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Modern Atlanta’s weeklong design festival merges marketing and education

The ever more richly programmed and thronged annual week of exhibitions, talks, parties and tours put on by Modern Atlanta will return June 6-12.

You will be able to hear from at least one household-name international design luminary, Karim Rashid (right), as well as from less famous creatives including Polish art director Jacek Utko, who is said to be revolutionizing the look of the newspaper (and if so, not a moment too soon).

The winning entry in a competition to design a temporary pavilion, sponsored by the Young Architects Forum of Atlanta, will be on view. A new documentary, “Inside Piano,” about a little-known early building by the architect behind the High Museum of Art’s expansion, will have its first U.S. screening. Local architects will again open their studios, and there will be another of the hugely popular contemporary house tours. And that’s only a partial listing.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about this annual design and style blitz, but my reaction only proves that it’s a phenomenon to be reckoned with, both in itself and in the questions it raises about the consciousness of and audience for — or is that the market for? — cool design in this community.

I say “cool” design because, if you want to get technical, we’re talking about diverse aesthetics and multiple moments of design history, even if they’re interrelated. No doubt the audience for any and all of it has grown considerably in recent years. Modern Atlanta certainly has helped enlarge it. So have the high-profile battles to save from destruction the downtown library, the final work of that pillar of Modern architecture Marcel Breuer, and the Buckhead branch library, one of the ridiculously few structures by the phenomenal studio of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects ever to have been built in their home town. (Here in Atlanta, tearing down Modernist library buildings seems to be the new book burning.)

I’m also sure that a lot of this fresh energy comes from that expanding cohort of mostly younger people who want a more urbane life, and so choose to live intown, and for whom the ideal domicile, if not the one they may actually inhabit, is the loft. The loft-as-residence concept originated about 45 years ago when artists could find big, cheap spaces — former factory floors in 19th- or early-20th-century buildings — in lower Manhattan. There was actually a city program called “Artist in Residence” that allowed this. It created exceptions to such buildings’ industrial-only zoning, and you saw little signs near their entries that said “A.I.R.” Of course, in those radical-chic days, plenty of artists blithely moved into lofts that didn’t have the designation.

Anyway, as typically happens, the cachet of having artists around and living someplace edgy created a frenzy of desire and self-invention and attracted groovy shops and restaurants and a different population. These neighborhoods eventually became too expensive for artists, generally speaking. Eventually they come to be mostly inhabited by professionals, albeit of the art-consuming persuasion, one can hope.

But let us tear ourselves away from the endlessly fascinating subject of real estate and return to questions of design. Those 19th-century loft buildings were not Modern. Their interiors were, however, revealing of their own structures, which is consistent with a Modernist approach to architecture. The building’s exterior might have been wedding-cake-fancy Victorian cast iron, but inside there were exposed pipes and beams, concrete floors and less-than-zero ornamentation, plus tons of space. (Note the capitalization of “Modernist,” denoting the design movement that was so influential for roughly the first half of the 20th century, and its distinction from “modern” with a little “m” and no “ism,” an adjective meaning new or of the present moment.)

It was natural and, for the penniless artists, affordable to furnish their funky new homes with industrial things like wire shelving and big restaurant sinks. When people with money moved in, the rawness and scale of the spaces engendered expensive interior design that was also typically clean-lined and expressive of function. Et voila: we have the industrial-modern, or loft-modern, style of decorating, now available at a West Elm, CB2 or Design Within Reach near you.

Today there is a huge hunger for this aesthetic, even among people moving into brand-new apartment complexes. The developers of those have usually saved a bundle by leaving the floors as unfinished concrete and the ductwork exposed. Thus functional-looking objects such as Elfa storage systems look right at home. Sometimes these buildings are actually Modernist in spirit — such as the excellent Tribute Lofts at Boulevard and Freedom Parkway, and several of the new ones around Northside Drive and Marietta Street — but the awful truth is that most new Atlanta apartment complexes have exteriors tricked up with every bogus “historical reference” — pointless dormers and gables, “Juliette” balconies — that their builders can find room to staple on. But they still have those loft-modern interiors.

Lavorgna residence, by Dencity Architects.

From my observations over the years, it appears that a great many of those who attend Modern Atlanta’s events are exactly the youngish urbanites who make up the market for such real estate. (I’m not denigrating their living spaces. I myself have lived for six years in an industrial-modern loft-style intown condo furnished among other things with Elfa storage from the Container Store, Jetsons-era swivel chairs from a yard sale, and a couple of gymnasium lockers that I special-ordered in tasteful medium teal.) I applaud their interest in contemporary design and sincerely hope it becomes an informed passion.

Which brings us to the considerable but ambiguous educational promise of Modern Atlanta. And to an aspect of these events that I find troubling. You can see a lot of great design at MA, and chat your face off with designers and architects if you please, and learn quite a bit. But first disabuse yourself of the notion, which I’m afraid it is natural to assume, that Design Is Human Week is curated or grounded in scholarship in the sense that, say, a lecture at the architecture school of Georgia Tech would be. Parts of it have that grounding, of course, such as this year’s concurrent and cross-promoted exhibition at the High Museum, “Modern by Design,” or the film about Renzo Piano, which is part of the series Living Architectures.

But Modern Atlanta is in fact a marketing operation. It’s not a museum, or an educational institution, or for that matter a non-profit organization. It does provide venues where little-known designers and manufacturers can showcase their work and, a little more baldly, events by which retail showrooms can get you in the door. But these people and entities pay Modern Atlanta for delivering your attention. They’re participants, but they’re also sponsors. Rashid, for example, will be speaking at Pedini of Atlanta, which sells several furniture lines he designed.

I have nothing against marketing; I make most of my living doing it. Maybe it’s only because Atlanta has been so retarded in terms of Modern and contemporary design, and I feel hopeful now about the growing local audience, that I wish Modern Atlanta were more transparent. Or maybe I wish it were more transparent because I don’t have much faith that these fresh masses of enthusiasts for the cool and new are particularly critical thinkers or, should I say, critical consumers.

To the uncritical, schmoozing a celebrity designer at a gleaming showroom might just seem equivalent to attending a thought-provoking panel at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. I wouldn’t call it a deliberate attempt to obfuscate, but I do find MA founder and owner Bernard McCoy’s thinking to be soft around the edges, and in a self-serving way.

“We want to encourage a certain level of creativity out of Atlanta, and therefore our platform is open to young designers, and we want to expose them,” he told me. “The home tour grew out of wanting to service that sector, showcasing the work, mainly getting consumers excited about what contemporary architecture is, and hopefully they would start wanting to have these homes built.

“It’s just a different way of doing business. There’s that demand side and then what you have is a business, a showroom or manufacturer will want to tap into that market…. It really is about community. If they don’t do anything, they’re going to get left out. If MA is going to be successful, you’re going to see businesses coming from across the U.S. We already have them from across Europe and this year Asia.”

Back to that geography in a minute. First allow me to wax curmudgeonly about some other aspects of Modern Atlanta that I also find soft-headed. Starting with the moniker “MA,” which McCoy and others pronounce like half of “mama.” They then use it to craft other vocabularistic contraptions such as “MA’ology” and “MA’frique.” My advice when you feel the impulse to invent a word? Don’t. My corollary advice to graphic designers who feel compelled to challenge the route a reader’s eye naturally wants to take across a page, as was done several years running in the glamorous but bewildering MA catalogue? Please don’t. Then there’s that tagline “Design Is Human,” which is sufficiently fuzzy to encompass everything from the design of a highway overpass to the design of those stickers that say “Hi! My name is ___.” Humans did design them. Humans do use them.

Call me slow, but for several years I was baffled by the selection of articles in those catalogues and on the MA website, and by the topics of the talks and exhibitions held during the annual week of events. I couldn’t seem to grasp any organizing principle behind what was included and what was not. But, like, duh. A business reflects the interests and business plan of its owner. The organizing principle is whatever McCoy happens to come across and find interesting, or lucrative, or useful in building the MA brand.

Container House #2, by g a d design + construction.

He’s a person of enormous energy and curiosity, and he spends a lot of time in places like London and Milan, where he picks up ideas — this year’s competition for a temporary pavilion was inspired by a similar one in London — as well as sponsors. It’s how come this year’s MA includes the exhibition “Architecture by/for/of Korea” and a talk by Korean architect Minsuk Cho. Korean design?

Is that the focus that will do most to educate the local audience, or even to develop it as a market for well designed products? Maybe not, but I for one know very little about Korean design, so I’m game. I just like to understand the rationale behind ostensibly cultural events that I attend, but there I go again, forgetting why MA exists.

“Our sights are very much on Asia now,” says McCoy (and every other American entrepreneur who would like to stay in business).

Still, there’s no question that Modern Atlanta has a lot to offer. And education, after all, is one of those two-to-tango things. If Daniel Liebeskind were speaking at Tech, let’s say, and you dutifully went to hear him, it’s entirely possible you would while away the entire lecture musing on the fact that contemporary architects feel compelled to choose such weirdly architectural eyeglass frames and not hear a word he said. This year’s Modern Atlanta week, like so much else, will be whatever you make of it.

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