An explanatory placard before the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “ParaDesign” exhibition, penned by curator Henry Urbach, decodes “para” using the terms “beyond” and “abnormal” to describe pieces which fall outside the scope of conventional design. But while Urbach alludes to the prefix’s multiple significations, he does not name them: alternate meanings include “at or to one side of, beside, side by side.” These are arguably more relevant interpretations, as “ParaDesign” functions as a portal into a micro-genre. It contains amassed deconstructions of the ethos which shapes our quotidian objects--and therefore must exist in parallel with such objects--rather than "beyond" them.
Like the avant-garde architecture and design partnerships that preceded it, such as Italy’s Archizoom Association and Superstudio, ParaDesign interrogates consumerist behaviors through ironic displacements of functionality. Here, this idea is also expressed curatorially: the exhibition’s sparse and diagrammatic display of supplementary information (presented on large laminated sheets) serves to question the presumed efficiency of graphical communication. These linguistic systems exist “beside” the physical objects they describe, yet their unwieldy format proves a playful rebellion against one's impulse to understand an object first through concrete identification--a mere a prerequisite for its commoditization.
Fittingly, the disembodied language of commodities dominates the exhibition’s entrance, as the voice of Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio’s 1993 piece “Soft Sell” greets patrons from a small television screen. The red painted lips of an anonymous woman coyly, continuously loop questions that alternate from the darkly absurd (“Hey, you: wanna buy a left kidney?”) to more plausible types of currency. The voice emanates from a black wall, like a stand-in for an “invisible face” of capitalism, which orients desire from within the unconscious.
Other examples of closed systems (a jet, and the human digestive tract) were present in five images from E.V. Day’s series of diazotypes, collectively entitled “Anatomy of Hugh Hefner’s Private Jet.” The quasi-architectural drawings, rendered entirely in blue-pencil, culminate with “Metastatic Rupture,” in which cellular chains coil and snake out threateningly from a biological nebula. Hefner, of course, is a remarkably fitting avatar for capitalism’s relentless trajectory across the world (and, to an extent, a symbol linking globalist economic conquests and masculine virility--the biological drive to inseminate.) The Playboy Enterprises’ slick colonizing of the female body within the public imagination strengthens this metaphor: for Day, the American public is a host for this growing, malignant force.
However, a more confined portrait of the individual is conveyed by Tom Sach’s “Knoll Loveseat and End Table”—a simulation of Knoll office furniture constructed from whole copies of “A to Z Residence and Business Listings” and held together with masking tape. The books’ covers are inverted iconographies of detached, unpeopled urban skylines, embedded within an alphabetic sign-system whose signifiers are “A” and “Z”—as though locality can be established through the interior networks of the exterior world. Each book is an omnibus of identity, representing discrete indices of numbers, to which individuals are bound. By re-envisioning a “love”-seat in such a way, Sachs implies that our deepest relationships may be determined by the ease and access with which we can "reach" others, and by the quality of services they offer.
The proximity of “Knoll…” to “TV Lite”--designed by Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lignano, partners of Italian architecture firm LOT-EK--heightens the latter design's statement. Though “TV Lite” appears an abstracted tower of familiar objects (TV tubes, metal, plastic, light bulbs, and electronic components), the implicit, intangible material here is intercommunication. Two reflective TV eyes scan one another, creating a veritable Möbius strip of information. As with Sachs’ piece, “TV Lite” documents a ceaseless cultural echo, one that has been denied the opportunity for natural decay. It is a self-preserving system, a constant volley of synched language and vision, which resonates more deeply than either isolated phenomenon.
It could be said that conventional design’s journey through contemporary culture resembles the parabola, achieving its vertex where functionality and beauty synthesize within a built environment. As we become more reliant upon ephemeral networks, the connotative meaning of “design” evolves away from the rational or tangibile: "ParaDesign" is the theoretical space contained by the arc of traditional design, existing “to one side.” It is an absurdist reflection of familiar visual and spatial tropes, creating a tension which makes us question the inherent truth—or perhaps even the necessity—behind formula itself.