Beyond the Banter

Can a design trade fair act as a site for critical discourse? Design, of course, can’t solve for society’s ills, but designers possess the ability to stretch their imagination to offer more than just product.

During the summer of 1968, demonstrations took place to call for women’s rights, workers’ rights, the rights of people of color, and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, among a myriad of other progressive causes. It was also a year that design was politicized.
In May 1968, students, designers, and critics occupied and shut down the 14th exhibition of the Triennale di Milano, a recurring exhibition of architecture and design, in part because they claimed it represented an authoritative force that dictated forms of cultural production out of touch with the pressing needs of a quickly changing society. The academy wasn’t prepared, they argued. Similar incitements occurred at that year’s edition of the Venice Biennale and Documenta in Kassel.
Domus ’ (466, September 1968) review of Giancarlo de Carlo’s curated Triennale exhibition, accompanied by spirited photographs of the occupation by Ugo Mulas, mentioned that the passivity of past installments catalyzed the protest: “All the anxieties that were simmering in the previous editions exploded. These past Triennales became an exclusive spectacle of concepts, or pre-fabricated concepts, showcasing problems with no solutions, supported only by the interventions of visual art.” Historian Paola Nicolin positions the 1968 exhibition at a crossroads: would industrial society continue onwards in its postwar trajectory of a consumerism? Or would that idea collapse altogether in favor of a more imaginative society where design played a part? It’s impossible to generalize the import of the 1968 protests, their voices, and their outcomes. To do so would defeat the purpose of their pluralistic messages. But one major outcome was that they provided a space for cultural critique.

 

For the discipline of design, can the Salone del Mobile be this space? It takes little more than the promise of free gin, vermouth, and Campari to incite a riot at the annual trade fair, but this year, a handful of offsite presentations rose above the scrum to critically address design’s sometimes unsustainable and inequitable relationship with marketing-driven patterns of conspicuous consumption, while others began to propose solutions to these problems through new modes of production. Today, the stakes are just as high as ’68.

When populist polemics bleat out hourly from satellite cable news and statecraft is accordingly forged, critical reactions are required to reaffirm the broad slate of human and civil rights and environmental policy that a younger generation takes for granted. Design, of course, can’t solve for society’s ills, but designers possess the ability to stretch their imagination to offer more than just product. For many, the act of finding a critical voice is new, and in a commercial spectacle like Salone fueled by hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorships and collaborations from multi-national brands, these voices are often stifled. But they’re not entirely silent.

Perhaps the most strident voices this year came from the Design Academy Eindhoven. In the 17th-century Palazzo Clerici, once owned by one of the richest families in Milan, students and alumni transformed one of its grandest, most ornately baroque rooms into an operational television studio named #TVclerici. The double-height ceiling of this parlor barely fit the installation’s central video screen, which acted as a backdrop to live performances curated by Jan Boelen, head of the Masters in Social Design department at the Academy. Students and alumni performed, filmed, produced, and broadcast the performances live on their website. Visitors could sit on bleachers opposite the screen and be a part of the studio audience, loaf around backstage, or view the production from a bank of monitors in the “control room.”
On opening day, the atmosphere was hectic, abuzz, and full of determined activity. Visitors dodged participants urgently shuttling from one task to the other in the low light while taking care not to trip on wires snaking across the floor. As the first production was cuing up, Boelen took the mic and addressed the participants: “Nothing can go wrong, because it’s life. Everything in life is unpredictable. Everyone will see it, and it’s part of the show.” Indeed, there were hiccups, and production gaffes within the first 15 minutes of the show going live, but these imperfections only exposed the over-designed world of mainstream media that #TVclerici attempted to parody – a slick, commercialized vernacular that many, according to the show’s thesis, try to mimic in their daily lives. How charming can you be on Instagram, in the boardroom, or at the cocktail party? It depends, perhaps, on how much you absorb and relay the pedantic banter common to morning talk shows, which #TVclerici’s rotating hosts wryly approximated in between the production's segments. Broadcast media designed the personae of media moguls Berlusconi and Trump. It may also be designing you.
Louis De Belle, But It Used to Be So Cool, exhibition view, Cascina Cuccagna 2017
Louis De Belle, But It Used to Be So Cool , exhibition view, Cascina Cuccagna 2017
In one of the first broadcasts, Olle Lundin took on fashion magazines’ role in designing an “ideal” body. The designer identified some of the most replicated poses and postures in fashion editorial and contorted his body to mime them: an outrageous contrapposto, on all fours with his posterior extended, and several other wholly unnatural sexualized positions. The absurd ballet illuminated the mechanisms used to commodify the body, the same posturing media-savvy influencers adapt to craft informal and lucrative modeling careers on Instagram and other social media platforms. In “Second Skin,” Nadine Botha, Louisa Zahareas, Virag Motesiczky, and Marie Caye took this analogy all the way to the cash register. Online visitors to the Second Life Marketplace could buy a new body “skin” that the group designed for use in the digital alter universe, Second Life.
Isabel Magee and Gabriel Ann Maher addressed Salone’s commercialism head-on. In “Salone del Mobile: An Empty Orchestra,” a video segment for #TVclerici, the designers repurposed the language, imagery, and music from the Salone del Mobile website to create a disturbing furniture fantasia. Images of bathroom sinks, mirrors, dressers, and sofas shot on white backgrounds cycled on the screen in dizzying succession while stock electronic music pulsed in the background overlaid with a monotone reading of the website’s bombastic copywriting rearranged in a demented spoken-word poem addressing the outsize promises that furniture could realize for the consumer. It generated a feeling many Salone attendees admit to having after leaving the halls of the Fiera: there’s just too much stuff.
The absence of stuff inspired an advertising campaign designed by Giga Studio for Raumplan’s exhibition, “Capitalism is Over,” on view at the Cascina Cuccagna food hub and restaurant in southeast Milan. The still-life photographs, shot by Louis De Belle featured highly lit commonplace interiors with iconic industrial designs such as Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper’s 1964 Portable Cube Radio or Ettore Sottsass’ Synthesis-series Coat Stand for Olivetti excised from the photographs and represented only in an illustrated outline. Would we really miss them if they were gone? The show’s thesis similarly addressed absence: how would design change if capitalism disappeared? Raumplan, a Milan-based group comprised of architects, designers, and a philosopher, sought to showcase alternatives to design production and consumption through this scattershot exhibition of products from a handful of designers, commissioned photography portfolios, and several conceptual installations.

 

“But It Used to Be So Cool,” a collection of photographs, formed one half of the exhibition’s centerpiece. Photographer Louis De Belle shot the former Olivetti typewriter and telecommunications headquarters – a sprawling complex in Ivrea, Italy that used to include housing and social services for Olivetti workers in addition to administrative buildings and several manufacturing facilities. At the time, Olivetti’s operations were lauded as an example of how a corporation could serve its workers through good design. Their mission contrasted greatly to the likes of Fiat, whose ramshackle factory housing and poor working conditions in Turin incited workers to protest during Italy’s “Hot Autumn” of 1969 and ‘70. De Belle’s straightforward, forensic photographs of the Olivetti campus today show how certain design elements, like the company’s former sports and leisure complex designed in 1953 by Ignazio Gardella, serve as humble monuments to a more empathetic form of capitalism.  

In the 21st century, however, the terms of collective living are more complex than simply identifying with one’s employer. Åyr’s installation, “Homes for Queers London and Surrounding,” took over one of Cuccagna’s rooms with an audio piece reciting advertisements found on queer house sharing platforms. While listening, portraits emerge of a nomadic group of highly articulate individuals describing themselves and their living habits. They possess an acute self-awareness combined with an imaginative idea of common living spaces generated from shared ideals and values located outside of the market-driven norms of nuclear family dwellings. In essence, they’re designing these spaces through description. Two types of soft seating dot the floor of the room installation: bulbous little transparent inflatable pillows that can deflate and travel with the user, along with several similarly portable CritBuns, injection foam-molded lumps with carrying handles that Joseph Gebbia, Airbnb’s co-founder, designed to sit on the floor comfortably. These innocuous forms match the non-confrontational and agreeable disposition personified in the listings, challenging the viewer to consider the advertisements as a sort of design brief that could have inspired their creation.
Across town, textile juggernaut Kvadrat reimagined what it could do with its growing problem of waste. The textile industry is one of the most polluting in the world. The global non-profit Textile Exchange estimates that 95% of textile waste worldwide could be recycled, but only 25% is actually reused. The remainder either travels to landfills or is incinerated. Kvadrat looked critically at its own waste stream and enlisted the help of Really, which pioneered the engineering and production of Solid Textile Board, a stiff, recyclable board made from Kvadrat’s repurposed waste. Kvadrat now owns a majority stake in Really and intends to produce and market the board as a new, workable material for the construction and design industries. Designer Max Lamb took on the challenge of working with the material for the debut collection of Solid Textile Board Furniture. He created a line of 12 minimalist benches that demonstrate the material’s durability as well as its remarkable flexibility, an example of how imagination can help fuel a circular economy.
In the Netherlands, Petra Janssen and Simone Kramer observed a different underutilized resource: labor. They created Social Label with the aim to employ members of disadvantaged communities in the design industry. Designers such as Piet Hein Eek and Roderick Vos, among others, work closely with managers of different Dutch social welfare groups whose members are often distanced from the labor market. Together, they create exclusive products that the newly employed workers are able to craft on a daily basis and then bring to market. In Milan, members of several workshops demonstrated this creation process on site in Isola. Designer Edwin Vollebergh with Studio Boot worked with members of the group Cello to create a line of ceramic dishware with graphic designs that craftspeople transferred to the dishes during the presentation’s opening night. Janssen and Kramer’s endeavor demonstrates how designers can create marketable products while also creating social capital. In this way, Social Label’s mission also challenges consumers to consider placing value in design generated from social stewardship.
Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of 1968 and will also usher in another Triennale exhibition. If the discipline follows more examples like those of Social Label between now and then, perhaps radical acts won’t be needed to advocate for more sustainable and inclusive values in the creation of new design. At its most productive, design is inherently critical. “Designers are critics of civilization, technology, and society,” said Dieter Rams in his seminal essay, “Omit the Unimportant.” So why not bring more scrutiny to Salone? The loss of sustained examination and inquiry risks the further proliferation of design as a spectacle differentiated only by its over-amplification. If political rhetoric is quickly reaching this pitch, perhaps designers need to match it with a collective voice, not the loudest one.
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