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Mars Needs Nightlights: The Candeloo night lights by Vessel look ready to beam back to their home planet.

Fluid Dynamics

The Blobjects movement refuses to be pinned down in new design show at the San Jose Museum of Art

By Michael S. Gant

SOMEWHERE, buried deep in a closet, lives my lava lamp. It's not one of the retro Fluidium lamps designed in 1999 by Ross Lovegrove. Nope. Mine is vintage Summer of Love. The mysterious waxy emulsion inside stopped rising and morphing long ago, congealing instead into a fractured mass of frozen whatever.

The lava lamp serves as the guiding metaphor at the San Jose Museum of Art's first full show devoted to design: Blobjects & Beyond: The New Fluidity in Design. The smooth, rounded, free-flowing droplets generated by these oddities of '60s kitsch extravagance led—by inference, if not direct influence—to a whole movement of industrial and commercial design beginning in the late '80s.

This loosely defined movement, taking advantage of the infinite manipulations of form available in computer software programs, eschews the hard-edged and straight-sided in favor of soft organic shapes. The ovoid rear window of the original Ford Taurus, the padded, three-legged Embryo chair by Marc Newson, the flesh-toned and flesh-shaped La Cucina appliance line from the mid-'90s—all aimed to be curvy, anatomically suggestive and melty, even when constructed from hard plastic.

One mutation of the blobject well illustrated at the show is the cutensil. Small and meant to be endearing, cutensils are fashioned of colored, squishy plastic with the exaggerated bulbosity of babies before they mature. The Otto dental floss holder is an egg-bodied cartoon figurine; the Firebird gas lighter unabashedly resembles male genitals. Somewhat creepily, the Candeloo night light evokes an alien visitor with two vestigial antennae sprouting from its formless base. En masse, they seemed poised for an invasion of Martian infants.

Even more insidious is the "soft iron" by National Design Group. Made from malleable plastic in pastel colors, with a swooping handle, it is designed to imply smoothness, to (as the catalog puts it) "make the task of ironing more like a game." But ironing has always been and will always be a kind of domestic drudgery, and disguising that fact is a cheat. Just because something looks like fun doesn't make it fun.

Blobjects & Beyond recognizes that all that is round is not necessarily inviting. The complex-curved, chromed Sterling Rabbit corkscrew by Pollen Design looks less like a bunny than a futuristic killing machine. Philippe Starck's POAA barbells come straight from the graveyard, replicating the ball-and-socket construction of human bones—form follows forensics. Phoenix Design's Waterdream bathroom fixtures, with their long flexing pipes, are straight out of the probing room on the mother ship.

The show is full of fascinating, covetable creations, from Cory Ness' one-of-a-kind Curvaecousness motorcycle in high-glass blue aluminum to Takahide Sano's blown-glass Kumo vase, which looks like a tiny cloud suspended on three delicate, almost invisible tapering glass legs.

But some of the objects strain for effect: the Oakley Design Team's Detonator watch depends for its faux menace on our memories of Batman collectibles. Philippe Starck's polypropylene stools in the shape of extracted teeth are a folly on which only the weariest viewer might actually dare to seat.

As with all design shows, there is a danger that the gallery space will flow—bloblike—into the museum gift shop, with price tags taking the place of wall labels. This effect is especially obvious in the section devoted to the endless ergonomic variations lavished by designers on toothbrush handles, especially the iconic Oral-B Cross Action. The implication is that we crave a personalized toothbrush; the subtext is that the proliferation of designs goose the bottom line by creating a need where none existed before.

Time, of course, is the vital component that will allow us to sort out the fad from the fatuous in the blobject movement. As last year's Art Deco design show at the Legion of Art in San Francisco proved, capitalism's baubles can look like high art after their sell-by date has expired.

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From the March 16-22, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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