Design of the Times

Revel in a quarter-century of US Design at the DAM.

As the Denver Art Museum readies plans for its futuristic new wing, it's also come up with a sweeping exhibition that will tickle your eyes with a visual taste of things to come -- in more ways than one. When it opens this Saturday, US Design 1975-2000 -- a major exhibition mounted by the DAM and scheduled to travel to Miami's Bass Museum of Art, the American Craft Museum in New York and Memphis's Brooks Museum of Art after a three-month run here -- will hint not only at how 17,000 square feet promised to the museum's design collection in the expansion might be used, but also at the future of American design itself.

"This show is a landmark in that it's the first major attempt to document the last quarter-century of design," says R. Craig Miller, the DAM's head curator of architecture, design and graphics. And Miller, who also co-curated US Design, expects the extensive exhibition catalogue to become the definitive textbook on the subject for years to come. But he stresses the massive presentation's significance in less academic terms, too.

"The most important thing about this show is its accessibility to ordinary people," he notes. "It's filled with such interesting polarities: On one hand, there's a silver tea set worth thousands of dollars, but over there are some Umbra garbage cans that can be bought at Bed, Bath & Beyond for $5. These are things that are meant to be used, and many are affordable."

Alessi Mantel Clock, by Michael Graves (1986).
Alessi Mantel Clock, by Michael Graves (1986).

The show begins on an inviting note. After passing through an exhibition lobby filled with bold color, graphics and interactive stations,viewers are greeted by the first of four major thematic groupings, represented at the doorway by a comfortable postmodernist tableau emphasizing the ornament, craftsmanship and eclecticism pioneered by Robert Venturi and Michael Graves.

From there, the displays segue into functional objects inspired by the pop vernacular - a marvelous celebration of everyday materials. Dan Friedman's flashy found-object wall assemblage dominates, offering just a sample of the late artist's artful and now-lost New York apartment, documented on video for the exhibition.

The show goes industrial for its third segment, Redefining Expressionism, with high-tech gadgets and toothbrushes, an elegantly engineered wet suit, Los Angeles design guru Frank Gehry's astonishing corrugated cardboard chaise, and a corner of computer-designed graphics that demonstrate the field's dramatic switch from hard materials to the hard drive.

Focusing on a return to modernism, the final section fills the senses with brilliant color and vital forms against a peaceful white background. With clean geometrics that hark back to Bauhaus and redefinitions of the amoeba-like shapes of mid-twentieth-century design, it's like walking into a Target commercial. "This is the third generation of the show," Miller says. "These kids are really the future of American design."

Be prepared to spend a lot of time at this show: Almost everything in it qualifies as a benchmark of its time and place. And, as Miller points out, no single object from any of the thematic groups can be pulled out as especially representative. In that respect, he thinks the exhibit is a roaring success: "Curating it was a complete juggling act. We wanted to represent so much -- major artists, major objects, a variety of media -- and we also wanted to have a geographical balance so the mixture would be truly American."

Of course, someone's bound to complain. "Those included will be delighted," Miller says frankly. "And those who are not included will be unhappy. I'll probably need to have an armed guard for the next year."

 
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