Starting Small

Step by step, David Small’s design innovations are moving technology off the screen and into your life.

Six smooth white stones, like ostrich eggs, sit on top of round white tables in the renovated lobby of the Asia Society and Museum in New York. When one of the stones, etched with the words food cuisine, is placed over one country on a tabletop map of Asia, magical things start to happen. The map moves, the country name swells, and text and images relaying the region’s culinary traditions rise to the surface of the table, as if called from the depths of the adjacent oceans.

Each stone is in fact a carefully disguised computer mouse, and the tabletop an interactive screen. The content revealed by maneuvering the stones is recalled from the Asia Society Web site. But the sensual appeal of this process has the effect of making the information seem more interesting. Visitors are not clicking and dragging, but sliding and retrieving: dredging the interactive oceans for information. The tables have been a big hit with visitors. “Before the renovation, our building wasn’t very public-friendly,” says vice president of marketing Karen Karp. “Now people come in and sit and use the tables—they refer to them as the ‘geography tables.’ They love using them to answer questions.”

David Small, whose firm developed the tables in collaboration with designer Andrew Davies, is quickly establishing a reputation for making beguilingly poetic interfaces that hide the machinations of computers. At Small Design’s installation at last summer’s Documenta11 art exposition in Kassel, Germany, visitors turning the pages of a blank book triggered the apparition of dancing chunks of text, which emanated from a ceiling-mounted projector. In Boston this fall, the stone floor and walls of a neoclassical library lobby became a surface for Small’s computer-driven typographic projections. For this 37-year-old designer and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, anything is a fair trade for the computer monitor. “We’re entering an exciting decade,” Small says. “There’s going to be a lot more opportunity to use the computer for what computers can do, where displays start to morph and become pervasive—and it’s not just a CRT on a desk. We’re pushing stuff out of the computer and into the room.”

Now based in Cambridge, Massachussetts, Small grew up in a suburban Jewish home in Connecticut, where his parents ran a company selling microscopes. He does not shy away from bringing personal influences into his work, be they holy scriptures or suburban tchotchkes. Inspiration for the stones at the Asia Society came from a pair of egg-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers in his parents’ home. To complete the Connecticut profile, Small is a dyed-in-the-cashmere fan of über-homemaker Martha Stewart and her pristine empire (even as it begins to reveal cracks). Four years ago, while a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, he got wind of an impending visit by the doyenne of domesticity and, using the lab’s $40,000 commercial laser cutter (intended for etching plastics), imprinted the image of her face onto the skin of an eggplant. Martha was tickled and before long Small was zapping type onto apples and eggs for a special tenth-anniversary issue of Martha Stewart Living and making a guest appearance on her TV show.

Driving these seemingly quirky digressions, however, is Small’s belief that technology can change the way we read. When text can be rendered or projected on any surface, and then be made to move and overlap, it opens up realms of possibilities. “How much of reading is based on the limitations of print and not on what we’re physiologically capable of?” he asks rhetorically. “Marshall McLuhan said that TV is really radio with pictures. We’re still at the stage where a Web browser is a piece of paper on the screen.” Small holds the optimistic view that in the age of multimedia our attention spans are not so much decreasing as diversifying. He cites studies from the 1970s that show how reading time increases if the eye remains in the same spot and the text moves. “What our eyes have to do to read type that is flying around a screen is very different from scanning a line of text to the end and coming back to the beginning of the next. We apprehend stuff faster now.”

Small’s doctoral thesis at MIT was titled “Rethinking the Book” and culminated in a project using digital technology to juxtapose the Torah with corresponding sacred writings in the Talmud and a commentary by philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. The result, an interactive book with pleasingly anachronistic dial controls, was imagined as a tool with which a rabbi might “perform” an exegesis of the sacred texts, exploring the thorny issues of interpretation and translation. The project managed to convey the dimensionality of a book while exploiting the fluid properties of text on screen. The pages could be arranged and overlaid by turning the dial to move them in and out of the reader’s primary field of attention. A page from the Torah might remain in focus, for example, while the referring page from the Talmud would hang, out of focus, in the background. The project was singled out for the Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum’s Design Culture Now 2000 triennial show.

The art of evoking spiritual reverence with the help of typo-technological miracles is most spectacularly realized in a project Small Design recently completed in Boston for the Christian Science church. In the newly renovated neoclassical lobby of the $25 million Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity, Small’s group has contributed a typographic animation called the “Hall of Ideas.” The centerpiece is a circular water fountain made of bronze and glass by the sculptor Howard Ben Tré. With the help of five hidden networked computers and ceiling-mounted projectors, letterforms swirl out of the fountain and swim across the floor, forming words as they go. The words finally climb up one of two screen-covered arches on the wall, where they assemble into the form of an edifying quotation by an influential thinker. About 800 of these quotations gradually escape from the fountain before the computer begins to repeat itself, raising the possibility that a curious visitor might spend an entire day contemplating the passage of the word from the oracle—or baptismal font—to the soaring arches of wisdom.

Underlying the project is the church’s notion that great ideas have a universal value, whether they are uttered by Benazir Bhutto or Billy Graham (both varieties take the typographic journey across the Hall of Ideas). “Great ideas don’t know politics,” says the library’s creative director, Chet Manchester. “They transcend borders, politics, and cultures.” Cultural relativists might call such a premise glib or naive, but its popular appeal is indisputable. The library’s CEO, Steve Danzansky, argues that with the growth of alternative medicine, there has been a resurgence of interest in Mary Baker Eddy’s writings on spiritual healing and the inseparable nature of mind and body. “She had a great love of the power of ideas to transform experience,” he says. “We wanted to take this hall, built in 1935, and match it to the dynamism of her ideas.”

Manchester adds that the library chose Small to work on the Hall of Ideas after seeing his Talmud project. “Two things struck us: his forward-thinking innovation and his way of using technology to invite you to think in fresh ways,” Manchester says. “Much of what he was doing seemed to bring out the universality of ideas and concepts.”

Back at Small Design’s offices, however, the prevailing philosophy seems to be less about grand narratives than about proud idiosyncrasy. The interior is furnished with a green coffee table, unmatched armchairs with fading pink or blue upholstery, and a collection of identical foot-high toy robots. Outside the eight-story office building a giant company sign parodies the large corporation, suggesting that the whole edifice must be Small space. In fact, Small has a 650-square-foot room with four employees (three of whom are MIT grads, including his boyfriend, Michael McKenna).

Small still thinks the firm is a tad too large, having watched too many of his friends borrow millions for upstart dot-coms only to see them crash. Small will remain small. “You have to be your brand,” he says with a mischievous grin. “I learned that from Martha.”

He shows me his copy of Tijuana Bibles, a tome of starkly different ilk from the Talmud: it compiles the eponymous 1930s comic books that depicted well-known celebrities and cartoon characters in pornographic stories. This is the subject of one of four installations Small Design created for the inaugural exhibit at the Museum of Sex in New York. For the grisly case of Helen Jewett—a New York prostitute whose murder in 1836 became the first sex crime to set off a national media circus—Small worked with sculptor José Rodriguez on a life-size model of a woman under a bedsheet; on it are projected excerpts from increasingly ominous letters between Jewett and her lover, the alleged murderer. A touch-screen display, meanwhile, tells the story of a bath-house raid in New York in 1903, in which police descriptions of the sexual acts being performed are vivid enough to suggest that the cops might have been doing more than taking notes.

Roger Mann, cofounder of the London-based exhibition-design firm Casson Mann, which designed the overall show, brought Small Design in on the project after seeing the tables at the Asia Society. “Some of the stories are intriguing and moving but are buried in rather dry objects,” Mann says, “so interaction is a way of fleshing out the stories and bringing them to life.” The bath-house display, for example, is constructed from courtroom transcripts. Other artifacts are literally dry: the antique comic books are too fragile to be fingered by salacious visitors, so Small’s team created a tactile screen that opens up the comics in an embedded flat-panel display. Mann considers Small Design to be on a par with a handful of firms specializing in interactive technology applied to exhibitions, including Immersion Studios in Toronto and Durrell Bishop and Andrew Hirniak of IDEO. But, he adds, the real beauty of each team’s work “is the preoccupations and interests that come out in what people do.”

This raises an interesting point about Small, who as an MIT alumnus is schooled in the idea of design as an ongoing scientific investigation rather than a means of personal expression. The MIT Media Lab program, under the direction of the late designer Muriel Cooper and computer scientist-designer John Maeda, was a curious mix of science lab and design studio when Small was studying and working there between 1987 and 1999. As a Ph.D. student Small found himself at the center of a debate between the scientists—who felt that “Rethinking the Book” was too fluffy a subject for a doctoral thesis—and architects like Bill Mitchell, his advisor, who argued that Small could rightfully pursue the subject through the architecture-school model, constructing prototypes for subsequent critiques rather than theories and papers for peer review.

In fact, the Talmud and technology may not be so far apart. Historian David Noble argues that driving the entire history of technology is the religious impulse toward transcendence or enlightenment. From the mechanical inventions of twelfth-century Benedictine monks to the religious rapture of early cyberspace punditry, religion has had a long concordance with the mechanical arts. Noble places MIT at the core of the modern religion-technology myth, noting how its advocates of artificial intelligence wax eloquent about the possibilities of machine-based immortality and resurrection. “The architects of virtual reality and cyberspace,” he writes in The Religion of Technology, “exult in their expectation of God-like omnipresence and disembodied perfection.”

Small is not so brash as to claim his work can bring spiritual deliverance, but his notion that the way we read might somehow be enhanced or accelerated by releasing text from the confines of the page is classic MIT. Noble’s reading, indeed, can be applied to the gamut of Small’s technological endeavors. The project Small declares to be his favorite is an interactive tool for the local pharmacogenomics company Variagenics, which allows scientists to look at the impact of genetic variation on the efficacy of cancer-treatment drugs. Human genomics is, according to Noble, fueled—consciously or not—by “enduring medieval myths of artificially engendering human life: tales of the golem and the elusive alchemical elixir of life.”

If a common feature might be found among scientists and designers, it is a certain unwillingness to reflect on the implications of their endeavors. Small admits as much when it comes to discussing the project he was invited to develop for Documenta11. His submission, entitled “Illuminated Manuscript,” was based on the “Four Freedoms” speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt. As visitors turn the pages of a blank book in a spartan room, sonar sensors trigger animated projections of the text on the pages. At one point in the book George W. Bush’s speech of September 20, 2001, is laid on top of a speech by Osama Bin Laden on October 7 of that year—a potent comparison that raises many questions about the cultural elasticity of words like freedom. Asked about those implications, however, Small goes to some lengths to apologize for his lack of point of view on the subject, beyond noting the topical validity of the comparison. “It was an art show, and I’m not an artist, I’m a designer,” he says. “I’m using other people’s words, but I’m not putting my point of view on top of what it means. I’m not making editorial decisions on what other people said. I found it really awkward working on this project. What made me uncomfortable is that other artists had points of view.”

Small holds the position that it is not for the designer to reason why—and ultimately this is a position shared by much of the profession. Like many a Modernist, he is concerned with the physical effects form can have over content rather than its cultural significance. On the most practical level, his explicit commingling of religious and technological aspirations deftly addresses our time-pressed, attention-deprived need for knowledge. And this is no small contribution. As Mann sees it, one measure of an exhibition designer’s success is in attracting the attention of disaffected teenagers. “Spatial designers are always trying to escape the tyranny of the rectangular screen,” he says. “If text is animated, you can trick people into reading the material. And if it’s a live feed, it can be kept up to date.”

Back at the Mary Baker Eddy Library, Manchester and Danzansky are delighted to have what appears to be a highly malleable piece of interior architecture at their fingertips. “We’re coordinating with the Boston school system to make this a destination and use it as a history tool,” Danzansky says. On certain days, quotations that reflect topical themes, such as women’s history or black history month, will replace the ephemeral epigraphs ascending the scrims. Schoolchildren may even see their own writings spilling out of the fountain and onto the floor—the very definition of an edifying edifice.

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