Animal Mineral by Valerie DeKeyser combines iron with organic materials in a series of pendant lights. She uses peacock feathers, horsehair, and man-made sable (cast iron dust and powdered sugar)
Where is Where, the LOADED: SAIC in Milan
June 11–25, 2011
by Anastasia Kruglyashova
Following the steps of the not unknown art world figures and the noted School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduates Ed Paschke, Jeff Koons and Georgia O’Keefe, SAIC class of 2011 marked their graduation recently by holding a vast exhibition titled Where is Where to showcase their works to demonstrate their provocative and critical way of thinking. Exploration of unobserved aspects of society by “re-inhabiting space, challenging perceptions of interiority, and redefining values” was the impact behind the graduate exhibition of the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture, Designed Objects (AIADO) and Fashion of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, presenting an abundance of innovative interdisciplinary design solutions found “within the inter-spaces of cultural and built systems”. Conceptual works by more than 130 students were showcased at the Sullivan Galleries, the largest contemporary art space in downtown Chicago situated at one of Chicago’s iconic landmarks built by Louis Sullivan, the Carson Pirie Scott building. Guest curators Juan William Chávez (MFA 2004), Jessica Cochran (MAAH 2008), Bryce Dwyer (MAAAP and MAAH 2010), and Gregory J. Harris (MAAH 2010) transformed the expansive art space of the galleries into “a series of shows-within-a-show”, letting the thematic segments unfold throughout the spaces in a succession of visual encounters and eccentric experiences.
As part of Where is Where, the LOADED: SAIC in Milan exhibition was on view, showcasing the works of 15 AIADO graduate and undergraduate students and emerging designers who participated in the annual Milan International Furniture Fair in April 2011. Under the guidance of Helen Maria Nugent, the award-winning Professor at the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects (AIADO) at the SAIC , the show’s task to “explore the history, physicality, and currency of two catalytic materials: iron and sugar” encouraged designers to think provocatively and question the value of everyday objects. According to one of the exhibition’s participants Brian Anderson, “Sugar and Iron are two materials that represent American history quite well, with references to the times of slavery as well as the glorious industrial days”. From Anderson’s own metal necklace that, as he describes, is “part jewelry, part cloak, part cartwheel ruff, part affluence” to Won Joon Lee’s lighting structures “illuminated by a set of sugar LED’s that exist in a state between taste and sight”, the show is a definite thought provocateur.
To provide more insight into the LOADED project and explain her own relationship with contemporary design, Helen Maria Nugent kindly agreed to answer some questions at the opening reception of the Where is Where exhibition.
CO: What was the ultimate endeavor behind the LOADED exhibition?
HMN: The theme of the LOADED project was to look at the intersection of Iron, Sugar and Currency. Iron and Sugar are fundamental materials that have played a catalytic role in the development of contemporary society, being integral in both positive and negative ways to the development of international trade, slavery, industrial design/engineering/architecture, and even the problem of childhood obesity (we are addicted to sugar!). The contrast in the nature of these materials was also provocative in that sugar essentially disappears completely when consumed (dissolves) whereas iron can be re-smelted over and over again so is effectively a permanent material. In relation to the concept of currency, we asked students to think about how ‘design’ can add value and whether the ‘essential/market’ value of these fundamental materials (iron and sugar) could be transformed through design (either given increased value or possibly devalued). It also seemed timely to deal with the issues surrounding the de-materialization of ‘currency’ and the increased re-interest (and potential for growth) in the value of physical materials (gold, etc).
CO: Except your academic involvement at the SAIC, you practice design too. How did that start?
HMN: My instructors in the Environmental Art Department at Glasgow School of Art, David Harding and Sam Ainsley, recognized that my work and approach was very design oriented, something I hadn’t realized myself. The project [that initiated this] was called ‘Fools Gold’ and consisted of multiple cast resin and brass street drain covers that I made to replace the existing drain covers spanning the length of Buchanan Street in Glasgow (the main, high-end pedestrian shopping street). In retrospect, this was really not an art project but was a discursive design project. The objects I made were functional as drain covers but, were primarily a vehicle for presenting in public my questions about the authenticity of Glasgow as the official City of Culture in 1990.
CO: What type of design projects are you working on right now? Has jewelry become the main focus? If yes, how did the shift from interior to jewelry design happen?
HMN: I find it refreshing to work at a variety of different scales and have been doing this for many years. My most recent projects include a collection of small hand-cast porcelain jewelry called ‘Aggregate’, the exhibition design for a retrospective of work by Moholy Nagy (in collaboration with Jan Tichy) for the Loyola Museum of Art and a 5 room time-based animated light installation called Delineations (again in collaboration with Jan Tichy) for the Making Modern exhibition at Sullivan Galleries. So, I don’t think I have moved from interior work to jewelry, it’s just an ongoing way of working for me.
CO: What is the most important aspect for you in the designing process?
HMN: What a hard question! There are several aspects of the design process that I think are important.
1. Intent. It is important for the designer to ultimately be clear about their intent – to ask themselves: what is my goal here? - is this primarily a functional project? or a discursive project? Or an experimental Project? Or a responsible Project? Of course, projects can have many levels/layers, but it is important to understand the hierarchy so that one can be clear in their intentions and use this to edit/guide the work.
2. Exploration + Research. It is so vital to take the time to do first hand exploration into a material, process, user situation, problem, and not just assume that you know it based on previous knowledge/experience or second-hand sources. Primary research: looking, doing, touching, making, talking with, experiencing, is the best way to develop insight, empathy and see potential directions.
CO: Do you believe design ideas can transform today's society? In other words, design objects could be messengers just as visual art objects, true?
HMN: I very much believe that design ideas and designed objects can transform society and I believe it has always been the case. I just saw a wonderful retrospective of Gerrit Reitveld and he is but one example of a designer who had very specific ideas and actively sought to change people’s lives through his work. In terms of the “LOADED” project, we had the students look carefully at how designers have used IRON to transformed the world (its hard to think of our world without bridges, iron/steel building structures, large scale machinery, as well as the impact of beautiful decorative ironwork) However, I think it is only recently that designers have really had a chance to amplify, and make explicit, the potential for design (like art) to be a vehicle for ideas, questions, and exploration as a layer in addition to the usefulness and functional aspects of designed things.
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