Art: Form above function

Outside the Zaha Hadid installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Perelman Building, visitors view "Z-Car I" (2005-6), three-wheeler.
Outside the Zaha Hadid installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Perelman Building, visitors view "Z-Car I" (2005-6), three-wheeler. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

Zaha Hadid's sleekly stylish designs flow beautifully, leaving practical concerns behind.

Posted: September 25, 2011

Is this any way to treat a star?

Iraqi native Zaha Hadid, now a British subject, is an international luminary of architecture. The first woman to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize (in 2004), she has designed important buildings around the world. She also has her own product line that runs the gamut from furniture and tableware to shoes and jewelry.

The first American exhibition of her product designs was supposed to open at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last weekend.

But unexpected problems with the installation in the museum's Perelman building - a large cantilevered object called Dune Formations required emergency stabilization - kept the show shuttered until Tuesday morning. The delay was unfortunate because the Hadid installation was widely anticipated; the various luxury objects are being displayed in a Hadid-designed environment into which they fit as comfortably as a slender female foot in one of her sinuous Melissa shoes.

This beautifully integrated environment is fully consistent with Hadid's philosophy of architecture and design, a work of art in itself. It's organic in being rooted in nature but also sleekly stylish and as technologically modern as a Boeing Dreamliner.

Many top-rank architects diversify, but Hadid has not only designed a broad range of consumer projects, including the prototype of a three-wheeled car, she has done so by following an aesthetic program that correlates with her buildings.

Generally, she eschews rectilinear geometry in favor of the suggestion of fluid dynamics. For instance, her design for the recently completed MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts in Rome features curvilinear pathways instead of corridors.

She also draws inspiration from the Earth's geology. Curves and geological references impress themselves immediately on visitors to her Perelman installation, called, appositely, "Form in Motion."

Set up in the Perelman's largest gallery, it's a dazzling combination of installation and product display, of individual designs and synergistic environment, and, ultimately, of art and commerce.

"Form in Motion" envelops visitors in a sensual atmosphere of shiny materials and surfaces, exotic forms and swirling motion.

This happens because Hadid has transformed an ordinary many-windowed, boxlike room into Ali Baba's cave, a cavern with undulating white polystyrene walls corrugated and stratified like a cross-section through geologic deposits.

Across the floor, she has deployed a bold pattern of spiky fronds that vaguely suggest fossilized cycads.

This evocative space complements the objects by accentuating their organic character. This is especially true of the furniture, which is intensely sculptural and abstracted to the point where its function is sometimes barely apparent.

And unless I missed something, there isn't a stick of wood anywhere. Hadid is partial to the glossy look of polished metals such as stainless steel and aluminum and to synthetic materials such as cold-pressed polyurethane, fiberglass and glass-reinforced plastic.

She does upholster one of the couches in wool, although another is covered with a polyester fabric.

In other words, the white, black and silver-gray chamber presents the look and feel of the Starship Enterprise. Some of the furniture elements even look like airplane components, in form, surface and color.

Yet the geologic theme partially compensates, because "Form in Motion" also reads as a kind of landscape. Names of some pieces - Mesa Table, Dune Formation Furniture Elements - encourage this.

A cluster of low, petal-shaped gray forms, described as "seating elements," resemble the domed granite boulders one finds protruding on New England beaches.

Few of these putative furniture forms look the slightest bit conventional. The zigzag Z-Chair is so contorted that one is hard-pressed to figure out how to sit in it. The low, polished aluminum Crater Table appears to have sustained several direct hits from meteorites.

The most obviously functional piece is the black polyurethane-and-fiberglass Mesa Table, constructed in sections on a reticulated base. By contrast the two Vortexx chandeliers, looped structures at the end of vertical stalks that pulse with alternating red, blue and green tubular light, seem primarily ornamental.

Generally speaking, Hadid's furniture designs, which dominate the installation, succeed far more as sculpture - as aesthetic innovation - than as practical objects. Form no longer follows function here, it just hangs on and hopes for the best.

This seems to be the case as well with one of the show's principal attractions, the three-wheeled Z-Car. The concept of a pod that opens from the front, with two wheels leading and one trailing, isn't novel, although Hadid's version appears to be larger and potentially more substantial than those that have been realized to date.

Any visitor possessed of the slightest bit of mechanical curiosity will be frustrated, however, at his or her inability to penetrate the form, to assess whether the Z-Car is a viable concept.

The hatch is closed, the windows are black as pitch, so you can't see inside - even to tell if there is an inside.

This is the way it is sometimes with designs made purely as such. The forms might be pleasing, even spectacularly imaginative, but some people, me included, prefer designs to be practical, not just dynamically innovative. Remember the Edsel?

A related exhibition, also in Perelman, celebrates modern and contemporary design that has been supported at the museum for 40 years by Collab, a cohort of design professionals and enthusiasts.

The show samples the museum's collection of modern and contemporary design that, with Collab's help, has grown since 1971 though gifts and purchase. It offers visitors a chance to juxtapose Hadid's rather minimal designs with some that are more colorful and playful.

Chronologically, the Collab show begins with a 1907 chair designed by the Viennese Joseph Hoffman and ends with a 2006 "Veryround" chair by Danish designer Louise Campbell.

Collab sponsors an annual award for design excellence that recognizes significant contributions to design history. Previous winners include Frank Gehry, Florence Knoll Bassett and Milton Glaser. Hadid is this year's honoree; she'll receive the award on Nov. 19 in a ceremony in the museum's auditorium.

Art: Designs by Hadid

"Form in Motion," an installation by Zaha Hadid, continues in the Perelman building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through March 25. The Collab exhibition runs through winter 2012. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission (Perelman building only) is $8 general, $7 for visitors 65 and older, and $6 for students with I.D. and visitors 13 through 18. 215-763-8100 or

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or Read his recent work at


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