When form and function co-exist: Bennington museum opens exhibition of local and regional design innovation

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BENNINGTON — Since ancient times, humans have sought to apply an aesthetic to the practical. The artist's eye often contributed to everything from architecture to simple household implements. To design such items, and then produce them, was often laborious.

Enter the Digital Age. With the ever increasing power and abilities of information technology, designing has entered a new realm, one where form and function – to the benefit of innovation and commerce - coexist more than ever before.

As such, a collaborative effort in this realm, both from Bennington and the surrounding region, are brought together in the Bennington Museum's newly opened seasonal exhibition, "3D Digital Here and Now."

The museum's executive director, Robert Wolterstorff, said the show is a partnership with Bennington College. The two institutions are putting local innovation on view at the museum with the goal of inspiring more young entrepreneurs to put down roots in Bennington, and advance economic development in the region.

"I'm excited about this show as I have been about no other," Wolterstorff said. "It's going to bring together art, design, technology, and manufacturing. These are all things that Bennington has been famous for over the years, but usually not brought together in one exhibition."

Curator of collections Jamie Franklin said that historically the development of new tools also resulted in new forms.

"There's a reason we refer to the Bronze Age," Franklin said. "The technology of bronze production dramatically effected the whole of human culture. We are currently living in the Post-Digital Age, where digital technologies are no longer confined to computer screens and smartphones, but are being used to create new and exciting objects with which we regularly interact and influence our daily lives."

One of the most stirring things about this exhibition, Franklin continued, is to witness how local manufacturers, designers and artists are integrating 3D digital tools such as CAD (computers-assisted design), CNC (computer numeric control) milling, laser cutting, and 3D printers to create objects that were either never before possible, or redefine the economics of how things are made.

While Bennington had a long history as an industrial hub with three dozen factories along a two-mile stretch of the Walloomsac River in the 1890s, the second half of the 20th century saw a dramatic decline in local manufacturing.

However, Franklin explained that over the last two decades, largely unnoticed by most locals, manufacturing has made a dramatic comeback. This can be attributed to the proliferation of small local firms involved in high-tech manufacturing using sophisticated digital technologies and novel materials, Franklin noted.

"Kaman Composites, to take one example, is an international leader in the design and fabrication of advanced composite structures, with a specialty in carbon fiber, a material renowned for its strength to weight ration and transparency to X-rays," Franklin said. "They are industry leaders in the aerospace and medical field, making objects ranging from cancer treatment beds to satellite communication antennas, as seen in this exhibition."

Another local leader in this realm is Bennington College's Jon Isherwood, a faculty member and award-winning sculptor. Isherwood said the exhibition is exploring a wide range of new technologies that local companies, artists, designers, college faculty, staff, students and alumni are working with.

"These innovations have been somewhat unnoticed and this exhibition celebrates the design intelligence that is right 'here and now' in Bennington," Isherwood said. "The show connects local technology companies with the educational initiatives of Bennington College to foster progressive thinking and design problem solving."

One example of such thought spreading past the Bennington area is the work of Karolina Kawiaka, a registered architect, and an instructor of architectural and sustainable design, drawing, and digital drawing at Dartmouth College for almost 20 years.

In what is one of the show's uniquely Vermont-oriented pieces, Kawiaka translated topography into 3D modeling software. Her sink entitled "Land Where I was Born" is based upon a topographic map of a valley in her native Westminster West, including beaver ponds. It is milled from a laminated block of Vermont maple with a CNC router and hand finished.

"Digital design and fabrication is changing how we conceive everyday objects and our environments," Kawiaka said. "It's allowing everyone to become designers and fabricators, creating innovative and personal projects that remain practical."

Franklin concluded that "3D Digital Here and Now" is unlike any exposition the museum has undertaken, in that it is connecting past human endeavors with current innovation by looking ahead. For that reason alone, Franklin said, locals should come and discover the design revolution taking place in southern Vermont.

"We're literally seeing the future," he said.

"3D Digital, Here and Now," sponsored by Abacus and Global Z, will run through June 15 at Bennington Museum, 75 Main St. Info: 802-447-1571, or visit benningtonmuseum.org

— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist


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