Friday, July 10, 2009

Review: Cool Felt at Cooper-Hewitt

I didn't fully appreciate how incredibly versatile a design material felt really is until seeing Fashioning Felt last week at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Presenting 70+ objects from a range of design and craft fields, the show celebrates the practical versatility and aesthetic possibilities of felted wool.

While I’ve always appreciated the pleasing tactility of felt—all felt is made from wool, by definition—my favorite revelation is how much felt is almost like a natural plastic. As one bit of text mentions, felt has "a versatility rarely found in other materials—it can be made flexible and translucent or very dense and hard; it can be cut without fraying and molded into three-dimensional forms. Felt also provides protection against extremes of temperature and is naturally water repellent, windproof, and fire retardant." Amazing.

Indeed, it seemed strange to be going to an exhibition about felt, a material I associate with warmth and closeness, on such a hot and humid day. Unexpectedly, I found the show to be light and fresh, and it didn’t feel at all dissonant with the season.

Known since 9000BCE (the Neolithic period), felt is thought to the first man-made cloth. There are a few examples of shepherd's cloaks, carpets, and the like to represent these earliest applications.

Most of the rest of the show presents objects made in the last 15 years or so. Surprisingly, although already familiar with some selections, everything seems rather innovative to me -- I realize I don't associate felt with only one form of thing. Why not make jewelry from felt? Why not a chair? Why not use it for good-looking soundproofing? I suppose the many carpets and floor coverings are expected, but some of their forms are not, like perennial favorite Tord Boontje's Little Field of Flowers carpet (pictured at top.) The variety is indeed remarkable. I encourage you to visit the exhibition’s website to see many more images than those I’ve included here.

(And if anyone wants to hook me up with some pieces of German designer Christine Birkle’s lust-worthy clothes for Berlin label Hut Up, like the jacket pictured below right, I'll be your BFF!!)

Fashioning Felt also underscores that whether done by hand, machine, or a combination of the two, felt-making is a very physical, laborious multi-step process. As such, it is also an art and craft unto itself. We can observe this in the three videos running simultaneously along a wall that capture a variety of techniques in action. Happily, I found these videos on YouTube as well: Felt Makers in Mongolia (6:20), the Canadian industrial factory Brand Felt (4:27), and JA Felt making Palace Yurt (10:20). From machines swirling in circles to women pounding their forearms into wet fibers, the actions of felt-making are very ancient and unifying. I could watch all day, and though I myself have little urge to join in, I overheard many finding it inspiring.

I would be remiss not to point out two major attractions within this exhibition. The first is the undulating wall built from shaggy russet-colored wool, heavy felted wool, and felt in many other stages of being (pictured at bottom). It feels animalistic, alive and breathing, and you almost want to roll your body along its mysterious planes. Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra raises her own exotic long-haired sheep to supply her raw materials, then employs enormous vats of boiling water and natural dyes from locally-gathered plants to create panels of richly-colored texture. Almost predictably, the piece is called Inner Moods and is a reflection on "felt's healing qualities."

The second is Janice Arnold's aforementioned Palace Yurt (pictured here). Created for installation inside the museum's first-floor conservatory, it is an all-white gauzy construction of wool felted into silk, Tencel, soy, and linen to an endless array of ethereal effects. You can easily find a spot along the curving window seat to enjoy being inside while thumbing through the exhibition catalogue. It goes without saying that this would be an awesome spot for a small wedding.

The subtext of the show is that we the need to continue and deepen our thinking about environmental, economic, and societal sustainability vis-à-vis design. "The qualities that have made felt indispensable to nomadic life resonate with today's design needs," reads one bit of wall text. I don’t need to beat this drum right now, but I hope this show reflects Cooper-Hewitt’s commitment to encouraging no design without sustainability.

This sustainability message is underscored when one exits the show and heads upstairs to Design for a Living World. There one is surrounded by ideas for how to use sustainable raw materials in architecture, product design, and much more. A durable and apparently travel-ready show--it's very heavily built-- I hope this exhibit, developed by the Nature Conservancy, reaches many people. It's engaging for many ages, the kind of experience kids leave wanting to go home and try making something they just saw. Which is a really good thing.

Though not a "kid's exhibition" by any means, Fashioning Felt will also interest children; I think kids would derive a lot of creative ideas and a greater appreciation of their physical world. However I would have loved to see included in the exhibition some representation of felt products made for children. With so many clever felt toys out there and the way felt is so integral to educating young children in many cultures, it would have been an appropriate and engaging component.

When you go to Fashioning Felt, and you should go, be sure to check out the many good felt-based gift items in the design shop (which are alas not available through their webshop). Felted sea stones, colorful felt jewelry by Hisano Takei, crazy primates… you’ll just have to go see it all for yourself. Bring your lunch and sit in the museum’s fine garden beforehand. It’s a surprisingly perfect way to spend a hot summer afternoon.

Fashioning Felt

March 6 - September 7, 2009
Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2 East 91st St.
New York, NY

Posted by Amy Shaw for Greenjeans.
Images courtesy of Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

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