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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Blue Period

Cynthia Leung paints a gloomy picture for the art and design world...

Design-nerd friends of mine recently dragged to me to a Ron Arad show in New York on a day when I was feeling financially blue. Furniture design, long the overlooked stepchild of contemporary art, may now be the saner way out of the economic smackdown. (Chair = a seat at the table = solid investment.) Still, Arad's show left me feeling bloated. And it wasn’t just the champagne or overblown chairs. It was the moment when the designer hogged his own mirrored ping-pong table, with both ends curved upward, and played to the amusement of the crowd. Between the pings and pongs, all I could think about was this “design statement” languishing in the basement of a sacked hedge fund guy. Cool yesterday, broke today, ridiculous tomorrow.

Kudos to the same design-nerd friends who swept me out and up the street to view the bizarre yet alluring "German Avant Garde Design of the 1980s" show at Demisch Danant, the esteemed gallery run by Suzanne Demisch and Stephane Danant. To the penny-wise, these pieces made during an economically lean time are a revelation. A steel cabinet designed by Wolfgang Laubersheimer (of the Köln-based Pentagon group) seemed simple enough from a distance, except that it had a concrete landscape complete with a toy train and track on top. Ironically, though fittingly, it had broken down just before the opening, so a mechanic was called in and stayed for hours. “He's become part of the installation,” quipped Demisch, anxiously eyeing a handful of broken copper bits.

Demisch and Danant, normally associated with French design of the 60s, are themselves on a quest to learn more about this unsung chapter of German design, armed with books published auf Deutsch, a language neither of the two can read. Said Demisch: “These designers are late to be discovered and looked at in a cohesive way. There's a whole design history, but it's a bit contained within Germany and needs to be deciphered more.” Even my design-nerds were stumped when confronted with two totemic ceramic and raffia lights created by Heike Muehlhaus, half of the Berlin-duo Cocktail. Memphis, Teutonic-style? Afrika, aber on acid?

In 1987, Pentagon collective was invited to Documenta 8 and presented Cafe Casino, an artist's cafe with tables and chairs from each of the five designers. At the end of Documenta, however, they couldn't afford to ship anything home, so they took sledgehammers to their work and staged a destruction-performance wearing white hazmat suits. I can't image any designer at Design Miami (December 3-6) who would dare do that today. But if you're there, Wolfgang Laubersheimer's Amazonas desk (1988) is hanging out at the Demisch and Danant booth. Its stone-slab top has a geographically correct depiction of the Amazon River carved into it, a pump providing a flow of water and a cluster of succulent plants thriving on top. If you can't take it home, let it blow your mind.

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