“I’ve been to IKEA ten, maybe twelve times, for this project,” remarks Jeff Carter as we survey his current installation arching across the western corner of Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His gaze drifts over the modified IKEA products, and a small smile splays open his lips as he reflects on those trips, “I now know that modernist mecca far better than anyone should.”
While his current work, “The Common Citizenship of Forms,” isn’t Carter’s first use of the mega-store’s materials, it may be his most thoughtful. Carter establishes a formal dialogue between common representatives of modernist design—IKEA and the Bauhaus—through a series of large-scale architectural models, composing a microenvironment that represents the layout of demolished buildings from the Michael Reese Hospital Campus. Former Bauhaus director Walter Gropius had created a master plan for its 28-building campus in 1946 as part of a post-war urban renewal effort to revitalize its surrounding Bronzeville neighborhood, as well as designed the eight structures that Carter chose to recreate.
While both the Bauhaus and IKEA promote simplified forms and the mass-production of goods intended for middle-class homes, IKEA sacrifices durability for cheap costs, relying on false surfaces to imply a quality that does not exist. Carter acknowledges this disjunct by exposing the unfinished sides of laminated MDF boards, as well as ragged gaps in his sculpture’s edges that reveal flimsy cardboard. These intentional structural errors mirror the flaws inherent in contemporary culture’s disregard for the logic of preservation and fixation on new, ephemeral objects—the same mentality that allowed the Michael Reese Campus to be demolished.
In referencing the absent Gropius buildings, Carter’s sculptural objects allude to a certain nostalgia for these particular lost spaces, but they’re not overly sentimental; his works act as tributes, not funeral dirges. Carter compellingly employs hearty doses of humor by translating the lost buildings into functional furniture pieces, using puns and irony to signify their original use.
For “The Laundry Building,” he replaces a bank of rectangular windows in the building’s center with a wire-grid laundry basket, and adds an on/off switch powering intermittent vibrations reminiscent of a spin cycle. The whole structure is placed on wheels for maneuvering large loads. Likewise, “Linear Accelerator” becomes a floor lamp, with an interior rotating electric motor powering tendrils of bare light bulbs strung on the ground around it. In his most playful interpretation, “Research Pavilion,” Carter transforms the steel-and-glass vertical network of science laboratories into a simple grid of child-like cubbyholes, stuffed seemingly carelessly with materials ranging from cords to plush rat toys.
Carter’s penultimate nostalgic act relies on the exhibition’s site-specific staging in Crown Hall: a structure designed by the last Bauhaus director—Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—shelters models commemorating works by the Bauhaus’ founder and first director. And, by exposing the artifice of low-cost IKEA materials, Carter’s exquisitely crafted objects suggest a hopeful future for quality-driven modernist design.
Jeff Carter, “The Common Citizenship of Forms,” shows through July 31 at S. R. Crown Hall, 3360 South State.