Modern Atlanta Offers a Counterpoint to Traditionalism in Southern Design

Sailing 140, Super Yacht project, Studio Boissard. Image courtesy Studio Boissard.

Atlanta is a land of Palladian windows and mass-produced neo-colonialism. Not exactly known as a hub for modern aesthetics or experimental design, we seem to prefer traditionalism in our built environments. Some might interpret a certain hostility towards modernism here. In a noble effort to counteract this tendency, Modern Atlanta (MA) continues to familiarize the city with high design. Every year since 2006, MA’s tour of homes and accompanying programming present a welcome respite from the dictatorship of the romanticized past. Instead, we are encouraged to romanticize the future through the eyes of international designers and architects.

I went to the fourth floor of the Terminus building for MA’s kick-off party. The setup was stunning: an entire floor laid empty for visitors to walk through and peruse islands of design displays. Corporate-sized windows flanked the open cement wrap-around space. The crowd overlooked Buckhead parking lots, edge cities, and the magnificent suburban greenery lying beyond in the setting sun. As the night progressed, the design people with their fantastic outfits, conversations, and lives filed in from the elevators. Too bad this exhibition was for one night only and isolated from the creative centers of the city. The curators presented an impressive collection of products like eco-friendly flooring, glass embedded with light-emitting diodes (LEDs), a kind of neo packing peanuts called ExpandOS, and Vectogramms.

It would be great if MA partnered with MODA. If Modern Atlanta exhibited at the Museum of Design Atlanta, viewers could have a few weeks to enjoy the annual spread of objects, products, and information.

I regrettably missed the tour of modern homes, but attended a good half of the free lectures that occurred all day Saturday, June 9, 2012, at the High Museum’s Rich auditorium. The first thing I saw was Profiles, a screening of films about Dutch design. Everything was super cool: a knotted chair, vases made of rubber, a chest of drawers, and the euro accents of the interviewees. Conny Gruonewegen, a fashion designer, embraced the wisdom of machines, making amazing fabric mashups in angora, felt, and wool. Luna Maurer, a graphic designer, produced sticker sheets and invited audiences to co-create massive patterns on floors. She quips, “too much freedom limits creativity,” and “the process is the product.” This was a major theme of the lectures—that modern craft should exploit technology that can lead us to new forms of design.

Marc Clemenceau Bailly’s lecture started in outer space. He took us online to a ball of gas that falls over the event horizon of a black hole. Then we jumped to a NASA promo video that cheerleaded about the space program’s new partnership with private industry. Concepts previously sanctioned to science fiction are now coming to fruition in our contemporary age: space elevators and asteroid mining are indeed an up-and-coming reality. Clemenceau’s point is that architects and designers like himself want to participate in how high technology comes to pass. Why not get to design space crafts and factories on astral bodies? Machines, he says, and not men will be the ones to build the next wave of architecture. And, so Clemenceau segued to a blog with his latest pop-up store for Nicola Formichetti, fashion director for Lady Gaga. Made of multi-faceted mirrors, the interior was that of a cosmic diamond, stuffed with tacky products—an absolutely space-age commercial fantasy. You could just imagine electro dance music playing in the background. But overall, it was pretty outrageous stuff—a far cry from retrotecture and colonial columns.

Paris-based architect and designer, Sebatien Boissard’s lecture was inspired by Le Corbussier and Jean Prouvé. In particular, he shared with the audience how the structures of transportation and industry influenced Prouvé’s work, showing examples of designs that closely resembled the metal armatures of boats and planes. Boissard then shared the story of his impressive contemporary yatch project, a collaboration with Philippe Starck and Martin Francis. Over a five-year span, Boissard managed the design and production of this state-of-the-art boat, which looks a lot like a spacecraft. With sleek edges and no railings—this is no layman’s boat. Imagine that such a thing actually exists cruising around out there on the ocean!  The design is so outrageously high-end, so sexy and different, it seems as if it should easily float in the air. Boissard is now designing his own sail boat with the same incredible sensibility for new-age luxury crafts.

The night ended with Pomerol, Herzog & de Meuron, a 50-minute documentary by Ila Beka and Louise Lemoine from their Living Architecture series. It humorously depicted a slice of life at a French winery as they go about their day-to-day lives with a highly designed addition by the famous architects. A hilarious cowboy night and other shenanigans of the winery’s social and working realities certainly humanize an otherwise stark and elegant dining room.

I hope MA founders Bernard McCoy and Elayne Deleo continue to grow this thing. We need to promote the modern perspective here in Atlanta to synthesize a love of the new along with a respect for the old.

At its worst, the MA programming may be inaccessible and therefore under-attended by outsiders who, although they aren’t designers themselves, are ready for modern exposure. Those unfamiliar with architecture and design might be turned away or intimidated or confused. The content and programming can be difficult to maneuver. Are the MA programmers trying to cover too much ground in one annual event? Would things be more focused if it were strictly a tour of modern homes? Could the marketing and organization of events be clearer so more people could enjoy the offerings?

I think there is plenty of room for improvement, and I look forward to next year, and the year after that. Ultimately, MA’s annual programming and tour of modern homes inspires us to think big and imagine the South in a more futuristic way.

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  • ktauches
    August 7, 2012 at

    For the record, I wanted to give credit to all three curators of the Design Is MATERIAL exhibition– Weronika Cichosz, Amanda Millner McAdoo, and John Cantrell. Excellent diplay design. . .I made atleast three pages of notes–websites which I hunted down later. THANKS for the resources. I hope they’ll do it again next year. . .and if we’re lucky, it will stay up for a longer period of time.  –kt

  • K tauches
    K tauches
    June 27, 2012 at

    yes, thanks for that note!

    perhaps MODA will again partner with Modern Atlanta to produce a design show in conjunction with this annual event.  I really enjoyed the exhibitions at the opening. For example, the Design Is MATERIAL exhibition curated by interior designer John Cantrell and HOK was really inspiring and informative. After all that work to collect and display works, it would be great if the ATL had more time to see it!

  • Avatar
    June 26, 2012 at

    A point of clarification: MA has partnered with MODA , in 2010  IIRC. Another perspective is that the partnership with the High,one of the most significant cultural institutions in Atlanta, represents a step up for both MA and the High.
    Good reporting. Your insights here will assist others to better understand the value and purpose of MA.

  • Avatar
    Terry Kearns
    June 25, 2012 at

    Like Flux, MA is too much to take in. If you are distracted or looking the wrong way you can miss them both. But like Flux, MA has a few other events spread out through the year. I managed to see 5 of the houses this year and that was quite stimulating. The tour reminded me of a “modern” music performance: You can’t usually whistle the melodies on the way home.

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