Michael Cross ventures through the looking glass — some

Design exhibitions can be dicey affairs. If a gallery focuses solely on an object or a fashion designer’s products, it can end up looking like a showroom. At the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, British designer Michael Cross applies his conceptual sensibilities to the gallery as a whole experience, attempting to redefine the space as a laboratory of sorts. The result, in Resting Places Living Things, is a relatively tame treatment of various design elements that don’t quite add up to a dynamic exhibition but do invigorate the Bloch Building. The rolling floor is very popular with the kids.

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice enters a territory of nonsense where objects, animals and people fail to behave as normally expected. In a world turned upside down, nonsense prevails, and the unexpected becomes the norm. Michael Cross similarly interprets design through the looking glass to confound expectations. His beautifully constructed hardwood floor undulates throughout the space like a skate ramp; the rolling topography suggests many things, none of them a gallery floor. His lights further the confusion of purpose. Essentially a tangle of colored cords with a glowing light bulb at the end, each light source is submerged in a water-filled glass tube. In Cross’ paradoxical place, electricity and water function together in a way that’s inviting rather than life-threatening.

Cross’ pretty white-painted tree branches, affixed to the walls as ersatz shelves, are a little more Martha Stewart-crafty than designy. Here, they hold journals in which visitors have written autobiographical stories or the inevitable comments to one another. In the world of computerized interactivity, writing by hand seems quaint, though the feel of the paper and the differing stories and penmanship suggest a pleasant and earthy humanism.

Perhaps more noteworthy are the body imprints embedded in the gallery walls, suggesting an elegiac awareness of absence. This reminder of the conceptual instability of the wall itself also underlines Cross’ theory that objects and their meanings may never be stable or static.

And yet, a museum exhibition about conceptual or experimental design might have been better served by including the work of acknowledged avant-garde designers from Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Japan or the people working at places such as MIT’s Media Lab, Smart Design, Tronic Studio, or any number of design enterprises in this country. Graphic, architectural and engineering designers are some of our most radical and progressive thinkers. They shape the world in countless ways, seen and unseen.

Design is so intrinsic to human existence that examining how and why we live as we do and how life could be — how it will be — different is an almost absurdly rich and vast territory to mine. So much so that a wavy wood floor and lights submerged in water begin to seem subdued compared with the dazzling technological innovations in everyday items such as phones, vacuum cleaners, cars and buildings as well as the ways we hear music and access information. Cross may be witty, but in his progressive discipline, is that enough? Let’s look at where we can go through design, how ordinary objects can be made to do extraordinary things. That’s what the best designers do: They craft a future that doesn’t quite exist yet.

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