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Phila. Art Museum show: Three designers, fresh, provocative, fun

This year's major design show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art focuses on three designers you probably have never heard of. That's progress.

This year's major design show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art focuses on three designers you probably have never heard of. That's progress.

Usually, the annual show - keyed to the awarding of a prize by Collab, the group that supports the museum's design collection and programs - focuses on a person or organization with a long, distinguished, and well-known body of work. In some cases, the shows come decades after the honoree was dealing with contemporary issues and making a difference in people's lives. Often, the honoree is allowed to curate the show, which too frequently results in a promotional tone.

This year's show, "Design Currents: Oki Sato, Faye Toogood, Zanini de Zanine," does not exactly throw the museum's formula away, but it gives it a welcome twist. The designers, who work in Japan, Great Britain, and Brazil, respectively, are all a year or two under 40, and, though their work has been published internationally, they are hardly brand names.

In November, the three received the museum's first Design Excellence New Generation Awards. Nearly everything shown was created in the last decade or so, and most within the last few years. Two young curators - Colin Fanning, a curatorial fellow at the museum, and Kate Higgins, a guest curator - put the show together. Although it doesn't break the museum's questionable practice of considering design only in terms of individual designers, the result is fresh, provocative, and fun.

One value of featuring three designers is that they offer three different points of view. All three explore materials, both natural and technological, and they respect and reinterpret traditional methods and forms, but their work expresses divergent aspirations. Though de Zanine designs well-crafted furniture meant to be used, Sato mixes items for the marketplace with more conceptual work, such as chairs that can't be sat upon and side tables that look charmingly like sheep. Toogood is trained as an artist, and much of what she produces is not so much design as it is art that is about design.

De Zanine is the son of a well-known architect and student of a famous furniture designer, but his work began with a woodpile. One of his father's employees had salvaged hardwood timbers from buildings being demolished or renovated. De Zanine began thinking about how to repurpose them into benches, tables, and chairs.

Brazil was originally colonized for its woods, and is even named for one. And it produced a distinctive variant of modernism in the 1950s and early '60s. De Zanine is clearly attempting to reclaim both of those elements of his national heritage in his furniture. The pieces celebrate the wood from which they were made, and their joints are oversize to call attention to their hand-craftsmanship.

At first, all of them were made in his own workshop, but more recently, he has worked for other manufacturers, and not always in wood. The Serfa armchair, for example, is both streamlined and chunky. Its arms and legs seem at first glance almost primitive, though you soon notice they have been sculpted to provide a striking profile and a comfortable place to sit.

One of my favorite pieces is not made from wood. It is a stainless steel bar stool that looks at first like a minimalist sculpture. It is a tall rectangular box from which a notch has been removed to make a leg rest. The notch tells you the object is meant to be sat upon, though it seems a bit too smooth and precarious for me. I would rather just look at it.

There is no possibility of sitting in Sato's Cabbage chair, from 2008, or in the Manga chairs, made this year. The first, originally commissioned by fashion designer Issey Miyake, is made from reclaimed waste paper used to produce Miyake's characteristic pleated fabrics, later impregnated with resin. Sato has said the form simply emerged from experimenting with tearing and splitting the sheets of paper. The result feels like Miyake, though it is not like his work in any specific detail.

The Manga chairs take their inspiration from the graphic conventions of the wildly popular picture books from which they get their name. One seems to have fallen from a great height, with many vertical lines shooting upward. This is not a sedentary chair.

Sato seems to be wildly prolific, in many ways. The Totte-Plate series looks like classic post-World War II Russel Wright dishes, with holes added so they can be hung from pegs. A set of cups appears to be sinking into the counter. Two large sets of shelves use layering and splayed transparent barriers, to conceal and confuse as well as to display.

Toogood does some remarkable things with materials and geometry. For example, she places a glass sphere partially filled with oil inside a plastic cube. You can think of it as a table, a sculpture, or a meditation on fossil fuel. What she calls Cage for Birds is a dressing table made with patinated mesh, steel, mirror, and iridescent glass; its chief function is to be seen as a tough critique of traditional ideas of femininity.

In a manifesto painted on canvas, Toogood condemns "plutocrat designers" and others in the fashion industry who perpetuate a wasteful preoccupation with style. With her younger sister, Erica, she has made a series of workers' clothes - the Roadsweeper, the Milkman, the Mechanic, the Oil Rigger, the Beekeeper - that seem to celebrate fixed occupational identity and fixed roles in society. Some of these, such as a marble-and-plaster stonemason cloak, are wonderful.

But I fear her work is most likely destined for plutocrats' collections and museum walls. And her seeming celebration of an archaic society of fixed identities seems perverse. The world is changing too fast for such nostalgia. One of the greatest things design can do is help people understand and master what's new.