Democratizing Design

Golan Levin Sculpture

Golan Levin. Free Art and Technology Lab, R. Shawn Sims, Sy-Lab. Free Universal Construction Kit. 2012. Digital CAD files and 80 3-D-printed nylon units. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Committee on Architecture & Design and Shapeways Photo: David Familian

A soy dispenser as art?!  Some of the objects and images in the MoMA’s exhibition This is for Everyone are now so common that it’s strange to encounter them reverentially placed on a pedestal and considered as art, such as Kenji Ekuan’s iconic red-capped soy-sauce container. But the container was actually the result of three years’ work and over a hundred prototypes, and it owes its ubiquity to the thoughtful intentionality of its minimalistic design.  This is for Everyone, on view until January, brings together an eclectic grouping of innovative experiments aiming to bring life-improving, sustainable design to everyone. 

This multimedia exhibit fills three of the MoMA’s smaller galleries.  Two spaces showcase a broad array of design experiments ranging from robotics to graphic design.  A third gallery explores how design can influence our interaction with technology, and features about a dozen classic video games which viewers are invited to play.  The show is an ultra high-tech blurring of art and engineering.

Neri Oxman Sculpture

Neri Oxman (American, born Israel 1976), Mediated Matter Group (est. 2010), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA (est. 1861), W. Craig Carter (American, born 1961), MIT Materials Science and Engineering (est. 1974), Stratasys (est. 1989). Imaginary Beings (Medusa 2). 2012. Objet Connex500 Multi-material 3D Bitmap Printer, colored digital powders & materials. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Architecture and Design Funds

Emblematic of the spirit of the exhibition is the Free Universal Construction Kit, a witty and playfully subversive project by Golan Levin and Shawn Sims. It consists of 80 small components produced with a 3D printer.  Each piece functions as an adaptor that allows interaction between Lincoln Logs, Legos, Tinker Toys, and other incompatible children’s building sets.  The kit subverts each brand’s identity and speaks to the broader problem of technologies, software, and operating systems that don’t communicate with eachother.  The kit is public domain and can be downloaded and printed for free.

Nervous System Sculpture

Nervous System (est. 2007), Jessica Rosenkrantz (American, born 1983), Jesse Louis-Rosenberg (American, born 1986). Kinematics Dress. 2013. Laser-sintered nylon. Image courtesy of Steve Marsel. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Architecture and Design Funds.

As art, the kit is mostly conceptual (with some subtle Duchampian humor), but viewers will also encounter some visually stunning 3D printing at its most sculptural and complex.     Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jessie Louis-Rosenberg (both graduates from MIT) created the Kinematics Dress; the dress is wearable and prints already folded, showing at least one way to work around the size-constraints of a 3D printer.  The other-worldly fabrications of Neri Oxman (also of MIT) are highly complex sculptural objects that could, with imagination, serve as armor for mythological creatures.  Oxman uses multi-material 3D printing to create exotic forms with both hard and soft tissue.  It’s an emerging technology with innumerable applications.  She’s used it to create a prototype for a wrist-sleeve to be worn by those suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome.

One major subtext of the show is the question of how democratic good design actually is, particularly given the high cost of new technology.  Indeed, even the Free Universal Construction Kit presupposes the availability of a 3D printer.   It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that not long ago computers themselves were prohibitively expensive.

Admittedly, it’s a little difficult to approach some of the works on view as art-objects, simply because they were created for such functional purposes.  But John Ruskin, himself an artist, once wrote that the loftiest purpose of art was in “bringing the power and charm of art within the reach of the humble and the poor.”  Perhaps some of the young, tech-savvy minds behind the works in this exhibition might wince at being likened to the grand old Victorian, but their work squarely resonates with his ardent belief that design should be democratic.  It’s a principle that can be applied to something as simple as a soy container or as massive an E3 Series Shinkansen bullet train.  Indeed, Kenji Ekuan designed both.

More information about The Free Universal Construction Kit (including how to download it) can be found here.

By Jonathan Rinck

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