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Two student shows celebrate the possibilities in overlooked materials. 

click to enlarge Thicket of monofilament: A view of the Wrinkles installation at 820 Liberty Ave. Photo courtesy of David Burns.
  • Thicket of monofilament: A view of the Wrinkles installation at 820 Liberty Ave. Photo courtesy of David Burns.
In the thick of spring, everything seems to bloom. All manner of flowers and blossoms spew allergens everywhere, and adorable hatchlings leave the nest. If you are in academia, the hatchlings are less likely to take wing than the wheel of an SUV. Similarly, in May, all of the end-of-semester shows, reviews, projects and exhibitions clog the air with a sense of possibility and the raw material for further growth.

Two shows by students at Carnegie Mellon (where I am an adjunct faculty member) demonstrate the alacrity that many of these students have, when instigated by thoughtful professors, for thinking creatively at fruitful peripheries of the built environment. Is architecture something you simply live and work in? Is design just a way to make your consumer products look cool? Think again.

Wrinkles, at 820 Liberty Ave., Downtown (open Thursday and Saturday afternoons through May 19, with support from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust), is an architectural installation by architecture students in David Burns' seminar called Patterning. Similarly, Reduce/Reuse is an exhibit of purchaseable items at Construction Junction (214 Lexington Ave., North Point Breeze) through May 30, assembled by Melissa Cicozi's students in the class Design and Social Change.

"Beauty is a tough word," says Burns. He is more interested in exploring randomness and entropy, harnessing them as realities of architectural experience. Burns encourages students to explore patterns that "don't lose their interest or their relevance as they degrade." Maybe that's why much of the installation appears as an engaginglyimpossible thicket of monofilament, also known by its household name, fishing line.

Strung meticulously through ceiling-mounted grids to hang in long, hair-like curls, it becomes a thicket of entanglement with each passing observer, particularly during its debut in the busy gallery crawl earlier this month. As a concept, it's great. It becomes more and more of a beautiful mess with each observer. The shortcoming is that the mess is not a clear indicator of the high concept, meticulous study or intense labor that preceded it. The other wrinkle in Wrinkles is more compelling. The installation has two different screens of surveyor's tape, which are articulated as parallel slats, like vertical Venetian blinds. A single-layer screen in the storefront window seems semi-transparent to passing vehicles and pedestrians. More remarkably, a double-layer arrangement of two offset screens inside the space creates a startlingly lively swirling moiré pattern as viewers walk past. A very simple pattern creates infinitely dynamic experiential possibilities that depend on the motion of the individual viewer. It seems to follow you.

If Wrinkles intends to strip architecture of its typical functions to get to pure experience, Reduce/Ruse aims to restore function to discarded items. Cicozi explains, "I thought it would be best to spur interest through inspiring examples of creative reuse of undesirable items, which in turn reduces waste and consumerism."

Indeed, in the name of new and improved stuff, all we really produce is a lot of trash. Why not turn that trash into new stuff? The key, of course, is to manipulate material with innovation and wit to make the new objects seem fresh and not compromised.

Alissa Micciulla's "After-Party Chandelier" certainly succeeds. The festive spherical, hangable light fixture is made out of empty plastic cups, perhaps salvaged (and presumably cleaned) after a recent kegger. If you didn't know it was made from trash, you'd just think it was a cool design. Then you realize, "Why, I just threw away seven or eight of those cups last night."

Likewise, Olivia Ostrand's dorm drapes are made out of six-pack rings and strips of an old bed sheet, all held together with staples and thread. Still, they have an intriguingly mature sense of high-craft textiles. And their red color and aesthetic of circular holes harmonize curiously well with "After-Party Chandelier." It's starting to look as though Oscar the Grouch got his own home-makeover show on HGTV.

Both Wrinkles and Reduce/Reuse depend on design stripped down in some way to its essential qualities, without the benefits of infrastructure or conventional thinking. While there are hints of influence from, say, the Venice Biennale of Architecture or Readymade magazine, these student shows are full of inspiration and energy, well suited to the promise of the season.

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