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Design: Reflecting and Shaping American Culture

A New York exhibit shows how design has infiltrated our lives, and highlights California's influence.

March 02, 2000|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Design today touches on everything. It's about the fluidity of sculptured sunglasses or a plastic chair, the customization of components for a PC or the creation of a wearable communication device. And increasingly it's about California designers.

That's the picture that emerges from the first comprehensive survey of current architecture, product design, and graphics and new media to be presented to the American public.

The "National Design Triennial: Design Culture Now," which opens Tuesday at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, provides a snapshot of American culture steeped in a visual lifestyle.

The exhibit, which can be sampled online when it opens, dramatizes the preeminent role of America--and West Coast designers--in product design.

"This isn't like an art museum where the exhibits tend to be focused on the formal," said Donald Albrecht, adjunct curator for special projects. "We consider the functionality of the objects--their value to people in everyday life. We will have things here that can be bought at stores. They range from a Geoffrey Beene dress to a motorcycle."

The last few years have seen a dramatic evolution in design.

"The state of design in the United States is so vibrant and rich that we can't hold it all," said Californian Steven Skov Holt, one of the show's three curators. "Design is becoming ubiquitous in every phase of life, from a sculptured wastebasket to an Internet-enabled cell phone."

At the same time, the design focus in the United States is moving from East to West.

"The axis has shifted," said Holt, the exhibit's curator for products. "We've moved from an industrial-age society, with Manhattan as its financial center, to an entertainment-centric culture, the sort of locus that we find in Hollywood and in the Silicon Valley.

"We're entering the era of a new entertainment culture, with an increasing level of visual literacy," said Holt, who since 1992 has been design visionar and director of strategy at Frogdesign in San Francisco, the industrial design firm whose clients include Lufthansa, Packard Bell and Compaq.

Holt credited designers in Hollywood and the Bay Area with being the "grand influencers of the emerging paradigm."

Albrecht agreed, noting the cutting edge design of the Apple iMac.

"Not only is it a great piece of design," Albrecht said, "it literally changed the way people thought about computers, which had just been beige boxes."

The 80-plus list of designers or firms whose works (including prototypes) were chosen for the show include 25 from California. Designers such as architects Frank Gehry and Neil Denari, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, Jonathan Ive of Apple Computer, Kyle Cooper of Imaginary Forces Studio in Hollywood and Edward Fella of California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Others include Greg Lynn, founder of FORM studio, who teaches architecture at UCLA; large-scale painter Gary Lloyd, founder of Really Bigskies in Los Angeles; graphic artist Rebecca Mendez in San Francisco; and Stephen Peart, whose design consultant firm Vent is in Campbell, in Northern California.

Holt said the timing is perfect for the first triennial design show, sponsored by BPAmoco with Mead Corp. He said the trend is toward visual, rather than verbal, literacy.

"We have 6-year-olds who know the difference between Nike and Adidas and between the Gap and Benetton," he said. "It's partly the reflection of a consumer culture and partly the fact that we tell each other stories about ourselves by what we wear and own."

It's a trend he traces back to the 1980s emergence of MTV with its focus on a new global youth fashion culture.

"We've seen it ramp up in the last three years," Holt said. "Now designers have achieved the status of rock stars."

The triennial is a natural project for Cooper-Hewitt, the Smithsonian Institution's national design museum. Housed in Andrew Carnegie's 19th century gray stone mansion at the upper end of Manhattan's Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue, Cooper-Hewitt's ongoing programs are devoted to exploring how design affects our daily lives.

Inspiration for a triennial came from former Cooper-Hewitt director Dianne Pilgrim.

"She said nobody was presenting design in everyday life, and we needed to fill the gap," Albrecht said. "We started working on it a couple of years ago."

When Albrecht and Ellen Lupton, adjunct curator for contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, sat down to curate the show, they felt they needed a West Coast voice and brought in Holt as guest curator.

"Basically the three of us got together and started hashing out ideas," Albrecht said.

The results not only illustrate the diversity of design in America today, but also underline the blurring of disciplines that once were considered autonomous.

For instance, Broadway director Julie Taymor designs costumes and makes masks. Walter Hood at UC Berkeley has combined landscape architecture and social history in renovating the town square in Macon, Ga.

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