DesignInquiry’s “Futurespective” at the Maine College of Art’s Institute of Contemporary Art isn’t simple, pretty, or easy to digest. The sight can be overwhelming at first glance, if you’re not already aware of what you’re walking into. But also a library. And if you think of “Futurespective” as a library of design ideas, it becomes welcoming.
The trick is the expectation of the place. It’s a contemporary art institute, so anything goes, right? But you might not expect ICA’s front gallery to be transformed into a reading room with tables of books and publications and even some kind of fireplace.
For visitors, “Futurespective” appears as groupings of prints, drawings, objects, words, photos and phrases covering the walls of the ICA. It takes a bit of effort, but it becomes apparent that the photos and objects are largely documentation of events organized by the group, in which participants worked together to complete on-site installations, aesthetic projects (like designing a font), organize movement and music shows, or just get together to discuss design-related topics.
DesignInquiry describes itself as “an educational non-profit organization devoted to finding design problems in intensive team meetings.” What we see are the traces, vestiges, productions and publications created by this organization and the people who participate in its gatherings. For artistic audiences, it’s probably best to think of the gallery as filled with a series of installations. And I mean filled. At least 2,000 photos, drawings, prints, screens, projects and objects practically overflow the ICA space: even the four columns that define the large interior gallery are covered in media.
Then there is the passage from the visual encounter of the space to the content of the work: What are you looking at? What do you expect to get out of it? Who is the author? These are the standard questions everyone asks and we expect every show to be able to answer. “Futurespective” is unusual in the wide range of projects, carried out by various gatherings of people, that it commemorates. So answering these questions is more daunting than at most other art shows, but it’s worth it even if the answers aren’t typical.
After the ‘reading room’, visitors walk through a mini ‘shop’, where visitors can purchase several dozen previous DesignInquiry publications. What follows is a wall covered with hundreds of photographs of the group’s projects. These images are intended to give an idea of group activities and a simple interactive style. None of the many photos are essential, and together they convey DesignInquiry’s inclusive style. We see, for example, a group of images of objects and people engaged in activities with circular shapes. The circle, after a minute or two, appears as a topic that was discussed at a certain gathering.
Video presentations fill the ICA’s elegant side gallery. Wall text and images join the videos, but your first step into the room puts you under a sound cone with the audio portion of the larger video. The cone concentrates the sound and keeps you in place. From there, a logical path leads through the many and very varied projects.
While many elements of the show tie into the idea of design as a group effort, I found another theme – baking bread – best exemplified the content of the show. Margo Halverson, the driving force behind DesignInquiry, is married to a baker who teaches at MECA. Bread is also one of mankind’s most powerful historical gathering points, and where there is food, there is design. Bread requires a community: agriculture, grain, ingredients, ovens, fuel, and enough participants to make the practice worthwhile. Bread also embodies fundamental notions of design, whether it’s pita, naan, buns or baguettes.
A portable bread-making station designed for/by DesignInquiry in the main ICA gallery features a machine that holds the starter that defines the type of bread being made – in this case sourdough.
ICA’s largest gallery is filled with in-progress and final objects from design projects. We see the development of a typeface based on old-fashioned tapestry. We see a printing press built out of concrete (with a sonotube-like roller) with letters made from variations of standard core concrete blocks. And, among too many projects to list, we meet a “designer in residence” – a real, lively, interactive person with many skills and potentially a lot to say.
“Futurespective” takes its name from the concepts of potential and possibility, with the idea that DesignInquiry is more a living organism than the result of an individual. Some aspects might be more intimidating than expected, such as the overwhelming aesthetic of its installation and phrases like “words matter”. But once you’ve found the soft, welcoming core amidst all the energy disguised as engagement, “Futurespective” becomes an engaging and exciting invitation into the world of design.
We design all the time. When you choose a shirt from the store or your closet, arrange the furniture in your home, sign your name, or put food on a plate, you are committing to design. Sure, chefs can look fancy and creative, but you make choices about quantity, balance, and practicality. You don’t put the peas next to the sauce for a reason; it’s the design.
Sometimes design is all about taking information from a poster and making it look cool. Sometimes it’s about keeping things practical – like utensils or chairs – and other times it’s about ideology, like the great poster design of the Soviet-era constructivists or all those churches and government buildings that are meant to impress – and remind you of your place in the congregation.
But more often than not, design has been about people sharing ideas to make the things that matter to us better than we could have done them ourselves. I am typing this column in a font called Times New Roman on a computer no thicker than my hand which will share these words with many thousands of people. I’m wearing running shoes, a Dale wool sweater and blue cotton jeans. And for breakfast? I toasted the remains of yesterday’s baguette while drinking coffee from my Abbott Meader mug, which sticks my tongue out every day.
As far as I’m concerned, design is the widely spoken language of culture, that place where we all live and have always lived.
Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian living in Cumberland. He can be contacted at: