DesignInquiry wasted no space, even covering the four columns in large, interior gallery with media. Photo by Daniel Kany

DesignInquiry’s “Futurespective” at the Maine College of Art’s Institute of Contemporary Art is not simple, pretty or easy to digest. The show can be overwhelming at first glance, if you aren’t already aware of what you’re walking into. But so is a library. And if you think of “Futurespective” as a library of design ideas, it becomes welcoming.

The trick is the expectation of the place. It’s an institute of contemporary art, so anything goes, right? But you still might not expect the ICA’s front gallery to be converted into a reading room with tables of books and publications and even a fireplace of sorts.

To visitors, “Futurespective” appears as groupings of prints, drawings, objects, words, photos and phrases covering the walls of the ICA. It takes a bit of effort, but it becomes evident that the photos and objects are largely the documentation of events hosted by the group, in which participants worked together to make on-site installations, complete aesthetic projects (such as the design of a font), put on movement and music performances, or simply gather to discuss topics relevant to design.

At least 2,000 photos, drawings, prints, screens, projects and objects overflow from the ICA. Photo by Margo Halvorsen

DesignInquiry describes itself as “a nonprofit educational organization devoted to researching design issues in intensive team-based gatherings.” What we see are the traces, remnants, productions and publications created by this organization and the people who participate in its gatherings. For the art audience, it is probably best to think of the gallery as filled by a series of installations. And I mean filled. At least 2,000 photos, drawings, prints, screens, projects and objects practically overflow from the ICA’s space: Even the four columns that define the large, interior gallery are covered in media.

Then there is the shift from the visual encounter of the space to the content of the work: What are you looking at? What are you supposed to get out of it? Who is the author? These are the standard questions everyone asks and we expect every show to be able to answer. “Futurespective” is unusual in the vast range of projects, carried out by various gatherings of people, that it memorializes. So answering these questions is more daunting than at most other art shows, but is still worthwhile, even if the responses aren’t typical.

After the “reading room,” visitors walk through a mini “shop,” where visitors can buy several dozen of DesignInquiry’s previous publications. What follows is a wall covered with hundreds of photographs of the group’s projects. These images are meant to give a sense of the group’s activities and unfussy, interactive style. None of the many photos is indispensable, and together they convey DesignInquiry’s inclusive style. We see, for example, a group of images of objects and people engaged in activities with circular forms. The circle, after a minute or two, comes into focus as a topic that was addressed during a certain gathering.

A sound cone focuses the audio portion of the largest video in the ICA’s side gallery. Photo by Daniel Kany

Video presentations fill the ICA’s elegant side gallery. Wall-mounted text and images join the videos, but your first step into the room places you under a sound cone with the audio portion of the largest video. The cone focuses the sound and holds you in place. From there,  a logical path leads through the many, widely varied projects.

While many elements of the show connect to the idea of design as a group effort, I found that another theme – baking bread – best exemplified the content of the show. Margo Halverson, the driving force behind DesignInquiry, happens to be married to a bread baker who happens to teach at MECA. Bread is also one of humanity’s most powerful historical gathering points, and where there’s food, there’s design. Bread requires a community: farming, grain, ingredients, ovens, fuel and enough participants to make the practice worthwhile. Bread also embodies fundamental notions of design whether you’re thinking about pita, naan, buns or baguettes.

A portable bread-making station designed for/by DesignInquiry in the ICA’s main gallery includes a machine that maintains the starter that defines the type of bread being made – in this case, sourdough.

The ICA’s largest gallery is filled with in-process and final objects from design projects. We see the development of a font based on old-school needlepoint. We see a printing press built from concrete (with a sonotube-shaped roller) with letters made from variations of standard-cored concrete blocks. And, among too many projects to list, we encounter a “designer in residence” — a real, live, interactive person with many skills and potentially much to say.

Some of the photos show activities organized by DesignInquiry. Photo by Margo Halvorsen

“Futurespective” takes its name from the concepts of potential and possibility, with the idea that DesignInquiry is more of a living organism than the result of any individual. A few aspects might be more intimidating than intended, such as the overwhelming aesthetic of its installation and phrases along the lines of “words matter.” But once you find the soft, welcoming core amid all the energy disguised as engagement, “Futurespective” becomes an engaging and exciting invitation to the world of design.

We design all the time. When you pick out a shirt from the store or your closet, arrange the furniture in your home, sign your name or put food on a plate, you are engaging in design. Sure, chefs might make it look fancy and creative, but you are making choices about quantity, balance and practicality. You don’t put peas next to gravy for a reason; that’s design.

Sometimes design is taking the information for a poster and making it look cool. Sometimes, it’s about keeping things practical – like utensils or chairs – and, other times, it’s about ideology, such as the great poster design of the Soviet-era Constructivists or all those church and governmental buildings that are meant to impress – and to remind you of your place in the congregation.

But most often, design has been about people sharing ideas to make the things that matter to us better than we could have made them on our own. I am typing this column in a font called Times New Roman on a computer no thicker than my hand that will share these words with many thousands of people. I am wearing running shoes, a woolen Dale sweater and blue jeans made out of cotton. And for breakfast? I toasted the remnants of yesterday’s baguette while I drank coffee out of my Abbott Meader mug, which sticks its tongue out at me every day.

As far as I am concerned, design is the broadly spoken language of culture, that place where all of us live and always have.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: