Is It Design? Art? Or Just a Dutch Joke?

By ROBERTA SMITH

Published: New York Times, December 30, 2006

If you want your view of contemporary design vigorously shaken, take in ''Simply Droog'' at the Museum of Arts & Design. Subtitled ''10 + 3 Years of Creating Innovation and Discussion,'' this show scatters nearly 150 objects -- most intended for household use -- throughout three floors. All have been created or championed by Droog Design, a many-headed, loosely affiliated collective of mostly, but not entirely, Dutch designers and architects.

Droog, which is Dutch for dry or wry and is pronounced something like ''draulk,'' was convened in 1993 by the designer Gijs Bakker and the art historian Renny Ramakers. They were partly inspired by several contemporaries, to whose work the Droog label has been retroactively affixed. Tejo Remy's famous Rag chair, for example -- a bulky lounger made of old textiles and clothes strapped together with metal tape -- was made in 1991, as was his peculiar ''Milk-Bottle Lamp.''

Droog has been admired since its inception for its hippielike do-it-yourselfness, environmental sensitivity, sociopolitical commentary, postmodern irreverence and its lack of interest in masterpieces. But it has also been criticized for specializing in prototypes that don't always make it into production or that are too costly when they do.

So far, Droog has rigorously avoided any semblance of a house style, while becoming famous for an attitude that seems to say, ''Designers just want to have fun.'' As a result, it has probably generated more interesting discussion than useful innovation.

The show, itself a total Droog design, tries a little too hard to be amusing, but it mostly works. The objects are arrayed in 10 thematic groups with titles like ''Simplicity,'' ''Form Follows Process,'' ''Use It Again'' and ''Irony.'' Each group is placed in an imaginary room or building whose full-scale plan is delineated on the floor by black and gray plastic strips.

Unfortunately, the floor plans also contain outlines in black of additional furniture, bathroom fixtures and whatnot, seen from above. But even this clutter doesn't diminish the sense of free-flowing openness that results from having everything sitting directly on the floor, with almost no interior walls or pedestals.

In total, this show is something you can sink your teeth into -- hate this, love that, question everything -- especially if you take advantage of the small free brochure that contains label information and short explanations about the rationale, use or material of each item.

It points out, for example, that a triple-curved salt shaker by Arnout Visser functions as an hourglass after every use, and explains the materials and process that make possible Marcel Wanders's marvelous see-through ''Knotted Chair,'' a macramé variation on the campaign chair. (Carbon and aramid fibers, once knotted, are impregnated with epoxy resin.)

The brochure also gives glimpses of Droogian preposterousness, as when it says that another Droog classic, Mr. Remy's 1991 ''Chest of Drawers'' -- 20 old drawers, each one of which he outfitted with a new wood casing, and the bunch tied loosely together with jute -- not only ''criticizes the excess and the consumer mania that pervades the world'' but is also a ''protest against the increasing complexity of the design profession.''

Only a collector with four houses and a valet could consider this half-found, half-customized, semifunctional, quasi-sculptural ensemble a bureau. Still, it makes me smile every time I see it.

 









So does the ''Heat Wave'' radiator designed by Joris Laarman in the shape of an elaborately foliate ceiling molding. But living with it would be another matter.

Some things I would willingly have forgone seeing altogether, like a table made of paraffin whose top is fuzzy with wicks. From an art world viewpoint, a table-shaped candle is so 1992. According to the brochure, the table's designer, Timo Breumelhof, is of the opinion that products ''designed for safety leave little space for fantasy or creative use.''

Good or bad, Droog almost always balances precariously between art and design, and that may be the point. Some things Droog have a plainspoken Dutchness that is wonderfully literal. But they can also be provokingly brainy, prodding us, like Conceptual art, to think about materials, processes and traditions, and also about the difference between desire and need, or comfort and excess.

Dutchness and brains are one in NL Architects' silicone rubber straps in red, yellow and green. They snap flat to the wall when not in use, but can also hold coats, bags and umbrellas. With both Mondrian and Gerrit Rietveld as ancestors, they seem perfect for the narrow front halls often found in Dutch apartments, and exemplify a national mind-set in which space is at a premium. The Netherlands itself, after all, is one of the world's greatest feats of design, given that so much of it has been wrested from the sea and is also perfectly flat.

Equally inspired are various instances of recycling: Mr. Remy's rag chair, but also Jurgen Bey's St. Petersburg chairs, designed for the Dutch Room cafe in St. Petersburg, Russia, and made by covering antique chairs with several layers of polyester strengthened with glass fibers, which was then silk-screened with floral prints.

Droog designers have proved especially good at counterintuitive solutions, like transforming what is usually hard and shiny into soft, flexible and matte. Examples here include the translucent silicone shade of Sam Hecht's ''Flex'' lamp, which brings to mind a pacifier; Dick van Hoff's polyester-surfaced felt wash basin, smooth inside and furry on the underside; and of course Hella Jongerius's well-known soft polyurethane ''Urn'' vase.

The ''Urn'' vase and Richard Hutten's ''Bronto'' children's chairs in cast polyurethane improve on current art: they might almost be functional objects by Rachel Whiteread, the British sculptor. Likewise, the 2004 ''Fatlamp'' by NEXT Architects and Aura Luz Melis, whose globe is filled with fat that partly melts when the light is on, is a multiple sculpture that Josef Beuys should have made, but never did.

Droog's best designs are frequently on the small side: nearly all the lamps; the charmingly irregular porcelains of both Ms. Jongerius and Mr. van Hoff; and just about anything by Mr. Visser.

Funny is often funnier, or at least more tolerable, when small. Take Frank Tjepkema and Peter Van der Jagt's ''Do Break'' vases, which give new meaning to the idea of the crackled surface; they can be smashed or shattered but remain intact because of their silicone interiors.

They seem infinitely preferable to Marijn van der Pol's ''Do Hit'' chair, a banged-in stainless steel box that comes with its own sledgehammer for reshaping. This is do-it-yourself for dummies: bad sculpture masquerading as useless furniture.

Droog, then, has ushered in quite a bit of chaff with its wheat. It needs to get a firmer grasp on the distinction between funny ha-ha and funny exhilarating -- the big laugh you get when a designer invents something that works perfectly in a way that builds on the past but hasn't quite happened before.

A few Droog concoctions are brilliant, and some are perfectly fine, but ultimately design as a form of whimsical, if thought-provoking, entertainment is not enough. Design can't just be a laughing matter, or an intellectual one. It has to work in the physical world.

''Simply Droog'' runs through Jan. 14 2007 at the

Museum of Arts &Design, 40 West 53rd Street, Manhattan, New York

 
  photos: Robaard/Theuwkens
imageconcept: Marjo Kranenborg
 
 

Simply Droog Munich, Germany
Simply Droog Den Haag, the Netherlands
Simply Droog Curitiba, Brasil
Simply Droog Grand Hornu, Belgium

 
 

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