The Chicago Tribune: For Chicago designers, architecture biennial could be ‘a big moment’

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As the Chicago Architecture Biennial kicks off this weekend, there is no doubt that the city’s vaunted architecture community is having a moment. But mingling in the galleries and cocktail parties and screenings and studio tours will be more than just the men and women who bring you important structures.

Chicago’s design scene — graphic designers, interior designers, industrial designers, etc. — is looking at the biennial as a chance to at least squeeze into the civic picture at this potentially significant point in time.

“It’s a moment of cohesiveness and clarity for the city,” said Tanner Woodford, executive director of the Chicago Design Museum. “We’re telling our story much more broadly and inclusively, and I think we’re trying to plant the flag for the design community here.”

It’s significant, Woodford said, that the Chicago Design Museum is hosting one of the architecture biennial exhibits. As he spoke, “New Horizon — Architecture From Ireland,” an exhibition of up-and-coming Irish architects, was being readied for Friday’s opening. Woodford expected 500 people to attend.

“That says something, with other openings scheduled that night,” he said.

Matthew Manley is group design director at Fjord, a design and innovation consultancy. He noted that Chicago’s design community doesn’t toot its own horn much. “We’ve followed some of that classic Second City narrative. We don’t quite throw our chest out to the same degree that they do on the coasts,” he said. “But I think there’s definitely a sense that the design community in Chicago is rising.”

Manley said he’s encouraging designers from his studio to attend as many biennial events as possible. He was particularly interested in the performance piece “Superpowers of 10,” an alternative take on the 1977 film “Powers of Ten,” created by the office of architecture and furniture design legends Charles and Ray Eames. (“Superpowers” plays Friday and Saturday at the Chicago Athletic Association.)
Craighton Berman, who scored a hit on crowdfunding hub Kickstarter last year with his pour-over Manual Coffeemaker, said it’s “exciting to see Chicago step up” with the biennial. He’s particularly interested in a lecture on Japanese design, as well as the Design Museum event.

Dublin-based architect Peter Carroll, in from Ireland to help set up the New Horizon installation, said he and his fellow countrymen couldn’t be happier to be in Chicago, both for the historic ties between Ireland and the city, and its rich architectural history. “We come here for inspiration,” he said.

The exhibition features a mirrored canopy space inside the museum, along with a trilateral table designed specifically for the event. Featured will be works from three up-and-coming Dublin architectural firms, Carroll said.

Irish architects in the 1960s and ’70s were heavily influenced by Chicago modernist designs, Carroll said. That influence fell away in the ’80s and ’90s, he said, but is returning.

Irish architects had all the work they could handle during the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom from the mid-’90s to the mid-2000s, Carroll said. As the country recovers from the burst of that bubble, building designers know they need more than just local business. That’s why Irish Design 2015, backed by the Irish government, is participating in the biennial, he explained.

Matthew Terdich, a graphic designer and executive creative director at the Chicago Design Museum, said architects have always included designers in their broader conversations. But he thinks it’s a “very big deal” that the design museum is hosting an event.

Woodford founded the museum in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in 2012. When space in Block 37 became available, he and supporters raised $50,000 on Kickstarter to pay for the move. And, more recently, more than $220,000 has been raised in an ongoing fundraiser tied to the popular Cards Against Humanity game. A special “Design Pack” of game cards was created by famous designers riffing on the late comedian George Carlin’s legendary “seven words you can never say on television” routine, the subject of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on decency in broadcasting.

Among the designers who worked on the Design Pack are Milton Glaser, creator of the “I (Heart) NY” logo; Scott Thomas, designer of the Obama for America campaign; and Susan Kare, who created many of the interface elements for the Apple Macintosh.

Woodford acknowledged that the third floor of the Block 37 shopping mall isn’t a typical spot for a museum. But he views it as offering “unintended cultural experiences” to people who stumble upon it while shopping. And he’s hoping the biennial will draw more patrons.

“One of our missions is to elevate the presence of design,” he said. “It’s a big moment for us.”