Don’t Touch: A Gallery for Everyday Design

The other week, I had the opportunity to visit the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. My friend and I did not look into the exhibitions that were held there at the time and were planning on going in blind and allowing ourselves to wander around aimlessly. That was our intention, until my mother intervened. She thrust a newspaper article at me titled “Good design in everyday products is focus of MoMA exhibit“. She knew that both Hannah and I are very interested in design and are minoring in Design at Grove City College. The article states “The exhibit takes a fresh look at everything from domestic furnishings and appliances to ceramics, glass, electronics, transport design, sporting goods, toys, and graphics.” These items were curated to address the question, “What is good design and how can it enhance everyday life?” In fact, this question is presented to guests as they enter the exhibit.

I was thrilled to learn about this exhibit because I’ve always been fascinated the choices designers make when designing products for users. When describing the concept of design thinking in his book Well-Designed, Jon Kolko states, “Decisions are made in order to help people accomplish their goals and achieve their aspirations.” I was excited to take a critical look at products we interact with and with the help of museum curators, see how the different aspects of a product’s design contribute to it’s successful use.

Presenting Design

Four different categories of product design made up the exhibit: good design in inexpensive, everyday items (collected in the 40’s), submissions to a furniture design competition (that occurred around 1950), international designs (contemporary to the previous categories), and modern items that guests were encouraged to interact with. The chairs that were featured, had physiques that would feel at home in much of today’s minimalistic, modern, interior design. Their designers prioritized comfort and affordability, choosing to craft the formfitting and flexible seating with low-cost plywood and repurposed rubber. This feature would be attractive to users in the 1940’s who were faced with scarce resources and are still attractive to users in 2019 who look to reduce, reuse, recycle, and retain cash. Guests could look upon these products, and their blueprints, and learn about the resources that the designers used.

Another offering of the exhibit was everyday products that exemplified good design. The first item guests come across is a simple broom. The exhibit challenged guests to look at items they constantly interact with and consider how it was thoughtfully designed. Hannah’s favorite of these offerings was a teapot. This pot was constructed of an aluminum alloy with a wooden handle. This item seemed out of place in an exhibit titled The Value of Good Design. It struck me that a teapot made out of metal would be extremely heavy. I personally would want to steady the bottom of it with a second hand as I poured, but my body has an aversion to second degree burns, so that would be a bad idea. Hannah was enraged because in order to fill the pot with water, the handle would have to be removed with the use of a screwdriver. Obviously, this object was not designed with the human user in mind. Sure it was beautiful to look at, but it was a failure as a teapot, and as a result, useless. This teapot put form before function and was included in the exhibit to showcase what it looks like when design fails, contrasting the other items.

Presenting Design…Better

Although I’m thrilled that an exhibit dedicated to appreciating product design exists, I found myself disappointed by its execution. As many museums do, the MoMA exhibited old things. That is the charm of most exhibits, seeing old things you would have never had the opportunity to otherwise because they were far away, precious, or long gone. The museum saves it, collects it, keeps it safe, and shares it with you (on their terms). Although I enjoyed taking a critical look at items I pass by at yard sales, I would have also enjoyed taking a critical look at some of today’s innovations and unsung simple designs. What do I walk past daily that has changed my life? The MoMA’s gift store held some really neat, innovative gadgets as a tie-in to the exhibit, I would have loved to have seen them upstairs and learn the name of their designer as well.

There is another, blaring issue with the Value of Good Design. As the exhibition stated multiple times throughout, good design is about form and function. Particularly with product design, form needs to come before function. Many of the plaques scattered around the gallery giving further description of the items conveyed what the item was, what it was made out of, who made it, and what awards in design it received in the past. I was aching for more. Who bought this product? Did it work well, or just look nice? Why did it win that award? How many were sold? Why don’t I still see this product in stores? Why did the designer make that decision? What were the prototypes like? What were obstacles in the design process? The problem with this exhibit is the fact that it is an exhibit. The MoMA has not only taken these products out of their time, they took them out of their setting. They are objects that do their job well, not doing their job. I could understand how the chair design succeeds and fails instantaneously by sitting on them. I can appreciate how the Tupperware containers store food, if they were storing food.

An exhibition on everyday is difficult. The items need to be showcased in a gallery in order to see them simply for what they are and appreciate that. However, by doing this, we have undermined their design. We force them to be something they are not. A chair is no longer a functional chair if no one is allowed to sit on it. The Value of Good Design does is not the one and only place we should dedicate to appreciating the design of everyday products. It should serve as a reminder that everything we interact with has been designed by someone and we should be cognizant to appreciate it as it fulfills it’s purpose and helps us to accomplish our goals.