On January 29th 2011, Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, California, in association with Art Los Angeles Contemporary Art Fair presented Communication Thorax curated by Helen Varola.  Communication Thorax, a play in three acts by Muistardeaux Collective featured as Act II a round table discussion with Los Angeles based Architect and writer Peter Zellner, MOMA curator Christopher Mount, Los Angeles artist Justin Beal, and Bay Area conceptual artists Muistardeaux Collective.

The discussion topic was “Design as an Extension of Art Practice”.  Here is what was said:


Muistardeaux Collective:  Cuz your liquor like wine, drinkin’ bubbly all the time, something happened something special when I looked in your eyes,  Yeah we’re thicker that blood like we promised we would, Amy you’re all woman you’re all girl, ohhhh Amy you’re all woman and you’re all mine.


We would like to welcome you to the round table discussion “Design as an Extension of Art Practice” and a discussion on the relative successes and failures in the cross over, the grey zone between art and design, the way the two are thought of and executed. Let’s first introduce our speakers.  Justin?


Justin Beal:  My name is Justin Beal and I am a sculptor based in Los Angeles.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Great.


Christopher Mount:  I’m Christopher Mount.  I’ve been a museum director, curator, I’ve worked at MOMA for fifteen years as a Curator of Architecture and Design, I was until recently the Director of the Pasadena Museum of California Art, I’ve also been the Editor in Chief of ID Magazine which no longer exists.  I’m basically a design historian I guess.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Great.  We’re the Muistardeaux Collective from San Francisco, California.  I think Peter will be showing up shortly.  Peter Zellner, principal of ZellnerPlus, an architectural firm based here in Los Angeles.  He’s also a faculty member at Southern California Institute of Architecture where he co-coordinates the Future Initiatives Urban Design Program dedicated to researching suburban conditions.  So I guess we can probably just jump into it but after having the discussion on the conference call, it sounds like it would be interesting to hear both of you describe your definition of what design encompasses.


Justin Beal:  Why don’t you start?  I wasn’t on the conference call.


Christopher Mount:  You’re putting me on the spot!  Well design it’s really very simple. I mean, I don’t know why it becomes such a big deal.  Design is really anything you can use, anything that has a function.  It’s a Marxist way of looking at it but basically a piece of art is something that doesn’t necessarily have a function.  That’s a definition of fine art.  It’s pleasing and it’s wonderfully to look at and so on and so forth but you don’t tend to use it as a tray, you don’t get in it and drive to work like you do a piece of design.  And that’s not to say that design can’t be as beautiful as work of art, it’s just that you also use it.  There are these cross-over things, particularly nowadays, there are a lot of people, particularly artists using design, and cross-over the other way too, but using design as a jumping off point, making tables that you cant necessarily use.  Frank Gehry is a good example of perhaps somebody whose on the other side, whose an architect that makes roofs that look like sculpture that aren’t really functional but really pleasing to the eye.


Justin Beal:  It’s hard to argue with that definition.


Christopher Mount:  Thank you!  Finally somebody’s agreeing with me!  I teach a lot and I have students who argue with me about this all the time and I’m like “no, you don’t serve drinks on a Picasso painting.  That’s not a tray, even if you put drinks on it’s still not a tray.”  So…


Justin Beal:  I think that’s, I mean for my own work, where I engage design is in using that expectation of designs functionality, the way a functional object or an object has some kind of purpose like that has a different kind of set of associations or expectations than that of a traditional fine art object and how you can employ that presence that it has in the direction of art making to change the expectations of an art object.  But it’s still appreciating a clear distinction between the two realms.  What happens when you drag one thing into the other? 


Muistardeaux Collective:  Yeah.


Justin Beal: Or deny the functionality of it by calling a sculpture a chair then it’s no longer…


Christopher Mount:  You can’t sit on it.  I had a friend who had a Robert Wilson chair that was made out of chicken wire and he had a big party and somebody thought they could sit on it, they sat on it and they destroyed it.  It looked like a chair but it wasn’t meant to be sat on so it wasn’t really a chair. Right?  I mean it’s evocative of a chair but it’s not a chair.  


Muistardeaux Collective:  Right.


Christopher Mount:  Well gee we’ve solved that!


Muistardeaux Collective:  Yeah…So where does that leave us in terms of design as an extension of conceptual art practice?  Predesigned materials used in sculpture?


Justin Beal:  What do you mean by predesigned?


Muistardeaux Collective:  like something from Home Depot that has a function but your rendering it non-functional by calling it fine art but it’s loaded with prescribed content.


Justin Beal:  Even more than prescribed content, I think there is some kind of physical relationship.  If you walk into a room and there is a chair in the middle of the room you have a very different kind of haptic response to that than a similarly sized object.  So somehow you a sort of sense of scale and a sense of physicality that you would attribute to furniture that you might not attribute to a stone or a sculpture in it’s simplest form.  What is interesting to me is how that can contribute to work somehow.  You feel differently standing in front of a table than you do standing in front of a sculpture in a traditional sense because you have a whole preprogrammed physical relationship to tables because you deal with them constantly.  That to me is interesting, how it changes the nature of an object because you understand it as having functionality.  


Christopher Mount:  It also depends where you put something, placement, the context of where something is.  I think of somebody like Jeff Koons who put vacuum cleaners in Plexiglas boxes.  You know, those are works of art, sort of Post Pop or whatever you want to call them and they’re works of art but they are really just vacuum cleaners and I used to work at MOMA and MOMA was the first place to an automobile on a pedestal and say look at this not as an automobile but look at its lines look at its shape, enjoy it.  When I was there I acquired a Jaguar E type, which you may all know, the head of the Painting and Sculpture department said that was the most beautiful thing at the museum.  He was absolutely convinced that the XKE was the most beautiful thing at the museum; still didn’t make it a piece of art, but you know, they are beautiful.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Incidentally or do you think in a way that goes a step beyond or transcends the question of was that intended in the design or not? For example Walt Disney World is a classic example of grandiose and very elaborate design but also has an inherent element to it that in some ways makes all other art meaningless.  The scope of it.


Christopher Mount:  A great example is beauty is not always the designer’s intention is what you’re saying but there are things; something like a Stealth Fighter, I would argue is beautiful and they really are amazing objects but they’re not designed to be beautiful they’re designed with all of those shapes to bounce radar signals off them and there are a lot of things, Formula One racecars are one of those things that ends up being kind of beautiful in the way a dolphin is beautiful or a submarine is beautiful because it works with the water or a penguin.  Now I’m going a little too far but…


Muistardeaux Collective:  Well where would you in that mindset put symphonic composition?


Christopher Mount:  You mean about beauty?


Muistardeaux Collective:  Well in terms of having structural integrity to design?  You’re following a form even if you are Sun Ra or Frank Zappa you’re definitely following the form but you’re also stepping beyond pure function and giving it something that’s intangible.


Justin Beal:  Hmmm.


Christopher Mount:  Well music is hard.  I don’t know if music has the same…I think there is a little more variety in what is beautiful or what people enjoy.  We could all sit down and agree that something, more or less a work of art, is beautiful.  If we had a Rothko here, most people would say yeah that’s beautiful even if you didn’t like Abstract Expressionism.  A piece of music, Beethoven’s, Iron Maiden…


Peter Zellner (!):  Sorry Gentlemen.  I couldn’t find it.  It’s the Undesign Center.


Muistardeaux Collective:  We did your introduction for you.


Peter Zellner:  OK great.


Muistardeaux Collective:  We just jumped right into the question of design as an extension of art practice but also conceptual art practice.  The first thing that lead us there was the definition of design.


Peter Zellner:  Are you asking me?  I was wondering what you guys have come up with so far.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Christopher came up with a great summary.


Christopher Mount:  Something that you use, something that has a function.


Peter Zellner:  Well, I would say in this day and age, it has something to do with the monetization of the design act and I think you have to separate out the act of design which I think is often conceptual or creative, sometimes professional, from the commercialization of those acts because in the context of the art world it seems to me that design now is being marketed as a commodity, an investment commodity, like art, and now has been evaluated as something that could deliver a return on an investment which is very different from how the Bauhaus conceptualized design in a populist way which was design for the people, that design was an act that brought some value to society.  I think that if you look at things like the Milan Furniture Fair you see that really it’s a very big business.  Design is very different from architecture by the way.


Christopher Mount:  Yeah, well that’s a whole other question.  I still think that a piece of something you use is a piece of design but the market has become-I mean, people are looking to collect more and more things.  You watch Antiques Roadshow and everybody thinks that the have something worth a million dollars.  Contemporary art has become so expensive that the next thing for people to look at is contemporary design. 


Peter Zellner:  If you look at something like Shaker furniture; that was designed within a community that had absolutely nothing to do with marketing, some of it really just emerged out of a culture that had necessities.  Those necessities were addressed through a communal discussion about what a chair was or what a table was or what a mirror stand was.  Some of the stuff is really beautiful but was evolved in a culture that was largely religious and very particular about its practices.  So, design is also practice, I think it can be a social practice. 


Muistardeaux Collective:  And then it ultimately gets exoticized, and thus the resistance to that kind of crossover. 


Peter Zellner:  Well I think first you have to separate out the idea of design as an act versus design as the artifact.  The artifact basically is the commodity but the act itself doesn’t have to produce anything. 


Muistardeaux Collective:  Right.


Christopher Mount:  Or it can produce something on a computer screen that is something or isn’t something.  Certainly, software is design but there isn’t really anything there.


Muistardeaux Collective:  So as far as contemporary artists, do you guys have any artists that employ design in the fine art maybe like Alice (Konitz) who couldn’t be here today?


Justin Beal:  I would argue that it’s not even a select group at this point.  It’s just something that has been taken for granted.  Essentially there was a move at the beginning of Modernist sculpture where the sculpture came off the pedestal at which point the conversation was then open to anything being a sculptural object and in the forty years since then, there has been different actions in every direction that conflated the two realms.  There’s artists making design objects and marketing them as art which goes into the area of the whole idea of monetization that Peter is addressing; how important is the way an object is sold understanding design as essentially a commercial undertaking.  How do you have these objects within the art world that position themselves in relation to that?   Like Franz West chairs that are bought and sold and used as like furniture objects in galleries or like Prouve being brought back into the art world and all these things were made in series being sold in galleries as if they were singular objects.  A lot of the way this stuff has been bought and sold informs this more so that artists addressing design.


Peter Zellner:  We had talked about Roy McMakin who basically makes furniture, it passes as furniture.  It’s very good functional furniture and it also seems to be situated within an art practice.


Christopher Mount:  There are tons of craft.  You could spend hours talking about craft.  That’s something in between.


Muistardeaux Collective:  So you consider that to be a different beast altogether or somehow…


Christopher Mount:  Yeah because you can….a vase is not a vase.  There are plenty of craft vases.  What is it Littleton? People that make vases but you cant get a flower in them.  It’s a piece of glass, or a Tom Patti is a great example of that, his pieces sell for seventy to eighty thousand dollars. They’re gorgeous and they’re glass.  He blows them using window glass that’s kind of green.  But, you wouldn’t put a flower in a tiny eighty thousand dollar vase.  For me a recent example that I think is interesting is someone like Shepard Fairey who I think is really just totally mediocre, totally uninteresting as a graphic designer, totally mediocre.  Yet he has some career in something in between, no one is really willing to admit that he is just a mediocre graphic designer.  I don’t know what he is really.  He’s a poster artist but he’s I don’t know what he is.


Muistardeaux Collective:  He’s persistent.


Peter Zellner:  I think there are a lot of individuals who pass or who cross and move from one discipline into another and somehow avoid the usual scrutiny.  I could name a number of artists who make architecture that if I were to submit that architecture to a community if architects, it would do so well.  I could also suggest that there are a number of architects who make are that’s horrible.  In the context of, you know, Frank Gehry makes jewelry, is it good jewelry?  I don’t know because it has the aura of Frank Gehry on it so you don’t look at it sometimes with the same lens.  This is the issue, when you start changing the lenses.  It ‘s actually very interesting because suddenly you look at something and you realize that it has multiple readings.


Muistardeaux Collective:  So would you say the same thing about John Waters and his paintings?


Peter Zellner:  I don’t actually know them.


Christopher Mount:  Neither do I.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Well, you can just imagine a John Waters painting.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Yeah.


Peter Zellner:  I would imagine it would be cute.


Muistardeaux Collective:  And his reputation would precede him?


Peter Zellner:  Yeah, for sure.


Muistardeaux Collective:  And the idea that maybe design happens to be a pretty big part of the fact that anything crossing over into art starts to land on uncertain ground.  Why is that?


Peter Zellner:  A lot of artists have successfully transitioned to making films.  Who made the Diving Bell and the Butterfly?


Muistardeaux Collective:  Julian Schnable.


Peter Zellner:  He passes as a pretty good filmmaker.  I think that some architects, we talked about Tony Smith, was not a very good architect who found his voice as a sculptor.  I think the case by case probably doesn’t hold up.  If we want to talk about it overall…


Muistardeaux Collective:  I think that’s a good place to investigate so why don’t we talk about people that you get excited about when you think about this question because they make you see it in a different way?


Christopher Mount:  This is off the point but it’s prescient for me because I just wrote a book on this person.  He is a Japanese artist but a poster designer really.  His name is Ted Norioka and he was most prevalent in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.  He was friends with Yoko Ono, friends with the Beatles; a major figure in Japan, a major cultural figure, and what he creates are posters, but they’re not advertisements.  They are things that sell in galleries.  They are brilliant, he is Murakami before Murakami.  Murakami is a great example and we can get back to that. I argue that it’s design.  But, there is a market; there is this field in Japan that doesn’t exist in this country.  It is the tradition of the woodblock print but not like it at all.  They make this piece of art, which we call a poster but it doesn’t advertise anything so it is not a poster and it is really a work of art.  And maybe somewhere it says Takashimia on it.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Right.


Peter Zellner:  If I look at the work of Andrea Zittel, if I were to submit it to the standards by which I would judge furniture design by a furniture maker, maybe it would not hit home for me, but if I look at it under the context of her practice as an artist, again I have to shift my perspective then I can appreciate it.  I think it is remarkable.  One of the standards by which designers and architects judge things usually has something to do with the degree of virtuosity.  Is this a beautiful chair, is it well finished, is this a well-made building?  I think designers and architects have fairly conservative standards, I certainly do, about the refined or eloquent object or space.  In general, if you make uncomfortably unresolved work like Frank Gehry did in the 70’s, you get attacked and it is controversial.  Gehry certainly crossed the line into art and then artists yelled at him and said get back into your camp you’re an architect, and that was the whole Richard Serra-Frank Gehry argument.   That said, if I look at design by artists, or architecture by artists, I am comfortable allowing my standards to slip.  Standards, that’s a judgmental word right there, that pejorative. 

I’m rather inspired by Gaetano Pesce, he was prominent in the 70’s.  He made really sloppy work but it’s exciting and you look at that work now, in the context of some of the things that Frank Gehry is pursuing or Greg Lynn is pursuing, is way ahead of the curve largely because it was an artist who came at things like making chairs without any of the hang ups that professional designers, industrial designers, or architects would struggle with to get that sloppy.


Justin Beal:  He is a particularly good example in every way because his is a design practice that is designed to undermine fundamental things you take for granted in design; like creating serial editions of objects that are each unique.  He’s constantly trying to undermine the confines.  Pesce will make a series of one hundred vases but each on will be different because they are extruded plastic denying the seriality (sic) that you associate with design.


Peter Zellner:  If you look at somebody like Roxy Paine’s work, those SCU-MAK drippy things, you could look at Pesce’s work as a designer in the 70’s and find very interesting alignment formally.


Christopher Mount:  I wouldn’t want to live with Pesce’s work.  I could have one chair to look at but you wouldn’t want to sit in it.  I have furniture at home and my wife is always saying, “Why do we have that chair?” I just look at it.  This is a funny story.  When I was at MOMA, many years ago, we had this Braun toaster by Reinhold wises and it is just beautiful, just steel.  A lady wrote a letter to the director of the department and said: Dear Mr. Drexler, I saw that toaster, I loved it, I bought it, but it burns my toast!!!!  Every damn time it burns my toast!  What should I do???  And he wrote her back and said: Dear Madam, I suggest you take the toaster put it in the living room and look at it and buy yourself a GE to make toast.


Peter Zellner:  That’s a funny story.  There are a lot of design objects that actually fail from a functional perspective.  I have a Frank Gehry chair that is 96 of 500; he did a very special chair for Emeco which is the aluminum chair company that makes those really remarkable very lightweight chairs for the navy and are now very fashionable, Phillippe Starck did a version.  Gehry did his own version and if you were to describe it is the most delicate idea of a chair you could imagine.  It is literally just a sheet of aluminum that bends up and over and is folded at the corners.  Then it is supported by two very slender bent rods, just two, those have a sleeve on them and the sleeve is actually glued to the interior fold of the aluminum sheet.  I tried to sit in it and it broke.  Now, I glued it back.


Muistardeaux Collective:  It is sold as a chair?


Peter Zellner:  It is sold as a Frank Gehry 1 of 500 edition chair.  It is Frank Gehry’s idea of what you can do to a chair to reduce its presence almost to nothing.


Christopher Mount:  It’s about minimalism.  It’s about the idea of a chair as opposed to an actually chair.


Peter Zellner:  It’s a beautiful chair.


Muistardeaux Collective:  You were pretty bummed that you sat in it.


Peter Zellner:  Yeah, I felt like I just ruined my investment.  I mean, it can be fixed but I think if you look at a lot of Gehry’s furniture, there is a lot that is non-functional basically.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Do you think that when you then take a step into architecture you can get away with a lot less.


Peter Zellner:  You can get sued.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Right!


Peter Zellner:  Here’s a story:  Peter Eisenman, who is a notorious bad boy of American architecture, designed the Wexner Center in Ohio.  This was in the midst of his deconstructivist phase and he basically rendered nonfunctional a lot of the art spaces doing things like hanging incomplete columns in the middle of some of these spaces.  He called them columns, Rafael Moneo called them prisms because a column must touch the ground, the are ideological columns.  As far as I know most curators hate working in that institution, hate the building.  I know that he and the current director do not see eye to eye because she has renovated some of the spaces towards a functional state.


Christopher Mount:  The floors all go on an angle.


Peter Zellner:  The floors go in all directions; wall bump into each other and it makes it very difficult.


Muistardeaux Collective:  He took architecture to an emotional art form.


Peter Zellner:  Absolutely, but he also said “fuck the program, why do I have to make a white box, that in itself is a prison for the artist, why can’t I make something the artist has to fight with?”   Now, the artist get up in arms because they don’t like architects making spaces that conflict with, frankly, general commercial art hanging practices for lack of a better word.


Christopher Mount:  A house can be less functional.  If he had done that in a house…


Peter Zellner:  He did do it in a house.


Christopher Mount:  Right.  Then that’s kind of OK, because you’re living there.


Peter Zellner:  He split the house and he basically but a hole in the bedroom, in the floor that was supposed to symbolize the division between husband and wife.


Christopher Mount:  Right, but a house has a looser program.


Muistardeaux Collective:  That’s what you want in a house.


Peter Zellner:  Maybe that is functional, to keep the partners apart.


Muistardeaux Collective:  And Eisenman is getting very good commissions…


Peter Zellner:  Not really…I think that because of his tendencies he is far less successful than his cousin Richard Myer.  Did you know his cousin is Richard Myer?  The funny story is I have friends that worked for Peter his mother would say “Peter, why can’t you be more successful like your cousin?”  If you look at their work it’s actually very similar in some ways.  One of them pursued a viable commercial practice, one that’s well regarded, if you go to the Getty it’s a beautiful thing, and the other pursued this kind of emotional and philosophical architecture and largely has suffered commercially.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Can we go back to the Wexner example and architecture asserting itself into a curators would-be exhibition design and how that can relate to site-specificity?


Elderly Man in Audience: Speak up!


Muistardeaux Collective:  Site-specificity!


Peter Zellner:  well, the Wexner invented site-specificity.  There are axis that cross the project, this is in the middle of Post Modernism, which was a return to classical axis Eisenman just made up the axis.  They’re not real, they refer to things like flight paths, they’re fake, they are actually a fake narrative.  So in his work he even threw out the idea of contextual ideology, you know, he actually has a fake castle corner that is supposed to look like it was always there but it’s not real. 


Christopher Mount:  Most curators or artists want what is called a white box.  A white box is just a white room.


Peter Zellner:  I have spent the last six years making about two hundred of those white rooms and I’m sick of doing that but that’s what you do.


Muistardeaux Collective:  It’s a different breed of design.  It’s the difference between the two cousins approaches to design.  In reality, when you’re talking about architecture, as soon as one asserts their own…


Peter Zellner:  Identity.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Identity. 


Peter Zellner:  You get in trouble.


Muistardeaux Collective:  yeah, it just doesn’t work. 


Peter Zellner:  I speak from personal experience.  Our office makes art galleries.  The article that recently came out in Art and Auction called “The Invisible Hand” said isn’t it great that this guy isn’t even present?  His clients love it.  And, for me it’s a little traumatic because the one hand you could be successful at doing something well and addressing purely functional requirements, that’s what we do.  I see it that there are some parameters that you must stay within but frankly from a creative perspective, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to figure out if we are learning anything new.  That’s a huge challenge I think for any creative individual is once you become an expert at something, what next?  I don’t criticize my clients or what their requirements are, they’re totally legitimate.  I don’t want to be known as the guy who makes a gallery that doesn’t work.  That would seem unethical. 


Justin Beal:  Well, that’s a good question of how you see your role as an architect. 


Peter Zellner:  Well there are roles and there are roles.  I think to Christopher’s point, a house is very different from a gallery.


Christopher Mount:  Right.  You could do it in other places.  An airport could be more interesting; a baseball stadium could be more interesting.  They’re all different.  I was recently at the Farnsworth House.  I wouldn’t really want to be there on weekends, particularly in the winter but it’s gorgeous, it’s fantastic and you have to live there in a different way.  You’re buying a piece of sculpture. 


Peter Zellner:  Mies left nothing to chance-the furniture placement, the orientation of the kitchen, inwards on the house so that you did not look out and Johnson, when he did his own glass house basically stated in an interview that started with the position of the furniture and the rugs and he saw those as the first design acts.  Everything scaled out of that so nothing could be moved in the house and he lived with that.  He basically designed the arrangement of the objects and then the shell and then the relationship to the landscape.  He said that essentially even his property in New Canaan that the green grass is basically an extension of the inside of the house.  It was just natural carpet.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Do we just start talking about this when the individual decisions made are aggressive or somehow deviant from traditional design or even aesthetic and functional pleasure?  Is it only when you cross over that line that we even talk about it?  Is it only when it becomes confrontational that it becomes part of the discussion, as opposed to someone who creates a building and every individual design choice made was meant to enhance the experience rather than jar you?


Christopher Mount:  There are all kinds of things.  You think about the Sachs Center, I am assuming that works.  It’s beautiful.  When that was built, that was radically different, overstepping the line of pure functionality.  If you do it well, it does work.  There are plenty of Le Corbusier buildings.  Mies is a great example of that.  The National Gallery in Berlin is just an open space and it works pretty well as a museum.


Justin Beal:  We have set up these two things, there is Richard Myer versus Eisenman and there is Mies versus Phillip Johnson and to bring it back to where we started, I would argue that Richard Myer and Mies are both really brilliant designers.  Richard Myer figured out a system for doing something coming out of very much the same lineage as Eisenman but really working in a way that just works. He has been incredibly prolific because of it. There is a defined brand, it’s consistent and it works.  He has a very aggressive aesthetic but it’s not a contrarian one necessarily.  In terms of Peter’s initial definition of design as something you can monetize and brand, it is a product that is totally coherent; not like Eisenman trying to undermine…


Peter Zellner:  Somebody who is actually, to her credit, has figured out how to do design at almost every scale from the shoe to the opera house is Zaha Hadid.  She is really provocative because in some ways she has a very defined language that is completely outside of what is normally accepted as the traditional solution for any design problem.  That work passes because she has found a way to essentially distinguish her very specific voice so concretely.


Muistardeaux Collective:  And it still works.


Peter Zellner:  It totally works!  Actually, if you look at her buildings, she rarely gets attacked anymore for the buildings being not functional.  She did a quite beautiful opera house in Guangzhou; acoustically it works.  So she is kind of the much more evolved version of Frank Gehry in the way she has taken some of the lesson of expressive architecture.  What is most interesting to me is that she employs four hundred people and her teams work at every scale.  There are people working on opera houses and there are people working on shoes, belts, chairs, and water faucets and knobs.  They do everything like Michael Graves.


Christopher Mount:  Or Phillipe Starck


Peter Zellner:  Or Phillipe Starck. I think Zaha now, more than any other historical figure has found a way.  She makes art by the way, she makes these design art objects.  She has found a way to say, “I want it all and we will do it all and in this one codified language”.  People will buy into that because they want a Zaha project.  She has really transcended the idea of the architect being just a professional.  Probably she is the first major cultural figure of the twentieth century as a woman who really is just a design god.  She has set it up as a deity.  She touches anything at it becomes Zaha.  It’s really powerful.  I don’t like the work anymore but I am really compelled by the ambition to say that design could touch every aspect of life at every scale.  For me it’s more like an art practice in some ways.


 Muistardeaux Collective:  A conceptual art practice.


Peter Zellner:  Absolutely. 


Muistardeaux Collective:  What about painting?


Justin Beal:  What about it?


Muistardeaux Collective:  Painters that are doing similar things in terms of successfully bridging the gap into something new.


Justin Beal:  I don’t think it’s possible in painting.


Muistardeaux Collective:  It’s not?


Justin Beal:  I think painting's an interesting example because painting is one object of art that is always an object of art.  Unlike a photograph which can merge into a commercial realm a sculptural object that can merge into a design realm, even performance, the power that we have all collectively granted to painting is that it is always stuck in painting as painting.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Despite many attempts to bring it out of that.


Justin Beal:  Sure.  Who would be a painter that is successfully entering the design realm?


Christopher Mount:  Well you could say Warhol, copying the Campbell’s soup can is a copy of a piece of graphic design.  And maybe some Koons, I don’t know.


Peter Zellner:  I hate to use this painter, because whatever you think, I know…but there are a number of painters in the more populist range who have gotten into toy design, shoe design, fashion.  We haven’t mentioned fashion!


Christopher Mount:  You have something here that I did not know about being an East Coaster; you have Lowbrow.  You have Mark Ryden.


Peter Zellner:  Geoff McFetridge.


Christopher Mount:  The Clayton Brothers, you have all of that here which is a very strange thing from an East Coast perspective.  It’s kind of illustration which is design, but they sell out here!  It’s just a West Coast thing.


Peter Zellner:  It is a West Coast thing.  Companies like Nike go out of their way to court these artists so that they can actually bring their signature into their design process.  I don’t know what that means by the way, I find it really confusing.


Justin Beal:  You brought up Murakami.  Murakami is a total design object.


Christopher Mount:  Yeah, these are design objects.  I like Murakami very much and I argue with people but I look at it like Japanese graphic design, Japanese toys, I think they are very pleasing.  I get a kick out of it.


Muistardeaux Collective:  It’s also a piece of a more overarching design concept that Murakami has for his vision ala Zaha Hadid.


Christopher Mount:  And in Japan there isn’t this clear definition between fine art and design.  Culturally it is a much more, I mean everything is design.  Murakami is this figure who is both a designer and a fine artist.


Peter Zellner:  I think Japan has a long tradition of attaching aesthetic importance to every cultural object.  Maybe Japan more than any other country.   This is a complete aside but I was always curious why Japan, which is a misogynistic culture, has so many women architects that are successful.  The reason I found was, I asked a friend of mine in Tokyo, was basically that the arts, the fine arts: music, painting, sculpture, and then architecture were all things that were perfectly acceptable because they were seen as feminine or that they could be feminized.  It’s really interesting because in some ways it also suggests that design can be caught up in gender issues.  This is often not mentioned because usually design is seen as being gender neutral.  When you look at the work of Andrea Zittel, clearly it does deal with women’s work and other issues that frame domesticity.  A lot of design occurs for the domestic sphere. 


Justin Beal:  I would almost take issue with the idea of design being gender neutral.  If you think about it in relation to architecture,


Peter Zellner:  I don’t think that it is gender neutral at all but that it is marketed in a very utilitarian, neutral, utopian, way like a chair is a chair. 


Christopher Mount:  Except when you get to cars.  Then there is the old person’s car and the young person’s car, age and family specific and so on.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Which as you pointed out is one of the seminal design models.


Justin Beal:  Automotive design?


Muistardeaux Collective:  Yeah.  Function meets design but not entirely?


Christopher Mount:  Yes, sometimes it’s done very well sometimes it isn’t.  I think a lot of it is selling an ordinary car to as many people as we can.  It doesn’t cost any more to design a beautiful car than it cost to design a Toyota really.  It’s funny when you look at car companies, the more expensive the car, the better looking the cars.  Apple does the same thing.  The first Iphone was OK, the new one is better looking, the next one will look even better.  You get the sense that they are holding back.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Right.


Peter Zellner:  This does get to the point of design as commodity because if you go back to revolutionary design collectives, whether it was the Bauhaus or Constructivists, or even the work of the Case Study Architects, or furniture designers here in Southern California in the 1950’s, there was really this idea of design for the masses.  There was no distinction.  The irony of course is that now the Eames chairs that people covet were meant to be cheap!  That was the whole idea-lets find local industries, tie into the most accessible ways of making things and rely on a new design language to evolve from the ordinary, not the extraordinary. 


Christopher Mount:  and Prouve even more so.  He was using engineering, he was using aeronautical engineering and that stuff that you see people buying, they all come out of schools, they are all desk chairs for schools and now as antiques they sell for…whatever.


Muistardeaux Collective:  What was the area you were looking at in regard to local communities?


Justin Beal:  I think what Peter was referring to was that I was specifically interested in… the project I believe Peter is referring to is I was looking at the development of plywood in Southern California, specifically for use in the Second World War.  At the end of the war, how to market plywood as a construction material because it was first used in military applications.  And the way that the Eames were involved in military research, making splints and what not, their plywood furniture like the lounge chair was designed under contract with the army.  There is an interesting confluence there of a specific material with a regional specificity and the connection to wartime and post war applications.  That can go off in any number of tangents but…where they were getting these things that then became ubiquitous.


Peter Zellner:  Literally, the Eames splint is a beautiful object.  Through the development of that particular object, which was really just to stabilize somebody’s limb in the theatre of war, they learned how to steam and bend plywood and developed that into an aesthetic language….that they applied to chairs.  Initially, this was about conforming to the geometry of the body.  It’s a beautiful object by the way. 


Muistardeaux Collective:  Do you think something like that is being reference in Joseph Beuys creating messy reenactments of the objects that supposedly had an instrumental role in the story of how he was saved out in the snow?  It’s creating a design object that doesn’t really exist but has a role in a narrative.


Peter Zellner:  There is an argument that you could make and that is no design act is necessary.  Fundamentally, even the first spear or the first implement was moving from a state of just being in the world like an animal to being human.  But nothing in this room for instance is necessary.  It’s a fundamental question for our time too-what do we need to live?  Things are disappearing.  A lot of our technology now is invisible or takes a miniaturized form.  You could think about the transformation of something like the radio, which was a fairly large and elaborated object.  These things were made out of wood and they were crafted and they looked like they were from the 19th century and of course there were huge transistors that had to be covered up, speakers; and now all of that fits on your phone or your chip or whatever.  That transformation also shows how rapidly a lot of the subjects of design are disappearing. On the other hand, chairs are ubiquitous.  It is the thing that people have been working on for centuries and it’s still something that excites a lot of designers and architects as a topic. 


Muistardeaux Collective:  Why do you think that is?


Peter Zellner:  Because they’re fun to sit in. 


Justin Beal:  I think chairs have a metonymic relation to any design object.  They are the surrogate of a person.  They become the pedestal for a human.  Every architect has to design a chair and it somehow becomes a consolidated representation of their work.  I don’t really see a comparison between Beuys and the Eames.  Beuys is really more of the Shamanism and creation of narrative as a means of justifying a material interest but his fat chair sculpture is one of the most seminal chairs in the history of art.  In that example it totally becomes an anthropomorphic thing, the chair becomes a surrogate for an absent human. 


Muistardeaux Collective:  And in the end it’s a fake story.


Justin Beal: Absolutely, but in terms of how you deal with seeing that object right? In that sense, the function of the chair, in an art historical sense, it all has to do with Michael Fried and art and objectness, the theatricality and expectation.  There is not just a sculpture in a room but rather there is a viewer in the room with the sculpture.  Furniture in that context can have a specific charge that another technical object might not.


Muistardeaux Collective:  We should probably open it up to the audience for questions.  We have five more minutes.  Brett?


Brett:  I don’t have any questions.


Muistardeaux Collective:  One question I have is what do you think about something like, when you were talking about all these little objects that in their own way become part of this design scheme that have represented eras in design trends or even lifestyle trends; a lot of that is being replaced by technology.  A lot of it is being condensed but there are still small design elements that impose a design ideology.


Peter Zellner:  Right.  I think that these tools prefigure how people interact with one another obviously.  I see my daughter, she’s two, on her Ipad and it’s eerie how easily she’s become conditioned, without any language, to how you access an App, there are Apps for kids and she flows through that space and it’s a space that is behind a piece of glass.  What amazes me is that she has absolutely no question about its reality.  For her and probably a lot of young people today, the whole conflict of real vs. virtual; the way she plays with those Apps vs. the way she plays with her toys is very similar.  She’s engaged, she’s creative.  It creates joy.  I have no idea of what sort of world she’ll live in.  I imagine she will live in a world where she will interact with design and technology in a holographic way.  I know we are years off supposedly but architects are already opting out of building physical models and buying holograms.  You can actually purchase them.


Christopher Mount:  Hmmm


Muistardeaux Collective:  Really?


Christopher Mount:  You mean that you can project your building on?


Peter Zellner:  No, it’s basically imbedded in this sheet.  I don’t know how it works it’s basically a linticular sheet and when hit with light from a particular point there is a three-dimensional object that you can walk around.  I think the subject of how we will physically engage media is a very interesting topic and we’re on the edge of a whole other design problem.  I don’t think that design goes away just because new technology is integrated.  I think one of the things that pushes design inevitably forward, and this is Mies’ great contribution to architecture was to figure out what to do with the Curtain Wall for instance, which was a new technology.  It was glass.  The environment bounce into and out of it.  So, what was your question?


Muistardeaux Collective:  I think you hit it pretty well.  My question was how the consolidation of all these physical objects that inform how we interact even conceptually with our environment, those being condensed into aesthetic objects, fewer of them but with very definitive aesthetics…you talked about the next level which is it just that aesthetic that gets you in.  Then it becomes a much bigger design question, when it is technological and emotional.


Peter Zellner:  You know what the limit miniaturization will be?  The limit of the body.  A thing cannot get so small that you cannot work with it.  It’s the same problem with the chair. 


Justin Beal:  I think the Iphone is particularly interesting simply because it is so unbelievably mediocre in its primary function of being a phone.  It is kind of a design miracle that the have gotten millions of people to buy this thing.  It actually doesn’t function well as a phone.  Its brilliant in all its other capacities but it’s this weird example of a design being so successful that it begins to eat its own tail.


Muistardeaux Collective:   It goes way more Matrix than the design question about a chair.  It takes this to another level that is difficult to imagine what the boundaries of it are.


Justin Beal:  It essentially becomes like Peter’s Frank Gehry chair.  It is so beautiful and such the essence of a chair that you can’t even sit in it.  I love my Iphone but it really sucks.


Peter Zellner:  So do I , it’s a very impressive phone.  Despite that, maybe that is what design does, it overcomes this functional issue.  It gets to a point where you are not purely just engaged in whether in a proletarian way, does its job. 


Christopher Mount:  What is interesting to me are not so much the things that change but the things that remain the same.  It still takes seven hours to go from New York to Paris and it took seven hours when I was five years old.  You still get in your car and drive it.  You would think we’d be getting to Paris a lot faster or getting from LA to New York a lot faster and maybe in a better way too. 


Peter Zellner:  Or getting from the beach to West Hollywood.


Muistardeaux Collective:  Dental tools.  It’s something that you would think design would have upgraded - every other medical field has gone to lasers.


Peter Zellner:  This would be nice to publish.





muistardeaux home