Jürgen Mayer H., Parasol, interior.

The Practice of Figuration Returns to the Discipline of Design

Patricia Urquiola.

Demakersvan, Lace Fence, 2005-2007.

MoD (Florencia Pita), Tendril.

Lewis-Dept. (Day).


Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
Gallery 227
in Contemporary Design

December 13, 2007-June 8, 2008

Ever since Austrian architect Adolf Loos declared that ornament was "crime" in 1909, modern architects and designers have heeded his argument. From the clean, industrial lines of Bauhaus and International style to wares for sale in Design Within Reach, figuration — the use of representational elements — in modern design has been pushed to the margins. This exhibition makes the argument, however, that figuration is returning to contemporary design, leading to an inventive and unique aesthetic. Figuration in Contemporary Design is a dazzling display of contemporary design arts, focused on the return of representation that engages with long-dormant ideas such as romanticism, subjectivity, nature, and anti-intellectualism.

Figuration in Contemporary Design — curated by Joseph Rosa, John H. Bryan Chair of Architecture + Design at the Art Institute — features the work of 28 designers, architects, and studios at the forefront of this emerging design aesthetic. Though different in tone and emphasis, these designers all take advantage of digital literacy and enhanced fabrication techniques to reintroduce methods, forms, and ideologies once considered too "ornamental" or hand-crafted for 20th-century minimalist design aesthetic.

Examples from the exhibition include Lace Fence (2007) from Dutch design house Demakersvan. Joep Verhoeven — principal of the firm — transforms mundane, utilitarian construction fencing into a visually inviting, intricate surface by digitally modifying a chain link pattern with a computer fabrication program. Designed to embroider floral patterns as well as traditional diamond shapes, Verhoeven's computer programs produce a fence that is at once functional and decorative.

Similarly, Greg Lynn's 2006 prototype flatware is both practical and ornamental, reinterpreting a traditional flower motif historically found in cutlery design. Lynn's utensils-a system of stems, leaves, and flowers-are each figuratively articulated and differentiated from the others to reflect their inherent function. Produced with a three-dimensional digital printing method that employs liquid metal, each piece was created by layering liquid forms atop one another. On the whole, the flatware presents itself as a selection of unique flowers.

Featured designers and studios also included in the exhibition are: Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Jürgen Mayer H., UNStudio, Foreign Office Architects, Kuth/Raneri, ROY, Joel Sanders with Balmori Associates, KOL/MAC, R&Sie, Klein Dytham, Gage/Clemenceau, MoD, Aranda/Lasch, Kivi Somataa, P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S, Fernando and Humberto Campana, Marcel Wanders, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, Hella Jongerius, Patricia Urquiola, Tord Boontje, Petra Blaisse, Abbott Miller, An Te Liu, and 2x4.

Figuration in Contemporary Design reorients our understanding of the contemporary design arts, showing how the polished, anonymous industrialism of the 20th century has given way to the evocation of natural forms and subjective experience. The exhibition presents examples from both large urban-scale architecture and the intimate domestic realm of design, all sharing the same vocabulary formally and figuratively in the terms of shapes and surfaces that evoke flowers, trees, tornadoes, embroidery, parasols, photography, death, illness, food, music, and sensuality. From tattooed and perforated surfaces to woven and sculptural forms, this aesthetic is breaking new ground in the realm of design for the 21st century.

A beautifully illustrated, 112-page catalogue has been released in conjunction with the exhibition. It is part of the Architecture + Design Series published by the Art Institute and Yale University Press.

Zaha Hadid