Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

November 15, 2009

Our Design Decade

Design USA: Contemporary Innovation


2x4, Articles, Cooper-Hewitt, Design, Michael Bierut

Design USA: Contemporary Innovation is a retrospective of American invention. The exhibition, which opened last month at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and coincided with the fourth annual National Design Week, marks ten years of the National Design Awards program. Organizers Jeannie Kim, National Design Awards manager, and associate curator Floramae McCarron-Cates, present 78 award winners in the Cooper-Hewitt’s ground-floor galleries. It is a straightforward conceit: Design USA looks backward in order to look forward.

The awards program launched in 2000 as a project of the White House Millennium Council — a Y2K impulse married to the rising public interest in design. Flashing back to that catalytic moment recalls an optimistic bubble that was bounced along by fledgling dot-com technologies and by early mass-customization manufacturing techniques that would quickly turn quotidian. Of course, as a measure of time, ten years is hardly epochal. Etiquette books suggest tin or aluminum as an anniversary gift between spouses — not Nike prototypes.

Design USA showcases a multidisciplinary roster drawn from architecture, communications, fashion, interior, interaction, landscape and product design. Many of the honorees are known quantities: Frank Gehry (2000), Tom Ford (2003), Jonathan Ive (2007). Such figures are so chummily familiar within the design community that it is easy to gloss over how established their names, or the brands for which they design (Apple, for instance), are in mainstream consciousness. The curators do not rely on populism as a crutch, but the presence as honorees of Google (2008), the New York Times Graphics Department (2009) and Tupperware (2001), seems recognition of a public increasingly well-versed in the language of design, and ready to pursue connoisseurship via blogs and Twitter-feeds. This decade has been famously marked by micro-niches and long tails, trends unlikely to end anytime soon. Then how does the museum laurel National Design Award winners?

Humbly. The exhibition isn’t heroic. Equal weight is given to each winner. Content is tidily grouped under the titles Craft, Experience, Technology, Materials and Method. A separate section entitled “Lifetime Achievement” pays tribute to legacy. In one gallery, a quote from Michael Bierut, writ large in black capitals, sums up the variety: “Not everything is design, but design is about everything.”

Although broad in scope, Design USA celebrates only just so much as our lean times allow. In fact, these days the term “innovation” itself is being downsized, used as a synonym for retrenching and retooling — just listen to the voiceovers on any car commercial coming out of Detroit. And it’s being overused, too, weighted down by expectations that it’s got to contribute to economic recovery. The recession clouds the show, making it difficult to feel enthusiasm for cutting-edge products or marquee buildings. It’s not the fault of the honored designers, but it’s hard to party like it’s 2004 — to really appreciate a Swarovski chandelier when design firms are struggling, and when there’s an across-the-boards shift towards socially conscious and collaborative practices. The Cooper-Hewitt must know this; one flight up from Design USA is Design for a Living World, an exhibition focusing on sustainability and conservation, and this year’s Landscape Design Award went to HOOD Design, an Oakland, California–based firm focused on restoring urban histories and ecologies.

Although Design USA is a new show, it’s also an archive show. So it is fitting that the installation created by 2×4 (2006 Communication Design award winner) references archival storage. The prefabricated steel shelving — a modular system, with exposed screw heads — can grapple with the range of drawings, objects, mannequins, photographs, models and video screens; it can adapt to form everything from glass-sided vitrines to platforms. The all-white system seems one part Muji, two parts Home Depot. It’s got a DIY feel, in keeping with the national mood.

The installation was necessarily limited in the amount of content it could display for each designer, but the interactive iPod Touch program (also by 2×4) serves up a wealth of additional material. The digital program is perfectly synched with the whole of the show; the on-screen black-and-white sans-serif-upper-case letters match the wall texts. Users don headphones and cue up designers by number on the iTouch to find interviews and slide shows — site-specific material not available on the Cooper-Hewitt’s website.

There’s depth here, more content than can possibly be consumed in one afternoon visit. But the experience is also isolating, perhaps too parallel to the everyday acts of listening to an MP3 player on the subway or checking email on the iPhone. (There’s a particularly keen “meta” feeling when you stand in front of the Apple display that features the range of iPods from the Classic, introduced in 2001, to the rainbow-colored Nano.)

But 2×4 and the curators do their best to counter this disassociation. Museum visitors are encouraged to interact via comments, which show up in real time on screens in the gallery, on the Cooper-Hewitt website, and on Twitter. Participation is a tricky thing. Design USA forecasts an interactive future where everyone is in on innovation; but it doesn’t go so far as to anoint everyone a designer. In the gallery, Apple monitors post the visitors’ bon mots: user Designbumpkin comments on landscape architect Ned Kahn’s Wind Silos at the International Trade Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, saying “Beautiful to see kinetic building facades,” while another user texts “Cool.” Clearly our present era is characterized by cross-talk as a kind of engagement — but does a comment constitute marginalia? Or discourse? Or a shout in the dark? With user-generated content taking hold in the museum, maybe these broadcasts are just the forecasts the curators are looking for. Is everyone an oracle? Give it ten years.