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Visual Overload at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston

"Design Life Now" showcases some interesting items — if you have the patience to find them

For an exhibition about design, "Design Life Now: National Design Triennial" at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston isn't very well-designed. Organized by the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the original installation apparently took up three of its floors. I didn't see the Cooper-Hewitt version, but from the catalog images, it looks like there was a helluva lot more breathing room. In its Houston incarnation, the CAMH's upstairs gallery is so jam-packed with designers' products — lamps, furniture, clothes, vases, electronics, etc. — that it feels like a close-out sale.

The jumbled feeling of the show isn't entirely the CAMH's fault. In press materials, the Triennial is described as a collection of "the most innovative American designs from the prior three years in a variety of fields, including product design, architecture, furniture, film, graphics, new technologies, animation, science, medicine and fashion." It's a broad agenda that includes 87 designers and firms, with no apparent organizing principles. Like items are rarely arranged in any way, whether in appearance, approach, concept or function, and no items seem to be intentionally contrasted.

The computer-generated Sergeant Blackwell is amazing technology — and an uptight dork.
Courtesy of CAMH
The computer-generated Sergeant Blackwell is amazing technology — and an uptight dork.

At the CAMH, the walls are paved with display boards, and the floor is packed with vitrines. A grid of fabric samples for ergonomic chairs hangs on the wall, inexplicably sandwiched between architectural renderings and potato chip package designs. Nearby is a section of fuselage for a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. On the opposite wall of the gallery, you'll see a large vitrine packed with hand-beaded jewelry standing next to an underwater exploration vehicle. It looks as if the CAMH got a couple dozen semis full of crates, opened them up, said "What the hell do we do with all this crap?" and just tried to stuff everything in. I'm all for eclectic groupings, but here it just feels like chaos.

Still, the crowded show has lots of covetable products, great ideas and fascinating projects, if you can manage to focus on them. There are plenty of cool examples of design for daily life, including gorgeous, glacially faceted vases by David Wiseman, a "Knock Down/Drag-Out" plywood dining table by Christopher Douglas that assembles and disassembles more easily than a kid's toy, and Jason Miller's amusing upholstered chair with strips of leather appliquéd over the arms to mimic the look of duct tape repairs.

The show features other types of innovations too. At first I thought Hunter Hoffman's virtual reality project SnowWorld was just a video game, and with what feels like 50 million text panels to take in, sitting down and playing a game seemed like just another time consumer. But the text panel reveals that it's something else. The project's virtual reality environment — an icy, snowy wonderland the participant seems to float through — has helped lessen pain-related brain activity by 50 to 90 percent in burn victims who watch it.

Pain requires a lot of the brain's conscious attention; if you distract the brain, pain is supposedly lessened. Deciding to experience SnowWorld, I sat down on a bench in front of a screen set into a gallery wall. A computer mouse was placed in a cubbyhole, and what looked like a pair of goggles was set underneath the glass of the screen. In theory, you should be able to press your face against the screen and peer through the goggles while moving the mouse and guiding yourself through the fantasy polar landscape.

Well, that might work if you're six foot five, but if you're five four, it doesn't. The screens are set way too high in the wall for the benches, but way too low for you to stoop. I had to squat bent-kneed and hover over the bench in what felt exactly like one of the more strenuous poses of Bikram Yoga. I hope that's not how they make those poor burn victims do it. Basically, this fascinating piece of design is so poorly presented that it's pretty much impossible to watch unless you happen to be of sufficient height. Please put out a couple phone books for the rest of us.

The exhibition features other ­computer-based projects. One of the showiest is Sergeant Blackwell, a life-size, computer-­generated image of a soldier that can answer your questions (sort of) when you speak into a microphone. Designed by the United States Army's Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, it's amazing technology, and it's ultimately meant to assist in training soldiers and developing their decision-­making, diplomacy and judgment skills.

But the character is about as uptight and dorky as you might think something designed by the Army would be. Standing, Blackwell seems to shift both his weight and his eyes from side to side in order to appear more human. But his face is just odd, and his eyes look beady. His canned, badly acted tough-guy responses sound like they were crafted by somebody who has seen too many Clint Eastwood movies. I asked him where he was from, and he responded, "I'm from a little town called Los Angeles...maybe you've heard of it..."

"Design Life Now" also has some cheesy trade-show aspects. Many of the displays and images feel like they were swiped from sales booths. Do we need to see a display of iPods? Do we need to see the resin models for Pixar's Ratatouille? Don't we see enough of the iRobot Roomba vacuum in its television ads? Are Target's redesigned prescription medicine bottles that revolutionary? Or does their inclusion have something to do with the fact that Target is the exhibition's sponsor?

In spite of all of the problems, the show features hundreds and hundreds of designs. If you're feeling patient, it's worth going to the exhibition to poke around and see what interests you. Besides, the CAMH is free. Just steel yourself for visual overload.

 
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