The New Frontier: Young Designer-Makers in the Pacific Northwest
Bellevue Arts Museum
17 April–16 August 2015
Organized by Bellevue Arts Museum and co-curated by Charlie Schuck and Jennifer Navva Milliken
In 2013, Charlie Schuck — a Seattle-based photographer and entrepreneur with a passion for design — approached Bellevue Arts Museum with a proposal for an exhibition that would represent one of the first surveys of design activity in the Pacific Northwest. The New Frontier: Young Designer-Makers in the Pacific Northwest is the realization of this vision, providing the most current, comprehensive presentation of design from this region seen in a museum exhibition. Displaying a broad selection of works by nearly 30 designers and studios from Vancouver, BC, to Oregon’s southern border, the exhibition explores this area’s burgeoning designer-maker field. Focusing on furniture, lighting, installations and sculptural objects, it asks how products are made here and how this activity is distinctively anchored in a region long considered a geographic and cultural frontier by those in industrialized centers to the east.
The narrative of the frontier, invoked in the drive to form a concrete, unified American identity, was encoded in the inchoate national consciousness by early American writers and historians. Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” informed perspectives on the trajectory of American democracy for decades to follow (while neglecting to consider indigenous inhabitants of the “American forest,” as well as any who did not fit the incipient pioneer archetype). Nearly 70 years later, John F. Kennedy elaborated upon this narrative, urging Americans to look beyond geographic borders to consider a “new frontier” accessible by knowledge and technological advancement. Taking cues from Kennedy and Sigmund Freud, whose “frontier concept” defines the liminal space between humankind’s instinctual drive and its psyche, our understanding of the frontier is now metaphorical; it represents the limitless possibilities awaiting individuals with the enterprise, drive and savvy to navigate the uncharted expanses of unfamiliar realms.
The Pacific Northwest is still considered by some to represent a geographic frontier, as well as a site of cutting-edge technological development impacting people worldwide. It is here in this temperate coastal region that a new maker culture is emerging, as designer-makers define the “new frontier” on their own terms. Through inventive studio practices, they capitalize on the entrepreneurial spirit inherited from westward-gazing pioneers and embrace new technologies. They also harbor a deep reverence for the area’s abundant natural resources — a legacy instilled in the landscape by the region’s indigenous peoples.
Designer-makers in the Pacific Northwest and beyond are resetting boundaries and establishing innovative, new models by operating studios that encompass all aspects of design and production (and often distribution). Revived from a craft-aligned movement that emerged in London in the 1970s, the designer-maker atelier comprises an all-inclusive studio enterprise that can be located anywhere, in part due to the extensive reach of online platforms and marketplaces, as well as the rapid-fire dissemination of images and commentary through blogs and social media.
The New Frontier exhibition focuses on studios and individuals who — with a design sensibility cultivated (in most cases) by higher education in design, architecture or fine art — demonstrate a facility with production processes aligning them with maker culture. Their engagement with materials is an integral part of the discussion that the exhibition endeavors to spark. In addition to themes of sustainability and truth to materials, an ethic of community and collaboration resonates throughout the work seen in The New Frontier. These values link the participating designers to generations of natives and pioneers alike, as well as the cultural tropes and legends of the frontier, woven together over time.
Designers featured in The New Frontier: Omer Arbel Office / Bocci, Peter Bristol, Chadhaus, Landon Dix, Free Time, fruitsuper design, Gamla Studio, Aleph Geddis, Erich Ginder, Grain, Graypants, Caine Heintzman / ANDlight, John Hogan, Knauf and Brown, Iacoli & McAllister, Ladies & Gentlemen Studio, Greg Papove, Lukas Peet / ANDlight, Phloem Studio, Aleksandra Pollner, Rason Jens, Joel Sayre, Semigood, Something Like This Design, Standard Socket, Studio Gorm, urbancase, Matthew Philip Williams