For its fourth California Design Biennial, the Pasadena Museum of California Art relinquished its juried selection process in favor of five invited curators and a theme: Action/Reaction, or “How California’s established and emerging designers are responding to current economic, political, and environmental challenges.”
The museum also added architecture to the mix for the first time, with 15 projects selected by Frances Anderton, host of KCRW’s DnA: Design and Architecture. Her thoughtful choices amount to the biennial’s most impressive category, setting a standard that the other curators struggled to match.
As you might hope from a “best of” exhibition, each of the buildings on display—through large prints, drawings, and models—embodies outstanding formal and material design values. More important is the fact that projects such as Michael Maltzan’s Inner-City Arts complex and Frederick Fisher’s Annenberg Community Beach House apply their California modern styling in the service of a highly contextual solution. In Maltzan’s case, the combination of dazzling white walls in a Skid Row site makes a deliberate statement about trust and commitment. Meanwhile, Fisher’s minimalist clean lines are used to frame, rather than overwrite, the site’s evolution from historic luxury mansion to public amenity.
But beyond their aesthetic charms and site-specific design solutions, Anderton’s choices reveal the transformative potential of architecture—those rare instances where a single building can utterly change our perception of a place. Perhaps the most striking example she provides is the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook by Safdie Rabines: a polished concrete, butterfly-roofed pavilion whose sleek but understated presence provides the perspectival shift necessary to recognize this scrubby, unfinished landscape of oil wells and cell-phone towers as a perfectly Angeleno urban park.
Lisa Little and Emily White of Layer’s Fat Fringe—a temporary canopy of die-cut paper—seems peculiarly out of place alongside these socially and environmentally responsive projects. Anderton explains its inclusion as the lone representative of a strand of iterative, process-focused material explorations by a new generation of Californian architects, including the fantastic lace and string experiments of Atelier Manferdini and Ball-Nogues.
Of course, complaining that a design biennial is uneven somewhat misses the point: More than half the fun of these kinds of grab-bag exhibitions lies in the treasure hunt, as visitors single out their own aesthetic highlights and thematic convergences. On that basis, the show is an indisputable success. There is, quite simply, gorgeous and thought-provoking design on display.
The fashion design category, curated by Rose Apodaca, all but ignores the stated theme of the biennial in favor of a single-minded focus on wildly expensive and idiosyncratic examples of craftsmanship. Nonetheless, Koi Suwannagate’s hand-sculpted cashmere, and Raven Kaufman’s beetle-carapace-encrusted accessories, are breathtaking, both in terms of their visual impact and as physical manifestations of thousands of hours of artisanal labor.
Stewart Reed’s transportation design selection, while equally unengaged with the biennial’s central question, is much less successful. Admittedly, its most striking inclusions—the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2 and the Seabreacher, a dolphin-shaped submarine—are poorly represented by diminutive photos. Still, it is hard to find much to marvel at in a bicycle whose sole recommendation seems to be that it is 2 percent more aerodynamically efficient than its rivals, or BMW’s Bavaria Deep Blue 46, which is nothing more than a nice-looking luxury yacht.
Curiously, the biennial’s most provocative idea emerges from its most chaotic sections—product design and graphic design. Tucked in between underwhelming choices, such as a handful of low-cost Heath tiles and the California College of the Arts’ recycling decision-maker, are a couple of intriguing projects that rethink the role of the designer altogether.
IDEO’s Human-Centered Design Toolkit is a free guide created to help nonprofits do their jobs more effectively, while Twitter’s retweet functionality was designed by its user base, who were in turn empowered by the platform’s deliberate flexibility. Although the former is classified as graphic design and the latter as product design, they actually share a transdisciplinary approach that reimagines design itself as a process that facilitates innovation, rather than as a specialist craft.
This vision, in which the designer willingly cedes tools to others while vastly increasing the discipline’s remit to include systemic problems, is the most intriguing response to contemporary challenges on offer at the biennial—a reaction that results in much more effective action.
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