New York

“Workspheres”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

OUR HABITAT IS BEING RESTRUCTURED on an order of magnitude beyond ken. What began as a technological revolution is already re-forming our every implement and reorganizing our every social arrangement. The new economy, the super-bull market, global connectivity, cyberlife, and our galaxy of digi-gadgets are just the pretty sparks before the firestorm. And by now, the flux of product extinctions and emergences is so brisk that we no longer even notice the turnovers. Remember life before the computer, the remote, even before the cell? (Cell phone, that is.) How long until we can no longer remember what it was like to go to the office—or to have free time? Giant strides in material and information sciences and engineering guarantee that this moment lies just around the corner, occasioning “Workspheres,” an exhibition organized by MoMA's perennial optimist, architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli. Not so much a considered argument as a romp, “Workspheres” staged a frenetic, slightly disheveled revue of 200-plus brainstorms, shots from the hip, and leaps of faith by designers from around the globe, riffing on the work world to come. The range of futuristic offerings reminded me of the bizarre, short-lived experiments in shape and mechanism that nature conducts just after a mass extinction, before settling on a basic style manual.

The curtain rose in MoMA's lobby, where two gadget-bound, tech-heavy hunks flanked the ticket kiosk like Patience and Fortitude on steroids. Bran Ferren and Thomas Ritter's custom-built MaxiMog Global Expedition Vehicle System, 1998–2000, a road-legal tank-truck in two parts complete with global communications system, scouting motorcycle, and “kitchen pod,” boasts it can take you anywhere, and enable you to do anything from there, but mostly just sits around flexing. The rest of the show unfolded in three overlapping parts on the second floor, offering everything from concept study to prototype to pret-a-porter. Act I, the Official Office, divided into scenes: workstations, office furniture, and desktop stuff. Act II. the Nomadic Office, was a potpourri of familiar portables and remotes, mixed with hybrid concepts and visionary wearables foregrounding mobility. (Presumably, the MaxiMog would have been up here, had it been able to negotiate the treacherous escalator.) Among these, the Écharpe Communicante (Communicating scarf), 2000. Naziha Mestaoui, Yacine Aït Kaci, and Christophe Beaujays's ominous neckwear outfitted with phone, camera, and computer, grabbed my brave new attention. Act III, the Domestic Office. with compact desks, movable cabinets, and organizational tools, demonstrated how to blend the private and the professional while keeping both intact.

Of the six MoMA commissions scattered throughout, showstoppers were John Maeda and the MIT Media Lab's Atmosphere, 2000, a personal organizer projected on a large crinkled screen to double as a floating ribbon of information and atmospheric lighting, and Naoto Fukasawa and IDEO's dreamy Personal Skies, 2001, an ultraminimal set piece in white, made moody by ceiling projections of choose-your-own new-age skyscapes and LED-backed chairs capable of matching the color and pattern of your outfit as you sit down. Less engaging was LOT/EK's Inspiro-Tainers, 2001, yet another of the trendy New York architecture studio's ho-hum techno spins on the found, this time in the form of a shipping container turned constructivist video arcade/"decompression chamber.'' It's been nearly a week since I've seen that idea on a grad-school drawing board—but at least LOT/EK actually built it. Mind'Space, 2001, an intriguing but unresponsive workstation proposing to better organize the office environment, fizzled. Its precedent is _Cell Storage, a component of Flo Concept Work Station, 1997, itself an ingenious experiment by Brian Alexander (a member of Mind'Space's crew). Cell Storage's undulating shelves intersect to form a warped array of uniquely shaped cubbyholes. Not only visually compelling, the system promises to make it easier to remember what was put where; whether or not it fulfills its functional promise, it's certain to become a period collector's item. Two other commissions attracted much attention, despite their hokeyness. Martí Guixé proffered HiBye, 2001, a menu of pills that turn into sock, underwear, and other useful stuff when you gum 'em. Ugh; I prefer the Hirst version. Holland's Hella Jongerius implants computers in a bed and its pillows to yield Bed in Business, 2000, which I would have liked to try sans electronic gimmicks.

“Workspheres” skimmed over the thornier issues of technology in the workplace—fatigue, alienation, paranoia—relegating these to the catalogue if at all. Only a cursory nod was given to the dark fate of Robert Propst's Action Office 2, 1968-76. Intended to empower and dignify the individual office worker, the design instead made for worker warehousing and the dread cubicle. More important, the show did not pause to consider a contemporary kind of soft slavery, the sinister subterfuge of capital using desire to colonize leisure time with work. Nor did it speculate on the radical social reorganization our new promiscuous connectivity will certainly engender.

Then again, why spoil all the fun? Like every fantasy, this show was more about erotics than content, and it generated a giddy, sexy buzz-social space become ecstasy. Scanning the displays, I detected wonderful little trend eddies: softness, transparency, floating, glowing, LifeSaver colors. Minimal's still around, though mostly I saw seductive forms stuck oddly between chubby and voluptuous, like Cabbage Patch Lolitas. Karim Rashid's Blob furniture, the Apple Mac, IDEO's E-Quill pen, and the other curvaceous objects suggested a kind of paedomorphism—a juvenile's leap into reproductive maturity without developing into its characteristic adult form. In nature, it occurs when resources are excessively abundant.

Jeffrey Kipnis is curator of architecture at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio.