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A very artsy Campana Brothers armchair
A very artsy Campana Brothers armchair

Design of the Times

A few months ago, the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (PBICA) in Lake Worth featured an exhibition called "Against Design," which presented items that would normally be considered functional -- furniture, appliances, fashion -- redefined in the context of art. Now the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami (MoCA) gives us "DESIGN matters," which takes a dramatically different approach, focusing on objects that are designed with function in mind but also have intrinsic aesthetic appeal. Looks may not be everything, but it seems they have increasing significance as we plunge into the 21st Century.

It's no longer necessary to visit some exclusive designers' showcase to see cutting-edge consumer design. Just stroll through the housewares section of any Target store, where the work of trendy architect and designer Michael Graves is readily available to the masses.

As if to underscore this simple but telling point, "DESIGN matters" hits us right up front with a piece called Sign of the Times -- Backyard Barbeque©. It's a large, laminated color photograph of a model-perfect young American family in a back yard marked by an all-American white picket fence. But this landscape has been taken over by the instantly recognizable bull's-eye Target logo, which replicates itself endlessly on the family's clothing and even spills over to tint the grass red. Target audience, indeed.


"DESIGN matters"

Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami

On display through November 26, 305-893-6211

Further into the show is that hallmark of sleek contemporary design, Apple's iMac computer, presented here in a ruby-colored model with a black keyboard. And instead of a placard identifying the artist and medium, we get a list of technical credits: "Designed by Apple Design Group/ Manufactured by Apple/Injection-molded polycarbonate shell and steel interior/ Courtesy of A & B Media Solutions."

Elsewhere throughout the exhibition are such familiar brand names as Tupperware, represented by a polycarbonate salad bowl and matching serving utensils, and Swingline, which provides two kinds of staplers, "personal" ones made of translucent plastic and rubber and "heavy-duty" ones fashioned from zinc and rubber. Several styles of Rollerblade in-line skates are displayed next to a spiffy BMW motorcycle. There's even a 2000 Audi TT Coupe that makes one corner of the museum look like an auto showroom.

Alongside these mainstream commercial products are pieces from more "prestigious" designers. Philippe Starck contributes a trio of chair designs and a small set of three-kilogram steel-and-aluminum dumbbells abstracted beyond recognition, and there's a cast aluminum chair from Frank Gehry, the prolific architect who created the controversial new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The point -- or one of many points -- apparently is that contemporary design is a democratic world where Starck and Gehry freely rub shoulders with Tupperware and company.

Some of the most amazing designs are from the electronics field. Kodak and Polaroid provide some ultracompact cameras, and there are Nokia cellular phones so tiny they seem to be on the verge of disappearing altogether. The iSub Subwoofer from Apple and Harman Kardon is an otherworldly polycarbonate contraption that looks like a sort of electronic jellyfish. The same firms' Sound Stick Speaker System consists of a pair of small, clear plastic obelisks with embedded circuitry. Even more astonishing is the Glas Platz Loudspeaker, which consists of nothing more than a thin plate of glass with electronic components that resemble a CD suspended in it.

Here and there are pieces grouped together in thematic installations. Those Starck and Gehry chairs, for instance, are part of a large freestanding exhibit of chairs ranging from various curvaceous molded chairs to the almost nonexistent Z5 Chair, a minimalist strip of carbon fiber with a mysterious ID placard that reads, "Manufactured by Military company (Classified information)." One small, narrow gallery is devoted to an installation of unusual light fixtures, including designer Ingo Maurer's Holonzki Wall Lamp, a witty little piece in which a hologram of a light bulb is projected onto a real metal socket.

What, we might well ask, has all of this to do with fine art? At the beginning of the exhibition, which was guest-curated by architect René Gonzalez, an introduction proclaims: "We are in the midst of a design revolution, a dynamic period where new visions of design are engaging contemporary culture at all levels.... The exhibition asks, "What Matters to America Today?'" Gonzalez then posits eight things that matter: mobility, the body, disposability, technology, matter, clarity, spectacle, and identity. Each of these is then assigned a little icon, which reappears throughout the show to connect it to the relevant pieces on display.

Fair enough. But on some level "DESIGN matters" still comes across as a sort of highfalutin trade show. The "Against Design" show at PBICA emphasized the conceptual nature of the works on display, asking us to consider how context can define or redefine what we choose to label "art." The MoCA show, with its assertive moniker, suggests that the creativity once reserved for (or at least associated with) art has so infiltrated the stuff of our everyday lives that the boundaries have become hopelessly blurred.

But in terms of contemporary art, is a cute little Nokia phone really the same, essentially, as a painting hanging on a living room wall? Is it now meaningless even to attempt to distinguish between the two? I'm not so sure, but at least "DESIGN matters" seizes on that ambiguity enough to beg such questions.

A concurrent show at MoCA further stimulates speculation on the relationship between art and design. "Minimal Affect: Selected Works From MoCA's Permanent Collection" includes only 16 pieces by 13 artists, but it makes a cogent case for minimalist art as one of the parents of contemporary commercial design -- especially when compared with "DESIGN matters."

First, consider the posted introduction to "Minimal Affect": "During the 1960s Minimalism represented a new kind of abstraction. Minimal art consists of single or repeated geometric forms that have been assembled out of industrial materials. These objects bear no trace of emotion or intuitive decision-making, in stark contrast to the Abstract Expressionist painting and sculpture that preceded it during the 1940s and 1950s. Minimal work does not allude to anything beyond its literal presence, or its existence in the physical world. Materials appear as materials; color, if used at all, is non-referential."

Then examine some of the minimalist works: the untitled 1988 Alan Charlton piece that consists of 14 small square acrylic canvases in a horizontal row, each painted a uniform medium gray; Jim Hodges' View (metallic), which is made up of 18,000 tiny Pantone chips taped together to suggest an extreme closeup of a computer-generated image; Dan Flavin's Puerto Rican Lights (to Jeanie Blake) #2, in which three colored fluorescent light tubes are mounted vertically, side by side, in a corner.

Finally, take another look at "DESIGN matters": Minimalism married to function begets much of the sort of contemporary design on display across the way in MoCA's main gallery.

As an art exhibition, "Minimal Affect" is ultimately more satisfying, despite its brevity, than "DESIGN matters." But even more satisfying is the way the smaller show helps pull the larger one into focus. Taken together, they pack quite a punch.


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