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Last Chance to View Art Center's "Made Up: Design's Fictions" Exhibition

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By Carren Jao/Special to LAist

Problem. Solution. That’s the staid framework of designers everywhere. But that dynamic well… isn’t dynamic at all. In fact, it’s downright boring.

In their latest exhibition, "Made Up: Design's Fictions," The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena spices it up by presenting designs created by and for the outlandish, the silly and sometimes outright cuckoo, which might—just might—give birth to some tangible real world solutions. After all, weren’t Star Trek communicators the forefathers of today’s mobile phones?

“A lot of design starts with just making something up,” says curator Tim Durfee. “It’s sometimes a little bit crazy, a little absurd, but that process opens up new ways of discovering ideas.”

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Staged in a venue that once secretly tested supersonic jets, “Made Up” brings together posters, renderings, videos, and knick-knacks by international designers and Art Center grads coupled with a purposely-vague write-up on the exhibition catalog. No lengthy explanations; only intelligent guesses. “One of the main ideas of the show was not tell anybody any answers but rather to raise the conversation,” says Durfee. Suuuuure….

Among the mysterious wall hangings is that of Thomas Hillier, a Bartlett School of Architecture grad. He created a gorgeously detailed pop-up papercraft artwork in the style of Japanese Ukiyo-e printmaker, Ando Hiroshige. Inventing a tale of star-crossed lovers, Hillier recasts the Princess as a “flexible, diaphanous knitted membrane” vainly trying to reach the grass that is her beloved Cowherd. But she is always barred by the Emperor who has taken the form of gigantic origami lungs that may or may not be able to clean the air in this fabled landscape.

Air quality isn’t the only thing on the minds of Mexican architects Rojkind Arquitectos, Alejandro Hernandez Galvez and Arturo Ortiz. They turn a design competition to build a purely ornamental arch in Mexico into a social critique. By submitting a design for a fantastical infrastructure that coordinates traffic and expands the green areas of the concrete-choked city, the team showed how superfluous the government-sponsored competition truly was.

Not every artifact has as serious an undertone. In “Animal Superpowers,” TED 2011 Fellow Chris Woebkin and Kenichi Okada collaborate on a set of devices meant to give children heighted sensory experiences. A rather more evolved Calvin & Hobbes Transmogrifier device, Woebkin and Okada’s Ant apparatus goes on your head and hands. Microscope antennas in the hand give kids a 50x-magnified view of whatever they put their hands over. Talk about “A Bug’s Life.”

While Woebkin and Okada play with the senses in a confined space, Keiichi Matsuda, multidisciplinary designer based in London and Tokyo, saturates the world with stimuli. In his video “Augmented (hyper)Reality,” the physical space is overlaid with digital data—showing the temperature of the our steaming cup of coffee beside our coffee pot, the weather conditions outside our apartment by the window, and yes, the digital equivalent of junk mail and spam on every possible surface. “It’s a believable design proposal,” says Durfee, “but it’s also darker and funnier because it shows us that the future may not be as pristine as we imagine it.”

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“Made Up” as a whole falls squarely on the side of proposition than fact, but it is exactly where it planned to be. “Our assessment is that the future is one of perpetual change,” says Art Center’s Media Design Program Chair Anne Burdick, “[In this exhibition,] we’re trying to say that design is not just problem-solving. It’s a way of thinking about the world and that play is incredibly relevant, serious, political work.” After all, a lie is only a lie until it becomes real, right?

Made Up: Design’s Fictions runs until March 20th at Art Center’s Wind Tunnel Gallery.