There's a story about a Jewish architect in New York who was interviewing a job candidate in 1946, just a year after the end of the second World War. The candidate, a pleasant young man who had emigrated from Germany at war's end, had an impressive and beautifully executed portfolio of projects that he had completed for his previous employer. They were industrial buildings of some sort, and since the interviewer didn't speak German, he asked the pleasant young man what the exact use of the facilities might have been.
They were crematoria, the pleasant young man replied.
He was surprised that the interview was abruptly terminated; after all, he protested, he couldn't have known that the crematoria were intended for genocide. His job was simply to be a good architect, a good designer.
It's a story that resonates with all of us who may feel uneasy with our chosen careers. Few of us do work that is without compromise; few of us have the luxury of consistently choosing the most moral, the most ethical path through life.
That said, there's still something unsettling and empty about the Denver Art Museum's latest blockbuster exhibit, U.S. Design 1975-2000. It aims to be both the seminal and definitive study of an extraordinarily creative, diverse, and exciting time in the culture. It succeeds in bringing together the many strands of American design in the last quarter-century: architecture, industrial design, graphic design, and simple decorative/functional objects. It's consistently interesting, sometimes absorbing, and rarely dull. And it illuminates the dominant artistic culture of our time.
Let's consider what's on display. There are architectural models, posters, examples of industrial design, domestic accessories. Translated, that means models of extremely cool houses and buildings, as well as photographs of the buildings themselves.
It means vitrines full of extremely cool products (a Michael Graves telephone, Dan Friedman floor lamps, a Dorothy Hafner Tea Service, Frank Gehry's fish lamp). It means gallery after gallery full of the creations of supremely gifted designers, folks who can turn a wastebasket into poetry, or make a millionaire's house into a symphony in wood and steel.
So why does all this stuff seem so flat and unsatisfying? Because, I suspect, it's emblematic of a culture that most of us both embrace and secretly despise. Take, for example, the Hight House, an extraordinary residence in Mendocino, California, designed by Bart Prince in 1992. As pure architecture, it's stunning; as a social artifact, it's simply wealth made tangible. Its aesthetic may be post-modernist, but it's really of a piece with the pseudo-renaissance chateaux that Richard Morris Hunt designed for the Vanderbilts a century ago.
Let's look at Karim Rashid's sleek "Garbo" and "Garbino" wastebaskets, molded in translucent polypropylene. They're beautiful, cheap and nasty -- designed to end up in the same landfills as their contents. Or consider the various high-tech devices on display which, at the end of their design life, will end up being scavenged for recycleables in a third-world country, with extraordinarily negative consequences to the environment.
You wonder whether the designers/creators of all this beautiful stuff have any sense of the implications of their work. Maybe they do, and probably a lot of them are tree-hugging liberals who devoutly recycle their own trash. But the dominant ethos is a simple one: Make really cool stuff, and don't worry about it.
And that's OK. After all, we're all material boys/girls in a material world, but it's very different from design movements of the past. The Arts & Crafts movement, for example, was nourished by the idea that the necessities of life -- furniture, fabrics, houses, kitchen utensils -- ought to be made to last by craftspeople, simply, honestly and well.
Frank Lloyd Wright, our great American architect, built homes for the rich, but devoted much of his energy to fusing (in his so-called Usonian houses) good design and affordable housing. The world of U.S. Design is America pre-9/11: seductive, abundant, transgressive, available. Don't worry, be happy! Get rich, be cool, have everything, and buy lots of stuff. It's fun, sexy and unsatisfying, kind of like turning on Comedy Central on a Sunday night and watching three straight re-runs of The Man Show. Cool, contentless design -- like busty babes bouncing on trampolines -- isn't as much fun the second or third time around.
But it sure is fun the first time.