To make objects that are functional and attractive -- and whose functional attributes make them more attractive and whose attractive attributes make them more functional -- is the great task of any designer. And, as consumer products tend not to sell so well when the sweat that went into their design is visible in the final product, the last step -- mass production -- must involve the removal of all the processes that went into the object's creation. Independent curator Victoria Milne attempts to subvert this final step by making a little sweat visible on the beautiful, sleek objects filling the ground floor gallery at TAM.
The product of barrels of Microsoft sweat is evident in a swarm of computer mouses (mice?), built from a range of substances, primarily black foam or white plastic. Some are whimsical (one resembles an ice cream cone on its side), but all seek to fit a variety of functions into an ergonomic form. Heat sensor studies on a nearby wall show the designers' attempts to maximize the contact between a hand and the mouse's surface. The design choices separating one iteration from another are still largely invisible, but you know a lot more about them than you would from the single resulting design that made it into production.
Just as much work goes into designing a simple chocolate drop, judging by David Ryan and Ryan Sherman's design work on Starbucks' house-brand chocolate bars and bites. Rough pen sketches chart the first brainstorming sessions; a pile of models in resin and wood are arranged alongside the final products. Seeing the amount of labor devoted to a simple chocolate drop is almost unnerving -- after all, the best design in this field, the Hershey Kiss, is so naturalistic (a simple chocolate drip onto a flat surface) that it's hard to imagine the amount of work that went into that perfect design.
A key narrative in this exhibit is streamlining -- an approach almost synonymous with 20th-century design, and one that emerges here as a specifically Northwestern attribute. Canoes, kayaks, bike helmets and bikes, semi trucks, fishing lures, and of course airplanes are all designed or built in our region, and all benefit from moving through air or water with a minimum of resistance. But given all this, how do you explain Seattle firm ZIBA's concept model for a computer, the Koi, shaped like a sleek, modern goldfish, its upturned mouth ready to accept your CD-ROM? The story here is how a design principle with functional purpose mutates into an attractive trait, functional or otherwise.
The Koi illustrates another shift in recent design, one toward cuteness. "Cute" has always been a minority undercurrent in computer design, mostly in the work of Apple, from the original Macintosh to the iMac. In comparison, PC design is largely a wasteland of bland boxes, with exceptions like the doomed Next (a cute yet sleek black box). The current era, with highlights like the Hot Wheels and Barbie PCs, is more about using good, approachable -- and cuter -- design to get computers into homes. Cute design can go too far, as in the case of ZIBA's design for a mini-chainsaw tree pruner. If I'm holding something in my hand that could maim me, it's better if I haven't been disarmed into thinking it harmless by its cute, bright-colored plastic casing.
The juxtaposition of art, craft, and technology at the heart of good design is best illustrated by a visionary Northwest designer. Gideon Kramer, now in his 80s, worked much of his life for semi-truck producer Kenworth. His sketches, mounted on the wall, include an open-cab semi design with a space-suited trucker at the wheel. (Kramer also designed the original space-age seating for the Space Needle.) Visionary futurism meets the long-haul trucker? Not a combination I'd have expected.
The show fulfills its mission: It's a rare, regional-focus show that doesn't seem like mere pandering, whose regional pride seems earned. The future did happen here, and still does.