NEW YORK CITY — On a recent visit to the museum’s latest exhibit, Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial, one can’t avoid approaching the building, the former 1901 home of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, without admiring its physical beauty, its imposing sturdiness and the elegance of its Georgian architecture while paradoxically anticipating the current exhibition of contemporary design.
Above image: Masahiro Mori’s Fancy Cups.
Step inside the lavish entrance and there is an immediate and strong connection between the interior of the building and the first exhibits— a dramatic gown by Italian fashion designer Giambattista Valli, makeup artist Pat McGrath’s wild and transforming glittering visages. Here beauty is lavish and ornate, suggesting exclusivity, wealth and status.
For the past 16 years the Cooper Hewitt embraced contemporary design through its popular Triennial. This, the fifth and latest, remains on view through August 21, and includes more than 250 works by 63 international designers.
The previous show, “Why Design Now,” addressed practical social and ecological problems. The current one focuses on beauty’s ability to engage all our senses. As the curators suggest: “The experience of beauty is visceral and embodied, not just visual. Beauty strikes the senses. It erupts from sensual invention and it adds endless value to the world we inhabit”.
The show’s best work presents a balance among the technical, practical, conceptual and the beautiful. The international design firm Elastic’s presentation features ethereal custom animation and digital effects. Their richly layered and riveting images of television show opening titles evoke an artist’s video— with an emotion and gravitas beyond what a TV show typically presents.
Born in Jordan and now living in Paris, Rad Hourani creates unisex, aseasonal clothes. Using simple geometries and little embellishment, his timeless fashions confront familiar ideas about gender without undermining the idea of gender but equalizing and emphasizing the wearer.
Sissel Tolaas from Berlin presents a large white wall with scratch-and-sniff paint imbued with the myriad scents of New York City’s Central Park. She presents her interests with profound and moving effect, using a variety of olfactory experiences to stimulate memories and open our minds to a diverse world.
Singapore-based Theseus Chan’s self-published magazine Werk features die-cut pages and art-like images. With his odd and handmade sensibility, he creates an unusual magazine that pushes the conventions of graphic design to extremes that each issue is more sculptural object than publication.
Lastly, And a Million Times by the design group Humans Since 1982 presents a wall of 288 clocks that collectively creates a giant display that visually expresses time digitally. The rotating clock hands form myriad texts, complex customized patterns, and graphics that are optically mesmerizing.
Unfortunately, the ceramics fail the curators’ criteria of beauty. With much of the current ceramic interest in the art and design communities, it was surprising to see only two presentations (there was also a small prototype for a larger project called PolyBricks by Jenny Sabin.)
Hans Tan’s sandblasted vessels are created by masking portions of traditional Chinese polychrome decorated porcelain, which are then sandblasted, revealing the white porcelain below. Randomly placed stripes and concentric dot patterns create visually complex and animated surfaces that challenge the space between antiquity and modernity and, as the curators suggest, “invoke feelings of heritage, consumption, and materiality.”
Olivier van Herpt is one of a growing number of artists and designers interested in the potential of rapid prototyping in ceramics. His large vases are made from a self-designed 3D printer (quite beautiful in its design) that produces large and complex forms quickly in wet clay, virtually impossible any other way. His “loose geometry” addresses both the industrial and handmade possibilities of the medium. He is also interested in how these tools can empower others, especially those not trained in ceramics.
As beautiful as they are as visual objects, Tan and Van Herpt’s works lacked the holistic vision evident in some of the show’s more successful pieces. Their emphasis, for example, on the exterior as signifier limits the viewer, focusing on the technical aspects. Perhaps the novelty of their techniques caught the attention of the curators. It seems that without the utilitarian aspect of design and the sensory experience of physical engagement, the objects should be considered decorative art and not design.
At the most basic level, successful ceramic design should fulfill its intended function. However there are other opportunities for meaning. At the moment of use, haptic engagement can create a new level of understanding beyond the object itself. Like many of the best designs, this interaction can give us something we didn’t know we needed. This is not a new concept, as it is seen in many historical works but unfortunately one embraced by few contemporary ceramic designers including Tan and Van Herpt.
For example one might look at a Chinese Yuan Dynasty (13-14th C) basin. The wide form is both a perfect shape to maintain the stability of the form when filled with water, as well as a canvas for the masterful brushwork of a swimming carp that articulates the interior. However, when filled with water, one leans over to wash one’s face and the bowl becomes alive and animated. The fish swims under the water, and the user is directly engaged with this moment. Ingenious in its simplicity, the artist has solved a problem with ingenuity and sophistication. The maker has taken a mundane, daily activity and elevated it to the sublime.
A standout is Masahiro Mori’s Fancy Cups. Originally made for the blind, the cups are covered with indentations and protrusions, visually intriguing and odd sculptural forms. However, when holding one of these cups, it becomes apparent how nicely the topography fits into the hand and fingers. Mori has created a thoughtful contemplation about the sense of touch, elevating the interaction that takes place when handling a mundane, everyday object.
Seeing as ceramics is capable of expressing such sophisticated ideas, why are there not more compelling works like these in contemporary ceramic design? Maybe the economic rewards are not great enough to entice the most talented minds to take up the challenge. Certainly there are very few programs that specialize in the medium. Perhaps it is because designers are trained as generalists and most spend little time understanding the history, material, and techniques that make ceramics such an expressive and complex medium.
Innovative design during the time of robber barons like Andrew Carnegie focused on comfort; his was one of the first homes in New York to have a residential Otis passenger elevator. It also had a visual beauty that was an expression of wealth and status.
In contrast, great design today is not only a practical expression of a designer’s interests but also a more expansive view of the way beautiful, visceral and sensory experiences lead to a heightened reality. At its best, this show excites and inspires artists and designers to push new boundaries in clay that fire new ideas and compelling designs.
Robert “Bobby” Silverman teaches at the 92nd Street Y in New York and is a designer and sculptor.
Do you love or loathe these revelations about contemporary ceramics? Let us know in the comments.