschean direction has been evident for more than 30 years. From Arts and Crafts to the Bauhaus to the Good Design shows in the 1950's at the Museum of Modern Art, designers had aimed to distill the ethos of industrial civilization into practical tools for everyday life. In the 1960's, designers like Ettore Sottsass, Andrea Branzi, Gaetano Pesce and James Wines opposed the rationalist mentality of modern design. Their work dealt with emotional content: subliminal impulses, cultural memories, subconscious images. More recently, Philippe Starck has injected Surrealism into the mainstream.
Until recently, the irrational impulse has been identified with a small constellation of designers. What the Cooper-Hewitt show reveals is the extent to which Dionysus now rules over mainstream design. No big-name designer comes attached to Apple's iMac and iBook, for example. But these electronic Lolitas could be the symbols of this show. With their lollipop colors, swelling lines and toylike ease of operation, they hark back to the sexy red plastic Valentine typewriter Sottsass designed for Olivetti in 1969. And the popularity of these machines demonstrates the degree to which design today is erotically driven.
The two Apples also embody the major catalyst for this transformation: the personal computer. Many projects in the show explore the formal possibilities opened up by software technology. Greg Lynn's "Hydrogen House," Neil Denari's "Smooth House," David Small's "Talmud Project" are all exercises in computer imaging. Their sinuous forms would not be possible without software originally developed for animation, special effects and automobile styling.
But if the medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan insisted, these forms may be less important than the tools that shape them. New media create new environments. Computers were instrumental in designing many of the objects on view. They are also continuing to transform our view of the world in which designed objects are placed.
The illusory world depicted in the 1999 movie "The Matrix" could well stand for this shift in perception. Created by artificial intelligence, the illusion of normal life is produced by streams of 0's and 1's in a state of constant flux. The computer has reduced all information to this binary system. Suppose that human intelligence is artificial. 0 stands for unity, for a void undifferentiated in space and time. 1 stands for an initial act of differentiation: the division of light from darkness, for example, or of black from white, male from female, nature from culture, left from right. In working on the computer, we are always returning to unity and always stepping away from it. Whatever forms we create on the screen, we are always recreating and destroying the void.
Nietzsche would have recognized this as a primal creative operation. It is more instinctive than analytic. Take one step, and the void is divided. Another step, and it splits once again. The process is violent and even tragic, because with each step unity recedes ever further into the distance, leaving in its place a sense of loss. The tragedy of design is the Design Triennial's subterranean theme. The entire show is one long bunny hop of 0's and 1's, snaking its way through Andrew Carnegie's stately mansion in a perverse rite of mourning.
The message of Dionysian drama, Nietzsche wrote in "The Birth of Tragedy," is that "we are to regard the state of individuation as the origin and primal cause of all suffering, as something objectionable in itself." Tragedy is seldom evident on the show's surface. You can easily make your way through it just enjoying the pleasing play of ideas, shapes and colors. But the lively surface is part of the underlying message of loss and compensation. 0 is lost, and the compensation is an infinite number of combinations of 0 plus 1. Unity is lost, and the consolation prize is a shiny computer fresh out of the box, and the next computer, and the one after that, the computer you've really been waiting for.
Several projects in the show deal explicitly with the tragic dimension. In his designs for Julie Taymor's 1999 movie "Titus," Dante Derretti uses Italian architecture from the Fascist period to set the stage for an antique bloodbath. Lebbeus Woods's "Civilization," a project to be exhibited at full scale in Vienna this summer, is a Schwitters-like composition whose piercing, angular forms depict the decline and fall of absolutely everything.
A third project, by Boym Design Studio, gives tragedy a comic twist. Though not conspicuously computer-driven, the project nonetheless reveals the extent to which our mediated culture is driven by binary thinking. Titled "Buildings of Disaster," the project includes bonded-nickel miniatures of the Watergate complex, the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear power plants, the World Trade Center, the Unabomber's house and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.
Some may recoil from the black comedy of reducing these disasters to a collection of paperweights. But Constantin and Lorene Boym can't be accused of tastelessness. Their souvenirs are rendered in a deadpan style. We can see them as memorials to the events they represent, private versions of the public artworks that at least one of them (the Murrah building) has inspired. Like the news footage of the destruction of the Mostar bridge in Bosnia and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex., they are reminders that our Age of Extremes (as the historian Eric Hobsbawm termed the 20th century) has left its mark more emphatically in the destruction of buildings than in the creation of new ones.
Each figurine represents a conflict: Republican vs. Democrat; fundamentalist Islam vs. godless United States; industry vs. nature; reason vs. lunacy, and so on. Each conflict involves an assault on innocence -- office workers, scientists, farmers, the Constitution, animal and vegetable life -- and an attack on unity, besides. Each has sparked debates on issues fundamental to a modern democracy's way of life. Are presidential campaigns worth the divisiveness and expense? Is it too late for humanity to live in harmony with nature or the social and technological structures we have invented?
The figurines are also tributes to conflict itself. Without glorifying physical violence, they reveal the cultural value of rupture. The Watergate figurine recalls Richard M. Nixon's attempt to subvert the Constitution. It evokes the political divisiveness that rippled across the country in the wake of the Watergate break-in. And it memorializes a pivotal moment of cultural transformation. Nixon's covert operation laid the cornerstone of today's overt society. It broke down the walls of privacy once considered sacrosanct. What began as an abuse of authority provoked the use of information-gathering by the news media to challenge authority at every turn. The line between public and private realms remains a focus of passionate debate.
A few weeks ago, "60 Minutes" presented an interview with Timothy J. McVeigh on death row. It revealed that Mr. McVeigh and the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski, who had been held in the same prison, had become acquainted. Mr. McVeigh, who sees himself as extreme right wing and Mr. Kaczynski as extreme left, noted that these differences turned out to be immaterial. The poles collapsed into each other in acts of violence against the authority of regulation and conformity, of differentiation by numbers.
The target was more conspicuous in the Oklahoma City bombing, which ripped open the facade to reveal the egg-crate interior, a vertical Kafka Land of uniform bureaucratic compartments. Mr. Kaczynski's attacks were carried out at a distance from his one-room wooden hut, but the house represented his need for distance from the diffuse target of his rampage: the numeration of identity. Social Security, phone, bank account, PIN, room, street address, ZIP, health plan -- these coordinates of normality aptly prefigured the fate of both terrorists, now numbered inmates, who sit out their days in cells. Perhaps their violent acts stemmed from mutated strains of recombinant 0's and 1's.
Shouldn't the Boyms add a figurine of Cooper-Hewitt to the collection? The triennial is an explosion: an attack on the walls between individual design disciplines and the barriers that separate design from everything else. Nietzsche philosophized with a hammer. The triennial's organizers have used the delete button to create a credible mythology for design today: protean, expansive, filled with deep reserves of historical meaning, an art that leaves no area of consciousness unexplored.