Should design as a practice undergo a complete rethink in the age of machine intelligence? The question is at the heart of a speech co-written by the designer Chris Bangle and his son Derek for a speech he gave at the end of last year on re-inventing luxury at the Whitney Museum in New York. Such discussions are the reason I write and so, needing to know more, I got in contact. (read the full interview here)
The Bangles are calling for a complete re-invention of design for the new age of transport. The argument is that it is irrational to partake in current discussions on sustainable design or the meaning of luxury when a real shift requires a fundamental rethink of design and its human creatives. ‘Design, as it is now,’ Chris says, rejects humanity, preferring in every way, shape and form the cold idea of the machine-made. We must jettison even the look of the machine age.’
As a discipline, design continues to live in the world of the machine; it’s trapped in its prime at the peak of the machine age. Then the human designer was awarded for creating in perfection like a machine. But in the age of machine intelligence, the thinking human need no longer mimic the machine. Only through liberation from this outdated concept, the argument goes, can design help shape a more interesting future.
Chris uses a dramatic example in a humble teapot, one that foreshadowed the machine age look that is still with us but was in fact designed three decades before the birth of modernism. When you listen deeply to such an object and let that guide your actions, you are no longer outsidethe narrative looking in, but rather part of the storytelling. He explains, ‘you begin to design diegetically, insidethe narrative, then suddenly design processesbecome wonderful design adventures.’
I’m reminded of the work of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most lyrical artists and designers of the last century, whose life was dedicated to sculpting the world he wished to inhabit. He too advocated listening to the stone, the object, the space – seeing sculpture as a means of creating harmony between humans, industry and nature and thus improving how we live. He wrote: ‘Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.’
Chris says re-inventing design need not be a negative thing. In conclusion to his Whitney speech he says: ‘It will be the greatest creative challenge design has ever responded to. I am convinced design will succeed at redeeming itself; it will be thrilling and it happens when we stop fussing over the whats we cancreate and move on the why of what we should create.’
And I’m happy to enter 2022 on this positive note. Happy New Year.
A canvas of sprouting greens reveals a fading figurative image of family. The watercress has taken only a few days to grow thanks to the nitrate-rich Spanish water used to cultivate the seeds. As the green grows, the negative projected onto the cress panels fades. Eventually, the living artwork returns to earth. This is Family Album, the last chapter in The Pigment Change creation by the London based Spanish artist Almudena Romero for the BMW Residency at Paris Photo. Her autobiographical and at times impermanent organic photographs ask the viewer to question production, consumption and ownership. Hers is a meditation on the ephemerality of life and our relationship with nature. I met with the artist to understand more:
You talk of finding ways of renewing the medium of photography. Can you explain?
Photography has been a conservative medium. It has taken a long time for it to move out of print because it has largely been used as a tool for representation and documentation. For me photography is a process rather than being about the result. If we start to understand photography as writing with light, then it becomes a very simple rudimentary concept that makes sense. This way it can be liberated, become more performative, more conversational.
Your work is very organic, working directly with plants to create photographic images via photosynthesis, as well as being highly autobiographical. Can you explain your process?
I started my research on plant-based photography at my grandmother’s garden in Valencia. I work with her plants and her nitrate-rich water to create my work, then I use my hands to project images onto the leaves. Some of the images are sharp, some not. There is a lot of invisible feminine labor that goes into growing a family and growing a garden. The fact that my hand images are not all obvious I feel is a metaphor for the invisible labor that makes the trees and plants and nature grow.
Your grandmother sadly passed away before the original show in the summer at Rencontres d’Arles in France, yet her legacy continues through your work.
She passed away before I exhibited and I’ve been reflecting on our relationship and her impact on me ever since. When I was a teenager, my grandmother would tend to her plants and I would listen to the Spice Girls not realizing how much of her and her work stayed with me. My mother says this is the real heritage, my grandmother’s legacy and the passion and understanding I have of plants.
That is really beautiful. I’m intrigued by the layers of multiple meanings in your work. Is this intentional?
Much of my work is self-reflecting. As an artist, I want to know what’s the impact of one’s own practice, contributing to the dynamics of producing, accumulation — all of which is at the roots of the environmental issue. I want to contribute to a wider conversation as to why and where does photography exist, what’s our relationship to nature, to photographic productions such as photosynthesis. A better understanding of plants can help us be more respectful to nature.
Your final piece, the vertical watercress for the BMW Residency at Paris Photo, is made to disappear, which to me seems like a direct commentary on art ownership.
Forthe BMW Residency I wanted to move on my plant-based photography to be alive. I have a good scientific understanding of plants and began looking at all sorts of green elements until I decided on watercress. I got the idea from garden walls which always have cress as it can grow vertically and doesn’t need soil to make roots. I had to search hard to find the right type of seeds which will bring the color and tonality I’m after. Growing it vertically gives it one focal length so you get the sharpness in the picture, then as the plant grows the picture disappears in complete greenness.
I’m reminded of an ancient Persian ritual we perform for our new year, which falls on the first hour of spring. It involves cultivating seeds on a plate, watering them for 13 days, then releasing the fully grown green into a flowing river to symbolise letting the past go and welcoming new beginning. And I’m moved by the ephemerality of your artwork.
I really like that! My work is ephemeral but at the same time in ephemerality there is hope for the future. We are facing a serious environmental crisis based on too much production, accumulation and disposal. I used to teach at the Stanford University overseas study program in Florence and I would often think of what I wanted to pass on to my students, what knowledge and skills would make sense to them in the future. This plant-based photography is part of my vision as a teacher in that these materials are ephemeral in the short run, but in the long run they are the only thing we will be able to practice. Because ephemerality is the only thing that lasts.
Perhaps it is a question of redefining object ownership in that the memory of a piece of art, that moment of connection, can be the value rather than possessing it as an object. In fact, we have an ephemeral connection to most works of art anyway since we see them fleetingly in museums or galleries after which they remain only in memory.
That’s a really interesting concept: this idea that because the piece is ephemeral it disappears. But art disappears from everyone’s eyes unless you own it. As an artist I’m interested in contributing to the wider conversation, help change our understanding of the photographic medium, of our own lives and our relation to nature, rather than decorating someone’s house.
That’s quite a radical statement. I like it.
We have to review property and ownership. This is part of the problem. “Me and mine” are the dynamics of the ego. It extends to “my perspectives”. This is why I’m very keen on collaboration and on passing my knowledge and processes to my students, as I think it’s rewarding to pass on your knowledge and see it grow elsewhere and without the need to be the master of the original idea. I feel the art world needs to move more towards this direction.
Two art projects commissioned by the BMW Group for Frieze London 2021 set out to explore the human/machine relation in new and exciting ways. Madeline Hollander’s ‘Sunrise/Sunset’ is an installation of 96 disused headlights salvaged from the company’s recycling centre. Playing on the responsive nature of these automatic adaptive car headlights which react to movement, light and weather conditions, the artist has matched each to different global time zones to create a networked map that mimics the sun rising and setting across the globe. Hollander’s art examines how our erratic individual actions and everyday technologies can synchronically align, become a collective and, in the case of the installation for Frieze, turn into a cascading technological dance.
Meanwhile, dance choreographer Wayne McGregor and experimental studio Random International’s ‘No One is an Island’ is a live performance involving a multi-armed robot and two human dancers. Playing the lead role is the robotic sculpture — an enigmatic machine whose liquid movements are steered by advanced algorithms. As it transitions from robot to human likeness, the two dancers in turn interact with the kinetics, all of which is performed to the hypnotic soundscape of Tokyo electronic music artist Chihei Hatakeyama. The idea here is to visualise how a minimal amount of information can animate form so that it can be recognised as human, while the most subtle changes in information can have an equally fundamental impact on our behaviour.
‘I’m interested in space and the movement of people and objects within space. There is a certain magic to it. It is as if you are inventing an order of things. I believe there is a secret relationship between space, objects and perceptible and imperceptible movements. Every artist working in this field tries to interpret that relationship in his or her own way. It is the composition and balance of those elements that give rise to the essence of drama and – why not? – the essence of life itself.’ These are the words of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most lyrical artists of the last century.
Known today mostly for his much-copied 1944 Coffee Table (an early edition of which sits here before me) and Akari paper lights, Noguchi tirelessly pushed the boundaries of art and sculpture. Working across almost seven decades and with a multitude of materials and mediums, his carved stones, stage sets, paper lanterns, portrait busts, mobiles, and playgrounds were collectively designed to be tools for understanding our place in the cosmos, and our relationships to history, nature, and one another.
The Barbican gallery in London is hosting ‘Noguchi’, the first of a touring European exhibition which sets out to document the work of this visionary creative. Thematically organised and curated to feature only the words of the artist himself, the exhibition successfully immerses the viewer in the mind and the world of Noguchi. The stripped back béton brut halls of the brutalist Barbican and the advantage of the two levels, allow the 150 works to breathe freely, and with the absence of excessive curation, the viewer is left in an almost meditative state to observe and absorb.
Born in Los Angeles in 1904, Noguchi’s mother was an Irish American writer and his father a Japanese poet who had abandoned the family on his birth. At the age of two, his mother took him to Japan to reunite with his father, sending him back to the US and onto Indiana for schooling for fear that the biracial child would receive racism in Japan. Noguchi eventually settled in New York where he trained in traditional sculpture, but his real break came while on an internship at the Paris studio of Constantin Brancusi. Here Noguchi gained a seminal introduction to the modernist principles of abstraction and presumably met the international avant-garde who were gathered in Paris in the 1920s. It was thanks to Brancusi that he became passionate about materials and craft – elements that remained fundamental to his work throughout his career.
By the end of the decade Noguchi was back in New York sculpting portrait busts, mainly to make a living, many of which are on display at the Barbican. They are a curious mix of expressionist and whimsical. He later referred to them jokingly as ‘headbusting’ since it was a useful way to make money and meet people. It seemed to have worked as they attracted the attention of the pioneering choreographers Ruth Page and Martha Graham for whom Noguchi went on to design sets using an interplay of his sculptures. He also befriended the architect and theorist R. Buckminster Fuller, who he referred to as the ‘messiah of ideas’. The two shared a vision for shaping a more equitable world through technology, innovation and design, collaborated on several projects including a futuristic car.
By the 1940s, Noguchi was working with manufacturers Knoll and Herman Miller. He continued to explore the possibilities of material and form with his interlocking marble slab sculptures and Lunars lights, created after his devastating experience of ‘voluntary’ internment at a camp for Japanese Americans in Poston, Arizona in 1942. The Lunars went on to influence some of his best-known works, the sculptural and ethereal Akari light sculptures – a contemporary take on traditional chochin paper lanterns using washi paper and electric bulbs. After the war, Noguchi travelled to Europe and Asia to understand the different uses of sculpture in a spatial and cosmic sense. He wrote at the time, ‘I find myself a wanderer in a world rapidly growing smaller. Artist, American citizen, world citizen, belonging anywhere but nowhere.’
Noguchi went on to complete over twenty public works around the world – gardens, fountains, playgrounds, plazas – using space to challenge civic and social life and its intersections with nature and time. His final contribution was Moerenuma Park. Located on a reclaimed municipal dump outside of Sapporo in Japan, it included play sculptures, fields, and fountains, and a revised version of his first-ever play rejected concept, the monumental, stepped pyramid he called Play Mountain (1933). Moerenuma Park was realised two years after Noguchi’s death in 2000.
Ultimately his was a life dedicated to sculpting the world he wished to inhabit. With a deeply humanist perspective, heightened by his prison experience, Noguchi understood the power of art and artists to make sense of the world. His work was political art. Wandering the exhibition, immersed from above and below in his delicate paper lanterns, colourful furniture, architectural playgrounds, and expressive and often funny abstract and figurative sculptures, you get the sense that in life and work, Noguchi remained an explorer with a philosophical and playful eye. In his own words: ‘Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.’
art in everything, whether it be in action, a vase, a saucepan, a glass, a
sculpture, a jewel, a way of being,’ writes Charlotte Perriand, in a quote that
perhaps best captures the spirit of the maverick designer who helped shape the
story of modern design. Over the long arc of her career spanning much of the
last century, Perriand made furniture and objects, and designed interiors and buildings
that helped shape and advance modern life – especially for women.
Her tubular steel furniture includes the Chaise Longue Basculante and the Fauteuil Pivotant – both much revered and copied today. Her bibliotheques for architect and engineer Jean Prouvé’s metal workshop altered how we view bookshelves. In her role as an architect, Perriand made inventive modular kitchens for Le Corbusier’s brutalist Unité d’Habitation residential housing project in Marseille. Later in life she took on the budding mass tourism industry with thousands of prefabricated apartments at the grand Les Arcs ski resort in France.
Perriand was fearless and her approach to design always inventive. Now a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum explores the creative process and ideas behind her work. Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life (19 June to 5 September 2021) charts her journey through the modernist machine aesthetic to natural forms, and from modular furniture to major architectural projects. Featuring large-scale reconstructions of some of her most interesting interiors as well as original furniture, her photography and personal notebooks, the curators immerse viewers in Perriand’s colourful world to great effect.
Born in Paris in 1903, Perriand studied furniture design at the École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs. Soon after graduation, the functional studio apartment she designed for herself replete with a mini deco bar, nicknamed Bar sous le toit, caught the attention of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret and so began a decade of working with the duo at their atelier exploring machine aesthetics. By the 1930s, Perriand had gravitated more towards nature and organic forms, an aspect that became more pronounced after her return from Tokyo where she had been invited as an advisor for industrial design to the Ministry for Trade and Industry.
Perriand would continue to collect and document random objects she found in nature – shells and stones, and a large-scale sculptural driftwood she reclaimed in 1970, which features in the exhibition halls. In her personal manifesto entitled Synthesis of the Arts, she looked at merging art, design and architecture in the interior with her friend the artist Fernand Léger creating some fascinating pieces.
A socialist, after the war Perriand became deeply involved with the reconstruction of Europe, where she evolved further her prefabricated modular designs and furnishing to create affordable and adaptable interiors – some of which have been thoughtfully reconstructed for the exhibition. She wrote: ‘Dwellings should be designed not only to satisfy material specifications; they should also create conditions that foster harmonious balance and spiritual freedom in people’s lives.’
Perriand loved the outdoors and was a keen mountain climber and skier with photographs at the Design Museum capturing her adventurous spirit. One of her final and finest projects was Les Arcs, a 1960s ski resort in France where she led an architectural collective. Developed over two decades, the building and dwellings explore her visions on the role of architecture and design in shaping how we live. The building slots seamlessly with the contours of the mountainside and, since it had to accommodate some 30,000 skiers, Perriand worked with prefabricated structures to create thousands of mini apartments which feel warm and generous and are thoroughly modern to this day.
Perriand is one of the few female modernists who has retained her place in the history of design, yet even she suffered from a touch of twentieth century chauvinism. Her work was often overshadowed by her more famous male collaborators, namely Le Corbusier who allegedly didn’t even acknowledge her work despite using her radical prefabricated kitchens in his Unité d’Habitation. ‘She was long overshadowed by her male counterparts,’ agrees chief curator Justin McGuirk, ‘but this exhibition presents her not just as a brilliant designer who deserves wider recognition – she was also a natural collaborator and synthesiser. There is so much to admire not just in her work but in the way she lived her life.’
The Design Museum joins a slew of exhibitions and publications hoping to re-address women’s place (the missing link) in the story of art and design. This can only be a positive thing. The history of design will certainly benefit in richness and gain context from weaving in the vital role of women (and the likes of Perriand) in forming its narrative – something that could expand and explode even further, become even livelier, if it includes creatives from outside the western world, and not just as a side note.
‘Elegantly radical’, is how the exhibition describes Perriand, a term that feels fitting. For, despite her courage at working alongside and often ahead of her male counterparts, bending metal and making impossible inventions possible, her work retains a subtle elegance. And it is full of adventure and wonder. ‘A definition of the word art is the application of new knowledge to ordinary, everyday objects,’ she says animated in a video which concludes the show. ‘There is no reason not to do things artfully. You could equally say that a peasant who improves his wheelbarrow has made a work of creation. Art is everything. It is wonderful.’