Visual Arts Feature: The Design Museum Boston Invites You to Sit Yourself Down

In a modest tweak of Dorothy Fields’s lyrics to the famous Jerome Kern song, this weekend will be Boston’s chance, via the Design Museum Boston, to sit yourself down, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

By Debra Cash

After a week when the very idea of public space seemed under attack, when unregulated movement gave way to official warnings that everyone should avoid gathering in groups and shelter in place lockdown, the advocates for the public realm at the Design Museum Boston, are giving us an occasion to celebrate.

Design Museum Boston is a network of physical and virtual exhibits and events (including some really cool parties) whose official mission is to “educate the world on the role of design in their lives and to unite the Massachusetts design community in ways that enrich our collective work, make businesses more competitive, and solve real-world problems more creatively.” Making a virtue of the lack of a permanent address or, to be honest, anything resembling an institution-sized budget, Sam Aquillano, Derek Cascio, and their team of creative Millennials came up with the tagline “Design is everywhere. So are we.”

Last fall, with the help of a tiny $20,000 grant from the city of Boston, an open call went out for proposals to design an “iconic” socially and environmentally conscious bench for Fort Point Channel, the so-called Innovation District. Student and professional architects, designers, artists, and just plain folks from 23 countries submitted 170 competition entries, supplemented with descriptions of their design thinking and proposed building processes, a tribute to the delight designers take in considering the form and function of an artifact that has been around since a Neanderthal took a load off his or her feet by leaning against a rock.

This Saturday afternoon April 27, the 20 semifinalist benches will be available for your seating pleasure at the Boston Harborwalk, Gillette Public Dock—near 36-98 Necco Court. (Another indication of design’s ubiquity is that you can check the location from the website using four different types of maps, a subject for another time.) There will be guided walking tours at the event, but if you can’t get there this weekend, the benches will be in place through October, and you can use your phone to scan QR codes linking each seat to a mobile app containing renderings, background information, and videos. Prefer to see the seats from your own desk chair? All the competing designs can be viewed online here.

The benches that propose to support our backs, cradle our behinds, and serve as instant if transitory dining tables and meeting rooms fall into a number of categories. There are the purely beautiful objects that show the grace of their construction or innovation of their use of materials as in Moskow Linn Architects’ Urban Island (make sure to watch the embedded video); benches that offer nighttime lighting such as luminUS by Dyer Brown Architects and Chapman Construction of Boston and Industrial Hotspot proposed by Chicago’s Charles Burgess; benches whose design plays up metaphor and semiotic associations, as do the two benches that play on the traditional knots in sailors’ rope proposed by Pillow Culture of New York and by Italian designer Marco Goffi; multi-use benches that address the needs of a range of populations, such as the kid-friendly Twofold by Katie MacDonald and Kyle Schumann; benches that urge people to snuggle closer (as in Andrew McClure’s Seam Bench) or create unexpected opportunities for privacy in the midst of a group (StrataForm by Bostonians Spagnolo Gisness & Associates).

The Chroma Bench. Arvin Abadilla, Jason Cooper, Justin Cumming, Kat Hoy, Ian Schon, Eric Whewell Make Stuff Lab

The prize money—$5,000 for the grand prize and $2,000 each to the two runners up—will hardly cover the expense of developing their proposals (actual production and installation of the benches depend on a different and not at all guaranteed line item in the city budget or some special corporation or foundation sponsorship to be determined later). Nonetheless, the winners of the Design Museum Boston’s Street Seats competition will come away with more than bragging rights; they will get a portfolio piece that is likely to attract other public commissions. If the stars align, even losing designs could go into production, finding further lives in other cities and other situations.

Of course, the success of any public bench has as much to do with its placement—its position under sunshine and shade, its vantage overlooking something worth looking at, its distance from where you came from and where you are going. Those aspects are not open for bid.

In a modest tweak of Dorothy Fields’s lyrics to the famous Jerome Kern song, this weekend will be Boston’s chance to sit yourself down, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

From the Design Museum Boston: Lots of folks tweeting pictures of the benches! Follow along with #DMBStreetSeats if you want a sneak peek!

c 2013 Debra Cash

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