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
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
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
"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. …