The backpack is ubiquitous in twenty-first century America: it is, in fact, one of the few accessories that comfortably crosses both gender and generational lines. They vary in color and ornament, just enough for you to know your own, but they are close to interchangeable. Yet this one, which doubles as a computer bag, is visually unique, made from a sturdy-looking, metallic material creased in isosceles triangles. I was immediately reminded of Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library, its remarkably similar, free-standing geometric skin wrapped around staggered floors open into space. It’s the most exciting building I’ve ever been in, and I could see how a personal bag could work, and work well, in much the same way. Even though I haven’t carried a backpack for years, I immediately wanted this one. Clearly, the design worked on two levels: it made a better mousetrap, and it made me want to beat a path to its store.
Like art and craft, art and design are easily confused. One person considers art a subset of design, while a second considers design just one component of an artwork. A third sees no fixed relation between them: the same object can be art or design depending on how it’s used. According to Rio Gallery Director Laura Durham, the challenge in staging an exhibit like 2013 DesignArts Utah lies in convincing firms and individuals who consider themselves designers to apply for entry to a gallery, rather than a more traditional trade show or industry award. The self-segregation that results is unfortunate for both designers and the public. Designers miss the chance to encounter consumers directly, and to learn their responses earlier and more candidly. As for the public, a show like this offers an avenue to a level of sophistication most consumers can only pretend to possess. Design presented as an end in itself, isolated from both practical or aesthetic concerns, can be encountered without obfuscation and appreciated directly through the judgment of the senses. Indeed, the palpable mood of liberated delight on display among the Rio’s guests during the opening is rarely seen in a more arduous and deliberately challenging artistic environment.
According to the exhibition catalog, forty projects by twenty-four design entities were submitted for 2013, from which juror Monica Ponce de Leon selected seven that in her judgment best exemplify the goals of design. Ideally, each designer and each project implies a future world, in which what the world will look like and how it will function are products of intentional choice. Larger projects — two here are architectural — seek to establish a coherent environment in which haphazard objects and their even more indeterminate users do less damage to each other. Smaller projects, like furniture, fixtures, and personal effects, offer individual autonomy in a world where most major choices have already been made by others.
Each project on display, then, should demonstrate superior function and form. But it should also make a point about the designer’s goals. Consider the buildings. A house near Park City demonstrates that an elegant and comfortable lifestyle requires neither the vast space of a McMansion on the one hand, nor the elaborate and disfiguring addition of intrusive solar adaptation on the other.|2| Though based on European models, some of its features would have been known to Frank Lloyd Wright. Its guiding principle could be said to be that if environmental conditions are considered from the beginning of the project, later compromises become unnecessary, having been replaced by positive alternatives in conception.
A different, arguably more aesthetic design principle guided the builders of a Catholic church in West Jordan, which may be familiar to many who come to see the show.|3-5| Designed foremost with a pre-existing awareness of the history of the area and how it resonates with the life of the carpenter St. Joseph, it presents not only a better, more sustainable building, but one that features the social and cultural lineage of its users. To take one small example of its brilliance, what many locals will recognize as the figure of an industrial chimney rises near the center of the complex. This day chapel is more skylight than enclosure, and evokes spiritual spaces running all the way back before recorded history. At the Rio, one can follow it through a series of scale models, proving it to have been an early and precisely right part of the concept.
While it’s frustrating to have to see these tantalizing structures in photographs, it’s arguably worse to look through the walls of a vitrine at a three-dimensional, fold-out book of poetry.|6| Forget pop-up books, with their appeal to children often too clumsy to manipulate them. This is a serious book, it’s structure an integral ally with how the poet expresses herself. Nearby, a set of designer stationary communicates to the students intended to use it some of the skills they will be expected to find and develop in themselves.
An expandable table set nearby on a pedestal constituted, in the juror’s opinion, the climax of the show. For the vision-dominant that may be true, but not being able to sit down and feel how it interacted with my body put it in the same frustrating category as those intangible books.|7| For me, the best use of the exhibition opportunity was made by the stereo components, which stood on the other side of an open space that they filled both visually and sonically.|8|Travis Tanner, who first urged me not to miss this show, specifically recommended them without telling me what to expect, and I would hate to spoil the surprise by saying too much. At the opening, the entire component system was working, filling the room with the live presence of a jazz band. Immersion in live-quality sound where no musicians were present more than compensated for not getting to flip the switches or twirl the knobs. I just wanted the Rio’s space to be my place. Maybe it’s not fair to the makers of immobile buildings or easily-damaged personal accessories, but if anyone is looking to make an impression with a design, the way this one put itself forward at the opening would be hard to beat.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.