Applied Design Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art

“There are still people who think that design is just about making things, people, and places pretty.” 

This is the first sentence on MoMA’s site explaining the exhibition Applied Design.  As a Decorative Arts and Design Historian, I know that this statement is very true.  Also true, is that some people don’t understand why a “not-so-pretty” object, such as a laminated folding chair, is in an art museum.  I recently witnessed this first-hand when a relative of mine asked why said laminated folding chair was in a museum.  I explained that it was about design and it speaks of innovation, form, material, and use that was new at the time and helped with the evolution of the chair and how we live.  This is what design is all about.  It helps us deal with the fast paced world we live in, and some of the objects in the Applied Design exhibition explore ways in which designers have used new technology or sustainable materials to help us respond to this change.

While I wish I could inform you of all the pieces exhibited I decided to discuss the ones that really piqued my interest.   

One of the interesting (and fun) sections of the exhibition is the video game area. While this area is not shown at the beginning the first “object” that piqued my interest is the exhibition title, which is a video projected on the wall and comprises animated digital symbols: little Martians, planets, cogs, hearts… you get the idea.  These symbols dance around on the wall then come together to form the words Applied Design.  This was mesmerizing because these symbols were very recognizable to me as a child of the 80’s who played video games like Atari.  It also shows just how far we have come in this area of design, which so important that the MoMA has created a new branch in their Architectural and Design department specifically for video game technology.

When I finally shook away the earworm of Video Killed the Radio Star I turned to see what design meant for me, until, that is, I was enlightened by this exhibition.  The display is a vignette comprising a group of chairs, lighting, and a screen.  All of these pieces speak of the organic, fluid forms that some designers seek to emulate.  One of the most recognizable forms in this vignette is Marcel Wanders “Knotted Chair” from 1995.  But surrounded by it were more recent pieces that evoke the same reaction: “If I sit in that, it’s gonna break.”  Which I’m pretty sure would happen if I sat in Tokujin Yoshioka’s Honey-Pop Armchair (2000)!  Made from paper, this chair is folded flat then peels open accordion style into the form of an armchair, and once it receives a sitter their (ahem) impression will be molded into the chair.  But unlike the Wanders chair the Chinese lantern paper is not infused with an epoxy resin and left to harden.  Other organic forms that I like in this vignette are Issey Miyake’s IN-EI Mendori Lamp (2012) situated next to the Honey-Pop Armchair, Louise Campbell’s Veryround Chair (2006) that gives an awesome shadow, and the Biowall by Rachel Wingfield and Mathias Gmachl.  This Biowall is a fiberglass scaffold made of rings and allows vine plants to organically grow through it creating a natural screen.  Shown in the photo below is a small plant just starting to creep into the wall, so imagine when that entire wall is all plant!

Other awesome objects found just across from the Biowall are these blown glass pieces from the Bee’s Project of 2007.  They are all made in beautiful clear glass but are actually diagnostic tools that, when in use, contain trained bees.  Yes, I said TRAINED BEES (who knew!?).  Apparently bees have this amazing odor sensing ability, and they can be trained to detect things such as pregnancy and diseases by simply smelling one’s breath.   Check out this link to MoMA’s short discussion with the designer on these pieces.  

One of the pieces that caught my attention when I saw MoMA’s press release is the Mine Kafon Wind-powered Deminer.  I was drawn to its three-dimensional, round form in the photos, and I assumed it was a small object but once I came upon this piece I was taken aback by its large size.  Made from bamboo and biodegradable plastics this deminer is the brainchild of Massoud Hassani who grew up in war torn Afghanistan where, the museum text explains, his wind-blown toys would often roll into mine fields and could not be retrieved.  His Mine Kafon has a GPS chip that records its path and once it finds a mine it destroys it by exploding.  But since the parts are organic and biodegradable it is safe for the environment, unlike the ruthless mines.

GROW is “a hybrid-energy delivery device” that is made from a whole slew of difficult to pronounce words that the designers claim are materials that can be sustainably recycled and reclaimed.  This device is made to look like leaves of ivy and have photovoltaic (say that 10 times fast!) panels that generate solar power and “leaves” flutter in the wind to create wind power. 

The group of video games lured me in next.  I got sucked into playing two of them for at least twenty minutes.  From Pac Man to some weird game I couldn’t figure out, these “objects” are the beginning of a new branch of collections at MoMA.  I can’t wait to watch that collection grow! 

I don’t want to give away everything because many of these pieces are best viewed in person.  But other notable items on display are the @ symbol (yes, that simple little sign you see above the 2 that has become ubiquitous in our world of email), a honeycomb vase made by bees (not sure if these were trained “craftsman” that demand to become unionized but there is a video of the bees making the vase that is fun to watch), also some electronic maps of wind currents, as well as 3-D printed pieces. 

I highly recommend you see this exhibition ASAP, as it is fun and enlightening!  And you have no excuse to miss it since it stays on view until January 31, 2014.