Thomas de Monchaux | Essays

Another Organicism at the National Design Triennial

Installation view of National Design Triennial, photograph by Andrew Garn, 2006.

A house is not a home. And a home is not a museum. Unless, of course, you're strolling through one of New York's great house museums, like the Frick or the Morgan — former robber-baron mansions that gild our own age with a little domestic grandeur and the residue of their former occupants' obsessions. The greatest of these is the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, once the home of Andrew Carnegie. The building, a vast Jamesian fantasy of deep paneling and neo-Georgian fuss, must be its curators' greatest asset and vexation: everything looks good here, and yet the drama of the surrounding décor tends to render all contents pallid by comparison.

But sometimes the balance is just right. There are moments when, poised within Carnegie's great rooms, the objects on display are brought to life by this domestic perspective. One can imagine oneself not between the usual sterile-white museum walls, but perhaps at home, albeit on a grand scale. Certain items on display, as at the current Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006 survey, seem less like untouchable artifacts than the useful furnishings of a thoughtful host. Step into that peach tulip of a Narciso Rodriguez dress, for example, before cocktails downstairs, or use that model of a NASA Hyper X Scramjet as a chic little footstool. And above all, grab that great silvery collection from its glass case and take it to a dinner table, presumably nearby, and stab it into venison, scrape it under oysters, swizzle it through aperitifs.

Alessi flatware prototypes, painted resin, designed by Greg Lynn FORM, 2006.

That silvery collection is a set of cutlery developed by the office of Los Angeles architect Greg Lynn, and is, surprisingly, among the most thought-provoking pieces in the Triennial. Using a now-standard process of translation from freehand drawing, through Maya software remodeling, to a computer-numerically-controlled-type three-dimensional output, Lynn and his collaborators developed some two dozen utensils of startling strangeness and beauty. Transcending the pop convexities of Lynn's architecturally-scaled work, these machines for eating resemble a Victorian vision of seed pod, horn, antenna and nutshell: a skeletal and florid collection worthy of a collaboration between Christopher Dresser and William Morris — right at home in the the lush and intricate 1899 mansion that surrounds it.

At the Triennial opening, a Lynn collaborator, inspecting the installation, observed how striking it was to see all of the implements layed out together, since they had each been delivered to her office and relayed to the museum one at a time. And it was in array and assembly, and resulting complexity, that the project made its point: in between familiar implements (steak knife, butter knife, soup spoon, salad fork, et al), were bizarre and radical hybrids — sporks and foons and everything in between, with basins and blades and tines blurring and blending in suprising combination. Here was utility rendered recombinant into sublime uselessness. Or perhaps a converse process, in which indeterminate new tools determine new uses. A new taxonomy of pasta, or a new periodic table of noodles, or other cuisines in new shapes and textures, need to be cooked-up to fulfill the processes of cutting and cradling, squishing and stabbing, suggested by these new tools.

The most compelling items in the Triennial suggest, in fact, a redefinition of how we consider the word "organic" in design. Typically, this adjective identifies a formal habit: a tendency toward singly- and doubly-curved surfaces; towards things that look like natural objects (fruit, or meat, or river stones). That habit might date as far back as the rhetoric of Sullivan and Wright, and more immediately to the Museum of Modern Art's 1940 "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" show, which introduced New Yorkers to the classically-proportioned industrially-assembled blobs and curves of Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen. Since then, "organic" has become shorthand for a particular set of formalist gestures, amplified by the ease with which digital drawing tools (borrowed from animation and aerospace) so gracefully render complex curves and bends and folds. "Organic" also refers to a relentless self-similarity within given objects — a topological or formal resonance between differently-scaled details, between micro and macro, often found in natural things (from shells and hives to veins and clouds). Or it can just mean stuff that, you know, looks kind of round.

As such, "organic" suggests an insistent formalism at the expense of structure, material and other economies of design. It is, in this sense, anti-tectonic, unconcerned with processes of construction and assembly. Anecdotes abound about how such work, once sleekly outputted from the three-dimensional CNC machine, has to be bashed and slashed to actually stand up. Or about how even in an age of ostensible mass-customization, the geometry required to frame out various swoops and folds maddeningly defies intelligent efficiencies of repetition in componentry, joinery and connectivity. But this Triennial suggests that the opposite may be true, that organicism might be catching up with its image — that process may be catching up with product. Conceptually, if not alas literally, the elements in Lynn's tableware are connected and combined in ways that recall organic processes of biological assembly, reactivity, adhesion and recombinance.

LifePort Kidney Transporter, designed by Organ Recovery Systems & IDEO, photograph by Tom Petrov, 2003.

Not far from Lynn's cutlery is an organic object of shocking literalness: a Lifeport Kidney Transporter by Organ Recovery Systems. This replaces the horrific styrofoam icebox familiar to viewers of ER with an Alias-Waveform-sleek pod (rather like an old digital projector), within which can be imagined a half-alive human kidney in all its squishy, slimy, fibrous glory. This quasi-cyborgic hybrid preserves human organs seventeen times longer than its precedents by weaving together technological approximations of biological processes. And why shouldn't the pod be so streamlined and sleek? It has to move fast.

From surgeons to barbers, another nearby design literally incorporates the human body — in the form of intricate hairdressings by stylist Orlando Pita. These are complex, Semper-worthy meditations on the topologies of weaving, knitting, braiding, folding, fuzzing, clumping, and other transformations of this living medium into vast baskets, nests and clouds floating above the human head.

Similarly, a resonant interest in texturing, scaling and stitching of a fibrous medium emerges in the tapestries of Lia Cook, who returns computing to its Jacquard weaving-machine roots. Her process maps stitches across photographic pixels, reproducing the resulting texture at ever more recursively increased magnification and magnificence. Elsewhere, strips and straps and other fibers are deployed to make benches and bags and canoes; and, from designer Ralph Rucci, a "Trellis Dress" of subtle and sublime three-dimensional linear tracery, transforming the divine geometry and structure of human flesh.

Trellis dress, Ralph Rucci haute couture collection, Fall 2004, photograph by Dan and Corina Lecca.

Slightly lost in the crowd, these highlights suffer from the dual assignment of any such large-scale survey to offer both dutiful documentation and acute advocacy. A less comprehensive but sharper show might have dispensed with many banal projects from familiar global brands like Koolhaas, Nike, Acconci and Boeing.

Another anomaly is the vivid presence of so much military technology, including tents, gadgets and videogames. However humanely intended, these projects, in this context, tend to assimilate and aestheticize, or otherwise de-politicize, the art of war. Even (or especially) in such a broad survey, these projects merited a less casual presentation. The high performance and rugged good looks of military devices have long trickled into popular design culture: Hummer sport-utility vehicles prowl Broadway in commemoration of the military transports now on patrol in far corners of our global neighborhood. Recently packaged as clean, streamlined, efficient, warfare is also an extreme exercise in organic process: messy, awkward, dynamic, and subject to the fluid behavior of biological, sociological and technological systems.

Yet those systems, like all complex networks and matrices, contain confluences of calm as well as cascades of violence, and the transitions between lively and stable, coherent and indeterminate, are endlessly negotiable — perhaps especially by designers. The larger possibility of an organicism of process suggested in this Triennial — of design developed through intervention in practices of cultivating, surveying, furnishing, cooking, grooming, healing and other forms of husbandry — offers new and newly topical forms of organization and convergence. Stitch. Weave. Flock. Thread. Trace. Blend. Bend. Crowd. Mix. Stir. Serve. Host. The cumulative result of these organic practices may be a robust form of the domestic arts emerging in design discourse: the craft, the science, and the art of making oneself at home.

Thomas de Monchaux is a writer, designer and New Yorker. Recipient of the 2006 AIGA Winterhouse Award for Design Writing & Criticism, he has written for Architectural Record, ID Magazine and The New York Times, and journals like 32BNY and Log. He currently assists the design firm LOT-EK at Columbia University's Housing Architecture Studio.

Comments [5]

Mr. Monchaux,

Your words danced like sugarplums in my head ... no ... fortune cookies.

Therefore, your new DO nick name will be: "Dr. Few Manchaux."

( Ha! Try to shake that one, bub! )

Great stuff! No wonder you won the award. Wow! "From surgeons to barbers..." Indeed.

Very Respctfully,
Joe Moran

p.s. The "trellis dress" model. She's hot!!! With a capital T!

Joe Moran

An excellent critique, wonderfully written. I love your assessment of Lynn's work as "recombinant into sublime uselessness". I guess this is not much of a recommendation for his brand of "neo-organicism". I find it curious that despite the computer power and software and evident intelligence that so much of the end product of this work seems so steeped or reliant on older non-digital experimentation that was in its day much more radical in intent - formally and socially as well as materially.
Bernard Pez

Thomas, you write like Faulkner would, if he wrote about design. I can't wait for your next critique.


after reading your piece the following question needs to be asked, "will the robust form of the domestic arts" be a return to leisure discourse or an attempt to reclaim the real, once again enabled by military practices, off shore, we have come to naturalize?

this demands a reflection on the historical legacy of "organicism" (the myth of wholeness and natural order for society) and how it informed scientific explorations of eugenics and other practices of conservation (i.e. taxidermy)?

from what i understand, the myth of wholeness/the real is what served as an impetus to "nature movement" and efforts to find ways to maintain social order against the failings of imperial and capitalistic endeavors. yet, it was through the similar logics of imperialism and capitalism that such endeavors were made, for the sake of the masses. however, is it any prize that we've moved to learn these values within a national design musuem instead of a natural history museum, as practiced in the early twentieth century?

what, where is progress?

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