JEFFREY BROWN: Sometimes a chair is just a chair. But sometimes, as an object of design, a chair can help define the look of an era. U.S. Design: 1975-2000, organized by the Denver Art Museum, tries to capture our own period, through furniture, architecture, graphics, and much more.
CURATOR CRAIG MILLER: Design is really the most democratic of all the arts. It's everywhere in our society, everything is design.
We wanted to show four concepts that we thought really have significantly shaped American design in this quarter century. And they were concepts that really were of international significance.
JEFFREY BROWN: Concept number one: taking ideas from the past and making something new, an aspect of the movement called Postmodernism. You can see it in Robert Venturi's take on a Louis the XVIth chest of drawers and a Sheridan chair, both from the early 1980s. Or Michael Graves' furniture and monumental clock scaled down to table size.
Reacting against the minimal, austere styles of the 60s, Venturi and Graves brought back color and ornament.
They studied and played with history on a grand scale, as in Venturi's wings of the National Gallery in London. On a much smaller scale, in his tea set.
CRAIG MILLER: The teapot goes back to the pantheon of Rome, the classical building. The coffeepot, the tall yellow form with the red polka dots on it is actually a Tuscan medieval tower. The creamer's a renaissance palazzo and then the sugar bowl is a modern cottage. Sort of a vernacular cottage. So in one little tea set that goes on your table, you span centuries of Western architecture.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what is he trying to say to us?
CRAIG MILLER: Well, I think he's trying to bring back a richness of form again and in trying to reinvent that, he used architectural sources.
JEFFREY BROWN: A completely different approach to design is featured in the exhibition's second section.
Here, rather than look to history, designers took to the streets.The messiness of life, its everyday things transformed into some rather unique objects.A cabinet that looks like part of a cello on its side...Plumbing pipes turned into vases. And some very fanciful chairs, mostly from the late 1980s.
CRAIG MILLER: All of these designers really are using the chair as a metaphor. They want to make a comment about our society. So someone like Allen Wexler is taking the picket fence of suburbia, which normally divides every home apart, but what Wexler's trying to do is to make it a way of social engagement. Someone like Dan Friedman and the "Truth Chair" is sort of posing this question, you know, what is truth and beauty? It's very much sort of radical design.
The same thing with the "Pool Chair". You have three designers there working on that project and it's the swimming pool in American suburbia. This is not a chair that you sit down and read "War and Peace" in, you know. It's a commentary.
JEFFREY BROWN: But what's the commentary, do you think?
CRAIG MILLER: I think it's sort of an American suburbia, of our sort of swimming pools and Mercedes and our houses, this sort of affluence of middle class America. And they're sort of poking a bit of fun at it, but also sort of making a commentary about our society.
JEFFREY BROWN: Are designers always making things with some idea behind it?
CRAIG MILLER: Good designers are. Yeah.
JEFFREY BROWN: Always making a statement.
CRAIG MILLER: Right. It can be different kinds of statements. You know, are they working with a new material? Are they working with a new technology? Is it an aesthetic idea? Is it a political statement? It's the, the object is a means for something larger and that's why the object resonates in the end.
JEFFREY BROWN: Expressionism is the theme of the exhibition's third section. Designers making artistic, intuitive, sometimes irrational objects. Lighting, like this "Twiggy Lamp", made of tree branches. A "Hose Lamp", made of fiber-optic cable that can be twisted into different shapes.
Or this, called "Fish Lamp", by Frank Gehry. Broken shards of plastic laminate, fragments as a piece of sculpture that happens to be a lamp. Today, Gehry is best known for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, opened in 1997, which looks ready to take off and fly away. As far back as the late 70s, he was designing a chaise longue that seemed ready to roll away.
CRAIG MILLER: It's just great rolls of industrial cardboard that Gehry's very carefully arranged in this beautiful sort of serpentine curve, and then the pad on the top is the cardboard that's been sheared and cut. It's a very highly intuitive approach to design.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, it's a little hard to imagine lying on the charise reading by that light.
CRAIG MILLER: Yes, you actually could lie on the chaise, it's not uncomfortable.
JEFFREY BROWN: Will it hold you?
CRAIG MILLER: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Have you been on it?
CRAIG MILLER: I've sat on other Gehry chair in the series. They're actually quite comfortable because the cardboard squishes and so it feels almost like foam rubber. It's resilient and will pop back. Also, cats love it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Cats?
JEFFREY BROWN: On the other hand, humans, might prefer one of the other great icons of late 20th century design: the Aeron chair, found in offices everywhere. To curator Miller, the Aeron is the more practical side of expressionist design: the highly sculpted details, the exposed mechanism, the flowing curves that fit so well to your body.
CRAIG MILLER: It wants the consumer to have a personal relationship with the object. It seduces you. It makes you want to sit in it. It makes you want to buy it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sunglasses, and ski boots, roller blades, even toothbrushes, and a garlic press made for Target Stores by one of today's best-known product design names, Michael Graves. All beautifully designed for us to have personal relationships with.
JEFFREY BROWN: Where do you get these things? Do you actually go and buy them?
CRAIG MILLER: Absolutely. We went to all of these stores, looked at every computer, every telephone that was on the market at this point in time.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you go shopping?
CRAIG MILLER: Exactly. It's curatorial shopping (laughter).
JEFFREY BROWN: That led us to some reportorial shopping...at a suburban Denver Target, accompanied by Margaret Campbell of the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business. A marketing professor and, it turns out, a regular at Target, or as it's widely known, Tar-jay.
JEFFREY BROWN: You can tell the Michael Graves section from a long ways away.
MARGARET CAMPBELL: Yeah, absolutely. They're very consistent look and feel that speaks of the brand. Lets you know that this is the Michael Graves and that you're going to be able to find a lot of his items right here.
JEFFREY BROWN: This kind of branding, is it more and more important to companies?
MARGARET CAMPBELL: I think absolutely. It's again a really important kind of differentiation and it becomes a way to communicate to the consumer.
JEFFREY BROWN: So there's an emotional side to design?
MARGARET CAMPBELL: Definitely, there's the what I would call the artistic side, the side that makes your heart sing, that makes you respond emotionally...
JEFFREY BROWN: Makes your heart sing?
MARGARET CAMPBELL: That makes you feel joy, feel serene, feel joy...
JEFFREY BROWN: You actually feel these things with products?
MARGARET CAMPBELL: With products, yes. A product that is nicely designed, that is fun to use.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Michael Graves toilet brush is one of his bestsellers. Nice to hold, explains Campbell, a nice cover to store the brush, and a nice example of how design works in the real world.
MARGARET CAMPBELL: You have a toilet brush, I'm guessing. If you bought a new one, it is something that you have choice over and what you need is a reason to buy one. And good design helps provide that reason to consumers. Why buy brand X over brand Y? Good design is a reason to do it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Back at the museum there were no toilet brushes in sight. But the exhibition's final section does contain some familiar items of the 90s. Here the lines are simple and clean, the material mostly plastic, the colors bright and translucent. Like these Apple computers.
CRAIG MILLER: The cube is clear plastic with the elements exposed in it and the other computer here is translucent with this beautiful white surface and these hot colors. But then you turn the computer on, it glows.
JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, there's the Garbo trashcan, by Karim Rashid, a leader among new, young designers.
CRAIG MILLER: Rashid has, he wants that beautiful play between the undulating shape of it and then the top of it and then the handle. So it becomes a beautiful composition of these flowing lines. And yet it's something that's a simple plastic garbage can.
JEFFREY BROWN: Everybody needs one, right?
CRAIG MILLER: Exactly, and also, even to the point where you see the garbage inside of it, you know.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's translucent, so you can actually see through.
CRAIG MILLER: You see the beautiful shadow of it.
JEFFREY BROWN: The shadow of the garbage.
CRAIG MILLER: Exactly. So it becomes this sort of beautiful, almost pentimento inside of the can. And yet it's your rubbish.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's just a trashcan. But it's also one of the many choices that mark the last 25 years of American design. The U.S. Design exhibition moves next to Miami, and later to New York and Memphis.