Pulling design out of the background

How does design -- creating an object for its function -- compare with the artistic process? How does place influence design, and what affect does good design have on a community? These are a few of the questions posed in a challenging exhibit at...

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How does design -- creating an object for its function -- compare with the artistic process? How does place influence design, and what affect does good design have on a community? These are a few of the questions posed in a challenging exhibit at the Tweed Museum of Art which even staffers admit resembles a trade show more than a gallery in places.
In fact, they meant it that way.
"Here by Design," originally curated by Lindsay Shen and James Boyd-Brent for the University of Minnesota's Goldstein Museum of Design in the Twin Cities, examined how place influenced the work of Minnesota designers.
Meanwhile, staff at the Tweed had been working on "Made in Minnesota," an exhibit featuring Duluth-area designers that emphasized process -- "how do these things actually get from the idea stage to the finished product," as Peter Spooner, the Tweed's curator, put it.
The two are combined in the Tweed's "Here by Design/Made in Minnesota" exhibit, on display at the gallery through March 30.
Design is a big topic, and that is reflected in the exhibit's offerings. "Made in Minnesota" starts with a heavy focus on Cirrus Design's model SR20 aircraft but also includes architecture by two local firms, collaborations between the University's NRRI and four local firms, clothing by Vulpine Outerwear and even a project by UMD art students on the hypothetical problem of redesigning the Tweed.
"Here by Design" features canoes, graphic design on sales pieces, work by Duluth architect David Salmela, Steger Mukluks, handmade objects such as rugs, and more.
The exhibit also raises themes on the relationship between art and commerce and the role of design in the community, in addition to answering the more mundane question, "What can you do with your art degree?"
'Delight in place'
It may seem obvious that place influences design in such work as canoes, clothing and architecture, where the natural environment and cultural heritage come into play. It may be less obvious in an area like graphic design or an airplane, but Spooner said it's still present.
"Minnesota is really becoming a center for design," he said, noting that many talented designers have moved here.
As to why, Shen and Boyd-Brent take up the question in the catalog and book that accompanies "Here by Design." Noting that Charles Lindbergh, Ann Bancroft and Will Steger all spent at least part of their lives in Minnesota, the curators ask, "Is there something about living in a particularly challenging climate that instills in one a passion for surmounting limitations? ... One of the consequences (or gifts?) of living here is a heightened awareness of the body and what it can tolerate. Might this sensitivity goad one into defiance rather than acquiescence?"
The authors go on to note that designers come to help people meet the challenges of Minnesota, in enduring and even recreating here.
In showing Salmela's work, Spooner said the Tweed picked homes right in the Duluth area, which are demonstrated in fascinating cardboard replicas.
{IMG2}"We did that specifically so people could relate his work to this area," Spooner said.
Several of the examples show a distinct use of towers, an element Tweed executive director Martin DeWitt says is characteristic of Scandinavian architecture. This ties to Minnesota's population, which has a strong strain of Scandinavian heritage.
Salmela also uses different roof levels -- "they're very much like landscapes themselves," Spooner noted.
The role of place also appears in several "Made in Minnesota" exhibits. The clothing developed by Kevin Kinney, owner of Vulpine Outerwear of Duluth, meets the needs of people with physical handicaps living in cold climates, like that of Minnesota. The climate was a key element in the product's inspiration.
And the architectural design firm of Damberg, Scott, Gerzina & Wagner designed the Fond du Lac K-12 school in Cloquet incorporating the shape of a turtle, a significant cultural symbol for the Ojibwe people.
"Here by Design" authors Boyd-Brent and Shen note that Steger's Mukluks, We-no-nah canoes and even Rollerblade skates, all designed in Minnesota, all show the influence of the area and a "delight in place" in different ways.
Of process and product
DeWitt and Spooner said different design processes are worth considering both for how they compare to the artistic process and how they relate to each other.
Many common elements are found in most of the design processes displayed, among them inspiration, implementation and testing. However, seeing just how that process morphs into different scenarios offers new insight into the process.
The Cirrus exhibit uses trade show materials to detail the climate in which the idea of a parachute on the plane was hatched as well as the process of testing. DeWitt said the trade-show style exhibit worked, showing a different kind of design. "How do you come up with a design that's going to engage people?" he said.
(Interestingly enough, the exhibit does not include a full-size prototype of the plane as originally planned because the company needed it for a trade show. Spooner noted that the sudden change fit perfectly with the show: "That's fine," he said. "That's what Cirrus does -- sell airplanes.")
But two displays of projects by LHB Engineers and Architects show different influences at play. The first revives an old idea -- packaged, pre-cut houses -- in a new-to-America project first developed by Kato Sangyo in Japan. The company is working to adapt the system to U.S. markets. The second, the Piedmont Avenue project, shows how the company worked amid some controversy taking in public input -- community members preferred to see drawings, which were "warmer," Spooner said, while the engineers still needed exact drawings. Both are shown in the exhibit.
People from Duluth's Courage Center tested Vulpine Outerwear's outdoor gear. UMD's Natural Resources Research Institute works with companies on innovative, environmentally friendly uses of northern Minnesota's natural resources, including timber products, clay and peat.
All the processes have a common goal: getting the object to function well, whether it's a sales piece for a paper maker, a canoe or a skateboard ramp.
Art for commerce's sake
Spooner said that while it's early in the exhibit to gauge audience reaction, the trade show material has already provoked one strong negative reaction, from someone who said the material was not art. DeWitt said the theme of commerce and art naturally arises with this kind of exhibit.
For display purposes, not much has changed; canoes and paddles hang just like other visual art.
"This is the same in a way, except these works were made for a specific purpose," Spooner said. "... You can also look at a skateboard park for its sculptural aspects."
He said because the components work off each other in different ways, more thought did go into placement of each piece, and he said since he was working with people not used to exhibits, the whole thing took longer to pull together.
DeWitt and Spooner said one group paying particular attention so far is art students, who see what work in some arts careers is like.
"Gee, what did your folks say when you said you were going into art?" DeWitt said, playing off the major's reputation for poor employment prospects.
From a community standpoint, Spooner said good design is an important aesthetic part of people's lives. He cited the downtown freeway bypass and Lakewalk structure as an example of "winning" design that enhances community and quality of life. But good design can be invisible.
"I think it's easier to see lack of design than it is good design," he said, noting that while a splattering of conflicting convenience store logos may make one vaguely uncomfortable, good design just blends right in.
The Tweed is pulling it out of the background through March 30.
Kyle Eller is features editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at or 723-1207.

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