Often formulaic, most museum presentations contain beautiful models, large photographs, a video interview, and occasionally ephemera from the design process. When shows have big budgets and a lot of space, like MOCA’s famous History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses exhibit of 1989, you can even get a reconstructed house or two. But SFMOMA’s modest show ParaDesign, really pushes these boundaries.
This is because it’s a show of the marginalized or in-between pieces of an architecture and design collection. Attention is paid to the pieces that don’t really fit. Instead of forgetting them in storage, curators Henry Urbach (who just announced his departure from the museum), Joseph Becker, and Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher decided to foreground the pieces and dub them “ParaDesign.” In defining the “other,” they have been relieved of the burden of a traditional presentation format. And for the most part, they have succeeded.
ParaDesign and the adjacent show on the work of the late designer Tobias Wong serve to slow us down. The two shows, which work together, allow us to explore the practical and aesthetic limits of design production. We need to think about what is happening alongside art, architecture, and design as we make it, they seem to suggest.
Although it was conceived after the main attraction, the Tobias Wong exhibit feels like the catalyst for the larger show. This is appropriate given the memorial nature of this first museum presentation of Wong’s work since his tragic death in 2010. Lying in the center, in the shape of a body, is his famous Bulletproof Quilted Duvet. Many of Wong’s most famous pieces, the McDonalds’ stirrer repurposed as Coke Spoon 02, the Skull Matchbook, and the quilted Disposable Crystal Cup, are presented like jewels from Tiffany & Co., which he also spoofed with rubber-coated pearls. Although some pieces are witty one-liners, like Unauthorized Burberry Buttons, others have more layers, like his last work, New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, the title spelled out in morse code with wood beads.
Acutely aware that Wong has recently died, the curators made the other gallery spaces somber. The bold use of color, a strategy commonly used to enliven design shows, is unnecessary here. Instead, the curators are bold in their use of space. If you are going to make an argument for bringing marginalia forward, the pieces need room to breathe.
Diller + Scofidio’s witty Soft Sell, a video projection of scarlet red female lips, welcomes the visitor into the show. The walls in this first gallery are black and the objects mostly clustered in the center of the room, as if a sheet were going to be thrown over to paint the room. There are no identifying tags, a move that invites viewers to walk around the pieces and look longer.
In the larger gallery, the walls are mostly white. A line of exhibit cases marches down the center, holding an array of wonders. Diller + Scofidio’s Dispensary, from the series Vice/Virtue, is haunting. If these are their sketchbooks, it’s no wonder their buildings are getting so much media attention. A highlight is Heshotmedown, which was made by R&Sie(n) using new modeling software and techniques exploring the terrain of architecture and material. An older piece, Plasmorphica #1, by Aziz + Cucher, evoked memories of modern but outdated medical equipment. Their photograph entitled Interior #1 looks familiar until one realizes that it appears to be a passageway covered in human skin. The curators borrowed the stacked style of 19th century exhibition design to show the work of illustrators and photographers. While some distance works well enough for some paintings, it doesn’t work so well for Lebbeus Woods’ finely detailed drawings. But that is the cost of experimentation.
Suspended from the ceiling is the triumph of the show, Clouds, by An Te Liu. Its sculptural air purifiers bring to mind Moshe Safdie’s Habitat ’67, except the shape is more horizontal. You can observe patrons reaching up and trying to feel the air movement as they hear the whirring fans. Perhaps the most brilliant move was to leave the walls on either side of the floating sculpture free. This is a lot of valuable real estate to give up, but it shows that this new movement is about space and sound as much as the visual.
Unfortunately, the design of the exhibit’s information placards makes them confusing to use. But that’s a small price for this victory of experimentation. ParaDesign and its ancillary Tobias Wong exhibit demonstrate that you can rescue and foreground the uncharted terrain with thoughtful deliberation and a few bold and insightful moves.