Design Culture Now: National Design Triennial

It is almost inconceivable that the first-ever design triennal should take place in the year 2000. Many of us have spent decades chasing the ever-evolving signs of designed culture, from Rubik’s Cube, Pac Man and the first Mac computers to Nike swoosh sneakers, Jordache jeans and Talking Heads albums. It is only now that we are practically immune to good design in our lives—when we have become unconscious consumers of the shoddy, the branded and the mass produced—that the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum has unleashed the National Design Triennial. Organized by Donald Albrecht, Ellen Lupton and Steven Skov Holt, the triennial has been broadly defined to encompass architecture, landscape architecture, environmental design, graphic design, new media and product design. (The exhibition was on view from March 7 to August 6, 2000, in New York City.)

There are two organizing principles at work in Design Culture Now, the triennial’s companion catalogue. Because of the remarkable variety of projects represented in this volume, the work of each designer has been slotted into one of eight curatorial categories: fluid, physical, minimal, reclaimed, local, branded, narrative and unbelievable. But the authors also want us to use this book as a reference source, a “dictionary of ideas.” As a survey, the book does a tremendous job; this may well be the best one-volume introduction to the finest emerging and established designers on the American scene today. As a dictionary, the book is less successful. Although Design Culture Now does indeed present an enormous range of abstract concepts and trends, clear definitions prove a bit slippery. To wit: The authors ask us to understand the letterpress-influenced graphic design of Bruce Licher’s Independent Project Press as “physical,” but also place it, as if on a sliding scale, under “reclaimed,” “local” and “branded.”

If today’s design disciplines are in a state of enormous flux, they are also at a stage of remarkable invention and innovation. Donald Albrecht, the book’s expert on architectural design, notes that the work of today’s best architects, landscape architects, set designers, and exhibition designers expresses “a fascination with the hybrid” and exploits techniques of collage and/or transformation. Grafting the organic with the minimal, architect Steven Holl’s “sponge scheme” for a series of MIT dormitories that are now under construction is designed, in part, to allow the neighboring community to visually penetrate the academic fortress. Michael Gabellini’s plan for the Piazza Isolo in the ancient city of Verona, Italy, posits the public square, market and underground garage as a linked network of ultramodern “islands” bridging the surface of a surrounding moat. And Ralph Appelbaum’s stimulation exhibition environments layer three-dimensional objects and digital display, melding the new realm of infotainment with the tradition of the wunderkammer.

Similarly, the most forward-thinking of today’s graphic designers are not afraid to mine the past. Stephen Farrell of Slip Studios has created a sensational typeface called Volgare based on the handwriting of an anonymous seventeenth-century Florentine clerk. Zuzanna Licko of Emigre publishes baroque patterns composed by rotating basic letterforms. Funny Garbage cheerfully muddies the pristine perfection of Web site designs with forms derived from pop culture’s cast-off ephemera—comics, bar codes, candy wrappers, printer’s waste. Perhaps the most theatrical graphic designer included in the volume, Stefan Sagmeister uses base materials such as fabric, cardboard, even his own body to spell out content in his work.

While the “unbelievable” category seems to have been concocted mainly to embrace product prototypes, attractive, alarming and seemingly impossible product designs are scattered throughout the book. From the Haworth Office Exploration Team’s bizarre cubicle alternatives, \which look like something out of a David Cronenberg film and aim to make “the office function more like the brain,” to Stephen Peart’s fleshy concept athletic shoe, which makes its wearer look like something out of a Cronenberg film crossed with the god Mercury, the most effective product designs—whether executed for commercial use or not—suggest a seductive narrative quality. As Holt points out, in our present American culture, “Products have become containers for [our] stories, and designers have correspondingly become storytellers and even mythmakers.”

If we are swallowing these tales, hook, line and sinker, it may not be for the right reasons. It is awfully tempting to read this book as a kind of glorified mail-order catalogue (move over Williams-Sonoma and J. Crew!). The wonder of design exhibitions is that they send people running straight to the store, aching to get their hands on that Tibor Kalman paperweight or Philippe Starck exacto knife. I don’t know about you, but I’m going shopping. I can’t wait to get one of Scott Wilson’s Swingline staplers, a copy of Martin Venezky’s Speak magazine, a Kate Spade handbag, and a Chris Ware comic book. Products be damned—according to the folks at the Cooper Hewitt, this is art.