DesignInquiry's Futurespective at the Maine College of Art's Institute of Contemporary Art explored “design as social process” with the goal of generating new ideas, methods, and forms. According to the website, DesignInquiry
is a non-profit educational organization that explores pressing issues in design and culture. They are a collective of thinkers and makers devoted to extra-disciplinary exchange, and for nearly two decades, spearheaded intensive team-based gatherings and shared diverse outcomes and publications. DesignInquiry refers to itself colloquially as DI; their hardy band of collaborator-participants are called Inquirers.1
My collaboration with DesignInquiry (DI) spans three previous residencies: Access (2013), NoQuo (2015), and Rewrite (2018).2 Most of the DI gatherings take place in Vinalhaven, an island off the coast of Maine, a seventy-five-minute ferry ride from Rockland, where visitors’ cell phone bars nonchalantly disappear as they approach the island, leaving them no option but to glance around, guessing who else might be headed to DI.
Poor Farm, the final destination, is a rustic townhouse with several bedrooms, a kitchen, and a large barn that serves as the common area where the DI magic happens. The barn space transforms into a shared studio, where walls get covered with notes, visuals, and video projections, while various books and tools intermingle with lobster nets and other curiosities. Besides working on prompts, such as writing assignments and creative project ideas offered by participants relating to the overall theme, everyone takes turns doing chores, grocery shopping, cooking, setting up tables for each meal, and washing dishes. By the end of the first meal, the anxiety of having to spend a week with fifteen international scholars, artists, designers, and board members transforms into the excitement of speculating and making together.
When DI opened its first “futurespective” exhibition this year in Portland, I was curious to see how the DI-ness of DesignInquiry would be represented in the traditional gallery setting of the white cube. According to DesignInquiry,
Conventional “retrospective” looks backward. A conventional “futurespective” looks forward. DI's Futurespective reflects on what [residents] have done in the past (in their programs and publications) while simultaneously creating a continuum in the present (in the activities taking place during the run of the exhibition), ultimately suggesting how to imagine design + inquiry in the days, months, years, and centuries ahead.3
DesignInquiry: Futurespective was organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at Maine College of Art (MECA) with Interim Director of Exhibitions Nikki Rayburn and guest curators Denise Gonzales Crisp, Gabrielle Esperdy, Margo Halverson, and Emily Luce, who all serve or have served on the DI Board. They prepared the exhibition over the course of two years, taking great care to capture the DI ethos. In discussing the curatorial process, Gonzales Crisp questioned whether the exhibition ultimately accomplished this, but explained that, nonetheless, “it [did] provide a visual and spatial framework that introduce[d] DI values and invite[d] visitors to partake of them.”4 The exhibition was an attempt to open the offbeat, language-centered collaborative spirit of Poor Farm to the larger public.
From October to December 2019, the galleries of the ICA at MECA were home to sixteen exhibits that possessed evocative names like Sound Cone, Not-the-reading room, Video Room, Pop-up Store, Universe, Bread Cart, and the Concrete Block Press. Additionally, a rotating group of designers-in-residence continuously added new responses to the environment.
Visitors entered ICA through doors covered in a grid of large pink dots with lines of Letraline tape crossing over it from different points. This Sol LeWitt–inspired drawing, entitled Crown, was produced with instructions sent via email from Amy Campos, a DesignInquirer based in San Francisco. This area also served as a bulletin board accumulating announcements about Futurespective lectures and workshops.
Not-the-reading room was located in the Jellin Gallery near the main entrance. A selection of books and pamphlets produced by DesignInquirers over the past fifteen years was placed on the makeshift inch-thick corrugated cardboard shelves. By design, the furniture that was used throughout the exhibition had a similar circumstantial look and feel. “To me the framework [was] captured best in the moveable and malleable tables [designed by board member Anita Cooney],” said Gonzales Crisp.
The Jellin Gallery also accommodated the Fabulist Timeline and the Universal Lunch Desk (both 2019). The Fabulist Timeline was a wall display of historical chronology of design and culture, presenting influences, inspirations, and ambitions from the Renaissance to today, with special reference to modern art and contemporary technology. Placed right in front of the wall was an ordinary office desk that served as a facade to project Universal Lunch (Out of Office (Un)Common Hours), a weekly live-streamed web series facilitated by Esperdy and Jimmy Luu.
Universe was exhibited in the long corridor connecting Jellin to the Lunder Gallery. It featured mostly photographs displayed on a virtuosic grid system, allowing visitors to witness important and unimportant moments from past DI gatherings, providing a visual timeline while provoking an emotional response of being present at Poor Farm. A bowl of rising dough evoking the daily DI practice of bread making, paper scraps piled up on a wooden desktop, snapshots of people, various random objects, typographic experiments, and a white poodle enjoying the breeze on a green lawn were among the images visitors glimpsed while walking along the walls leading to the main gallery. These images made it evident that DI celebrates the blurred boundaries between art, design, and life, reminding us of Victor Papanek's famous words:
Design is composing an epic poem, executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto. But design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer, pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple pie, choosing sides for a backlot baseball game, and educating a child.5
The main gallery welcomed the visitors with two large-scale typographic murals reading “Unplanned, Unknown, Unfinished” and “We Do Our Best Work Together.” These aphorisms emphasize the underlying structure of DesignInquiry: process and interactions. According to Esperdy, it was a curatorial challenge to create a show so that visitors don't mistake the work on the walls/in the gallery as “finished” rather than as a register of process.
Standing on the left side of the main gallery was a bread-making cart designed and constructed by Charles Melcher (Bread Cart, 2019). The mobile bread cart houses a refrigerator, oven, proofing cabinet, butcher block, and pegboard. Here, Melcher performed a weekly ritual of fermenting and kneading dough. When the smell of fresh-baked bread filled the gallery, visitors gathered around the cart to receive a steaming hot slice of sourdough bread. The bread cart was a social experience: it created a temporary platform for people to talk about realities of their lives and the art and design present around them, bringing a sense of daily living at Poor Farm to the gallery space.
Four columns in the center of the main gallery were covered in black-and-white posters from floor to ceiling. These typographic posters were designed specifically for the exhibition by DIers (Mary Banas, Tim Belonax, Rachel Berger, Steve Bowden, Sean Carnegie, Lucinda Hitchcock, Sandra Maxa, Ann McDonald, Susan Merritt, Satoru Nihei, Jonathan Novak, Tricia Treacy, Joshua Unikel, and Ben Van Dyke) who visually responded to every past DI theme. Toward the back, a colossal concrete cylinder rested on a rectangular platform measuring 12 × 9 × 3 feet. Inspired by the traditional letterpress proof presses, Bowden and Peter Evonuk built the Concrete Block Press (2019) as an homage to Johannes Gutenberg (inventor of movable type) and Harmon Palmer (who patented the concrete block in the United States). Concrete blocks were carefully chiseled to create letters, each weighing more than thirty pounds, of a digit alphabet set, which was then used as type with which to letterpress. Giant prints hot off the press were hung on steel wires stretched across the wall behind this massive concrete sculpture.
Time-based work was displayed in the Evans Hunt Gallery. Several video projections in various sizes and heights covered the four walls of this room, creating an immersive environment. Videos made by DIs between 2014 and 2019 were arranged around the themes of “Music,” “Make,” “Gothic,” “Patience,” “Words,” and “AFEW” (Air, Fire, Earth, Water). The video Curate was an intentionally last-minute addition by the curators that documents an improvisational week of installing the show.
DesignInquiry: Futurespective aimed to showcase that “Everything is a project, and that design is a verb, a practice,” according to Gonzales Crisp. The curators’ goal for the exhibition was that the visitors walk away with a different perspective about what design is (it's a process, not a thing) and an inkling that they, too, engage in design regularly—and might do so more deliberately. Luce believes design process and exploration are accessible, and curious, and useful tools for creating a post-patriarchal future—one that is sustainable, diverse, and joyful. And her message for emerging designers is that “there are no rules; they are each in the driver's seat in terms of what design is and can be.”6
Gallery Guide to DesignInquiry: Futurespective (Portland, ME: Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, 2019).
All quotations by Denise Gonzalez Crisp are from an email communication with the author on November 28, 2019.
Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971).
All quotations by Emily Luce are from an email communication with the author on November 28, 2019.