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The Designer’s ‘Hand’ On exhibit in Houston, metalwork by architects illustrate an often missing element By Garrett Finney

In this high-tech age of ours, designers are discovering new and better ways to work with their heads. And they use their feet to march inexorably forward, constructing buildings and cities that transform the landscape. However, an exhibition now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, reminds us that designers have lost their “hand.” Designed by Architects: Metalwork from the Margo Grant Walsh Collection is a fine, taut show that is small enough to give viewers an intimate connection to the pieces on display, yet big enough to reward repeat visits. (The exhibit continues at MFAH through June 15.) Walsh, a former principal of Gensler’s Houston office, has been collecting useful decorative objects for 30-odd years with a primary focus on silver objects of the late nineteenth century to the present day. As selected by MFAH curator Cindi Strauss, the items from Walsh’s collection underscore the missing element – the “hand” – in today’s technology-oriented marketplace. While CAD and BIM give designers prostheses with which to create and produce, such tools allow exciting new methods and forms, and they streamline all phases of design and construction, a connection is missing today between the fundamental conception of a thing and its ultimate use. The objects on display don’t scream out “Architect!” Instead, their simple beauty conveys the request that they be put to use. For instance, Josef Hoffman’ centerpiece (1920?) mutely asks to hold flowers and William Spratling’s coffee pot (c. 1962-64) beckons to be grasped without threatening to burn one’s hand. The works in the show from the British Arts and Crafts movement arose explicitly in reaction to the Industrial Revolution because of the designers’ fear of losing an integrated sense of design a n d e x e c ution—that is, the “hand.” Later objects in the exhibit show the “hand” less explicitly but demonstrate that beauty is not separate from craft and utility. The collector’s hand is just fine. Garrett Finney is an architect and furniture designer in Houston.


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Texas Architect May/June 2008: Healing Environments