PRINT January 1977

Design Deformed

THE OPENING EXHIBITION OF the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, “Man TransForms: Aspects of Design,” is a puzzling pastiche of past art exhibitions, past Contemporary Crafts Museum shows and current window display. Its evident appeal to the public, which has been flocking to the museum since its October 7th opening, fails to diminish the sense of acute embarrassment most design professionals feel about the show. Architecture and design are not exhibited enough in New York for the design community to be able to shrug off a gimmicky haphazard representation of its efforts. Current arguments debating whether the museum show strives more for pretentious effect or for a condescending simple-mindedness is not the real point, however. Even its critical failure but commercial success syndrome—an interesting issue not to be ignored—obscures the basic issue. The main question of the show ultimately revolves around that old sticky wicket of “design” and its identity: what is it? How should it be defined, how can it be communicated? These are the questions everyone is asking now. Rather than resolving them, the exhibition adds to the confusion—and thus the general malaise.

The questions become critical in this museum situation, since, unlike art, design and architecture have a meaning ascribed to them quite independent of the exhibition context. Because the design disciplines must continually consort with commerce, utility and technology as understood conditions of their physical existence, their being brought into the museum or gallery space will always occur on terms different from art. At a basic level, what is exhibited will not be the real thing so much as a comment about the real thing. Design objects on display are not only referring to the world outside; they are referring to their role in that world. This sentiment is readily visible in the exhibition of architecture, which has to be represented through models, photographs or drawings. But the representational point of design objects is less clear when the actual artifact, e.g. a chair, is displayed. Actually, the placement of design objects inside the museum assigns them an expanded representational role. Their use becomes subordinate to their cultural, esthetic, and historical significations.

The Viennese architect Hans Hollein, who conceived and developed the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition, was obviously trying to grapple with these concerns. Certain principles or themes are explored throughout the exhibition—transformation, simulation, confrontation and metaphor—concepts that frequently attach themselves to design and its meaning. Unfortunately, however, their full implication is not explored in the show. Nor are these concepts successfully manipulated as a means to get to the nature of design. Instead they deflect attention away from it.

Aside from questions of content, the design exhibition must come to terms with aspects of communication—through a didactic approach (e.g. a science exhibit) from which one “learns,” or an esthetic experience (as in a “fine” arts museum), or both. Should the museum-goer absorb the communication through active engagement or detached observation, or both? Should design be presented as a process or end-product? These questions were all fundamental to the conceptualization of the exhibition at Cooper-Hewitt.

The director of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Lisa Taylor, explains that the museum desired an opening exhibition that would attract the public and ensure future support of the museum; the event would not be intimidating, chic or avant-garde. She did not want the object put on a pedestal, enshrined as if it were in a museum of fine arts. In the National Museum of Design (since the Smithsonian Institution took it over in 1967) design is intended to be seen and judged on its own terms. What are those terms? Generally design is defined as a conscious effort to impose a meaningful material and symbolic order on the physical world. This attitude implies an emphasis on the end-product. More particularly, and recently, design is also viewed as a transformation of matter—so that an emphasis on process is implied.

In his introduction to the exhibition catalogue, the industrial designer George Nelson points out that the old Cooper-Hewitt Museum, begun by the Hewitt sisters in 1897 within grandfather Peter Cooper’s Copper Union school, was a collection of designed end-products or things—prints, furniture and artworks. With the grand opening in its newly renovated quarters in the Andrew Carnegie mansion, Nelson explains, Cooper-Hewitt wanted to emphasize its concern for the total man-made environment. It would side with design as process, divorcing itself from the proselytizing role of the Museum of Modern Art’s “good design” shows of the 1940s. It would eschew the commodity fetishism inherent in design display. The show attempts, argues Nelson, to present “a return to the sources, . . . we are back in the world of the poet, mystic, child, seer, philosopher, world of direct esthetic experience.” Nelson suggests that the “series of exposures might be compared in their impact to the Armory Show of 1913.”

Already some interesting expectations have been revealed: the exhibition would not be avant-garde or fine-arts oriented, but would be as arresting (or traumatic) as the Armory Show. The unifying concept is stated by Hollein in the catalogue: “Everything is design,” he generously philosophizes. “Design is here understood as an approach to a problem, an attitude toward action, toward the shaping of life and environment.” Rather than raw didacticism, Hollein contends that show must convey a message through “direct experience, through confrontation, simulation, transformation and metaphor.” Thus participation and process are deemed the dynamic duo that will captivate the public and reveal to it the essence of “design.”

To explore these intentions, Hollein selected a handful of international architects, Ettore Sottsass, O.M. Ungers, Richard Meier, Arata Isozaki, Nader Ardelan, along with the sculptor Karl Schlamminger, the filmmaker Murray Grigor, the designer/writer Peter Bode. The results, meant to be intriguing, bordered on the perverse. A group of international architects(for the most part) celebrates the opening of an American museum, which owns an astonishing collection of significant decorative objects, with a series of exhibits that have almost nothing to do with the collection, in a house restored and renovated for the occasion by the architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, which can’t be seen because of the installation.

The exhibit “topics” seem quite confusing. While everything may be design, not everything can be shown. What was selected for the show is "astonishingly incoherent. Bread, star motifs, birdcages, hammers, door handles, photographs of city plans, cloth, dodecahedrons are each given exhibition space. Some are displayed as objects; others are presented quite didactically (especially Fuller’s synergetics exhibit and film). Some exhibits are intended to be played with, some to be viewed, others walked through, and so on. Despite the precision of the statement of what the show would not be and what it would do (attract the public for example), there is still no sense of what this exhibit was to be. It couldn’t be everything, so it settled on being a random sample of divertissements.

Yet the concepts that Hollein singled out to explain design do recur and should enlighten: transformation, simulation, confrontation and metaphor. Their failure to reveal something to us about the complexity of design—its conditioning by constraints of economy, politics, sociology, its layers of symbolic meaning coating its actual raison d’être and function—is instructive.

In order to investigate the nature of transformation in the design process, Hollein returns to some very basic elements of everyday life: tools (hammers), sustenance (bread) and covering (cloth). All manners and shapes of hammers are mounted on the walls of one room. But beyond a limited message about “transformation” that one gleans from the different forms to serve related functions, there are no other revelations. Instead of a comment or an insight the museum-goer is presented with a glorified hardware display.

In another room, different “designs” of bread have been collected and enclosed in a large-scale glass and bronze anodized aluminum breadbox with a marble floor. In yet another exhibit, cloth is displayed in all its manifestations, from bandage to sari to sail, with gee-whiz fervor: on one side of a free-standing partition, one sees a piece of canvas and a wood stretcher; moving around the partition the museum-goer becomes aware that the “front” of the canvas is (has been “transformed” into) a painting.

Although Hollein wanted to avoid the didactic tones of a design show, many of the exhibits seem to make overt points to which the museum-goer is directed. See how many applications of the star motif (all different, all similar!) can be found in the works of man, is the message one deduces in the “Star Room.” This kind of representation, again where relations depend on visible similitudes, yields little beyond commonplace knowledge. The modern mind, as Michel Foucault has so thoroughly argued, is beyond the point of depending on a network of identities and differences for knowing the world. The contemporary mind understands the relationships between things—a focus that turns attention away from classification to perception of links, underlying structures and patterns.

Hollein’s exhibits, “Situations of Man” and “Daily Routine,” delve into an exploration of metaphor. In “Situations,” oversize chairs, table, cot, plus overalls, ladder and portals are installed; mundane objects striving for enigmatic and poetic effect through distortion and juxtaposition. In “Daily Routine” Hollein makes a sociological commentary about man’s physical and mental landscape through photomurals of an office environment, food cabinets, bookshelves arranged around a living room. In the room easy chairs are turned toward the fireplace, in which sits a television showing scenes of fire, conflagration and destruction.

In one sense, these metaphorical environments should vastly appeal to spectators who find the other exhibits too one-dimensional. But the genre is one that comments primarily on an aspect of the human condition, not really on design’s involvement (or complicity) in that condition as it is shaped, historically, in any one social environment. The shift toward art generates false comparisons. By “art” standards, these exhibits lack the witty pungency or fresh insight of Claes Oldenburg’s Bedroom Ensemble of 1963, or the tableaux of Ed Kienholz and George Segal. Here design seeks to throw off its true identity and change its categories. For a proper design comparison, the recent “Signs of Life” exhibition of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown at the Renwick Gallery in Washington made the appropriate devastating sociological comment about design and the public with its contemporary “period” rooms.

The sense of this show’s unconscious desire to be about art instead of design mounts as one comes in contact with other exhibits. Ettore Sottsass’ evocative photographs with their cutely idiosyncratic titles such as “Design of one of the 1,000 waiting rooms where you will consume your life” offers another case in point. Invidious comparisons begin again: Duane Michals’ photographs say it better.

When art is not pursued, the funhouse atmosphere takes over, particularly in the metaphorical oeuvres exploring aspects of “confrontation.” Hollein’s “Door Experience” with differently scaled doors and confusing signals offers one showy example. Peter Bode’s room of “Pick a Handle,” replete with sliding doors that lock the participant inside until he pushes the right button, provides another. “Confrontation” here has been transformed into play by instilling bogus fears and confusions into the museum-goer.

The exhibitions that seem to be metaphors for something else—architecture perhaps—evoke equally antipathetic responses. Nader Ardelan and Karl Schlamminger, for example, created a “Sacred Room,” a walk-in environment in which intersecting arches of twisted square plexiglass tubes are spotlit dramatically from above and sounds of sea and wind cloyingly piped in. This “place” tells us little about the creation of place. The designers are really concentrating on the nature of sensory experience. And again, art has been there before: witness the many sense-stimulating art shows of the ’60s, or the “Spaces” exhibit at the Modern in 1969. Compared to those predecessors, this room simulates the theatrical effect of a stage set or discotheque.

On to Richard Meier’s exhibit “Metamorphosis.” One finds not architecture represented, but a three-dimensional execution of a literary conceit: a square maze formed by a metal lattice on which are hung cardboard placards that spell the separate letters of “metamorphosis.” The museum-goer may arrange the placards to spell other words, an act which is supposed to change the wall planes so that they are opaque (slathered with placards), or transparent. The concept sounds cleverer than the experience. Being squeezed into a narrow labyrinth surrounded by movable placards allowing modification of surface (but not structure of the entrapping maze) does not seem conducive to verbal wordplay. More to the point, the piece lacks a consistent conceptual integration between the physical construct—the gridded labyrinth (in this case a metaphor for architecture)—and the linguistic device, the anagram.

O.M. Ungers’ “City as a Metaphor” attempts to get to a level of visual structuralism: we see analogous images between a colonial city plan and a turtle, a city plan by Bruno Taut and a picture of a rose, the human skeleton and Manhattan’s street system. But the connections are flatly presented with the “message” unexplored in any of its implications.

By the same token, Arata Isozaki’s room of fanciful birdcages, belonging to the museum’s collection, makes more sense (whereas his exhibit on “gravity” doesn’t). One enters the room through a partial mock-up of a birdcage in which an “annunciation angel” hovers. Inside, one becomes aware of the photographs above the assembled cages—a bird’s-eye view of one landscape seen through all the different configurations of the bars of the cages below the photos. At least this experience generates a kind of captivating resonance, as well as referring the public back to the museum’s own collections.

Many reviews of the show have remarked on the way the exhibition masks or conceals the Andrew Carnegie mansion design by Babb, Cook & Willard in 1902, and just renovated by the architects Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer. Masking—meaning the successful concealment of one element by another—occurs frequently. But more often, the installation of the “Man TransForms” show just clashes directly with the museum’s architecture. While this may in fact be Hollein’s intention, one rarely sees such malevolent insensitivity in an exhibit installation. The way Hollein’s “Door Experience” smashes through the ground floor hallway with its marvelously carved wood paneling and ceiling chillingly summarizes the entire effect. True, the room sizes in the mansion created obvious problems in installing the show: one needs only to visit the room where the “Situations of Man,” the “Gravity Room” and the exhibit on building an igloo all wrestle for attention to get the gist of the situation.

But it appears as if there had been no anticipation of this problem, little “confrontation” between issues at hand regarding the experience of the existing spaces and the perception of the installations, singly or sequentially. One moves from “City Metaphors” to “Pick a Handle,” from “Angel Cage” to “Daily Routine” as one would the stores in a shopping center.

A complete review of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer’s handling of their assignment in transforming the mansion into a museum will have to wait till the third and fourth floors are finished and this exhibition is removed. But it remains a major irony that the opening exhibition on “design” and “transformation” virtually turns its back on the design transformation and the collection that exist under its nose. Those drawings (30,000), textiles (18,000), furniture, books, etc. await a future unveiling, along with the museum’s architecture.

One wonders if Hollein’s exhibition would have met with such difficulty if it had been presented in a loft space. Probably. One of the advantages of this placement is that the constant battle between the container—with its boiserie, its Lincrusta panels, its marble fireplaces—and the exhibition’s incursions is distracting enough to keep the viewer from examining its content too closely. But there are moments when the installation becomes aggressively jarring on its own terms: for example the heavy-handed wood cases that hold fragile pieces of cloth; the tacky gray fabric masking wood paneled walls and ceiling in the Sottsass exhibit. And there are moments when the masking over of the container by the exhibit is too successful: witness the concealment of Lockwood deForest’s carved teak walls and ceiling by black fabric in the room where “Metamorphosis” is installed. While it must be said that room assignments were shifted so that this joke was not intended from the outset, it cruelly points up the weakness in the planning of the exhibition, for which the house/museum was never designed—nor renovated.

In relation to this discussion about design installation and the nature of representation it was instructive to travel 80-some-odd blocks downtown where an exhibition of the architecture of Richard Meier was on display. It opened in the building that used to house the Cooper Hewitt Museum collections, since renovated by the dean of Cooper Union’s architectural school, John Hejduk.

The show comprises a number of models executed over the last ten years for houses, dormitories, housing and a hospital that Meier and his firm designed. The models, all white, even in instances where the building material is a different color, do not tell us much about how the buildings will be actually perceived. Nor do the models convey to us much about the process of design: they are not working models, but beautifully fabricated constructions to present to the client or public.

However, the show does tell us about “design,” about Meier’s own architectural attitudes, and something about the architect himself. (The models, those abstracted representations of architecture, and the installation ironically come closer to “art” than one would think could happen when design is representing and referring to itself). The models are supported for the most part on black pedestal bases of different heights. The room, part of Hejduk’s renovation, is a simple gallery with white walls, wood floors, track lighting and one glazed wall overlooking a lightwell. Container and contained reach perfect compositional and spatial accord. In fact the pedestal alignment which begins with a grid plan is “deformed” where columns intervene or size of the model calls for a different positioning. Design is flexible: its rules,once clarified, may be broken with understanding.

In addition little of the didactic intrudes on this installation. The models are not arranged chronologically. The only text is provided by the laminated pages of Meier’s just-published book wrapping around two sides of the wall separating gallery from corridor. And yet there are elements that give us insight into the nature of the architecture and the nature of the creative process. On the other two walls are hung a number of collaged paintings executed by the architect throughout his career. As art works they pass. However, the “dark side of Richard Meier,” as these paintings have been jokingly called, offers an interesting counterpoint to the architecture represented by the models. The architecture suggests the rigorous discipline and reductive purity of an architect who is pruning, discarding, getting rid of the detritus of everyday life, to bring order and serenity to the physical environment. These collages of bright colors with tickets, theater stubs, etc. attest to the conscious effort to impose a meaningful order on reality—even its refuse. A design intelligence and its compulsions are still at work.

It would have been nice if the Cooper-Hewitt show could have revealed this much about design. Of course there is no argument about which show attracted the larger audience. And in this case that is what the Cooper-Hewitt show is all about. Its publicity-conscious efforts have a strong raison d’être, however. Although the Smithsonian has taken the museum under its wing, it gives it little money for operation and maintenance. All the funds for the mansion’s renovation (the house itself was donated), the exhibits, moving the collection from downtown, and hiring necessary staff, not to mention any acquisitions, must be raised privately. The Smithsonian obviously prefers to put its money in air and space museums on its own turf (the Mall in Washington) rather than such effete areas as design in outlying areas like New York. One can certainly sympathize with any efforts on the museum’s behalf. And one can see why Lisa Taylor decided to take a risk with this show. She has awakened the public to the existence of design—and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. More substantial fare is promised later.

On the other hand, you could argue that this kind of show was not taking a risk at all—it has all the right elements to guarantee a packed house. In this way, the exhibit is somewhat like the play Comedians. In the play, a school class of comics in Manchester, England, is having a try-out at a local pub. Despite the warnings of their teacher, some comics lose their nerve and give in to the easy laughs the one-liners that neither illuminate nor reveal the human condition, but play on stereotyped beliefs. Similarly, instead of taking a risk with the drawing power of the collections, or with a “straight” design or architecture show, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum played it safe with one-liners. At the hands of a well-meaning crew of renowned architects and designers it became more of a travesty than a transformation.

Suzanne Stephens is a senior editor of Progressive Architecture.