An hour south of Indianapolis, past cornfields and barns—icons of America’s agrarian identity—lies another icon altogether: the unlikely design destination of Columbus, Indiana. The Midwestern city is home to masterworks by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Kevin Roche, César Pelli, and Alexander Girard—to name just a few. It’s also the site of Exhibit Columbus, a design exhibition that should top your must-visit list this year.
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Though unlikely, Columbus’s design legacy is no accident. After finding the plans for a local elementary school particularly uninspired, industrialist J. Irwin Miller established the Cummins Foundation in 1954 to pay the architect’s fees for Columbus’s public buildings. Miller believed that by investing in the tangible, the city was thereby investing in the intangible. "Architecture is something you can see. You cannot see a spirit or a temperament or a character, though, and there is an invisible part of this community of which I am very proud because, in a democracy, I think that the process is more important than the product," he told The Washington Post in 1986. Now spanning decades, the city’s investment in architecture, design, and art is staggering: Columbus has one of the most significant collections of modern design in the world.
Since its founding in 2016, Exhibit Columbus has hosted an annual celebration of art, architecture, and design in this extraordinary modern mecca. For this year’s programming, the team looked to the 1986 National Building Museum exhibition, Good Design and the Community: Columbus, Indiana. More than three decades later, Exhibit Columbus 2019 continues to examine the relationship between good design and community well-being.
The city-wide exhibition features 18 site-specific installations by designers, architects, artists, and academics from across the U.S. and Mexico who were selected based on their work in creating positive change within communities. Brought together in Columbus, the dynamic group has created spaces that are both of and for the community.
It's hard to overstate the powerful effect this has. Walk through town and you’ll encounter someone reading a newly loaned book in Frida Escobedo Studio’s installation, a garden terrace at the I.M. Pei-designed Cleo Rogers Memorial Library. Climb the steps to City Hall, one of many SOM buildings in Columbus, and watch a peaceful demonstration at Bryony Roberts Studio’s steel-and-woven nylon structure. You’ll see students navigate the cornfield MASS Design Group installed on Central Middle School's lawn or a young family enjoy an afternoon snack at LA-Mas’s colorful urban plaza.
Design is central to the fabric of the Columbus community, and this year’s exhibition showcases just that. What’s more, Exhibit Columbus offers a model—or perhaps a challenge—for other communities to explore how good design is good for us. Read on for more highlights from Exhibit Columbus 2019, then make your plans to visit America’s most unexpected design destination.
Exhibit Columbus is the flagship event of Landmark Columbus Foundation, whose mission is to care for the design legacy of Columbus and inspire communities to invest in architecture, art, and design to improve people’s lives and make cities better places to live. The 2019 exhibition runs through December 1st and is free and open to the public.