Critiquing the Critics Critiquing the Curators: Reviewing the Why Design Now? Exhibition

About a year ago, a cheeky poster by designer Frank Chimero went viral on the Internet. It declared, in large bold caps; “Design Won’t Save The World”, with the postscript, “Go volunteer at a soup kitchen you pretentious fuck.” The image obviously resonated as it was written about on a number of blogs, linked on Twitter and Facebook. A lot of the time, it was designers themselves referencing this image. As George Nelson noted in ‘Problems with Design’ “it is inevitable that (design) enthusiasts make extravagant or unfounded claims.” Design’s importance must have been exaggerated, as many designers are cynical of such ideas, in fact, Nelson himself was somewhat cynical about his own profession.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of very passionate, idealistic designers and design critics. Exhibitions like ‘Why Design Now?’ at the Cooper Hewitt could be seen as an attempt to counteract this notion that using design to solve major problems or “save the world” is a pretentious notion.

For a long time, “what is design?” was the popular question, as the design process and profession needed clarification. In answering this question Adrian Forty noted that design has two main aspects that are, in a sense, inseparable. The first is design that deals with a look of an object and is second is design as a preparation for the production of goods. This preparation involves a process of problem solving. Now that what design itself is more established, the question has turned to why design? The ‘Why Design Now?’ exhibition focuses primarily on design as a problem solving process.

I entered the Cooper Hewitt in a flurry of excitement. My hometown of Ireland has no national design museum and I hoped this prestigious institution was an indication of the high value placed on design in New York. The exhibition itself was diverse in both subject and geography. The curators were obviously passionate and hopeful about the future of all design around the world, as evidenced by their broad selection and their positive object descriptions.

The small size of museum allowed for a leisurely pace even though there was a large amount of objects. This afforded me the opportunity to really examine each piece. I left the exhibition with some unanswered questions but I put that down to my own ignorance about certain aspects of science or design. It never occurred to me that these lingering queries could be an intrinsic fault of the exhibition. I viewed musuems as a kind of higher power, originally taking the exhibition organisation as gospel and accepted it without question. This opinion was from before I read the many reviews of this exhibition. It was also before I had begun the D-Crit program at SVA where I have begun learning the value of my own opinion. So in a sense, when I went back to re-visit I really got a proper second look.

The reviews of the exhibition ranged from the highly admirable to the deeply critical. The reviews didn’t take from from my initial enjoyment but it taught me to always expect more from the institutions representing my field. Many of the critics had found the same faults with the exhibition that I had, particularly in regards to signage and information. For me, the vague descriptions resulted in an exhibition that was difficult to fully comprehend, even for a designer or design historian. Lisa Smith’s article for Core77 references this problem in the title of her piece ‘Not Enough Information’. She argues that it is the responsibility of the museum to clarify design to the general public through the placement of the objects and the accompanying descriptions. Perhaps the exhibition should have included fewer objects and prioritized the explanation of this smaller number.

The main dividing topic among the critics was the aestethics of the exhibition. David D’Arcy writing for the ‘Architects Newspaper’ called the exhibition “decoratively deprived” and was crtitical of “the designer’s indifference to aesthetic considerations.” This is both a criticism of the exhibition’s selection process and the designer’s themselves. Conversely, Alissa Walker from GOOD magazine finds this aesthetic encouraging; “impressed by the fact that most pieces are not even pretty.” Walker’s writing approach is idealistic and optimistic and in very much the same mindset as the exhibition. Lisa Smith critical of the object’s  “folksy quality” and their use of craft materials. Given curator Ellen Lupton’s publication ‘DIY: Design It Yourself’ and her knowledge of DIY design, this aesthetic is really unsurprising as it is clear that Lupton endorses the handmade quality in design objects.

Perhaps I don’t share the same sensibilities as some of the critics but I didn’t find the aesthetics poor. It was varied and included eye candy for every aesthetic preference. For the dedicated modernist, the ‘Soil lamp’ had a sleek simple construction as is the NYC hoop rack. The delicate ‘VerTerra tableware’ and ‘Magno Wooden Radio’ look straight out of a MUJI showroom and the floral ‘Invisible street lamp’ is feminine and beautiful.

One interesting aspect to the style of these reviews is how often critics referenced each other, illustrating a knowledge of each other’s work and viewpoints. Both Alissa Walker and Lisa Smith reference Holland Cotter’s review for the New York Times. Walker was defending Potter’s criticism of GOOD magazine for being too “upbeat”. Lisa Smith challenges Cotter’s idea that the aesthetics of the exhibition come as a result of prioritizing over function. That many reviews references Potter might be an indicator of how highly viewed the New York Times is. I think that perhaps critics should spend less time referencing each other and stick to talking about the issues raised in the exhibition and their own opinions.

Cotter took a descriptive approach detailing many of the objects as New York Times is a more general interest publication and those reading the article may never actually visit the exhibition.  He points out the same confusion I had about the relevance of the Izzy Miyake piece within the exhibition’s ethical theme. The catalogue offers little additional explanation except to say that using nature as an inspiration “delivers a clear message that we need to preserve its existence.” I suspect Miyake was chosen to add a celebrity designer to the exhibition.

None of these critics ever challenged the motivations and values of the curators. Cooper describes the exhibition as “a credit to the curators’ diligence.” Smith’s article, which generally had a negative tone, ends on a positive note. She acknowledges how difficult exhibition like this is to pull off and says she looks forward to the next iteration.

I admired that the critics challenged the curators, basically saying “this is good, but it’s not good enough.” Design writers and critics may be so critical of the exhibition because they see it as an extension of the work they do. Throughout Walker’s piece she relates the exhibition back to her own profession, even the title ‘Why I Write About Design now’ illustrates this.

These reviews exemplify the critical role that design critics and journalists have in improving the standard of exhibition design and eco-design discourse. Hopefully the curators will take their advice on board and constantly strive for a high standard at the next installment.

Despite its flaws, I still found ‘Why Design Now?’ interesting. But the curators to try an grapple with too many issues in such a small physical place. The scale of the exhibition was admirable but was eventually the exhibition’s downfall. Perhaps when the Cooper Hewitt is extension is complete there will be enough space for such exhibitions with such large contextual and geographical scope.

Perhaps the role of design is somewhere in the middle between grandiose “save-the-world” ideas and purely as an aesthetic process. Designers themselves can decide if they want to lean slightly towards either of those two poles. At the very least, instead of volunteering in a soup kitchen, they can use their skills to design a very effective one!

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