Given that the modernist mantra “form follows function” was first uttered by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, it’s surprising to see an exhibition here that makes formal dishonesty in design the best policy. But that’s the point of “Deceptive Design: Experiments in Furniture,” a juried exhibition of 18 chairs, lamps, storage units and other pieces that contain elements of surprise. Along with the Chicago Furniture Designers Association and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Chicago’s chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America organized the show, which was open to emerging and established local practitioners.
In 2006, the Art Institute’s exhibition “Young Chicago” proved the city has no shortage of talented designers. But “Deceptive Design” doesn’t benefit from its Chicagoland focus. The jurors—Janel Laban, managing editor of Apartment Therapy Chicago; Art Institute curator Zoë Ryan; architect Stanley Tigerman; and furniture designer Lee Weitzman—couldn’t be more qualified, yet the show offers few first-rate, fully realized designs. We’re disconcerted by how many of the promising ideas on display come from the show’s organizers or sponsors. Was there a shortage of independent entries?
As it happens, our favorite piece was submitted by sponsor Marcus Bosch of boschwerks. Bosch and Geraint Krumpe shape their backlit lamp Wolf in Sheep’s Lighting (2008) like a sheep in profile. What lifts the cute design out of IKEA territory is the so-called shadow mask placed behind the lightbulb, which makes the innocent-looking ovine cast a scary wolf’s shadow on the wall.
In fact, all of the lighting in “Deceptive Design” shines. Craighton Berman’s Coil Lamp (2008) deserves praise for its economy of materials: What appears to be a squat orange lamp with a traditional shade is really an extension cord wrapped around a laser-cut Plexiglas frame; the cord attaches directly to the compact fluorescent bulb. School of the Art Institute of Chicago professor Helen Maria Nugent hides the pedestal of her glass Summit lamp (2008) so that the mountain-shaped form appears to float. Josh Owen’s Tone Knob Lamp (2008) looks like a giant analog stereo control but isn’t one; when users twirl the entire fixture, the light brightens or dims. These designers respond to the mandate of deception in different ways, but all of them use it to make their work more interesting visually. And while only Berman’s lamp seems to follow Sullivan’s dictate, the others’ deceptions don’t reduce their functionality.
The same isn’t true of Liar (2008), Michael Riha’s wooden chest of drawers. When you pull on its metal handles, nothing happens; you have to walk behind the chest and push the drawers open. Granted, it’d take even longer to find our socks in the morning if we kept them in this piece, but we’ve spent more time thinking about Liar than the pragmatic but dull items that interpret “deception” as hidden storage, or the good concepts in “Deceptive Design” that falter due to mediocre craftsmanship or aesthetics, such as Glen Polinsky and Silas Haglund’s Furniture + Fitness (2008). This admirable attempt to integrate exercise equipment—in this case, a rowing machine—into domestic space has a slim silver body and bright red seat that are more sophisticated than those of its bulky conventional counterparts. But the seat seems uncomfortably small, and the flimsy component that’s supposed to let the piece double as a workstation comes off as ludicrously impractical.
As memorable as Liar, Maria Lalli and Nate Lynch’s Caveat Sittor (Sitter Beware) (2008) comprises a cheeky chair with a secret compartment and mirrors that project an illusory pushpin onto the seat. Liar and Caveat Sittor may not be suitable for everyday use, but they serve a purpose: They force people to stop and contemplate the most ordinary actions and encourage them to look closely at interiors they’ve probably ceased to notice. “Deceptive Design” proves it’s more difficult to incorporate this mindfulness into a practical piece of furniture than a table lamp, but the show still broadens Sullivan’s definition of “function” to reflect a 21st-century sense of aesthetic play. We hope it inspires more Chicago designers to challenge our preconceptions.
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