Design: The Shape of Things to Come

Time and again, frisky American designers go back to the future

Much of 20th century American design seems to have been animated by two competing impulses. One is a kind of mannered childishness, a sometimes arch toymaker's instinct that produced the streamlined gadgetry of late art deco, the Day-Glo plastics of Pop, the high-tech doodads and joke furniture of today. The other is a reformist urge. When not fashioning playthings, designers turn grave, producing furniture and other objects that are neo- Puritan, high-minded. The severe geometries of Frank Lloyd Wright's turn- of- the-century interiors and Steven Holl's beautiful side chair (1984), for example, can have an almost oppressive sobriety. As playfulness alternates...

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