Review: Designs for real people’s real problems showcased in group show at the Armory


“After Victor Papanek: The Future Is Not What It Used to Be” at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena features artists who engage with the principles of the industrial designer, writer and educator.

An early proponent of human-centered, sustainable and socially responsible design, Papanek influenced SoCal design practices as a founding dean at CalArts.

The result is an engaging and thought-provoking exhibition that celebrates not only creativity but the notion that art might make the world a better place.


Papanek, who passed away in 1998, saw design as a way of solving real problems for real people, rather than simply generating novelty or celebrating individual genius. He advocated for design addressing the needs of the poor, disabled, elderly and other underserved communities.

The exhibition includes several copies of his books and images of his designs, including a pair of tall, stilt-like shoes he made for his mother, who was too short to work comfortably at her kitchen counter.

Perhaps the most closely allied with Papanek’s vision is Ken Ehrlich and Mathias Heyden’s set of curtains and rolling wooden bookshelves. Designed in response to discussions with the Armory Center’s staff, the components of the piece have served as storage, room dividers and an ad hoc bar, among other uses. Modular, low-cost and based on practical needs, they are the humblest, hardest-working objects in the show.

Similar in spirit is Rafa Esparza’s fire pit, a low, octagonal structure made of local adobe bricks. Esparza has proposed adding the pits to Pasadena parks as a cheaply produced, biodegradable alternative to poorly maintained metal grills.

Somewhat less useful, if more beautiful, is CamLab’s wall-mounted, fold-down, wood-and-mirror table. Actually based on a Papanek design, it is shaped like a vagina, recasting Papanek’s work in a cheeky, feminist light. In a similar vein, Olga Koumoundouros celebrates her close relationship as a single mother to her son in a dreamily decorated gold hammock for two.

More scholarly, but less fun, are Dave Hullfish Bailey’s annotated topographical maps, looking at the “design” of the American West through early planning for educational initiatives.


Robby Herbst and Liz Nurenberg both use sculpture as a means of facilitating personal interactions. Herbst’s “Collective Interrogation Apparatus” is a set of wooden poles outfitted with wrist and ankle restraints that bind participants in a circle for conversations about restrictions. Nurenberg’s “Conversation Pieces” are eccentric foam headpieces designed to be worn by two people at a time in order to bring them into more intimate dialogues.

The most spectacular work is Michael Parker’s “Steam Egg II,” an egg-shaped steam sauna coated in mirrors like a disco ball. The sparkling egg, propped up on stilts, is entered through a hole at the bottom; herbal blends of hot steam are piped in through a side channel. The egg brings spiritual traditions of ritual purification into the context of modern design; not only disco-fabulous, it is also portable.

Although it wasn’t in use during my visit, anyone may squeeze inside and get sweaty on the first and third Sundays of the month.

Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, (626) 792-5101, through Sept. 6. Closed Mondays.