Design for Living in Material World ; N.Y.C. Exhibition Implies Consumers R Us

Article excerpt

The good news on product design is that we're into a post-beige era. That's one message from the "National Design Triennial: Design Culture Now" on display at New York's Cooper-Hewitt Museum through Aug. 6. It features hundreds of objects produced by 83 designers and firms in the last three years that radiate tropical colors like tangerine and hot pink.

These candy coatings are designed to whet our appetite for possessions that an Orwellian - er, make that American - industry is eager to fill.

Every three years the Cooper-Hewitt promises to revisit the state of design art in the United States. This exhibit is the first, and it serves as a trenchant reminder of the need to look closely at the products that shape our daily lives.

Viewers can decide if they agree with the exhibition's curators, who state in the show catalog, "Design Culture Now," that "Consumers R Us."

As Steven Skov Holt (one of three curators) puts it, "Media- constructed, product-centric versions of the good life command an ever-increasing portion of our conscious mind.... They come to exert a psychic, unspoken level of pressure and expectation on all of us."

Yikes. Never before has the mantra of "material girl" pop-singer Madonna that "we are living in a material world" seemed so prophetic. Mr. Holt claims, "The active consumption of products has itself become almost religious."

You thought products were mere tools or toys? According to Holt, they are "the manifestation of our personal brand," compensating for "feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and an insatiable desire to belong."

Since products, in this view, establish identity, Holt argues, designers "become anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, and clairvoyants of contemporary culture."

Examples of a design-driven cult of consumption are up front in an advertising campaign for Rossignol snowboards by the late P. Scott Makela and his wife, Laurie Haycock Makela. Their billboard proclaims, "AROUSE AND GRATIFY." Using images with plunging diagonals to instill a sense of dynamism, speed, and risk, the print ads evoke mystical experience with texts like "Faith in Action" and "God is close to ya."

Design has always been a mixed bag, merging art, engineering, and commerce. This show highlights the commercial hustle. Some products employ design to make high technology more user-friendly, thus more marketable.

"Zuzu's Petals" is a prototype digital assistant shaped like a cutesy flower. It looks like a potted plant, but its stalk is a docking station for petal-shaped digital components. …