Monday, 22 November 2010


In the FT weekend supplement Superior Interiors (October issue), I read a very interesting article about a new phenomenon tagged as “Critical Design”. The question asked in the subtitle was: “should a piece of furniture stretch us emotionally and intellectually?”
As a jewellery designer and a craft person, I am particularly interested when people blur the boundaries between disciplines. And I think that it is what Critical Design is aiming somehow.
But what exactly is Critical Design ?

The term ‘critical Design” was first used by a duo of designers: Dunne and Raby (professors at RCA). I was curious to learn what they call critical design and therefore browsed their website I recommend it to everybody interested in design…

Here are some extracts of “CRITICAL DESIGN FAQ”:

“What is Critical Design?

Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method. There are many people doing this who have never heard of the term critical design and who have their own way of describing what they do. Naming it Critical Design is simply a useful way of making this activity more visible and subject to discussion and debate.
What is it for?

Mainly to make us think. But also raising awareness, exposing assumptions, provoking action, sparking debate, even entertaining in an intellectual sort of way, like literature or film.

Why is it happening now?

The world we live in today is incredibly complex, our social relations, desires, fantasies, hopes and fears are very different from those at the beginning of the 20c. Yet many key ideas informing mainstream design stem form the early 20c. 

Society has moved on but design has not, Critical Design is one of many mutations design is undergoing in an effort to remain relevant to the complex technological, political, economic and social changes we are experiencing at the beginning of the 21c.
Is it a movement?

No. It's not really a field that can be neatly defined. It's more about values and an attitude, a way of looking at design and imagining its possibilities beyond the narrow definitions of what is presented through media and in the shops.
And its future? 

A danger for critical design is that it ends up as a form of sophisticated design entertainment: 90% humour 10% critique. It needs to avoid this situation by identifying and engaging with complex and challenging issues. Areas like Future Forecasting would benefit from its more gritty view of human nature and ability to make abstract issues tangible. It could also play a role in public debates about the social, cultural and ethical impact on everyday life of emerging and future technologies.”

At that stage, what Critical Design stands for starts to make sense but to make it even more accessible, I think its needs to be illustrated by some very concrete examples.
The article featured some objects. I chose only 3 of them (the ones I found the more relevant) and I did some research on the web to understand those objects and the manifesto of the artists.

Wokmedia, "Once Furniture Collection" (picture from Wokmedia website)

In the Wokmedia website I found those statements:

About the objects:
“"Once" (name of the project) consists of chopsticks held together by a chaotic structure of friction and gravity, creating a Still life with a pinch into our collective lower back to encourage us to rethink our consumption habits. All pieces in the collection are limited to 20. "Once" is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Art and Design New York and selected pieces will be shown at the Design Museum Holon Israel mid of March 2010.”

About the manifesto:
“Julie Mathias and Wolfgang Kaeppner established WOKmedia in 2004. They are based in London with a production studio in Shanghai.
Wokmedia’s work is primarily concerned with the emotional dimension, an archetypal memory or a physical sensation. Often they survey a state of in between where chaos is showing structure and confusion is beginning to make sense. Where out of devastation and destruction emerges a new world. A world imbedded in their childhood memories when emotions were not expected to be filtered, when make-believe was not equated with lunacy”.

Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny, "Honeycomb Vase" (picture from Google Images)

Here are some quotes I found in DEEZEN website
About the object:
“Libertiny made a vase-shaped hive that the bees then colonised, building a hexagon comb around it. The wax sheets used to make the hive were embossed with a honeycomb pattern to help the bees on their way.
Libertiny calls the process “slow prototyping” – it took 40,000 bees a week to make the vase. Since the bees get aggressive when they are interrupted, Libertiny had to guess when it was time to remove the vase".

About the manifesto:
I have been interested in contradicting the current consumer society (which is interested in slick design) by choosing to work with a seemingly very vulnerable and ephemeral material – beeswax.
To give a form to this natural product it has occurred more than logical to choose a form of a vase as a cultural artifact. Beeswax comes from flowers and in the form of a vase ends up serving flowers on their last journey.
At this point I asked myself a question: “Can I make this product already at the place where the material originates?” My ambition to push things further led me to alienate the process by which bees make their almost mathematically precise honeycomb structures and direct it to create a fragile and valuable object – like a pearl. This takes time and time creates value.
Not meaning it as an euphemism, I called this process “slow prototyping”. It took 1 week and around 40.000 bees to create a honeycomb vase.”

Studio Makkink & Bey, "Drawers Cratecupboard" (picture Google Images)

Here are the quotes I have found in Studio Makkink & Bey website

About the object:
“A crate transformed into a cabinet; a by-product transformed into a finished product, extending its life. A shipping crate, normally used to temporarily house goods, takes on a more autonomous role as an interior.”

About the manifesto:
“Studio Makkink & Bey investigates the various domains of applied art while studying the tension between the private and public domain. Taking a critical stance towards the designing of public space, architecture, interiors, exhibitions and products is pivotal. The studio is located in an old industrial building enabling the entire production to come about on site. The design team operates as one entity and includes experts of various disciplines ranging from fashion, design and architecture. The cross-wiring between the different areas of expertise prompts new insights and perspectives, which are used within each stage of the design process. Stories, study and research are in constant movement throughout the design process, to be converted into solutions for a perpetually changing environment. The goal of our studio is to entice a new design culture by showing new alternatives through critical design. Analytical design is a fundament for a new culture in a city, public building or house. Initially, all existing forces are reviewed to be defined again and reshuffled into a fitting design narrative. Experiment, doubt and a hodgepodge way of thinking are crucial to disclose hidden values and stories. This new potential unlocks all the possible qualities to constitute new cultural bearers.”

I think that those three examples, even if very different, share common particularities:
-       they are not really functional
-       they are everyday objects (chairs, vase, drawer)
-       they all try to raise awareness on excesses of our consumer society (profusion and waste, ephemeral and vulnerable, recycling…)
-       they are eye-catching, different, provoking
-       they don’t need pages of explanation and are almost self-explanatory

Those objects fascinate me as they really blur the boundaries between design, craft, and art. Because they lack a specific function, one can wonder if they are still “real” products. Asked whether Critical Design wasn’t Art, Wokmedia did a very interesting answer :
“It is definitely not art. It might borrow heavily from art in terms of methods and approaches but that's it. We expect art to be shocking and extreme. Critical Design needs to be closer to the everyday, that's where its power to disturb comes from. Too weird and it will be dismissed as art, too normal and it will be effortlessly assimilated. If it is regarded as art it is easier to deal with, but if it remains as design it is more disturbing, it suggests that the everyday as we know it could be different, that things could change.”

I love this quote as it summarizes perfectly what I think Contemporary Craft should aim for: instead of pretending to be Art, it should stick to its strength which lies in the power of questioning things through everyday objects and of disturbing our perception of what we take for granted. 

Sunday, 21 November 2010


Some weeks ago, I put my best shoes, nicest socks as I headed to the Tate Modern to “experience” the Ai Weiwei Installation in the Turbine Hall. My intention was to walk barefoot on the 100 millions seeds, to touch them and why not to lie down on them.
In the tate modern website, one can read:
“Sunflower Seeds is a sensory and immersive installation, which visitors can touch, walk on and listen to as the seeds shift beneath their feet. However, the tactile, engaging nature of this work also encourages us to consider highly pertinent questions about ourselves and our world. What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for the future? Ai Weiwei has said “From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society. Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.”

But due to the Health and Safety fears over the dust created from the public walking on the seeds, the exhibition is all now cordoned off and we can only experience the installation behind a security rope: one can’t even touch, see or approach the seeds (the rope is 3 meters far from the seeds). The only thing you can do is ask a member of staff to show you on one the seed.
Here is what you see:

Picture, Isabelle Busnel

And the only encounter you can have with the installation is touching and photographing only one of the 100 millions seeds…

Pictures, Isabelle Busnel

One can argue that on top of the supposed sensory level, there are many other layers in this installation:  one relates to the symbolic meaning of sunflower seeds often associated with The Cultural revolution, another one invites us to reflect on mass production versus traditional craftsmanship (each seed has been moulded, hand painted and is unique) and the astonishing quantity of seeds forces us to think on how we engage with numbers and value.

But I can’t stop thinking that by removing the sensory and immersive part of this installation, the major part of the artist’s message disappears. Conceived to be participatory, this installation becomes conceptual and intellectual.

It is deeply regretful as participatory installations can be so powerful. I remember an Exhibition at the Tate Modern from the Brazilian Artist Cildo Meireles and particularly the last room of this retrospective called “Volatil”: visitors had to enter a room barefoot, the floor covered by a foot-deep layer of plush talcum powder. The room was dark and filled with the smell of gas, a hissing sound and a lit candle in the corner was the only source of light.

Cildo Meireles, Volatile 1980–94 
Photo: Tate Photography

The sensation in-between toes and under the feet was amazing and there was a high sense of awareness with the environment. But being in the dark with the gas smell triggered fear and unease as well. ‘For me the art object must be, despite everything else, instantly seductive.’
 states Cildo Meireles “My work aspires to a condition of density, great simplicity, directness, openness of language and interaction.” One can read on the Tate Modern website that his work inherited the legacy of Neo-concretism, a Brazilian movement of the late 1950s that rejected the extreme rationalism of geometric abstraction in favour of more sensorial, participatory works, which engages the body as well as the mind.
Some people read the piece as a memorial to those killed in gas chambers during the Second World War, though the artist has a more benign take, comparing the experience of walking across powder to floating through clouds. Either way, this installation had a very powerful sensory impact on me.

And that is exactly what I was expecting with Ai Weiwei’s installation : some lucky journalists had the chance to experience it on the private view. Here is what Richard Dorment writes for the : “It took 1,600 people two and a half years to manufacture the number the artist needed to make the piece you see at Tate Modern. Like so much else about China, on paper such figures are almost meaningless. Only by seeing it can you begin to grasp its immensity. Standing before it, we look out over an immeasurable, fathomless grey sea.
But the moment when you step on it, your relationship to what lies beneath your feet changes. Each crunching footstep merely displaces a thin layer at the top of the pile. Our weight leaves no impression on the millions and millions of seeds beneath our feet. What from afar had been far too immense for the imagination to grasp instantly becomes as worthless as gravel”.

In my opinion, participatory installations or artworks share something in common with contemporary craft: it engages the body as well as the mind. According to Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman, he views the satisfactions of physical making as a necessary part of being human. And craft work becomes a way to keep ourselves rooted in material reality, providing a steadying balance in a world which overrates mental facility.
Ai Weiwei ‘s 100 millions seeds are hand crafted by skilled men and women and the message of the artwork was supposed to be transmitted physically to viewers thanks to the tactile, engaging nature of this work.
Too late…I should have gone there at the very first beginning of the exhibition...