The Designed Mind: Three Shows Explore The Power of Objects and Spaces

Posted on August 03, 2015, 8:00 am
30 mins


Design as a means of uniting consumer with product has been the primary function of marketing for the last century. Indeed, this form of marketing was invented and codified by a few visionaries in the 20th Century, in a stew of nationalistic and Utopian ideals. After a few world wars and in the wake of colonialism (which forcefully imposed national aesthetic ideals upon occupied cultures) we are left with a stew of design concepts from around the world, variously marketed to create one sense of cosmopolitanism or another.

Design as a means of uniting an interior world with the exterior has become increasingly distant, or reduced to a more consumptive, narcissistic form. Far from the “total art work” (Gesamtkunstwerk) propounded by fin-de-siecle artists and designers, we have a total fetish for stuff and hoarding. Meanwhile, the seemingly uninhabited spaces laid out in design magazines are the opposite end of the spectrum, adoring the vacuum that consumer nature abhors, but this self-conscious mode is ripe for its own parodies (see Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table and Unhappy Hipsters).

Where is the remedy? Where is the sheer joy of creating an intentional world that mirrors our inner world, inhabited by things that are beyond words but may find expression in objects that have a language entirely their own? How shall we live? And decorate? This is an issue not generally broached by our higher art institutions. And yet in Seattle we have had three simultaneous exhibitions exploring these headier facets of design.

Designed Environments at Nordic Heritage Museum

A steady influx of people of Nordic heritage into Seattle began in 1890, and did not actually peak until the 90s. Whether or not people can identify the aesthetics and cultural norms of Northern Europe, they are quite prevalent here.

Not just here, though. Thanks to Ikea, Nordic design has taken the west by storm, furnishing dorms and starter homes from here to Miami with inoffensive, minimalist designs that won’t survive a move, but sure are adequate. Also thanks to Ikea, conscientious consumers can now wonder whether their end table has contributed to the deforestation of everything north of St Petersburg.

But Ikea is a lesson in mass production and efficiency and only the most prominent example of Scandinavian design, not the alpha and omega of Nordic design. The Nordic Heritage Museum has shined a little light on design from Sweden’s Baltic neighbor with Finland: Designed Environments organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It is a sampling of Finnish design from the last 15 years—furnishings, fashion, food, city planning—but one can see the design philosophies behind this stretching back much further. The elegant, unembellished aesthetics that have largely defined the early 21st century are familiar—one might view as a rectilinear, attenuated rehash of mid-century modernism or even Bauhaus—but in this case are assembled with precision and firmness, not an Allen wrench.

"Double Bubble lamp," 2000, Cast plastic, LED lights by Eero Aarnio. Collection of Gayle Fuguitt and Tom Veitch, Minneapolis

“Double Bubble lamp,” 2000, Cast plastic, LED lights by Eero Aarnio. Collection of Gayle Fuguitt and Tom Veitch, Minneapolis

In the objects presented for Designed Environments one sees a balance of form and function that is, we are told, motivated by a push for genuine sustainability. There is a lot of cast, molded plastic, which doesn’t really fit that bill, but the examples of architecture do. Unfortunately, those displays just aren’t very compelling. The range of design addressed is too broad and the examples are too few to make a compelling case for anything, and one also hopes that this isn’t the best the country has to offer.

There are some very attractive pieces, though. I was most taken with Tapio Antilla’s Palikka stool, made with bound wood scraps, and the HK 002 Lounge Chair by Harri Koskinen. A rocking chair made of felted polyester molded on a steel frame was interesting in theory, but a bit frumpy in person. Basically, I would try sitting down on this stuff, but I am not sure that I would enjoy it.

In this light, Finnish design seems a polished play on averages, which one can contrast with the two other dominant manufacturers of goods in Europe, Germany and Italy. In terms of mechanical goods: If you want something that looks like it was designed to survive a plane crash and will—in fact—probably outlive you, go with German design. If you want something that is gorgeous, but will probably spit out two espressos then burst into flames, go with Italian design. If you want something that seems to be designed according to a statistical mean, go with the Nordics.

"Palikka stool," 2005–8 Wood by Tapio Antilla Finnish. Image Courtesy of Tapio Antilla and Nordic Heritage Museum.

“Palikka stool,” 2005–8, Wood by Tapio Antilla
Finnish. Image Courtesy of Tapio Antilla and Nordic Heritage Museum.

In terms of furnishings, the Mediterranean and its rich fibers are all luxury, while the further north one goes, the more the designs seek to accommodate the human form with the least amount of material, neatly arranged. One can attribute it to scarcity and geography. The ancient Greeks believed that in the hyperborean lands beyond the origin of the north wind the sun would shine ever bright and there would be perpetual verdure and abundance, but though the lands of the midnight sun have abundant greenery, it is largely inedible. Unable to take agrarian abundance for granted, Nordic cultures have made peace with the harshest of elements, withstanding the deprivation of winter through careful planning and moderation in warmer months.

That’s admirable, and it squares with the west’s growing conscientiousness about rampant consumption. This is not to say that western consumer habits have genuinely shifted in recent years, even as the global human population climbs toward 8 billion. Rather than actually adopting more austere habits, we have adopted the aesthetics of such austerity, then sugarcoated these jagged, particle board pills with twee marketing.

I left the show feeling like what I witnessed was the Finnish equivalent of the Swedish lagom (variously translated as “enough and just enough, adequate”), which is moderation not just in design but also in temperament and behavior. Nothing too ostentatious or loud, nothing boastful or boorish—Lutheran, basically. It’s a concept deeply ingrained in Seattle’s local culture. However, one expecting something more revolutionary from Designed Environments—billed as a look at the “renaissance of Finnish design”—is more likely to call it that most succinct English utterance of averages: meh

The New Frontier at Bellevue Arts Museum

The New Frontier at Bellevue Arts Museum turned its focus to the surge of new design in our own region. Featuring 28 design studios based in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, it has remarkable variety and quite a few surprises in a small space.

The upstairs galleries of BAM are oddly shaped and arranged, but curators Charlie Schuck and Jennifer Navva Milliken manage to fill them with dozens upon dozens of objects without feeling cramped. (They even use the small pool outside the south facing windows.) It’s a master class in how to display new designs in a museum without making it look like a showroom, bringing out the artistry and functionality of the objects in tight vignettes.

The show is unified by a few factors. Two of them could be observed in Designed Environments: a lack of embellishment that yet allows for playfulness, and a sensitivity to shape as the point of departure for this playfulness. A greater quantity of objects helped make this more immediately apparent, but one also witnessed a genuine push for sustainability, with an emphasis on locally sourced, salvaged and natural materials, especially wood.

Carved columns by Aleph Geddis

Carved columns by Orcas Island-based Aleph Geddis. Photo by Charlie Schuck.

Wood reigned in this show, with designers taking scraps and cast off pieces from lumber mills and fashioning beautiful objects by hand. The curators emphasized that these designers are not just prototyping these objects and having them fabricated elsewhere. They are creating these objects in limited runs, unique in their markings, thanks to the natural grain of the wood. Landon Dix made this point subtly with three “process display cases,” which contained wood shavings and chips from the carving process. These were hung by beautiful, lathe-turned cups and candle holders—heirlooms in the making. That also goes for the exquisite spoon set by Aleph Geddis, an Orcas Island-based artist known more for his large geometric columns, which look like tree trunks from M.C. Escher’s dreams.

Such delight in form proceeded in play with function as well. Ceramic “Intertidal Deployment Objects” by Something Like This Design (OR) were submerged in water, on which small, sessile marine organisms attached themselves, especially barnacles. Each interchangeable part of these objects becomes unique through biological intervention, and to the viewer, the life and health of the oceans is brought close to one’s mind. Form met function more literally in the “Training Dresser” by Peter Bristol who is known for his smart, subversive designs. The drawers of the dresser mimic the silhouettes of their respective garments, i.e. a shirt-shaped drawer for shirts and a sock-shaped drawer for…socks. In the same chamber, wallpaper by Erich Ginder reproduces Victorian floral motifs with typed characters in the vein of ASCII art, rendered as a wall hanging—including a signature selvage.

Joel Sayres’ multifunctional wood “tumblers” are in design galleries around town and could be classified as sculptures on their own, but when presented spilling across a dais as they are at The New Frontier, they blur the line between installation art and display. One can appreciate the unique grain and shape of each piece while also reveling in the abundance of these labor-intensive works. Such abundance is also the display principle with chandeliers by Iacoli & McAllister, pendant lamps by graypants studio (who also made a delightful “Cloud” of ping pong balls hanging outside the Museum entrance) and the glowing jumble of rods and bulbs in the “Stokk Chandelier,” a collaboration between Urbancase and Standard Socket.

Sand cast brass trays by Omer Arbel Office/Bocci are truly “functional art,” hung on the wall like something half-organic, half-volcanic. This juxtaposition feels totally at home in the northwest. Art glass, also prevalent in the region, makes a notable appearance in the softly colored and beautifully cut, kiln-cast work of John Hogan in a far corner of the gallery. Every time I see Hogan’s work (generally at Curtis Steiner in Ballard) I want to take a bite out of it. It just looks yummy.

Hogan collaborates with another featured studio, Ladies and Gentleman Studios, which is now operating on two coasts, in Seattle and in Brooklyn. L & G offers the most comprehensive array of items, though most of what is on display is limited to lighting and chimes. They also create seating, jewelry, mirrors and other furnishings with a unified aesthetic—lots of simple shapes, muted colors with no frills. The New Frontier encapsulates early 21st century design as a whole, and L & G is particularly iconic of this moment.

This show is well at home in BAM, an institution whose current Artistic Director, Stefano Catalani, has devoted himself to breaking down hardened notions of a binary between art and craft. This show helps bridge notions of art and design, for all are objects that create a distinct energy in a space, and what is thoughtfully crafted to last and invoke care will contribute to a healthier mental space than a disposable, arbitrary hoard. The term “curation” is overused to the point of cliché, but it is appropriate here: We should be curating our spaces with art and design in ways that reflect our inner lives, not to “keep up with the Joneses.” Even high design borders on the pornographic sometimes, the way that it fetishizes space and form and seeks the gaze of others.

The New Frontier doesn’t preach on this point, focusing its energy instead on the love of the craft and the creative force behind the objects. That’s what keeps it from being a mere showroom, and Schuck and Milliken chose designer-makers who exemplify individuals devoted to perfecting a craft and defining a regional aesthetic, while participating in a global movement to reduce wastefulness in manufacture and distribution of goods.

Chair by Rason Jens at The New Frontier. Photo by Charlie Schuck.

“Beyond Beyond” by Rason Jens at The New Frontier. Photo by Charlie Schuck.

There is one last lesson worth noting: Depending on how you enter and proceed through the exhibit, the works of Rason Jens will be the first or last thing you encounter, which is apt because they are most peculiar. A chair by Jens is the Frankensteinian revival of the Steltman chair, designed by Gerrit Rietveld of the De Stijl movement. That movement was characterized by a simplicity of form, made with intention of mass-production, and thus laid the foundation for the age of Ikea in so many ways. The shape of the Steltman chair is generally intact, but formed of a Memphis-school mash of materials plucked from a Brutalist workshop. Titled “Beyond, Beyond (after Rietveld)” it not only defies the general aesthetic sense of the show, but is so abysmally ugly that in order to deal with its mere existence, one begins to imagine spaces where it might actually fit, and that is actually quite pleasing.

Such an unforgettable, uncategorizable piece reminds viewers that design is not just about an ergonomic appeasement of the consumer, just as art is not merely decorative. We welcome challenging art, and by the same logic we cannot dismiss a formidable design as sadistic (even if it looks so). If by popular notions design must be relegated to the realm of function rather than aesthetics alone, we must allow it to play with how we experience and use these objects—and to defy the wasteful and oppressive mass-production. “Beyond Beyond” is a brilliant parody of that, but I won’t call it a concept piece alone. I actually do want to sit in that monstrosity. I have sat in Victorian-era chairs that are gorgeously embellished and inviting to the eye, but—to put it in period terms—baleful to the fundament. The New Frontier invites us to consider design not just in terms of production, distribution and taste, but as a means of experiencing novel sensory experiences in our most familiar spaces. Without that, it is less an aesthetic, and more anesthetic.

Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament at The Frye

The Frye had its own historical look at design movement in the early 20th century with its spring exhibits Pan and 1800. In those shows, as in The New Frontier and Designed Environments, the look was at how design reflects larger movements. With the solo show of artist Leo Saul Berk, Structure and Ornament, we have a look into the individual experience and how a designed environment affects the inner life of its inhabitants. Strangely, the exhibition as a whole feels like less than the sum of its parts, which is the exact opposite of what one would hope from a well-wrought environment, whether in a home or a museum…or a home dissected in a museum, as is the case here.

The home in question is the Ford House in Aurora, Illinois, where Leo Saul Berk lived as a child. It was designed in 1947 by the self-taught, Utopia-minded architect Bruce Goff for Sam and Ruth Van Sickle Ford, who wanted “a modern house,” which Goff took as carte blanche to create something that was both non-traditional in form and material—Quonset hut ribs, masonry of cannel coal and glass cullet, ceilings made of nautical rope. Berk says of moving into the house in 1980 at the age of six, “In one day, all of the givens of what defines a house were dissolved.”

They moved in during a record-breaking winter storm and slept without furniture on the radiant heat flooring, “staring up each night at the giant skylight ringed by the domed ceiling.” The structure of the house remained a thin, permeable membrane to the outside world, baking in the summer and freezing in the winter, topped off with a leaky roof. It had an austerity that Berk says “bathed the soul in a spiritual light,” but wore too much on the adults. In 1986, they sold it and moved out. Theirs was the second-longest tenancy in the house’s history at the time.

"Cone Twelve" (installation view), 2014, by Leo Saul Berk. Photo by Mark Woods,

“Cone Twelve” (installation view), 2014, by Leo Saul Berk. Photo by Mark Woods,

Gaston Bachelard’s La Poetique de L’espace published in 1958 explores the phenomena of different spatial types, with the opening chapters devoted to the interior, domestic space, which he views as formative to the soul, not merely a physical shelter but a psychic one. The childhood home is never fully left—or conversely never leaves the child—and to understand the house (as a concept) is a means to understand memory, feeling and imagination. In later chapters he dives into nests and shells, forests and voids, but the author himself never strays far from that germinal home, that humble palace of the mind and heart.

Those who appreciate Bachelard might see in Structure and Ornament a primer to topoanalysis for people who have never much considered the spaces they inhabit. The extraordinary case of the Ford House makes abundantly clear that one’s dwelling is more than a passive wrapper, but potentially the lens through which one views the inner and outer worlds. If one accepts this, then it follows that other species of architecture may constrain the imagination and weigh it down, especially if the forms are dull and repetitive. Goff and his predecessors in the late 19th and early 20th century liked to envision worlds in which uninhibited design was ubiquitous and generative to peace and joy—even utopia—but even some of them espoused repetitive, populist, minimal forms that harmonize among each other but have proved counterproductive to harmony in humans. Goff went off the rails a bit, but he may have been onto something.

Berk is sympathetic, but tempered in his approach. He revisits key facets of the Ford House, reimagines them, expands them in a collection of large sculptures and installations. A lot of the work is an homage to Goff, including the wind jangle hanging from the oculus in the museum’s atrium. 1,500 black and silver aluminum chimes are suspended over 25 feet, dangling just shy of the floor at the lowest point, and arranged to mimic a piano roll composition by Goff. His initial design called for chimes to be hung around the exterior of the house, but was cut from the project during construction.

"Wind Jangle" (installation view), 2015, by Leo Saul Berk. Photo by Mark Woods

“Wind Jangle” (installation view), 2015, by Leo Saul Berk. Photo by Mark Woods

Other “wrongs” are righted by Berk, including a dome design he created for a previous show at the Frye, Moment Magnitude. Goff’s first roof design called for strips of wood arranged in a spiral pattern, but the math was too difficult for him and others and eventually declared impossible and replaced with a herringbone pattern. Berk figured out the math after many tries, and presents a small version of such a spiral dome.

"Clinkers," 2012, Duratrans, sculptural light box by Leo Saul Berk. Image courtesy of Frye Art Museum.

“Clinkers,” 2012, Duratrans, sculptural light box by Leo Saul Berk. Image courtesy of Frye Art Museum.

Another repeat from the Moment Magnitude show is the photographic print “Clinkers,” which shows the light as it filters through the green glass cullet at sunset in the house. The vivid, virid glass left a lasting impression on Berk. In a nearby sculpture fencing off two chambers of the museum, you can find the silhouettes of these clinkers as empty space: The sculpture is a replica of the mortar surrounding this glass and the cannel coal blocks that made up the exterior wall.

One might say Berk has traced the very fiber of the house.Rope Bridge” is an awkwardly shaped mash of straight and curved line made of the the same nautical rope that covered ceilings in the home, giving off the pungent scent of pine tar. It was primarily for the smell of it that Berk constructed this piece. Meanwhile, the invisible heat of the floors upon which Berk slept on those first nights in the house was captured with infrared photography, then translated into a woven rug, which lies in the central chamber. It is not just the visible design of the house that is essential, but its pulse, its sounds, its metabolism (if you will). The life of the house and its strange light was known to the architect and then to the six-year old artist before it was furnished.

Despite how clever it all is, the exhibit ultimately feels a little lifeless for a show about a lived-in space. The sculptures are spare, to be seen and not touched, though by their form and their history they invite visitors to do just that. We can never access the memories and nostalgia Berk is accessing through his work, and the dialog there has made some pretty things, but they feel like specimens laid out, parts of a creature that the general audience cannot reassemble. I hope that this has been fruitful for Berk, but the public probably doesn’t need any more on the Ford House after this. By the end, I was reminded less of Bachelard, more of Persius Flaccus, who wrote, “Tecum habita: noris quam sit tibi curta supellex.” (Live in thyself: Know how sparsely furnished you are.)

Still—and this is true for all the shows—I was glad for a lack of clutter. In museums and minds alike, that is one thing we can do without.

The New Frontier is on display at Bellevue Arts Museum through August 16. Leo Saul Berk: Structure and Ornament is on display at The Frye Art Museum through September 6.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

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