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Digging Graves

Brooks' "U.S. Design" exhibit is practical, palatable, and maybe even a little political.



When Michael Graves first started designing for Target, the academic world was flabbergasted. They thought he was the ultimate whore of whores," says R. Craig Miller, curator of architecture and design for the Denver Art Museum and curator of the exhibit "U.S. Design, 1975-2000," now at the Brooks Museum. "But now," Miller says, "all of the people who criticized him would just die to design for Target. It's become very chic." According to Miller, Graves, a colorful pioneer of postmodern architecture, has, through his work for Target, finally realized an unfulfilled dream of the more austere moderns. "[Graves has] brought good design to the masses," Miller claims, "and most of these items are priced under $30."

The "U.S. Design" exhibit puts commercial products, graphics, appliances, clothing, textiles, and items of furniture, many of which are still mass-produced and easily obtainable, on display. It is a truly postmodern experience. You are likely to see the very same toothbrush you use daily, the task chair you sit in at the office, or even the computer you use. You might spy the sunglasses you wear or the garlic press you nearly bought when it was on sale at Target last week. But at the Brooks, all of these too-familiar items are either encased in protective glass or labeled "do not touch." The overall experience is more akin to browsing through a trendy boutique than attending an art exhibit. Only in this case, you can't test-drive the furniture and nothing is for sale.

"There is always this bugaboo about looking at contemporary design," Miller says, admitting that it's not always easy to present contemporary commercial products in an academic context. "But we already know who the giants [of contemporary design] are. The point of this whole exhibit is to get people to think about design. Design is everywhere you look, and everything you see is design. Design can be a very profound thing. It can change the world."

Miller's point is driven home in the opening passage of the show's exhaustive catalog which reminds us that one of the most infamous aspects of the 2000 presidential election had very little to do with politics. Florida's "butterfly ballot" controversy was all about bad design.

Robert Venturi, one of the "giants" collected here, shook the foundations of American architecture when, in the 1970s, he appropriated the ideas of pop art and turned to the architecture of 1960s Las Vegas for inspiration. He re-imagined the entire history of architecture as a series of "decorated sheds," where decorative facades gave personality and life to otherwise boxy, functional, and cheaply built structures. Venturi believed that by using the "decorated shed" model, buildings could become their own billboards. (Locally, the MIFA headquarters on Vance is an excellent example of a Venturi-inspired painted shed.) He based many of his theories on the realities of automotive culture, speed, and distance. It was a radical departure from the new and improved cathedrals of modernism. Venturi's furniture designs for Knoll, two of which are in this exhibit, reflect the "painted shed" sensibility. While constructed of bent plywood, echoing the lean, futuristic lines of modernism, Venturi's furniture was then painted to represent more traditional decorative pieces from previous centuries. His Louis XVI table was not, in fact, a reproduction of a traditional piece but rather a billboard announcing the presence of history and tradition.

Frank Gehry, the architect famous for the massive, titanium-clad Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, is, for better and worse, the most daring of the three major designers in this collection. His chaise lounge, a design without real historical precedent, is built entirely of cardboard and glue. It looks more like an elaborate scratching post for a pampered kitty than anything anyone would actually sit on. In fact, it looks like it would collapse under the weight of an average human, though in reality it's quite durable. Still, the illusion of weakness is so powerful and the link between cardboard and comfort so tenuous, it's hard to imagine that anyone could ever fully relax on Gehry's chaise.

Of the three major designers (and many lesser lights) collected in "U.S. Design," Graves is the great populist. The decorative aspects of his designs are nostalgic in nature and often whimsical. His repeated use of classic Egyptian motifs like pyramids and bulging columns has less to do with ancient Egypt than 1920s kitsch. He has even been known to collaborate with Disney and to incorporate the ears of the world's most famous mouse into his designs. But even Graves' use of fun and familiar shapes stirred up a bit of design-world controversy when he rolled out a line of wall-to-wall carpet for Vorwerk in the late 1980s.

"Graves' carpets caused a firestorm," Miller says. "People wouldn't even come into the showroom."

As Terrence Riley, chief curator of architecture and design for Museum of Modern Art, said in a recent lecture on contemporary architecture, "90 years after the Armory Show, 50 years after the death of Jackson Pollock, modern art is still radical." "U.S. Design," which traces modernism from its decline 30 years ago to its reemergence in the 1990s, is one part radical and one part commercial. It may inspire young minds to change the world through better design. It's more likely to make everyone who sees it want to go shopping. n

Through February 29th

E-mail: davis@memphisflyer.com

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