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Designing the real

What is the chair-ness of a chair? Is it something within the chair itself, or how we interact with it? What if your chair were also a table or a bed? Would it still be a chair? The products we consume do not grow on trees and arrive, freshly picked, with their shapes and functions already determined. They begin as concepts, they are drawn, sculpted and molded into prototypes, redesigned, tested, built and rebuilt. Finally, they become products, which are tested, marketed and consumed by you. On June 8 the Walker Art Center will open its newest design exhibit: “Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life.”

“Strangely Familiar” is the culmination of years of work, questions and thought by curator Andrew Blauvelt. The show grew out of Blauvelt’s desire to create a Walker-originated design show with an international scope that would survey the different areas of design, including fashion, furniture, architecture and graphic design. He investigated how design challenged archetypes. Instead of asking “what is a _____ (chair, hat, office building)?” he asked “what could a _____ (chair, hat, office building) be?”

As the exhibition demonstrates, the answers are varied, intriguing and sometimes completely absurd. The several small appliances from Elephant Design, a Tokyo-based design firm whose Insipid Collection features products such as a cordless phone, a microwave oven and a rice cooker. While aesthetically pleasing in their simplicity, their background is more interesting. Elephant Design manufactures products designed based on consumer suggestions. If a particular idea is popular and practical the firm goes into the concept phase, building virtual models consumers can suggest adaptations to – a collaborative process integrating design and use via consumer and designer interaction.

Having some control beyond simply choosing which product to buy makes items like these more interesting than their counterparts gathering dust in suburban megastores. Other pieces challenge typical ideas about the function of particular things. Materials and designs are reconsidered and used in new and sometimes incredible ways.

Wondering about the state of our consumerist society while walking through what might be the future of design will certainly keep you thinking. Whether you prefer chairs that are integrated into your lawn or houses that can tumble around it, chocolate rulers or vases shaped like flying nose particles, jackets that become tents and kites or the next wave of prefab homes, you will find plenty worth seeing when the Twin Cities plays host to the premiere of this fascinating exhibition next week.

“Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life” kicks off with a preview party, 9 p.m.-midnight on Saturday, $14 ($7 members) featuring a screening of Roman Coppola’s “CQ” at 10 p.m. and live music by local electronic/jazz architects Poor Line Condition at 10:30 p.m. Opening day, Sunday, will feature a discussion at 2 p.m. Walker Art Center, (612) 375-7622 or visit

Gabriel Shapiro welcomes comments at [email protected]

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