Creative improvisation at The Henry Ford in "Break, Repair, Repeat"

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

If Henry Ford was all about pragmatic improvisation, the current pop-up show at the Henry Ford Museum, “Break, Repair, Repeat: Spontaneous and Improvised Design," fits that bill to a T. 

The exhibition is handsomely organized in a freestanding glass case, a nice shout-out to the origin of museums in the late-18th century as "cabinets of curiosities," jammed with whatever struck the organizers as interesting. It will be up through Sept. 15. 

There's much more coherence to "Break, Repair, Repeat," of course, which examines the role of messy problem-solving in design -- as well as out-and-out hacking -- with museum artifacts which have been altered and transformed as needs changed. 

Tin bands repaired a piece of broken crockery in this creative exercise of make-do necessity in "Break, Repair, Repeat" at The Henry Ford.

Organized by two Henry Ford curators -- Kristen Gallerneaux, responsible for the museum's collection of communication and information technology, and Charles Sable, who handles decorative arts -- the show ranges from homely repairs and other examples of "make-do" to subversive alteration of electronic devices to get around limits manufacturers have placed upon them. 

"Collaborating with Charles was fun," said Gallerneaux, "because our collection areas are seemingly quite different from one another." But up close, each reveals similar inventiveness in the face of necessity. 

"Charles had this funny little group of make-do’s, domestic objects that have been repaired," she said. "They're usually objects that were treasured, and people weren’t really willing to give up." 

The stem from a broken wine glass becomes an elegant base for a pin cushion in The Henry Ford's "Break, Repair, Repeat," up through Sept. 15.

Among the make-do's are an elegant little pin cushion that's been attached to the stem of a broken wine glass, old dishes stapled back together, and a broken pitcher that was wrapped with tin bands to repair it, one of which forms a new handle. 

Another section in the glass cabinet spotlights what Gallerneaux called "things made out of other things," like a rather elegant apron created from flour sacks -- ingenuity presumably driven by economic need on the part of some resourceful woman. 

Most amusing is the section on contemporary hacked technology, which among other things, includes a totally illegal "blue box" designed by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak -- long before his corporate career, one assumes -- to get around telephone long-distance charges while a student at UC Berkeley. 

(Wozniak's actual instrument was black, but never mind -- "blue box" is the technical term, Gallerneaux said.)

Long before he helped found Apple, UC Berkeley student Steve Wozniak engineered this illegal "blue box" -- that's the term -- to make free long-distance calls while in college.

Local artist Jon Brumit transformed an electric drum synthesizer so it could be manipulated with a common video-game joystick. 

There's even a "Speak and Spell" children's toy from the 1970s that was hacked to create a noise-making machine. 

"It was transformed this year by a guy who engages in 'circuit bending,'" Gallerneaux said, "purposely voiding the warranty to make the toy's circuit board act in ways the manufacturer never intended."

But isn't this sort of tinkering, um, naughty?

"I guess the result is somewhat on the subversive side," Gallerneaux said, "but that's the history of technology." 

'Break, Repair, Repeat: Spontaneous and Improvised Design'

Through Sept. 15

The Henry Ford 

9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sun.

$24 - adults; $22 - seniors; $18 - kids 5-11; members enter free

(313) 982-6001

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @ mhodgesartguy