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An Institute Within An Institute

The Art Institute of Chicago, Gallery 283
February 21 - July 7, 2021


The phone-voice promises, “Your call will be monitored for quality assurance purposes.” Credit cards, all 0.76mm thin, slide into slots and readers all around the world… Books, magazines, music, and audiovisual works are indexed with ISBN numbers…RFID tags, transshipment containers, trucks, car seats, film speeds, protective clothing, book bindings, units of measure, personal identification numbers (PINs), and fasteners of all kinds conform to global standards.

—Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space, 2014


As architect and theorist Keller Easterling writes, our lives are shaped by standards. Whether for time, measurements, building components, food, or health care, standardized systems, processes, and objects have existed for centuries. Most often conceived as a way to maximize efficiency, standards have also been envisioned as a way to organize an increasingly complex world.

Inspired by Easterling’s observations, Istanbul architect and designer Cansu Cürgen (b. 1988) and Avşar Gürpınar (b. 1982), founded the Ambiguous Standards Institute (ASI) in 2014 to investigate how standards develop and their impact on daily life. Through their investigations, ASI reveals the latent or invisible networks of standards—codes, quantities, or qualities—embedded in the objects and interactions that we use on a daily basis, ranging from birth control pill packets and carry-on bags, to hand gestures, kitchen utensils, and objects used during public protests. Their research also makes clear that although the world is becoming more standardized, nonstandards or ambiguous standards are equally pervasive. ASI’s research into the airline industry makes evident that airline guidelines for standard cabin bag sizes are not the same. In Turkey, drinking tea out of a tulip-shaped glass is a ubiquitous part of daily life, yet there is no definitive standard size for a glass of tea, as underscored by ASI’s assembly and study of more than 100 of them.





The wooden crates used to display 10 case studies in this exhibition invite audiences to explore each example and consider the implications and shortcomings of our standardized world that profoundly shape our lived experiences.

Through their investigations, ASI reveals the invisible networks of standards—codes, quantities, or qualities—embedded in everyday objects and interactions that we use on a daily basis, ranging from birth control pill packets and carry-on bags, to hand gestures, kitchen utensils, and items used during public protests. Their research also makes clear that although the world is becoming more standardized, nonstandards—or ambiguous standards—are equally pervasive. ASI’s investigation into the airline industry makes evident that airline guidelines for standard cabin bag sizes are not the same. In Turkey, drinking tea out of a tulip-shaped glass is a ubiquitous part of daily life, yet there is no definitive size for a glass of tea, as underscored by ASI’s assembly and study of more than 100 of them.





Ambiguous Standards Institute: An Institute Within an Institute is the fourth exhibition in the Franke/Herro Design Series. We are indebted to Jay Franke and David Herro for their support of this groundbreaking program, which highlights the work of important design talent.
All works are courtesy of Ambiguous Standards Institute.

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