Category Archives: Architecture

OBJECTS IN SPACE: the new chicago modern

Objects in Space exhibitby Eve Fineman

Last fall, after attending one in a string of local Chicago design events, I was wondering why the tenor of such events had mutated over time. My recollection of shows that presented new and local design ideas, specifically of furniture, objects, interiors and architecture, is that they were often subversive, stylish, stimulating affairs.  Yet this particular experience seemed quite the opposite, with the requisite amenities of any Chicago street fair: the zip car booth, beer in plastic cups, and the sounds of a local band bouncing and distorting off the surrounding buildings and dissipating into the air.

Physical surroundings, context, people and multisensory experiences all play a role in the way we absorb new work, and can either serve to reinforce or detract from what it is we are seeing, tasting or hearing. In the case of designed objects, their context certainly cannot be ignored, as they are created to coexist amongst other objects, in a space, used by people. It therefore seems vital that the presentation of such objects and ideas must be carefully curated, and not just placed happenstance in a tent alongside tie-dyed t-shirts.

It was this initial realization that led me to consider what a show of Chicago-designed furniture and objects could be, if presented with the utmost consideration for their context and proximity to one another.  Rather than displaying a series of independent pieces on pedestals, I was curious to see what a grouping of furniture and objects, all designed in Chicago, would look like together in one functional, unified space. Would a larger aesthetic emerge as a result? And would the careful consideration of each piece juxtaposed with the others bring about a more meaningful experience, the whole show being greater than the sum of its parts?

These questions resulted in the decision to curate a show called Objects in Space at the Living Room Gallery, in which a series of rooms or living “vignettes” would be presented, displaying objects and furniture designed and produced exclusively in Chicago. Eager to find shared characteristics, either stylistic or process-driven, between different Chicago-based designers’ practices, I was optimistic that a New Chicago Modern might emerge as a result of the show.

As is the case with designing spaces and objects, the process of curating became at times more significant than the final outcome. In addition to discovering a multitude of talented Chicago designers, I was struck by two consistent elements: the genuineness of the people, and the powerful, visceral experience of the spaces in which they were working. With the people, there is a collaborative spirit and sense of community that permeates the world of Chicago’s furniture designers. And, unlike the constrained spaces necessitated by cost and density on the east and west coasts, in Chicago there exists a vastness and abundance of large converted industrial spaces, with streams of natural light, wonderfully aged structures and patinated materials. Such a combination of people and space, of openness and humility paired with powerfully inspiring and functional spaces, yields a unique outcome of well-crafted, carefully and honestly designed pieces. Although the formal aspects of the pieces I selected for the show vary greatly, the commonalities are there in the materials, craft and detail.

As a result of this curatorial process, Objects in Space showcases pieces by 30 different designers, many of whom do not sell retail and therefore lack exposure beyond their clients’ spaces.  The gallery is arranged in living and dining room spaces that are dynamic yet cohesive, with materials ranging from felt to concrete, steel to antique paper.  The gallery is transformed into a place of domesticity, divided into two spaces by a permeable room divider / jewelry cabinet made by Tim Cozzens of workshop/Cozzens, which provides a visual connection with functional separation. The living room is comprised of a seating area, displays and functional wall space with hooks to hang coats and purses. The dining room’s centerpiece is a beautiful table made by Doug Thome of Thomeworks, created out of salvaged wood from the Hammond Organ factory, with chairs by 8 different designers surrounding it, and displaying the ephemeral papier maché and ceramic pieces by Susan Dwyer of Up in the Air Somewhere. The positioning of each piece in relation to the others enables the space to take on a life of its own, with details and textures ranging from the rough hewn to the obsessively finished. With a huge range in scale, the pieces all appear to have been worked, detailed and formed to perfection, but not beyond.  The designs of benches, chairs, cabinets, light fixtures, vases, tables and textiles all present new ideas while adhering to traditional practices, with approaches that seem more about materiality, craft, and well-edited forms than trends or easy digestibility.

On the opening night, a soundtrack of Chicago music filtered through the beveled walnut speakers designed and made by Bryan Boline of B2 Concepts, with people setting their drinks on coasters made of leftover veneers from Furniture Revival, under the lighting of Beau Hale, Arlan DeRussy and MODified Originals. The architectonic quality of Dennis Johnson’s paintings and Sonnenzimmer’s prints served to reinforce the concept and feel of the space. As a unified experience, the evening simply made sense.  The resultant aesthetic is indeed a New Chicago Modern, yet perhaps not as much new as a point on the continuum, updating of the culture of craft, holistic space, newness and longevity that exists in the wide-open density of Chicago.

Picture 24

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MACRO/micro: A focused response to large-scale problems

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by Eve Fineman

In the past several years, the proliferation of information about planetary disgrace has yielded a multitude of movements, small, large, splintered and focused, all directed at finding new ways to exist without trashing the earth. Despite the fact that we have been headed down this ruinous path for decades, and regardless of the ever-present social and political problems involving humans, this seems to be the issue, time, place, and vehicle for which people feel empowered and are demanding and enacting change. What was once an alternative, unorthodox way of thinking and living is now the dominant strain of thought weaving itself throughout most subcultures and demographics in our society.

Along with this newfound reverence for the earth comes a generation at once empathetic and curious, seeing itself within a larger context, connected and group-minded. And so, despite the central focus being environmental devastation, young people are also seeing the correlation between this and other social issues, large and small, global and personal.  As a design educator, I have noticed a trend in my students’ thinking toward more social and political awareness, as well as a desire to enact change through how they live and the work that they do. This is an incredibly refreshing and challenging time for classroom culture. Students can make more out of what they study. They can do things, rather than just rely on being self-referential within highly specialized disciplines. They can externalize their skills and apply them in ways that are meaningful and whose impacts are readily apparent. They are thirsty for this.

And yet, it seems that as they desire to learn more and take action, the knowledge they are gaining is at times debilitating, creating a sense of paralysis and doom.  My students are repeatedly wondering, with so many bad things happening and so much irreversible damage having occurred, how they could possibly have an impact.  It is here where I suggest that, rather than hoping to solve problems or create massive waves, that they, we, everybody take micro steps in an expert way. If we recognize what we are good at and use our area of expertise to engage in a larger discourse, we will indeed have an impact.  No gesture is too small to have an effect on the larger whole.  So, rather than overwhelming us, I propose that we allow the overabundance of available information to enable us to approach an issue from any given discipline. Let us divvy up our tasks and actions based on our individual strengths, believing that the smaller and more focused our response to a problem, the more potential it has to transform things.

So how, specifically, do we go about being activists on a micro level? In his book Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken shows us how hundreds and thousands of micro movements can be seen as one giant tidal wave of change, arguing it is the largest social movement the world has ever seen. Yet, instead of forming groups with mission statements and boards and non-profit status, we might also take an approach even more microscopic, which may be separated into two very basic categories: life and work.

The first infuses our daily lives with the political; we can think about everything we do as a choice and address it in an educated way. All that we say, buy, eat, watch, read and discuss is within our personal power. The latest film about corporate irresponsibility, Food, Inc., shows us ways that we can make change as individuals, literally one bite at a time. Bring a mug to work, ride a bike, eat an organic apple and discuss healthcare, and suddenly the ambient din of our everyday existence is activated, becoming exponentially influential. (If any of the above looks cool or sounds intelligent, people will ask.)

The latter, our work or studies, can be a more challenging arena in which to enact change, but can often be more influential than the personal.  To myself, I have posed the following question: “how can the act of designing furniture subvert the business model of ‘growth as good’, challenge the notion of planned obsolescence, and change manufacturing processes from linear to closed-loop systems?” My solution is to invent a system of ownership that is fluid, such that people can “subscribe” to a design where parts can be returned or exchanged, melted down, re-used and repurposed, and where, when peoples’ needs change, the pieces and parts of their furniture system can be reconfigured to meet them.

Although I realize that I will not change the current way we own and use objects, I would like to think that if all designers questioned and reinvented their approach, such change would be inevitable.  The point is not to solve problems, but rather to begin to chip away, attack and continually approach them from different angles, provide new perspectives, spread the information, build on the discourse, and then hopefully, eventually, the shape of that huge, daunting, overwhelming problem is altered beyond recognition. Perhaps such a small gesture as making our own beauty product or planting a tomato seed can be the final bite that causes the eventual collapse of an issue that once seemed insurmountable.

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The Politics of Architecture

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by Eve Fineman

The relationship between art and politics is both old and new, clear and complex. Numerous mediums lend themselves quite readily toward a political end, music being particularly apt through its blending of word and sound.  Yet music can do much more than simply inspire through its lyrics; it is a vehicle for giving large groups of people a political voice.

Being fortunate enough to come of age in Washington D.C. in the 1980’s, the multifaceted relationship between music and politics revealed itself to me in life-changing ways. Through participation in punk percussion protests across the street from the White House, and organizing benefit shows for local women’s shelters, I was able to see how many layers of political meaning can exist within the single medium of music.

During the same period that grassroots music scenes were addressing political issues head-on, the visual arts were also moving in a more outwardly political direction,  with such unforgettable works as Martha Rosler’s 1989 collaboration entitled “If you lived here.”  This Dia Foundation exhibition presented multiple positions on issues of housing and homelessness in disarmingly graphic and straightforward ways.  The interdisciplinary approach brought together fine artists, graphic artists, designers, architects and urban planners to address an ostensibly unsolvable problem. 

It was invigorating, as a newly minted architecture student, to learn that these issues for which I had sought an outlet through music, were clearly relevant to the field I was beginning to explore. And yet somehow this relationship, the one between architecture and politics, remained elusive to my peers outside of the discipline. To be political and creative meant writing, performing, painting and protesting, but not designing. 

Seeing this disconnect between the politics of architecture and the artistic activism of other genres, it became clear to me that the general public was not likely to perceive the political potential in buildings.  Yet now, as we approach an ever-more politically active and aware time in the collective consciousness, it is perplexing that there remains a general unawareness of how our most public of arts can have much to do with governments, wars and our relationship to the earth.  Although large groups of non-designers seem to have a greater interest and investment in aesthetics and “green design,” we continue to believe the myth of architecture as a vessel, either benignly apolitical or symbolically heroic. We must, if we are to move forward with a deep desire for sustainability, look at public architecture with a more critical eye, and hold it to higher standards than the current ones of structure, surface and systems.

For an example of the structures we mistakenly hail as symbols of our democracy, we can look at MiesGE001699van der Rohe and his iconic buildings in Chicago.  With a charming trip down the Chicago River on an architectural boat tour, a visitor can learn how Mies escaped Nazi Germany and was given amnesty here to produce his modernist visions, the steel and glass structures which are now emblematic of Chicago’s skyline. Chicagoans readily embrace the notion that, without our open Democracy, modernism as we know it may not have been given a chance to flourish. Yet rarely is it mentioned on these tours or in conversation that in 1934, roughly four years before moving to the U.S., Mies signed a motion in support of Hitler, in the hopes that he may be selected as the Architect of State, beginning with his being shortlisted for the design of the state’s new Reichsbank. Nor do Mies’ soaring structures get shown alongside his 1935 competition entry for the German pavilion at the Brussels World Fair, upon which a similarly visionary structure is adorned with an eagle and a swastika.

While we cannot hold Mies responsible for the outcomes of Hitler’s regime, neither can we continue to perpetuate the myth that he is a political hero whose buildings represent pure democracy.  This democratic ideal that we so strongly believed in during the middle of the 20th century is now morphing into our desire to respect the earth and live sustainably. And so, with the Mies story in hindsight, we must be careful when jumping on the sustainability bandwagon and not get too seduced by the latest renewable material or self-generating energy source. These things alone do not turn buildings into heroic emblems.

With the rigorous standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), corporations around the country are boasting of their greenness with regard to the ratings of their newly constructed or renovated buildings. Yet perhaps it is our responsibility to look into this a bit further before feeling placated that companies are treading more lightly on the land. Take, for example, Lockheed Martin’s new facility in Sunnyvale, California. This LEED certified headquarters houses a corporation which, according to its stated mission, is “pursuing projects that protect natural resources, conserve energy and reduce emissions,” all while producing, storing and developing a vast supply of bombs, missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

I might suggest that LEED incorporate a client or occupant profile into its ratings checklist, requiring negative points for things such as providing the means for  destroying human life, or denying certification altogether for a company that paid a $110 million dollar fine for failing to properly clean up a nuclear waste site. We may want to ask ourselves what about these practices is sustainable, or how such a corporation came to be awarded the “Global Climate Change Champion” by National Geographic in 2007. As informed citizens, I ask that we look beyond the vessel and into the story behind the building to see how these beautiful structures we build are intrinsically tied to the politics of our time.

 

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