Forms of life and light

The Goldstein Gallery’s exhibit brings high design to the masses

by Steven Snyder

Upon arriving at The Goldstein Museum of Design, two things become immediately apparent: its size and remoteness. Located in McNeal Hall, this one-room museum seems, at first, appallingly cramped and confined. And located on the St. Paul campus, it is quite a trek for those University students interested in attending its current exhibit.

But after spending a good 90 minutes at the museum, these facts quickly become irrelevant. Yes, the Goldstein is a small facility. But the way in which the space is used, from lighting to traffic flow, make it seem far larger than it is. And after seeing some of the intriguing and interesting works on display, the lengthy Campus Connector commute might actually be beneficial, providing a forum for visitors to debate what they saw during their trip home.

The Goldstein’s current exhibit, “Here By Design II,” takes the mystique out of the design process, revealing the functionality at work behind even the most abstract projects. For those familiar with the design world, the Goldstein’s depth will be appreciated. A single object, such as a two-person rocking chair, is explored thoroughly from conception to production.

But even those who know little about design, what’s involved in the process or how it works into their lives, will be amazed. As the Goldstein portrays it, design is as simple as a process used to achieve an objective. In one notable piece by Michael Thornton, there is a straightforward goal presented alongside the resulting collection of responses. The mission was to create a home staircase that connects a 2001 upstairs to a 1901 downstairs; a walkway to blend both styles. The six submitted samples are fascinating to contemplate. Some look modern, working with vertical strips of metal to seclude the staircase from the surrounding rooms. Others integrate the staircase into the rooms, using the steps as an open area.

And with samples such as this, the “Here By Design II” exhibit is one that emphasizes, first and foremost, functionality. Some designers are frivolous and avant-garde, but the Goldstein has instead decided to focus on package design, interior design, environmental design and furniture design – things that people use, see or debate on a daily basis.

The exhibit’s first memorable sample is a brilliant photo essay. Titled “Studios, People, Places and Objects around the Twin Cities,” photographer and curator James Boyd-Brent attempts to show how designs are omnipresent in modern society. A bookshelf, tree, billboard, some leaves – there are designs at work everywhere one looks. But taking the time to absorb the dozens of photos on display, this collage starts to take on added meaning. Its title could have easily been “College Life in Minnesota,” as its surreal mix of imagery from academia, city life and the Twin Cities’ rural side, captures that unique experience of University students, caught somewhere between skyscrapers and forests. And given its autobiographical and design-oriented mix, “Studios, People, Places” might be making an unintended statement about the human experience. Ubiquitous designs, occurring naturally or artificially, have molded and shaped human perception. They no longer simply provide solutions for problems but provide a new basis for understanding.

Of course, Boyd-Brent’s photo essay is not intended to be an abstract think piece. But returning to this work after a tour of the Goldstein, this thesis cannot be ignored. Almost everything at this museum is taken from everyday life, incorporating everyday uses, and one cannot help but question how far the design process has impacted society as a whole. Look around the hallways today. Notice the Polo insignias, the Nike logos, the repetitive collared shirts for men and tight, stretchy outfits for women. This is a world of designs, where meaning is derived from image. No question about it.

Accordingly, the commercial implications of the design process are highlighted at the Goldstein. The exhibit takes a few key items, notably the Schroeder Milk brand and the line of Mrs. Meyer’s Cleaning Products, and shows how design work helped convey a given message to the consumer. In Schroeder’s case, the company wanted to update its traditional packaging with a contemporary twist. The display walks a visitor through the steps designers took in creating packaging that helps this milk stand out from others on a store’s shelves. Similarly, the Mrs. Meyer’s products, which aim to replicate a 1950s sensibility, strike a balance between traditional package design and edgier, more humorous copy.

In the far right corner of the gallery, a sample explores the environmental motivations that often accompany modern design techniques. Baltix, a furniture manufacturer, has found success in designing furniture made from sustainable materials such as sunflower shells, soy, recycled paper, wheat fiber and linoleum. One has to see this remarkable desk set to believe it. And, in reading the Goldstein’s accompanying text, the most amazing fact is revealed – Baltix has found a means of producing these environmentally friendly designs at a cost equal to conventional, “non-green” products.

Even eccentric furniture, which seems to be a prerequisite for design shows, is approached with a functional mindset. Tom Oliphant’s “two-person rocker” is surely a visual marvel, as each seat balances out the other. But the Goldstein places equal interest in the design process of the chair, the construction process and, as with almost all the displays, asks the viewer to take that one extra step of consideration.

The one name that makes this show, however, is Michael Thornton. He is the designer that will leave visitors talking, and he might be the exhibits’ most successful individual in mixing the functional and abstract aspects of design work. He worked on the stairway design discussed previously, as well as several “Ready to Design” ideas, including a toilet paper holder, a glass table, and a room divider/screen made out of 224 empty aluminum cans.

His ideas may seem silly at first, but looking at them closely reveals a functionality and simplicity that is refreshing in this postmodern world. Referring to his “Ready to Design” concept, Thornton offers the following thesis: It is “for people who see the flicker of inventiveness in everyday objects.” His toilet paper holder, made out of copper piping, makes the mundane interesting. His glass table is a delicate balancing act of four bent metal legs, which emphasizes ease of assembly. His aluminum can divider is not only an interesting means of recycling, but is also surprisingly effective. Used by the exhibit itself, the aluminum wall successfully separates space while being colorful, unobtrusive and even a bit humorous.

From the creation of a new type font to trendy overhead lights, “Here By Design II” is a powerhouse of design possibilities, its goal being not to awe but to engage. Almost every sample of work seems inherently simple, until the thought process, the objectives and the challenges are explored. Its goal is not to present designs for elitists, but for the common, everyday user, empowering viewers to ask questions and come to their own conclusions.

The exhibit’s location is a travesty. If held on the Minneapolis campus, or even in Coffman Union, it would be generating discussion and debate that Coffman’s current offerings, such as U.S. Bank, fail to provide. Once again, the University seems to be squandering the best it has to offer.

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