Although it’s a presentation of the Art Institute’s department of Architecture and Design, The Outdoor Office is much more a conceptual art installation than a design exhibit.
Anyone who has ever worked in an office on a warm, sunny day has fantasized about moving his or her desk outdoors. The Outdoor Office represents architect and designer Jonathan Olivares’ investigation into the idea that, as our mobile devices free us from the constraints of traditional workplaces, we are drawn to alternative spaces that make productive activities feasible outdoors. While the show doesn’t do much to convince us that the idea of an outdoor office is anything but preposterous, it’s definitely thought provoking.
Substantively, the installation is fairly minimal. On one wall of the Art Institute’s Gallery 286—which is really more of a circulation artery than a proper gallery—hang three larger-than-life-sized and heavily manipulated photographs displaying concepts of outdoor office spaces. On the opposite wall are a series of much smaller photographs, each showing two pages of an open photo album depicting archival photographic images of business-like activities taking place outside: open-air classrooms, a 1968 mobile office idea designed by Hans Hollein, Monty Python’s John Cleese at his news announcer’s desk, a Milton Glaser photograph for an Olivetti magazine ad in which a typewriter has been placed, surrealistically, on the beach along with a tiger.
The photo-album motif suggests the sort of documentation an artist would have to produce to justify a grant—perhaps like the one that the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts gave Olivares to support this endeavor. It all fits together, because this is anything but a straightforward show of real-world design solutions; it’s an intellectual discourse, presented graphically.
As a mostly hypothetical exercise, the show provides an interesting complement to Fashioning the Object, the design department’s concurrent show of clothes that are, by and large, resolutely unwearable, although they are very cleverly displayed and interpreted. Both shows are probably more “art” than they are “design,” which might displease some purists. They are nevertheless clear indications of the department’s commitment under Zoë Ryan, its recently appointed director, to exploring uncharted territory and embracing new approaches to both disciplines.