The idea is simple: since architects often have a close relationship with the visual arts and artists are often inspired by the spatial environment, architecture or design, the initiative of the Brussels’ couple Amaryllis Jacobs and Kwinten Lavigne, intends to crystalize these proximities into new design proposals. In this manner Maniera creates a laboratory where architects and artists can transcend their own medium through the production of limited edition furniture series.
The first show of Maniera opened its doors on April 22, showing pieces by the Belgian architectural studio OFFICE KERSTEN GEERS DAVID VAN SEVEREN and the Dutch architect and artist Anne Holtrop. The setting is their own loft-like apartment, a former jazz club and lingerie factory, squeezed into the dense inner city fabric of downtown Brussels. By deliberately using a personal domestic surrounding, MANIERA avoids the typical white-box presentations of the artistic object for the launch of their furniture pieces.
For this first exhibition OFFICE KGDVS produced a series of three tables called ‘prototype 1 to 3’ and a small chair with an attached table, called ‘solo chair’. The tables, designed in close collaboration with engineer Arthur de Roover, are conceptualized as an investigation on structural spans and the strength of materials.
The main frames of these tables are assembled out of industrial L-profiles of polyester, aluminium and steel respectively and covered with an ultra-thin table top in the same material. The different structural resistances of the L-sections generated three different sizes of tables spanning 100 cm (polyester), 185 cm (aluminium) and 260 cm (steel). A thick epoxy coating is poured on the table surface in order to create a uniform countertop for all three prototypes and to contrast the coldness of the extruded profiles with a smooth and soft finishing.
The solo chair is n open interpretation of the legendary walking-stick chair ‘No.6822’, as designed by the Austrian Thonet in about 1866, and long out of production. Undone from its actual folding mechanism, it becomes a ‘frozen’ constellation in which a small square table is suspended diagonally above the round seat. The unbalance produced by this side-table in the triangular structure, is countered by an additional weight at the opposite side of the leg, creating a persuasive play of motionless balance. The geometric composition of the circle and square, refers to the Solo House project by OFFICE in which a circular perimeter circumscribes a square inner patio: this project soon to be realized by the Brussels duo in the outskirts of Barcelona, gave the chair its name.
Anne Holptrop on the other hand, created six unique pieces: a hanging desk, a mirror and 4 shelves that are inspired by the stone collection amassed by the French philosopher and sociologist Roger Caillois. In his book The Writing of Stones (1970) Caillois examines polished sections of minerals such as agate, jasper, and onyx, and relates their beauty and complexity to the act of artistic creation. The dazzling collection of pieces Mirror, Desk and Shelves are made out of thin slices of natural stone, assembled precisely into three dimensional composition: thin slices of earthly matter hanging weightlessly in space. As if they were proun-drawings made up by geological mass.
The dichotomy between the assembly of industrial and standardized products in the work of OFFICE and the fascination for the natural objet-trouvés of Holtrop’s stones seems to be an obvious reading of this first exhibition of Maniera. While OFFICE’s tables are modular, mathematical, calculated and precise, the stone pieces of Holtrop are irregular, organic, capricious and dreamy. Although both designs have been developed through a specific interest in material qualities – provoked by the Dutch photographer Bas Princen, a close friend and collaborator of both offices who acted as a curator and instigator of the projects – they seem to represent two opposites sides of the design spectrum: one closely related to the mechanical reproduction of series and the other one based on the uniqueness of the organic as-found elements.
A closer examination of the pieces however reveals a different story. The fragments of the stones presented by Anne Holtrop are not really what they seem. They are actually irregularly cut MDF sheets, precisely hand-painted by a specialized stone and marble painter from a traditional Belgian company called Institut Supérieur de Peinture Van der Kelen-Logelain (since 1882). Adding carefully layer by layer of paint over several weeks time, Sylvie Van der Kelen used ancient trompe l’oeil techniques to create faux-marble effects. Topped of with several layers of hard varnish these decorated wooden panels become a sort of phantasmagorical simulacra of the petrified sections selected by Holtrop. What is allegedly the most natural is finally a extremely abstruse artificial construct. Complex, not only in the way these faux-stone slabs are produced and assembled, but even more so in the way they awkwardly attempt to become functional: in the way these enigmatic pieces of nature-morts desperately try to become mirror, desk and shelve.
While the pieces by Holtrop intelligently play an ambiguous game of hide-and-seek with notions of design-honesty, materiality and representation, the tables designed by OFFICE avoid any verbosity. The table’s legs, structure, topping and connections are only there to allow the object to become a good table. Calculated and engineered by means of standard profiles available on the market, the different tables have a defined width, depth and height based on their inherent structural qualities and functional needs. The solution of the detachable legs (to allow flat-pack shipping) is resolved through a smart metal connection pin that assembles the vertical elements to the horizontal table top. This ‘cuff button’ as the designers humorously started naming it, sits precisely into the inner part of the polyester, aluminium and metal L-profiles, creating an elegant detail that adds character to the whole.
It is the evident straightforwardness of the tables designed by OFFICE that is so compelling here: it gives them an absolute naturalness in their environment (both in the physical space of the apartment, as well as in the context of an industrial design exercise). This brings to mind the phrasing by F. Jameson of postmodernist culture as that what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good. When ‘culture’, as Jameson states, has become a veritable ‘second nature.’ .
As such, the exhibition at Maniera becomes an intriguing dialogue between industry and craft, reproduction and interpretation, the artificial and the natural, the series and the unique object: between the standard and the stone. The puzzling pieces of both studios have certainly set high standards and we will be eagerly awaiting Maniera’s next show.
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1. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Duke University Press. Durham, NC. 1991, Page IV.