April 20, 2010

a + d 1 : n e e d


recently, i was invited to participate in a show called celebrate 2010, at the los angeles architecture and design museum. to christen their new home on wilshire boulevard, they extended invitations to architects, artists, designers, community leaders, celebrities, and local 5th graders to construct sculptures. they gave us each a kit of balsa wood boards, pre-cut into an irregular series of triangles, squares and rectangular strips which we were then to transform in any way we pleased. their only rule  was to use a uniform base, which came provided; otherwise, the doors were thrown open and every correspondence i received included, in all caps, the words, 'NO RULES!'

those of you who work in a creative field, or who have seen the process in action-as in lars von trier's ode to jorgen leth, the five obstructions-know the value of constraints: they establish the framework from which work hangs, engender and are part of the design. this dynamic relationship was described by american designer charles eames in his famous interview with madame l’amic, design Q&A:

Q:  Does the creation of design admit constraint?
A:  Design depends largely on constraints

Q:  What constraints?
A:  The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible (and) his willingness and enthusiasm  for working within these constraints—the constraints of price, size, strength, balance, surface, time, etc.; each problem has its own peculiar list.

although i realized how lucky i was to be a part of this show, the idea of exhibiting alongside established architects was more than a little daunting. to compound any natural anxieties were the terms of the challenge: to work in a new medium, on the blank-est page ever faced—having no constraints. instead of freeing ambition, the open-endedness of the invitation immobilized me. in what direction should i go, with no idea of where i was going?


to give myself some footing, i led myself through the exercises of rowena reed kostellow, pioneer of the industrial design program at pratt institute in brooklyn, new york. her interest in the way that spatial relations can animate and beautify, found in the book, elements of design, encouraged my critical thinking on the hierarchies of form, the control of negative space and the relationship of planes.

lessons of my college professor, gerald zeldin, also came to mind. instructor of visual language at sheridan college, he always seemed to effortlessly overlap his interests and their application: his figure drawing related to his work as a muralist, which was informed by his career as a graphic designer, fine artist and student of architecture—a useful model. a lesson on visual pathways had particular salience, in that it explored the way controlled space leads the eye and lends value and texture to depth.

with the reassurance of foundation i moved ahead with renewed confidence, but now the question became, "what to make?" every day at pixar i'm faced with this challenge. how do you take a vague notion of the way-something-should-be and create something not just concrete, but compelling, meaningful, entertaining and smart? beautiful? welp, you find something meaningful to you, something meaningful in the work, and then aim for the truest, simplest, clearest expression of that meaning.

but first i would research the hell out of it. i sketched, i wrote, i brainstormed; i collected my thoughts. i thought about who and what i was representing; pixar? san francisco? myself? a tradition? what did the sculpture need to be? what would be particular to my concerns, to my experience, to the museum and to the kit? the pieces conjoured images of the playful facade of mary blair's it's a small world pavillion, as well as the eames's whimsical solar-do-nothing-machine. i pinned up the other errant images floating about my head: the paintings of paul wackers, the early structures of buckminster fuller, the native houses at the museum of civilization, ottawa, and brutalist john p robarts library at the university of toronto.  finally i had some starting points.


simultaneously, i turned to reading the catalogue essays from the new museum's inaugural sculpture show unmonumental: the object in the 21st century. they described a contemporary artwork that was fractured, jury-rigged, piecemeal, insignificant, appropriating, personalized yet 'un-private'; a catch all, and a decidedly 'unmonumental' response to a world of too much choice, too much noise and too big an audience. i looked a lot at rachel harrison, carol bove and gedi sibony.

i found something so reassuring in all this: that sculpture didn't really have to be anything at all. one of the most beautiful pieces i'd seen in a while was in a show at the jack hanley gallery, here in san francisco, called bOnniE i LovE (can) YOu, cAn i sEE yOu saT oR SuN LovE jiM. consisting of rough but elegant makeshift sculptures, incorporating a lot of rods and lightbulbs and colored tape, andy coolquitt's crafted detritus-totems felt like the scourged elements of a buried archigram construction. in a small piece in the middle of the floor sat a half bottle of cobra with an ascending connection of bright old straws; it was nice!

something really appealed to me about making something that didn't have to last for ages, and what else was i thinking, anyway? i was starting with balsa wood, afterall. but it became very clear to me here that i was not to build a building, and not a useful object; i was not to do anything structural, dammit, i decided. i couldn't make something that could 'show off' any technical facility i had, so i handily resolved to do the opposite.

for a moment i considered burning the balsa wood and submitting the pile of ashes, atop a plinth, by a tiny gold lighter—a definite statement, but a bit of a cop-out, and certainly not 'celebratory'. i imagined myself, torch in hand, setting aflame a huge mound of balsa geometry."here's what i think of architecture! HA HA!"

i pushed my materials aside and had a drink. i piled the pieces on a small plate, with fork and knife, and left the kit to be consumed. after a few days-of work busi-ness and social engagements and new york city-i resolved to just start gluing some things together and see where it took me; if all else failed, i had matches at hand.


i liked this track of cobbled, critical assemblage, and i thought it was a good idea not to construct anything at all like a building—to look at this from a sculptural perspective. finally i felt comfortable; afterall, i'm not an architect or designer. i thought i'd also introduce some new materials: something local, natural, minorly unmonumental. little by little, i defined boundaries.

as charles eames replied when asked, "What do you feel is the primary condition for the practice of Design and for its propagation?” “A recognition of need,” had begun to form.


click here to see the eames office's design Q&A.

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