Posts tagged “steven skov holt”

Bio of a design thinker

STANFORD Magazine writes about Steven Skov Holt, blobjects, and the SJ Museum Blobjects exhibit/book (my previous review of the Blobjects opening night is here)

As an undergraduate at Brown University in the late 1970s, Holt was not only the picture of health, but an avid athlete and cyclist whose pals teased him about his Ôø?thunder thighs.Ôø? In 1979 at age 20, however, his life took a dramatic turn: for reasons doctors never unearthed, HoltÔø?s kidneys failed. He received a transplant. After five months in the hospital, he battled back to health and finished a degree in cognitive science.

Soon after, in 1982, Holt answered an ad for a low-level job at Manhattan-based ID Magazine, the bible of industrial design. Within a year, the intense Holt was editor of the magazine that spotted and helped shape trends, and it was a time when all sorts of new high-tech products were appearing on the landscape.


Yesterday we went to the San Jose Museum of Art to see the a special opening event for the exhibit BLOBJECTS & BEYOND, curated by Steven Skov Holt and Mara Holt Skov (where blobjects refers to the curvy designs seen in products over the past few years). The event featured the curators moderating a conversation with Karim Rashid and Harmut Esslinger.

As we arrived at the museum there was some pre-event tour of the exhibit happening, with I imagine press folks and patrons of the museum. We were escorted very deliberately into the cafe so as to not overlap or sully the high-powered scene taking place mere feet from us. Welcome to high culture.

And the extent of this high culture (and high class, indeed) could be felt if not seen when the host for the evening did the usual round of introductions. One woman who contributed a great deal to the organizing of the event and/or the exhibit was out of the room at the time, and implying that she was in the restroom, the suit-wearing genteel host offered that “perhaps she was making some blobjects of her own.” Nice.

Things did get better from there, however. Onstage, the speakers and the moderators embodied massive accomplishment; they have each done so much and had such an impact. That alone made the time spent listening worthwhile. Both Karim and Hartmut had projected slideshows of images associated with them or their work, the breadth and wealth of the imagery made for a stimulating backdrop while actually sitting in the same room with these fantastic talents.

The format was a risky one; “a conversation with” is usually better than prepared remarks, presentations, panels, all the usual stiff and non-interactive content, but it’s without-a-net, and anything can happen. Unfortunately, I was mostly reminded of an episode of Geraldo or Oprah, where an important issue is presented, experts brought forward to offer sound-bites, and pretty soon it’s a commercial break and then the credits roll, and we’ve never really made it anywhere. The level of conversation was poor; questions were asked but not responded to, comments made by one guest were not responded to by the other guest, despite remarks being prefaced with “I’d like to respond to that by saying…”

There were indeed moments of brilliance, fantastic ideas, provocative expressions of passion, insights into the personalities, history, stories, but it took a lot of work and my brain just go so tired from trying to hold it all together. It was like watching a bunch of good musicians jam; most of the time it’s going to sound like crap, every once in a while you’ll hear a little piece that excited you, and then it’s gone.

I’m not blaming the format; I am blaming the guests. They aren’t good listeners. They have a lot to say but they were unable to focus and interact. The event reached its peak when there was some actual debate on a specific topic: the value of the slow manual tactile process of model making; working with a material versus the power, speed, and rapid prototyping afforded by digital tools.

But these moments were all-too-rare in the 90 minutes. We heard a lot of stories, somewhat in response to Steven Skov Holt’s line of inquiry around how they each chose to pursue design in the way they did. But once we got to a fever pitch of prognostication and pronouncement I was thinking about tearing my hair out. It was sadly reminiscent of so many conversations I’ve had with designers in my career; hearing them predict the future from their stance as a designer, with little understanding of the market, of human nature, or of history. Rashid told a story about seeing an exhibit of a gray room with a gray motorcycle when he was very young; the exhibit was a consideration of how we might all become nomads and live in extraordinarily plain environments. It was a good story; artistic explorations of how a future might unfold and what the implications might be on products, technology, lifestyle and beyond are absolutely fascinating, but when you begin to restate those hypothetical considerations as certainties and then offer up the solutions as necessities, my bullshit detector starts a-ringin’.

My biggest criticism is about a slide that Karim showed – it featured his face surrounded by a bunch of his words – Digitalia, Indus-trial design, Organomics and others too painful to recall. Perhaps these are names of projects, but whatever. For someone who understands so well the process of working with materials to create sensual beauty, it’s appalling to see how badly he works with the material of words; creating awkward, ham-fisted cacophonous artifacts that evoke a teenage boy’s litany of synonyms for “fart” more than some brilliantly insightful NuArgot. Please, stop!

The best moment came during the Q&A. Virginia Postrel asked how blobjects do or don’t deal with the past or nostalgia, since she observes in these items so much of what Thomas Hine describes as Populuxe, a 50s-esque optimistic style. Steven Skov Holt pointed out that today, both the past and the future are resident in our artifacts (he said it much better than I can recall) – in that moment it was clear how much thinking and analysis had gone into the planning and curating of the exhibit.

We had a brief period in the exhibit after the speakers were finished – it’s always disconcerting to me to see “designed” items – products intended for use – in a museum setting. Invariably there is a chair that you can’t sit on, or a lusciously textured product that you must not touch. This exhibit featured a touching station with brightly colored rubbery shapes, giving a valve to that common need. Another moment of dissonance came from seeing very recent product designs appearing in a retrospective collection of a movement – in this case those blobby Phillips appliances. I guess if VH1 can have a 90s flashback, we can do the same thing in our museums.

Without a lot of time, it’s hard to say very much about the exhibit, but it did seem very thoughtful and considered, sections on color as well as form, and motorcycles and cars that may not come to mind immediately as blobjects, but in the context of the exhibit make the concept of the blobject clearer and broader.

Despite my criticisms, I had a great time, I’m totally glad I went. I always learn something, even if it’s a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of talented and famous people.


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