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Figuration in Contemporary Design at the Art Institute of Chicago


December 11, 2007
by Canadian Architect

Ever since the Austrian architect Adolf Loos declared that ornament was “crime” in 1909, modern architects and designers have heeded his argument. From the clean, industrial lines of the Bauhaus and International style to the wares for sale today in Design Within Reach, figurationthe use of representational elementsin modern design has been pushed to the margins. The Art Institute of Chicago’s new exhibition from the Architecture + Design Department makes the argument, however, that figuration is returning to contemporary design, leading to an inventive and unique aesthetic. Figuration in Contemporary Design, on view from December 13, 2007June 8, 2008 in Gallery 227, is a dazzling display of the contemporary design arts, focused on the return of representation that engages with long dormant ideas such as romanticism, subjectivity, nature, and anti-intellectualism.

Figuration in Contemporary Designcurated by Joseph Rosa, the John H. Bryan Chair of Architecture + Design at the Art Institutefeatures the work of 28 designers, architects, and studios at the forefront of this emerging design aesthetic. Though different in tone and emphasis, the members of this group all take advantage of digital literacy and enhanced fabrication techniques to reintroduce methods, forms, and ideologies that were once considered too “ornamental” or hand-crafted for the 20th-century minimalist design aesthetic.

Examples from the exhibition include Lace Fence (2007) from Dutch design house Demakersvan. Joep Verhoevenprincipal of the firmtransforms mundane, utilitarian construction fencing into a visually inviting, intricate surface by digitally modifying a chain link pattern with a computer fabrication program. Designed to embroider floral patterns as well as traditional diamond shapes, Verhoeven’s computer programs produce a fence that is at once functional and decorative.

Similarly, Greg Lynn’s 2006 prototype flatware is both practical and ornamental, reinterpreting a traditional flower motif historically found in cutlery design. Lynn’s utensilsa system of stems, leaves, and flowersare each figuratively articulated and differentiated from the others to reflect their inherent function. Produced with a three-dimensional digital printing method that employs liquid metal, each piece was created by layering liquid forms atop one another. On the whole, the flatware presents itself as a selection of unique flowers.

Featured designers and studios also included in the exhibition are: Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Jrgen Mayer H., UNStudio, Foreign Office Architects, Kuth/Raneri, ROY, Joel Sanders with Balmori Associates, KOL/MAC, R&Sie, Klein Dytham, Gage/Clemenceau, MoD, Aranda/Lasch, Kivi Somataa, P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, Fernando and Humberto Campana, Marcel Wanders, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Hella Jongerius, Patricia Urquiola, Tord Boontje, Petra Blaisse, Abbott Miller, An Te Liu, and 2×4.

Figuration in Contemporary Design reorients our understanding of the contemporary design arts, showing how the polished, anonymous industrialism of the 20th century has given way to the evocation of natural forms and subjective experience. The exhibition presents examples from both large urban-scale architecture and the intimate domestic realm of design, all sharing the same vocabulary formally and figuratively in the terms of shapes and surfaces that evoke flowers, trees, tornadoes, embroidery, parasols, photography, death, illness, food, music, and sensuality. From tattooed and perforated surfaces to woven and sculptural forms, this aesthetic is breaking new ground in the realm of design for the 21st century.

A beautifully illustrated, 112-page catalogue will be released in conjunction with the exhibition. Part of the Architecture + Design Series published by the Art Institute and Yale University Press, the catalogue will be available in the Museum Shop.

For more information, please visit www.artic.edu.



Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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