Don't expect to see Movado watches, Venini vases, Barcelona chairs or any other luxury item in Substance: Diverse Practices From the Periphery, the large and ambitious design show at Metro State's Center for Visual Art in LoDo (1734 Wazee Street, 303-294-5207, www.mscd.edu). Instead, curator Lisa Abendroth has given the show over to social issues such as the need for clean drinking water and affordable housing.
This doesn't mean there aren't beautiful things to see; but beauty takes a back seat to functional issues for Abendroth, an associate professor and communication design coordinator at Metro. Her intention was to shift the "discussion of design beyond that of aesthetics," and she chose pieces based on how objects "changed lives" rather than on "formal considerations."
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The show is subdivided into five topics: shelter, access, community, education and wellness. As might be expected considering this heady arrangement, every piece is supported by materials that communicate a "backstory," including scholarly text, informative video, original sketches and explanatory notes.
Since I am into the visual arts, it was impossible to miss that the key stylistic issue present in Substance is modernism, even if Abendroth didn't specifically want me to notice. But this aesthetic observation makes sense when we recall that "Form follows function" is the anthem of doctrinaire modernism. While neo-modern is chic, postmodern is viewer-friendly and neo-traditionalism is all the rage, only the functionalist wing of modern has anything to do with responding to identifiable human needs.
Some of the designs in Substance have a utopian quality, like the "Urban Nomad Shelter," by Brian Bell (pictured), an inflatable plastic igloo for a homeless person that's meant to provide protection from the elements. It's not yet in production, but I'm afraid that once it is, it's more likely to wind up as a deluxe camping accessory found at REI stores than a way for homeless people to stay out of the cold.
This thoughtful, and thought-provoking, show runs through November 9.