Design

A survey of modern living in California, biennials in Asia and a new generation of design studios

Charles & Ray Eames, Vitra House Bird, Alder, black lacquer finish and steel wire, 89 x 29 x 29 cm. Courtesy Vitra

Charles & Ray Eames, Vitra House Bird, Alder, black lacquer finish and steel wire, 89 x 29 x 29 cm. Courtesy Vitra

Eugenia Bell
Design editor of frieze, based in New York, USA.

The enduring lack of distinction between design and art (and architecture, in some cases) – a deficiency that could be viewed as either agonizing or invigorating – marks my 2011 design highlights. The question is increasingly ambiguous, as some design becomes the province of galleries and other initiatives are combined with an unexpected media outlet, or subsumed by technology (issues that are deftly discussed in my co-respondent’s column).

Two exhibitions unpacking the myths of domestic design made a big impact on product designers and design historians alike. In Turin, the yellow stuccoed Casa Scaccabarozzi – better known among locals as la Fetta di Polenta or ‘slice of polenta’, since in some places it’s as little as 70 centimetres wide – is one of the more unusual specimens in a city that prides itself on its uncommon architectural pedigree. Italian designer Martino Gamper’s exhibition ‘Condominium’, presented by Galleria Franco Noero (which occupies the building), considered each room as an individual domestic space using furniture foraged from the street and from the city’s flea markets. Concentrating on a late mid-century aesthetic, Gamper used pieces from the 1950s to the ’70s to transform initially awkward spaces into realistic, beautifully livable environments.

Livable, intelligent spaces and objects were at the heart of mid-century California design. As one of myriad exhibitions that are part of the Getty’s ambitious ‘Pacific Standard Time’ throughout Southern California, LACMA’s ‘California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way’ (until 3 June) is one of a clutch of shows that ventures outside of the realm of the visual arts to recall the origin myth of modern living in California, fuelled by the burgeoning aerospace industry, abundant new housing development and the riches of Hollywood. Central to the show is a full-scale section of Case Study House #8, designed and lived in by Charles and Ray Eames, as well as objects by the multitude of postwar émigrés who so influenced Modernism in a moderate climate. The show is smart – the curators, Wendy Kaplan and Bobbye Tigerman, deserve kudos for bringing to light the work of Alvin Lustig, Carlos Diniz and Greta Magnusson Grossman – and well-designed in itself (by LA’s Hodgetts + Fung), but it might be fair to say that the mid-century design saturation is now complete.

In Spain, an exhibition at Madrid’s Ivorypress Art + Books Space recalled master architect–engineer Jean Prouvé. ‘Jean Prouvé 1901–1984: Industrial Beauty’ collected original drawings, furniture and an assembled ‘6 × 6’ house (which he designed as postwar emergency housing). Prouvé may be best known for his immaculate domestic industrial-style furniture – and many examples were included in the show – but he was also an active participant in the Resistance and, later, mayor of Nancy, France. His delicate touch and way with metal made possible entire buildings that could be flat-packed and originated in artistic, yet painstakingly detailed, working drawings, also in generous supply here. (It is worth noting that an original Prouvé ‘Metropole’ aluminum house, from 1949, was mounted at the Jardin de Tuileries in Paris, by Galerie Patrick Seguin, during FIAC.)

Gary Hustwit – director of the documentaries Helvetica (2007) and Objectified (2009) – returned with Urbanized, the final installment of his design trilogy, which looks at the foibles, failures and few successes of the urban design and planning field. Once again beautifully shot – as we’ve come to expect from director of photography Luke Geissbühler – it’s packed with a impressive roster of talking heads, although Rem Koolhaas’s commentary seemed out of place – and out of league – amongst people really making a difference, such as Sheela Patel, an advocate for slum dwellers in Mumbai and the brilliant Edgar Pieterse of the African Centre for Cities. Urbanized, while lacking the arc that would link the stories of say, Detroit, Santiago and Brighton, is still a bracing look at where cities go wrong and the people who are trying to set things right. In many cases, attempts at wholesale reinvention are refreshingly steered clear of in favour of more modest actions that really work such as bus rapid transit, creating safe pedestrian passage on already well-trodden paths and the preservation of existing urban and social fabric – in other words, reinforcing the things that residents will always know more intimately than planners.

Last year also saw the release of another important film on planning and people. The three years (1972–5) it took the housing authority in St Louis, Missouri, to demolish the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate marked a low-point for the US – not just for the physical and emotional state of public housing, but also for the Modernist movement. Completed in 1955, the estate was a 57-acre, 33-building complex that in less than 20 years was already half vacant and ready for the wrecking ball. Hailed by politicians as ‘vertical housing for the poor’, the woefully constructed tower blocks lacked playgrounds until residents petitioned for them. Relying heavily on the testimony of former residents and contemporary documentary footage, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History (directed by Chad Freidrichs) both honours the strength of the voices of those who lived there and debunks some of the popular myths around the failure of the project. Proving that rather than a failure of modern architecture, Pruitt-Igoe was a victim of competing forces – white flight, a decimated industrial economy and segregation – the film says at least as much as Hustwit’s Urbanized while staying focused on a single place.

My design book pick of the year has to go to Nicholas de Monchaux’s Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, a fascinating multi-layered deconstruction of one of the most iconic images known to us: Neil Armstrong on the Moon, in that spacesuit. The male-dominated military–industrial complex got its comeuppance during the development of the suit by American girdle manufacturer, Playtex, whose (female) seamtresses and designers contrived the soft, flexible suits ultimately used in the space programme from readily available materials. This is not only the story of the suit, however, but of image-making and perception and control, of the architects of the Cold War and the space race, and of the complicated relationship between the human body and space.

Constrained by space of a more terrestrial sort, I can’t help but mention a few other 2011 highlights: ‘Excursus 1: Reference Library’, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Philadelphia, was the first in a new series that will invite artists, designers, publishers and others to engage with the ICA’s archive; the ‘Archi-Zines’ exhibit at the Architectural Association, London, was proof that there is vibrancy left in underground publishing, even of the architectural sort; 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of the iconic IBM Selectric typewriter, designed by the under-appreciated but over-achieving designer/architect/teacher Eliot Noyes; and the displays of Ricky Clifton’s Egyptian-style furniture and London-based Max Lamb’s gleeful experiments at Johnson Trading Company, in New York.

Officina Alessi, '(Un)forbidden City', 2011, included in Beijing Design Week, 2011. Courtesy Beijing Design Week

Officina Alessi, '(Un)forbidden City', 2011, included in Beijing Design Week, 2011. Courtesy Beijing Design Week

Beatrice Galilee 
Chief curator of the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale. She is an independent writer and curator and the co-founder of The Gopher Hole, a gallery and project space in London.

2011 was not a year for drawing lines in the sand. Quite the opposite. Designers were swapping cards with scientists, neurologists, science fiction writers and sociologists. There were tentative steps towards interrogating civic space, radical new production methods, carving science-futures and a new kind of techy craftmanship.

Expansive eye-popping group design shows – such as ‘Talk to Me’ at Museum of Modern Art, New York; ‘The Power of Making’ at London’s Victoria &Albert Museum; Beijing Design Week; the Gwangju Design Biennale in South Korea (of which I was Senior Curator of the ‘Communities’ section); and ‘Experimenta: Utopia Now’, biennial of media art in Lisbon – all demonstrated a stark move away from products. The traditional, narrative, object-driven format of design shows seems to have been cast out in favour of laboratories and experimental curating. By not showcasing shop-ready designs, these exhibitions are a litmus test for an exciting, fuzzy design future.

At the London Design Festival in September, products were plentiful, but the talking-points were not found in the usual places. Exhibitions and objects were installed in basement flats, and variously took the form of fictional or activity-based frameworks, including a live auction room and items created around the life of an imaginary character. Beijing Design Week was packed with young international designers working with local people. As a rule, experience design took precedent over spectacle and ideas over objects. At the Gwangju Design Biennale, the authorship of design itself was challenged, with exhibitors ranging from Ghanian coffin-designers and aquaponic food farms to performance artists, body builders and the hacker who invented the Stuxnet Virus that destroyed the Iranian missile facility.

The question of what is design and what constitutes a designer is being raised in a number of ways. Particularly notable is the genetic make-up of a new generation of design studios in which the solitary star designer has melted away and collaborative interdisciplinary work takes over. Young professionals including psychologists, scientists, programmers, space engineers and sociologists form teams and investigate and approach design commissions and architectural ideas. This melding of architect-design-programmer-maker was particular to the outcomes of 2011.

In this realm, the development of what were once distant technologies, like 3D printing and open source design and manufacturing, has drawn closer. The speed of change and intellectual force that is being applied to this field has vertically compressed the manufacturing process, forcing designer, manufacturer, distributor and consumer to all blend into one, with no beginning or end in the process of authorship and fabrication.

It’s not just materials and construction that change, but also methods of procurement. The website Kickstarter.com, which allows designers to raise funds for their projects, has continued its meteoric growth and is changing the landscape for fledgling designers whose traditional way into the industry is through a manufacturer.

Similarly, the still-beta Wikihouse.cc project by architecture00.net offers a Creative Commons licensed house, which can be adapted online, downloaded and sent for cutting and construction within days. The promise of a future where products are printed and not bought seems to be edging closer and projects like RepRap, a 3D printer which can print itself, and a plethora of open-source music hardware promises much.

The conflation of design and technology continued at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in ‘Talk to Me’, a bonanza of an exhibition showing the future of communication, curated by Paola Antonelli. With a room packed with QR codes and USB sticks, it argued a case for increasing dominance of design which through its advanced techno­logy has the capacity to change human behaviours, rather than just respond to them. The success this year of design consultancy Berg and experimental sci-fi think tank Tomorrows Thoughts Today confirms something of a return of the geek as a convincing polar opposite to the crafty collage designs offered by Daniel Charney in his exhibition ‘The Power of Making’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Connecting this phenomenon to a historical narrative, Lisbon’s Experimenta smartly invited Enzo Mari, the master Italian designer who in 1974 created the range Autoprogettazione, which was essentially the first open-source design project: a set of instructions for anyone to build their own chair. He spoke about his work alongside budding open-source technologist Thomas Lomeé, who runs ‘intra­structures’, a practice very muchsurfing the contemporary networked society wave.

In a difficult year full of social upheavals and distrust of hierarchies, design has found itself under the microscope – or perhaps a kaleidoscope. Rather than design as an end-product or solving a solution, there seems to be a glimmer of something which suggests that 2012 could see some of this conceptual work hitting the mainstream. A post-disciplinary and expanded-design landscape is fast approaching.

Issue 144

First published in Issue 144

Jan - Feb 2012

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