The Hidden Heroes show at San José is a difficult one for me to review. At one level it’s an extremely exciting concept to select a number of mundane everyday objects and highlight them as design classics in a museum. The choices of what to include and what to exclude make for fascinating discussion and thought. At another level, the actual displays here are just not that interesting. There’s a ton of potential hinted at in each display but the follow-through leaves me frustrated.
First, the good part. Since the complete list is the most interesting part of the show, it’s a good thing that there’s a comprehensive online verison of the show. I don’t disagree with the items which are selected. They’re all things we’re familiar with but have never really considered. It’s great to be forced to confront them as designed objects.
Too many museums ignore design completely. The ones which do cover design tend to focus on design brands* while making the assumption that we’ll connect the dots in comparing the designer things to the generics. I don’t think most people make that leap as I still remember viewing Mood River at the Wexner,** mentioning that I’d love to see the exact same show only using generic components instead, and receiving some odd looks.
*Named designers or firms making conscious decisions to distinguish their objects from the generic pieces.
**Yeah, that’s an awful exhibition page. The Amazon listing of the catalog is a little better.
Mood River’s actually a good comparison to this show since it was about the collective effect that all these designed products could produce but never established what the baseline mood should be. Hidden Heroes meanwhile calls out the generics and suggests that we should appreciate them more for what they are.
Where Hidden Heroes fails is that it doesn’t enough beyond the identification of the objects. There’s a little history presented but generally not enough to satisfy. It’s important to know where these items came from and what problems they were attempting to solve. Especially when we take them for granted now than we can’t image them not existing.
If you’re lucky you get old advertising or a manufacturing video. But this isn’t consistent and a lot of what makes these design classics isn’t the actual common product but instead the manufacturing process which allowed this version to become standard.
It’s not a coincidence that some of the most-fondly remembered Mr. Rogers episodes are the factory visits.* Seeing how things are mass-produced, and the specialized tools used to do this is fascinating stuff. And the simpler and more ubiquitous the object the better. Pencils, crayons, paperclips, tetrapaks, etc. are so simple yet the machines which make them are design marvels in their own right.
Seeing how these common, everyday objects are made efficiently and cheaply is as much a part of the genius of their everydayness as their actual design
*The crayon factory in particular.
The other part which I’d like to see more of is an acknowledgment that a large part of what makes these things so common and genius is that they’re cheap and disposable. If we’re going to anoint things as hidden heroes, we also need to recognize their hidden costs too. It’s a glaring weakness that that the exhibition doesn’t address the ubiquity of these designs and how we may have selected them based on a certain set of values which we may no longer fully agree with.
Are they justifiable design classics? Absolutely. At the same time, a large part of modern design are attempts to improve on these classics in order to address the disposability side of things. Design is no longer just about creation. Cradle to Cradle is over a decade old now and it’s important to call out the blindspots of past classics.