Explorations of What Lies Beneath Design

by Alice Cherbonnier

by 3 curators: Donald Albrecht, Ellen Lupton and Steven Skov Holt
2000: 216 pp., softbound, $29.95
New York: Princeton Architectural Press

       Our culture is saturated with—and shaped by—man-made images, shapes and sounds. They're so pervasive we're often unaware of them, but they profoundly affect how we live and function.

       Design guru Ellen Lupton—among other accomplishments, she is chair of the graphic design department at Maryland Institute, College of Art (MICA)—joined with two other design design notables to curate an exhibition called the National Design Triennial that was showcased at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, a division of the Smithsonian Institution.

       Their catalog of the exhibition, Design Culture Now, showcases the work of over 80 participating designers and design firms. There would have been one more person featured, but Ms. Lupton gallantly explains in the introduction section of the book, "To avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest, I chose not to feature the work of my husband, J. Abbott Miller...but I know he should be in it." Mr. Miller was formerly co-chair of MICA's graphic art department with his wife.

       Though ours is a consumer-oriented nation, a new trend is occurring, according to curator Holt: "Even as we have become a culture of products," he writes, "we have found that products no longer need to be physical." There's a trend toward what is "fast, organic, and momentary," he says. "Technological components will continue to shrink and become more transparent, and will soon entirely recede from view. The relevance of time, place, and space have shifted."

       He believes designers, whose effective work has helped spur our culture's hyperconsumerism, will be the ones who can guide the culture into its next, perhaps less physical, phase.

       Designed as a "dictionary of ideas," the book demonstrates the interdependency and collaboration that is emerging in the design professions. The day-glo colors used here and there may put some readers off, but you get used to them fast and stop noticing.

       The curators showcase such things as Swingline staplers, iMac and iBook computers, post-modern buildings, stage scenery, "communications appliances," new typeface designs, Internet web pages, eyeglass frames and even cheap toothbrushes, explaining how their streamlined beauty and appeal comes as much from form, sound, feel and color as from physical substance.

       If this book indeed foretells what lies in store for our culture—and that is one of its aspirations—we can expect our "products" to become increasingly "virtual," broadly accessible through electronic and digital media, with a corresponding reduction in pollution and trash.


Visualizing Urban Movement
Edited by Nick Barley
2000: 128 pp., softbound, $35
Germany: Birkhauser V/A
(distributed by Princeton Architectural Press)

       Nick Barley, author of Breathing Cities, sets out to show that, just as there is an architecture of buildings, there's also an architecture (in the sense of "constructed as a conscious act") of how cities function like living organisms. They "breathe," they "eliminate," they consume materials, they "move" through their transportation systems, they regenerate. Some parts even die.

       Through a study of three of the world's great cities—London, Tokyo, and Berlin—Mr. Barley and his contributors show there is an elegant beauty in these patterns. Studying the patterns also permits diagnosing, and perhaps treating, bottlenecks that strangle a city's flow of energy.

       This book makes you think of cities in new ways. Though Baltimore is not featured, we could benefit from looking at ourselves organically. Our transportation system, for example—with its limited light rail and metro lines and clogged interstates—would undoubtedly show up as inadequate to the circulation needs of our urban/suburban "body," and make us a prime candidate for movement restructuring.

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This story was published on January 3, 2001.