Hugh Pearman observed the ‘best of US design’ at Manhattan’s Cooper-Hewitt museum and was impressed by much of the practical, unfanciful work on display
You can get sick of European design, can’t you? It’s like European fashion – the best, the most audacious, also sometimes the most ridiculous, the least practical. But that, you have to assume, is because in Europe there is a tradition of flying kites. Of punting outrageous ideas at people to establish your credentials. And then going home and doing the real, more mundane design.
In the US, the attitude is different. Fashion writers constantly tell us how different the trade is in New York. Catwalk shows are full of wearable stuff, not girls wearing rivetted titanium cages with stuffed badgers on their heads. Similarly, I can’t imagine Cooper-Hewitt, America’s National Design Museum, ever adopting an identity so bonkers as that of London’s Design Museum, which incorporates a series of spidery doodles by Kam Tang that put you in mind of a Tord Boontje lampshade. As with the irritating Memphis-derived identity of the Groningen Museum in the Netherlands by Alessandro Mendini and his chums, it’s really a kind of fashion statement, and so destined to date immediately.
I went to Cooper-Hewitt recently to see the National Design Triennial. This is billed as the best of US design, produced by 80 different outfits. What struck me immediately was its seriousness, its relative lack of whimsy. And it runs right through to next January – can you imagine any European institution tying up its floorspace for so long in the cause of promoting the national design cause? Even if it is only once every three years? Cooper-Hewitt – a wonder in itself, originally built as the arts-and-crafts Manhattan townhouse of industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie – shares its sense of high purpose with its parent institution, the Smithsonian.
You get a lot of whimsy, and what passes for wit, in British and other European design shows. Sometimes the wit is real. Given America’s inability to appreciate irony, you can’t imagine that nation producing a Philippe Starck, though, at a pinch, you could argue that the 1950s George Nelson, with his ball-clocks and coconut-shell chairs, shared the Starckian irreverence. But you can have too much of that sort of thing. Which is why I perked up considerably as I went round Cooper-Hewitt. What I saw at the show – the stuff that was not straight-ahead-serious – exhibited humour rather than corrosive irony.
One example is Los Angeles design collective SuperHappyBunny (a garage-band sort of name), whose design offerings are anything but frivolous. Its Neo Amish Seating – a slot-together chair made of pieces cut from a standard sheet of plywood, with very little wastage – looks good, and, for all its necessary flatness, is comfortable. There is a lot of that kind of thing. Practical stuff. Real architecture rather than fantasy architecture. Real product and graphic design. Real clothes, occasionally outrÃ©, though never unwearable. Film make-up artists recognised as the designers they are. Even a bit of real medical equipment in the form of a plastic artificial heart.
My usual response to a design exhibition is to start hopefully, and gradually to become bored and depressed. Here, it worked the other way round. I started with no expectations, and gradually became intrigued and engaged. It’s also worth noting there was a steady throughput of seemingly real New Yorkers, rather than design victims. OK, so it was a wet Saturday and many of them might have been escaping the long queues for the Guggenheim’s Matthew Barney show next door, but even so, these people were looking, working things out, taking things in and – this being New York, not London – arguing with each other about it. And then shunning Cooper-Hewitt’s overpriced cafÃ© en masse and decamping to the diner round the corner.
So what am I saying? That US design is wonderful, European design is pants? That would obviously be absurd. There’ll be good things at this September’s competing London and European Design Festivals. There’ll be some iconoclastic stuff, I hope, at the Clerkenwell Architecture Biennial in May 2004. There is a vigour to European design, even at its most fanciful, least pragmatic and even frankly self-destructive, that many a US designer envies. That touch of devil-may-care is worth a lot. But you do find an awful lot of heads stuck in clouds over here. Just sometimes, it’s good to see the other side. And it’s good, more than occasionally, to find designers who just sit down and apply themselves to a problem, with flair rather than bombast. Isn’t that what it’s all meant to be about?