In a space once reserved only for fiercely practical ideas with clear applications for military technology, pure fiction and whimsy now rule. The Wind Tunnel Gallery, a renovated supersonic aircraft testing facility in Pasadena that houses the Art Center College of Design’s graduate media design program, is hung with models, paintings and computer renderings of objects and processes that can’t actually exist, or won’t work, or confuse the whole notion of utility. And yes, that’s the point.
Saturday evening kicks off a nearly two month-long exhibition and speaker series called “Made Up: Design’s Fictions” that explores the importance of practicality in design. Work featured in the show probes a less-familiar offshoot of design theory called “design fiction” and includes never-before-seen items for unknown futures, alternate presents and other contexts that don’t yet or might never exist. Graduates and faculty of the college’s media design program as well as international designers have contributed posters, photographs, illustrations, digital films and all manner of objects to the exhibition, all of which help dismantle the commonly understood purpose of design.
“There’s a long tradition in fields of design for speculation and more far-reaching types of work,” said Tim Durfee, a member of the program’s core faculty and curator of the exhibition. “Ledoux and Boullée and these other famous architects started making these unbuildable designs — fantastic to look at and just imagine. From there, there sort of became this subculture of impossible design.”
Preparing students for the unknown is the basis of the program’s curriculum, creating designers who can imagine the unimaginable. Made Up showcases successful works of flexibility and openness to new ideas.
Take, for instance, “The Rather Large Array,” a 50-foot wooden beam that visitors to the former aerodynamics lab will see suspended from a network of PVC support rigging. Some 24 cameras are mounted on the beam itself to collect images from the reception. The images will be projected in real time onto a window in the gallery and later be printed out on the premises, creating a sort of live catalog of the show.
If all that sounds a touch complicated, that’s because it is. But for Durfee, experimenting with structural complexity in the name of philosophical complexity (“Who we are is not just where we are at the moment”) offers opportunities for growth. In addition to academic tradition, he cites strong interest from the students as inspiration for the project.
Durfee will be joined by architect-designer Fiona Raby and Wired.com blogger and science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling in speaking at Saturday’s panel discussion. As a self-proclaimed big Internet guy, Sterling recognizes the appeal of design fiction.
“The thing that interests me about design fiction, which is a young and not yet very well-defined idea, is that on the Internet you can bring all kinds of things to the process of design that make a prototype look a lot more convincing than it used to be,” he said.
Sterling, who held the lofty title of visionary in residence at the Art Center five years ago, sees this mode of free-form design as an advantage for students, who are routinely short on the resources they would need to execute their ideas.
Encouraging students to question limitations is standard operating procedure for Art Center faculty. Students in the school’s graduate-level media design program aren’t even given clear direction as to what sort of final project they should be working toward. Anne Burdick, the program chair, believes the lack of “prescribed outcomes” keeps students on their toes.
“Of course, it’s scary, right? And anxiety-inducing and exhilarating,” Burdick said. “But I think they fluctuate between being terrified and being thrilled, and I think we feel that way all the time too.”
Burdick said students coming out of the media design program are wanted by prospective employers precisely because their thinking is so different.
“They’re really sought after because they’re able to work in fluid situations, they’re able to communicate across disciplines and across cultures, they’re able to make it up on the fly,” she said. “And so it makes them really flexible and perfectly educated for the moment.”
“This increasing sense of change, that the future is getting a little bit closer and closer, is not news to anybody. All of a sudden, it’s no longer a dreamy, flighty thing to imagine designing for a world that isn’t here yet,” Durfee said.
“It’s actually a necessary thing,” Burdick said.
“Made Up: Design’s Fictions” panel and opening reception
Where: Wind Tunnel Gallery, Art Center College of Design’s South Campus, 950 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena
When: Lectures and discussion, 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday; opening reception, 7 to 10 p.m.
Info: (626) 396-2469; https://www.artcenter.edu/mdp/madeup