Visual Arts

Design of the Times

Designers are maligned as the pragmatists of the art world, the art majors who were employable instead of outrageous, responsible instead of romantic.

Unlike artists, designers don't do glamorous acts of audacity like lop off their ears, marry ex-porn stars or drape Central Park in sheets of plastic. Designers make earthbound, sensible items like bookshelves, magazine layouts and cappuccino cups.

An exhibition at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art titled "Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life" shoots down this stereotype of the applied arts as somber slave to function. The designers featured in this group exhibition of fashion, architecture, and graphic and product design from around the world slide sly social commentary into the most ordinary of household objects. It's a smart show that's worth a look.

On the surface, the 45 pieces in "Strangely Familiar" are straightforward items, like a chair that doubles as a bed, a plastic poncho that unfolds into a tent, and photos of a redesigned tract home. Look deeper and you'll realize these objects tell of a world that runs too fast, worries too much and takes itself far too seriously.

Take, for example, do hit, a steel cube that's meant to be pounded into a seat with a sledgehammer. It's one of a trio of items in the show created by Dutch firms Droog Design and KesselsKramer that takes dead aim at the mania for home improvement. Marijn van der Poll's creation is on display in the gallery along with a three-foot-wide photo of a smirking, sweaty fat guy standing, sledgehammer in hand, next to his pummeled creation.

Those of us who watch perky designers redecorate houses on HGTV while we sit amid a roomful of particleboard furniture understand the urge to hit something or someone with a sledgehammer when the topic of obsessive home improvement arises. Here, the fantasy is fulfilled in an actual consumer object that, by its very audacity, asks, "Hasn't this whole Trading Spaces thing gone too damn far?"

Dutch designer Marcel Wanders has created a series of resin vases made from casts of the goo that flies from one's nose during a sneeze -- snot, in layman's terms. The resulting Airborne Snotty Vases are goofily beautiful, globular forms that make you reconsider the belief that mucus globs are disgusting. Putting an object into a new context so that we see it as if for the first time is a time-tested artistic premise, but Wanders surely is the first to make us see the aesthetic beauty that lurks in a soiled tissue. His "snot as art" questions our throwaway culture with a wink and a giggle.

Italian designer Moreno Ferrari's series of plastic rain ponchos that can be transformed into a sleeping bag or a tent large enough to shelter two adults says less about fashion than it does about the paranoia of the times. Has it really come to this, that we need clothing that can double as survival gear at a moment's notice?

Apparently it has, because there are other objects in the exhibition that would thrill a survivalist. Like Martin Ruiz de Azúa's Basic House, a shelter made of lightweight polyester fabric that can be folded up and put in one's pocket. Or Japanese architect Shigeru Ban's Paper Log House, a one-room cabin constructed of cardboard tubes and plastic beer crates.

The apocalyptic theme is continued in Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym's Buildings of Disaster, a series of miniatures of sites where pop culture tragedies happened. "Souvenirs to mark the end of the millennium," is how the show catalogue describes them. The Paris tunnel where Princess Di was killed is there, as is the Texas A&M bonfire, the Unabomber's cabin, the Los Angeles freeway where the O.J. Simpson police chase happened, and the World Trade Center.

The four-inch-high, cast nickel buildings are a dark spin on the sticky sweet Dept. 56 Christmas villages collected by Shaker sweater-wearing middle-aged women across the country. They also show how calamity can transform an ordinary place into a pop icon.

There are pieces in the show that underwhelm, like Paolo Ulian's Greediness Meter, a pair of 13-inch rulers made of chocolate that symbolize runaway consumption. Scarf down the chocolate and the ruler measures your piggery. Get it? They're as subtle as a brickbat -- or an Oliver Stone movie.

A series of minimalist household appliances by the Japanese firm Elephant Designs is unthrilling, and that's the point of these Insipid Designs. But the irony of deliberate dullness is lost in a Wal-Mart world. Give us Design with a capital D, please. Give us chairs and plates that whisper truths about the crazy times in which we live, because we need some answers.

The rest of "Strangely Familiar" does just that.