For sculptor and Lane Community College instructor Lee Imonen, design balances interaction and identity.
“There’s no distinction between design and fine art, but if there was one, it’d be functionality,” Imonen says. “Design reflects the way in which we interact with the world.”
Imonen’s sculptures ask viewers the same question. His “One Tree Trestle” runs parallel to the light rail line in Milwaukie, Oregon. The roots of a Douglas fir’s bottom half jut from a train trestle emerging from the trunk.
“The community was upset with the removal of trees,” Imonen says. “But at the same time, this light rail line was needed to reduce traffic on McLoughlin Boulevard. The tree represents a coming back to old ideas.”
The stretch of Highway 99 running southeast from Portland to Milwaukie was notorious for traffic. Adjacent freight lines blasted horns throughout the night. The light rail line helped to alleviate these concerns, but removed stately Douglas firs bordering the pre-1940 trolley line.
“Light rail hits, and now we revisit an old design idea,” Imonen says. “It’s something we don’t always see. The logging industry, for example, was the first to use use energy from slash to power mills. Now Oregon uses slash to power electrical plants.”
LCC sculpture instructor Douglas Wiltshire agrees. “Culture and function drive the aesthetic of design. We see how urban renewal replaced beautiful downtown buildings from the 1920s and 1930s with concrete blocks void of artistic influence.”
“Urban renewal was fiscal policy under the guise of cleaning up spaces,” Imonen says. “There was good intent, but it was a departure from history. Now there’s a revitalization that integrates style and livable spaces.”
Government policy also affects design. “Platinum was declared a strategic metal in the US in 1939,” Wiltshire says. This made its use illegal in non-military applications. “Now most jewelry is gold. In Japan, on the other hand, gold was a strategic metal, so most jewelry you see now in Japan is platinum.”
For these two artists, design should also integrate a workable solution.
“We like gadgets. Producers need to keep people dazzled so that we keep consuming,” Imonen says. “Day-to-day necessities aren’t necessarily overdesigned, but what, then, is necessary?”
“Social media, cell phones — this technology changes how people interact. Even over the past 10 years, people communicate in a very different way,” Wiltshire says.
“It’s a very complicated question,” Imonen says. “The materials I use to sculpt are traditionally unfriendly to the environment. I hope to offset that with the content, message and lifespan of the work. I want viewers to think about their interaction with the world for years.”
“We have to consider the purpose of this design,” Wiltshire says. “If it’s an end-around to tracking our marketing habits, what’s the purpose?”