Buckminster Fuller's daring design legacy lives on in SFMOMA show

The late, legendary inventor Buckminster Fuller's utopian ideas have influenced numerous designers and entrepreneurs. Fuller's influence is the subject of an intellectually playful exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor on

SAN FRANCISCO--At the entrance of the exhibition "The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area," on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through July 29, a video plays of the late designer and dreamer. His voice drones on and on, describing his many utopian visions. The original video was 42 hours long, but the excerpt playing at SFMOMA has been edited down to two. Fuller's voice can be heard as you walk through the galleries, and it serves as a kind of haunting, and fitting, soundtrack.

Naturally, the exhibition presents a number of the prolific inventor's best known ideas, from diagrams of his geodesic domes (photography of these by Olivo Barbieri is particularly stunning) to his three-wheeled Dymaxion car (a teardrop-shaped aerodynamic wonder, which tragically crashed at the World's Fair of 1933 in Chicago, killing the driver). A highlight of the show is a lovely portfolio of thirteen screen prints, Inventions: Twelve Around One. Fuller made these in 1981, two years before his death, with graphic designer Chuck Byrne. Printed in white ink on polyester film, their imagery includes drawings and photos of Fuller's key constructions and concepts, such as those just described above. (SFMOMA recently acquired the portfolio, and it's in the museum's permanent collection.)

The prints' aesthetic is compelling in the context of art, even if the viewer doesn't have knowledge of Fuller's deeper, innovative engineering, design, and even political ideas. For example, "Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map" is an ambitious idea captured in an elegant visual, but the print itself is also simply attractive. But below the surface beauty, this image depicts Fuller fuller's vision of the entire globe as a continuous land mass, where all nations think on an interrelated, international level and share basic resources with shared, humanitarian goals.

The show also features a number of projects, photographs, architectural renderings, and other items that Fuller didn't create at all. Instead, these represent the wide spectrum of adventurous designs inspired by Fuller, all originating in the Bay Area--a place where Fuller himself never lived. The One Laptop Per Child Computer initiative, for instance, is featured. The curatorial rationale is that it reflects Fuller's signature approach to innovative thinking: by drawing upon new technologies and sleek design to make socially responsible products and environments, with the goal of improving lives and preserving natural resources.

Another notable project presented at SFMOMA is the Jellyfish House, designed in the 2000s by architectural firm IwamotoScott. A concept only, the poetic dwelling is intended to be built on San Francisco Bay and engineered to gather and filter rainwater, as well as filter out harmful UV rays from the sun, thanks to a special skin. It's easy to see the visual parallels between the Jellyfish House and Fuller's earlier domes, given the honeycomb-like construction. Its daring, and possibly impractical, although well-intentioned, concept also clearly echoes Fuller's own prescient sentiments...and how they were often not realized.

Sometimes, these associations to Fuller in the SFMOMA exhibition seemed to reach a bit far. After viewing example after example of projects by San Francisco creative types who have expressed their admiration of Fuller, I wandered into an adjacent gallery featuring contemporary Bay Area art by painters Barry McGee and the late Margaret Kilgallen, among others. At first, I believed these works might be part of the Fuller show--after all, the curators seemed to really stretch the criteria for inclusion. (The paintings mentioned are not, it should be noted, part of the Fuller exhibition, although are worth seeing.)

That's not to say that the show isn't filled with a successfully surprising mix of evidence showing Fuller's influence on designers and entrepreneurs. For instance, the exhibition documents the creation of the North Face's Oval Intention tent in the 1970s. The outdoor gear company's designers have admitted they were aware of Fuller's concept of "tensegrity," a word he coined to describe a combination of "tension plus integrity." The SFMOMA show also presents a photo of 1970s-era jungle gyms obviously  inspired by Fuller's geodesic dome, a ubiquitous childhood memory to anyone of Generation X age.

As the wall text at SMFOMA informs us, "Fuller called himself a 'comprehensivist,' someone whose interests are informed by whole systems rather than by a single specialty, and his focus was always attuned to the macrocosmic." This intellectually playful and broad-thinking exhibition is ultimately, and appropriately, macrocosmic, too.

Images: from top: print portfolio images, copyright The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller, All Rights reserved; rendering of Jellyfish House, copyright IwamotoScott; photos of Pacific High School geodesic jungle gym, copyright Lloyd Kahn. All courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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