Inside the California Design Biennial: Five Curators Speak

Fashion – First Earth Battalion, designers: Michel Berendi and Simonida Tomovic. © Michel Berandi 2010, all rights reserved.

The Pasadena Museum of California Art’s fourth California Design Biennial exhibition that opened a few weeks ago is organized into five categories, but the divisions are very loosely defined. Prius ads in the form of blossoming floral growth along the state’s freeways are considered Graphic Design. A music video takeoff on Fischli & Weiss’s “The Way Things Go” is part of Product Design. Perfume bottles are included in Fashion. A huge cut-paper canopy construction hanging from a ceiling in the gallery is Architecture. And a Galactic Space Vehicle swoops into the domain of Transportation.

In addition to allowing for this open-ended structure, PMCA instituted major updates from previous years. “Furniture design” folded into “product.” “Architecture” was included for the first time. And the exhibition was curated instead of juried. Five distinguished professionals – journalists, educators, designers – were asked to discover and decide on the best work created in California during the past two years, in the context of the show’s “Action/Reaction” theme.

Curators Stewart Reed, Frances Anderton, Louise Sandhaus, Alissa Walker, and Rose Apodaca. Photo by M. Dooley.

On August 1st, four of the five participated in a panel discussion about their curatorial interests and issues. Rose Apodaca (fashion) and Alissa Walker (packaging) expressed their delight with the overall upbeat, exuberant spirit, and Louise Sandhaus (graphic) and Stewart Reed (transportation) explored sustainability solutions such as alternative energy sources. Frances Anderton (architecture) experienced a freeway delay, but managed to arrive after the talk … while her electric car was being towed to a repair shop.

For Imprint, all five came together for a post-panel interview to reveal their perspectives, approaches, and visions about design and design curating.

The show remains open through October 31st.

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Rose Apodaca
Co-owner of design retail lab, A+R and a pop culture-fashion journalist
PMCA/CDB Fashion Design curator

Fashion – “Linea” Oxford Shoe, designer: George Esquivel for Esquivel; Swarovski Crystal-Soldered Aviator Sunglasses for Dita Von Teese, designer: Michael Schmidt, photo: Scott Nathan; Authentic Botanical Perfumery, designer: Alexandra Balahoutis, Strange Invisible Perfumes; Hand-Sculpted Cashmere Top with Cut-Out Floral Appliqué, designer: Koi Suwannagate. Images © PMCA/CDB2010.

Dooley: Rose, during the discussion you said that you personally decided to use “Slow Design” as a subcategory to the show’s theme. How did you arrive at this decision?

Apodaca: I suggested the Action/Reaction title based on our collective decision to examine the way designers were now reacting to the ever-more heightened challenges we are now facing in terms of the environment and the economic, social, and political forces.

By default, artists and designers are forever addressing these issues in their work. But they seem particularly relevant topics in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown – which the world is still coping with two years later, and will be for years to come – and more recently, the catastrophic crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, the raging fires in Russia, and flooding rains in Europe. To wit, there have been growing movements reacting to the speed – real or virtual or even imagined – of modern life.

The Slow Food movement kick-started the concept two decades ago, but didn’t really capture the imagination until the last five years or so. Since then we’ve seen the emergence of movements devoted to Slow Sex, Slow Travel, Slow Books, and Slow Child Rearing – and Slow Fashion. While this isn’t exactly an official organization – at least, not yet! – and none of the 11 that I selected have even uttered that phrase before, the ideas behind it are very much in line with what these designers are doing in their work.

Look, there are some very influential, exciting contributions going on in California, considering so many designers and brands are based here, billion-dollar companies included. But I’m shining the spotlight on the wave of individuals who are forcing a shift in the way we think of this very basic and essential part of our lives – clothes. These 11 are emphasizing craftsmanship, artistry, technique, and innovation instead of going the route of fast and cheap fashion. By doing so, they are providing products that can withstand time and not fall apart in two weeks.

In most cases, too, they are producing locally, as well as supporting artisanal skills that might otherwise be lost. Being “green” doesn’t have to mean organic. It should also be about whether you’re going to trash something in a month because it’s too trendy and so cheaply made that it’s fallen apart after a couple of washes.

As extraordinary and consequential as their work is, funnily, most of them didn’t even know one another before this Biennial–and they really are the nicest bunch of folks. I’ve already heard that some new friendships, even collaborations, are coming about as a result of this showcase.

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Alissa Walker
Writer and Editor for publications like Fast Company, GOOD, and Dwell
PMCA/CDB Product Design curator

Product – “This Too Shall Pass” video, firm: Syyn Labs, client: OK Go; Pirate Supply Shop Goods, firm: Office, designers: Rob Alexander, Will Ecke, Gaelyn Mangrum, Jeff Bucholtz, client: 826 Valencia; KOR One Hydration Vessel, firm: RKS Design. Images © PMCA/CDB2010.

Dooley: Alissa, you’d mentioned that end-user considerations played a role in your selection process. Could you expand on that?

Walker: Each product had to enrich and transform the life of the user in a unique and essential way. Instead of looking at form or materials first, I began by looking at the products from the user’s perspective. Does it help them work more efficiently, or connect to their community, or empower them politically, or live a healthier lifestyle?

Each product in the show has a very specific audience and I think the success – and the impact – of the product can only be evaluated by looking at how well it serves its intended user.

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Louise Sandhaus
Faculty, California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and Principal, LSD (Louise Sandhaus Design)
PMCA/CDB Graphic Design curator

Graphic – Metro Neighborhood Posters – Expo Park/USC, firm: Metro Creative Services, designer: Stas Orlovski, image courtesy Metro. ©2010 LACMTA; GOOD Design LA Title Graphics, designer: Keith Scharwath, client: GOOD; Bedsider, firm: IDEO, designers: Peter Antonelli, Kate Bingamen-Burt, Jef Cunningham, Mary Foyder, Mark Del Lima, Jenn Maer, HP Mendoza, client: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Images © PMCA/CDB2010.

Dooley: And Louise, you brought up the the Living Principles guide as a factor into your selection process.

Sandhaus: The Living Principles reflect my personal ethos and values about design. But just to be clear, we didn’t use them as judging criteria per se. These are the values that I believe are shared by many other designers today – whether they know about the actual Principles or not – which is what it means to do ethically responsible work.

What isn’t discussed in the Principles is the value of aesthetics, which was was also an important part of our framework. As the scholar Elizabeth Meyer describes, you get people to care about things like sustainability because they feel an emotional connection with something – nature, other people, the welfare of our communities — and they get emotionally connected through beauty. So work that “looks hot! does good!” was our actual framework.

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Frances Anderton
Host, “DnA: Design and Architecture” and Producer, “To The Point” and “Which Way, LA?”
PMCA/CDB Architecture Design curator

Architecture – Tahiti Housing Complex, architect: Daly Genik Architects, photo: Joshua White; Project: Fat Fringe, architect/designer: Layer, photo: Art Gray; Inner-City Arts, architect: Michael Maltzan Architecture, photo: Iwan Baan. Images © PMCA/CDB2010.

Dooley: Frances, what criteria did you use?

Anderton: When we conceived this year’s Biennial, the museum directors and jurors agreed on a number of criteria for selection. We agreed that projects should be, one: “Visually Excellent – Catalytic,” that is, they should initiate or further positive change – economic, political, environmental, or social. Hence the show’s subtitle, Action/Reaction. Two: they should be “Designed in California,” completed in California between the beginning of 2008 and early 2010. And that architecture should include built work only.

Here is my elaboration on those criteria, which I hope will offer context for the buildings chosen for this exhibit …

“Built Work Only.” In putting together the selection of buildings for this show, it was very tempting to include unbuilt buildings, or buildings designed by California-based architects but built overseas. There is, after all, so much exciting, highly experimental work in this realm. But we concluded that this show should feature only work built in this state, on the grounds that these buildings involve a different set of challenges from those unbuilt or overseas: a complex negotiation with client, city and state agencies, contractors, and neighbors. To actually get a building of quality built is a minor miracle, and this show celebrates that achievement.

Architecture – The New Children’s Museum, architect: Rob Wellington Quigley. Image © PMCA/CDB2010.

However, the architecture section does include an example of a field of architectural experimentation that has flourished in California in the last five years, and that does overlap with some of the formal goals of architecture; namely: temporary installation. These are exhibited in the other half of the gallery and form part of the installation of the show.

“Built in the Last Two Years.” This is a Biennial so it makes sense to include work that has been realized since the last biennial, i.e., within the last two years. However, we did include a couple older buildings that have been built in phases. And we included a 2007 low-income housing project by Stephen Kanner. He was a well-liked L.A. architect working within the Modernist tradition who died just before the show opened. And I wanted to honor his contribution.

However, there is another factor that pertains to work realized in this period, which is that the last two years mark the end of the building boom of the last decade. The projects in this show were conceived during a fascinating time of convergence of competing societal and cultural trends. First, high consumption and access to easy money, together with a recognition of declining resources and global warming. And next, a revival of interest in midcentury Modernism alongside the newer attractions of phenomenalism and digital design.

The projects started when coffers were full and permitted a fairly high level of exploration. But they were completed as the bust hit. So in some ways they stand as testimony to a now bygone era.

“Catalytic Impact.” The concept behind the subtitle for this show, Action/Reaction, is that projects included would have some impact that goes beyond the formal design itself, that the projects would be transformative. What this really means is, of course, hard to define. But loosely, what we were looking for were buildings whose very presence has had a social or an environmental or urban impact of some sort. As a result, most of the buildings I chose were for public use in some way.

“Excellent Design.” How on earth does one define excellence, especially in an age when there are no shared aesthetic values? Can one find parameters that transcend personal taste? In confronting this most daunting task – singling out a few projects from an embarrassment of riches – I found myself drawn to certain qualities. One: “Contemporary.” Absolutely, the buildings had to be expressions of our time in their use of materials, technologies, and formal expression. But at the same time, I looked for qualities that fulfilled the demand of architecture dating back to Vitruvius: “Commodity, Firmness, and Delight.” I sought out projects that, in addition to striking design, fulfilled their purpose sensibly and were well-built. When it came to “Delight,” however, I found myself drawn to buildings that were visually arresting but at the same time did not stand alone as pure, unembellished statements of the architect’s voice. Rather, they integrated other arts, such as fine art, graphics, landscape, and interior design, in a way that I believe enhances the sense of place for the user.

Architecture – Formosa 1140, architect: LOHA: Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, photo: Lawrence Anderson Photography. Image © PMCA/CDB2010.

“California.” In focusing on work built in California, is there anything specifically Californian that one can find in the work? In many respects, no, in part because L.A., San Francisco, and San Diego do not have a uniform aesthetic, but also because the formal experimentation that once distinguished California, especially Los Angeles, has gone global. The onetime Venice-based iconoclast, Frank Gehry, has become an international brand; the formal experimentation that defined Los Angeles architecture in the 1970s and ’80s can be found from London to Beijing, as can the technical innovation that had defined our state’s pre-and-post war Modernist architects. And the access to cheap land and office space with which to test ideas has largely gone; now much of San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles are among the most costly real estate markets in America.

But at the same time, despite the growing constraints, there is still a Californian je-ne-sais-quoi, a sense of that old free-spiritedness that comes out in some projects, especially those from Los Angeles, where a certain playfulness is still embraced. On the other hand, one could argue that in being largely public, the projects express a new Californian spirit, which holds that greater density and shared resources are the future, taking the place of unlimited sprawl and private ownership.

I do have to say, though, that when judged according to my personal “Excellent Design” criteria that I’ve offered here, Los Angeles far outstrips Central, Northern, and far Southern California. For a number of reasons, probably including the presence of Hollywood and relatively unrestrictive design review, L.A. is simply more interesting, architecturally, than its neighbors. This is reflected in the balance of projects shown here; there are disproportionately more from L.A.

Architecture – Hollenbeck Community Police Station, architect: AC Martin Partners, photo: © Timothy Hursley. Image © PMCA/CDB2010.

“The Installation.” Let me conclude by saying something here about the design of the exhibit. It is generally very hard to exhibit architecture in a way that makes it as compelling as the real thing. This is not only because drawings, even photos and models, do not capture the 1:1 spatial, sensual, or material experience, but also because they typically do not capture the other vital part of the life of a building: the occupants that make it breathe and the urban fabric that gives it context.

Buildings rarely sit in isolation; they feed, and are fed upon, by their users and their surroundings. So I have tried with this exhibit to situate the selected buildings in their habitat, as well as to give the show its own strong aesthetic character. To that end, we enlisted James Rojas, a transportation planner who has a unique sideline: he gets communities involved in the planning process by having them interact with colorful models of cities or regions that he or the group makes, with found objects. Using this technique, James has created for this Biennial an impression of California, entitled “Messy and Vital” – after Robert Venturi’s description of cities having a “messy vitality” – near which are hung the chosen buildings, sparkling like metaphorical diamonds in the rough. Nearby there is also another installation, a digitally generated undulating wave of paper modules, designed by Layer in collaboration with a large team. This is an example of the many fascinating experiments in temporary architecture in recent years. It does not fit strictly within the PMCA parameters of completed buildings, but is an important part of California’s architecture story.

By integrating the buildings on display with these two installations, we hope the exhibit is informative, dynamic, and visually striking as a design object in its own right.

I’ve also written a thinkpiece about my selections on my blog.

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Stewart Reed
Chair, Transportation Design at Art Center College of Design
PMCA/CDB Transportation Design curator

Transportation – Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, firm: Scaled Composites; Hammer Sport Chair, firm: Colours Wheelchair; Seabreacher, firm: Innespace Productions. Images © PMCA/CDB2010.



Dooley: Stewart, “de-complicating” vehicle design was a concern of yours.

Reed: Einstein said, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not necessarily simpler.” An aircraft is orders of magnitude more complex than a bicycle, but both are thoroughly useful. Both should be made as simple as possible.

The responsibility of better design is to innovate products requiring less costly and wasteful industrial process – for a bicycle, automobile, or bus – while providing more efficiency and customer delight!

Dooley: You also brought up the “elephant in the room,” that some California designs in the show were actually made elsewhere. How might this change?

Transportation – Aptera 2e, firm: Aptera Motors. Image © PMCA/CDB2010.

Reed: Manufacturers have been seduced – temporarily – by low cost labor for manufacturing and assembly in various places around the world. I would suggest we need to design and develop products unique to the resources and technologies in California. And to seek manufacturing in California!

Also, Sacramento should create economic incentives for “designed and made in California enterprise.” We cannot cost reduce our way to prosperity. We must innovate, and create new value!

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Dooley: In retrospect, which methods for locating museum-worthy design worked best for each of you?

Apodaca: I approached this process as I do as an editor of the selection of design we carry at A+R, or as a journalist: I started by examining what I knew at that moment. I am always “on,” even when I’m not working on a specific project, learning what’s happening now in all the areas of design that interest me, from fashion to architecture to food trends.

Then I expanded a net that involved researching what others have featured in articles, in their boutiques or, because this is fashion, on celebrity clients. Then I tapped a select network of trusted associates and asked them for suggestions of innovators they were excited about right now. I researched the submissions that could make the cut; in other words, I cut out who I already knew did not, because they weren’t good enough at this time or for other valid reasons. I visited studios, went online, and casually inquired among my network and the like. And, finally, I decided on the 11 showcased in my category.

Among them is a beauty brand, Strange Invisible Perfumes, a true-blue botanical perfumery owned by Alexander Balahoutis. I didn’t choose her for her bottle design, as one visitor inquired, but because of what’s in the bottle. Alex cultivates some of her elements on her family’s farms in Ojai and Kentucky, and distills them here. And the near obsessive attention to craft and consciousness – in her case, in terms of the effects of her work on the environment, workers, senses, et al – put her in the same class as the garment, jewelry, and accessories designers I chose for this category.

Reed: The network of transportation designers – many Art Center College of Design alumni and part time faculty – are a rich resource for “what’s new in transportation design solutions.” I got many great suggestions and ideas from these colleagues, as well as the ongoing search I do in everything from aircraft, commercial truck, motorsport, and human powered, including great new products to enhance accessibility solutions for the disabled.

Product – Artecnica Stretch Bag, firms: TBWA Chiat Day and Artecnica. Image © PMCA/CDB2010.

Walker: As I mentioned in the panel, what worked best for me was relying on the insight of my fellow journalists, who had uncovered most of these products and, in many cases, were able to point out their strengths and weaknesses in reviews and other stories.

I also relied on my own reportage, since I estimate I had written about 75% of the products, in either blog posts or magazine articles, during the past two years.

That said, I was happily able to discover many designers and products that I didn’t know about, and it was a truly eye-opening journey through the past two years of design, especially those moments when I learned about products that had been designed right here in my own backyard!

Sandhaus: We – my colleague Derrick Schultz and I – were daunted by the idea that there was probably tons of great work out there that we had no way of seeing, except to ask friends and colleagues. So that’s what we decided to do.

We invited about 50 “co-curators” to recommend work. and also to identify other curators. So, we “virally” curated the show. To support this approach, we created a website where our curators could get more information and a Flickr group where selected projects and descriptions could be uploaded and shared.

We also saw the site as part of the show as well – a way to extend the show beyond what would be on the gallery walls.

Anderton:
Flickr was the least efficient for me, as not many people posted there.

I sent out blanket emails via organizations like the AIA and got quite a lot of submissions. I went and checked out all the projects that seemed like they might fit the criteria.

I also asked architecture experts around town, and from Northern and Southern California, for their input. And got some great recommendations that way.

Again, I visited buildings that seemed to fit the criteria. I also had a few buildings in mind already that were on the list from the start, including Inner City Arts and Formosa 1140.

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Dooley: How do you think the curatorial process might be enhanced for future Biennials?

Graphic – Keep America Healthy, designer: Amy Kate Martin, client: Public Option Please. Image © PMCA/CDB2010.

Sandhaus: I thought the process was very successful.

At the panel discussion, a few things came up that I thought were particularly interesting. One was to include California-based manufacturing processes as part of the “product,” since that is a vital and very interesting part of the story.

The other idea would be greater conversation among the curators as they’re thinking about projects to include, because the lines between many of the projects were fuzzy. For example, did the Better Bikeways project belong in Graphic Design or Transportation Design? Did OK Go’s video, “This Too Shall Pass” belong in Product Design or Graphic Design?

Reed: I would like to see more actual, physical hardware for people to enjoy.

Also, feature more “made in California” products on display!

Walker: I think that the California Design Biennial could take a cue from other art biennials like the Whitney, or the one at the Orange County Museum of Art, where they choose a roster of artists who are representative of the moment, not particular projects. I’d love to see, say, a survey of the greatest 100 designers and design firms currently working in the state. Especially with design now seeing more crossover between disciplines. This would give a really excellent overview of the vast and varied work that California designers produce.

Anderton: I would say the curatorial process would have benefitted from more discussion between the different curators and the museum staff during the process, to make sure we were all on the same page about the meaning of the theme, to inspire each other, and to enhance the cohesiveness of the selections and the installations.

In the absence of such collaboration, however, I think the show came out quite well.

Unraveled Double Rope Knot Necklace, Cotton Thread, Cotton Dye, designer: Tanya Aguiñiga. Image © PMCA/CDB2010.

Apodaca: As you know, this Biennial engaged curators, versus the juried selection applied in the past. And I believe – and have been told by many attendees and participants at this and previous Biennials – that this year’s showcase benefitted enormously from this new process. But there can and should be more incorporated into the process to improve future Biennials.

While I love working on my own, I also love the exchange that can come about from discussing the process with others. My fellow curators and I met once in January and did not meet again until opening night – and even then not as a group, given the record 1,200 guests in attendance! We did, finally, do so the day of our panel discussion, August 1st.

Louise introduced the Flickr platform in her search, a marvelous and relevant tool. It would have been enormously beneficial to the very profile of the Biennial for the PMCA to use this and other social networks in getting the buzz out on the show and the individual categories. I can’t say it would’ve changed the ultimate selection in my category, given the nature of Fashion. But a concerted effort utilizing these contemporary tools is absolutely required in raising the Biennial’s role in the state and beyond, and in engaging the community at large. It should never become the only way of selecting the final cut. But it should be a part of the process.

Imagine all the possibilities of engagement, online and in the museum, with the design community at large, with schools and with the public! And not just those in Pasadena or the surrounding area.

The California Biennial should belong to California, and it should be experienced by the world. After all, this is where design trends are born.

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PMCA Exhibition Manager and CDB panel moderator Shirlae Cheng-Lifshin, Stewart Reed, Alissa Walker, Rose Apodaca, Louise Sandhaus. Photo by M. Dooley.

 

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Read Michael Dooley’s review of the Pasadena Museum of California Art’s “Getting Upper,” “Street Cred,” and “Clayton Brothers” exhibition and interview with Rebeca Méndez here.

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