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.’
The images are captivating. They show smiling children playing on pink seesaws installed across the crude brown steel slats that divides the US/Mexican border – the Trump wall. The interactive installation went up on 28 July 2019 and lasted just 40 minutes before border guards ordered its removal. Then the pictures went viral online. Now ‘Teeter-Totter Wall’ has been awarded the prestigious Beazley Designs of the Year 2020 in the London Design Museum’s annual competition.
The project is a collaboration between the Californian based architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello developed from a binational seesaw idea they conceived a decade ago. The duo chose to implement their concept on one of the most politicised border walls of recent times and in the summer of 2019 – at a moment of extreme tension when the world looked on in horror at the outgoing US president’s horrific war on immigration with innocent children at its centre.
With ‘Teeter-Totter Wall’, Rael and San Fratello want to demonstrate that actions taking place on one side of the border have direct consequences on the other – viewing the boundary as a site of severance. Not surprisingly it took a great deal of planning and preparation given the logistics of the projects. Working with Colectivo Chopeke from the other side of the border at Sunland Park, within 20 minutes the three seesaws were slotted into gaps in the steel boundary wall and screwed safely in place. Children on both sides soon jumped on the bicycle seats before the guards removed the installation.
We will enter a decade premiered with a very dark storm. Yet much of what we are witnessing since the pandemic was already in progress: a planet in deep ecological crisis, systemic race and gender inequalities, unsustainable economic disparities, rise of populism and the post-truth era, the anxieties of the information age and machine science…
Covid has fast-tracked the speed of change. It has intensified – no exploded debates around these overwhelming existential issues, much of which have found a visceral voice in Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. In the words of the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, this is our version of World War III. And like so any monumental episode, it has offered a chance to deconstruct our world as we know it – or knew it – and to reimagine new possibilities.
With our normal lives on hold and almost no international travel, formally time-short senior designers and executives have been available and excited to talk, keen to discuss their ideas – and more openly. I like to think it has something to do with the informality of home video calls. With their intimate backdrop of books and artwork, and the occasional cute wondering toddler and (not-so-cuddly) pet, the set-up has certainly contributed to a more honest exchange of ideas.
So, what has been my top takes from reporting in the time of the coronavirus? A large chunk of my writing since March has been devoted to navigating design in the future. What will our transport landscape look and feel like? How will we live more efficiently in our sprawling cities? What does progressive luxury look like? How can we use design and innovation to cut waste? I’ve been speaking with car designer, industrial designers, architects and town planners, with technology experts and gaming innovators, with fashion designers, filmmakers, artists and even chefs. It has been exhaustive, and I’ve had to learn about new industries, new technologies for a hugely exciting and challenging journey of discovery.
One of the more ambitious projects came via a Chinese tech start-up called Pix Moving. The Pix Self-Moving Spaces are autonomous mobile living units based on self-driving cars, while the overarching Pix City proposes flexible, technology-evolving cities. Company founder Chase Cao wants to deconstruct the relationship between city inhabitants and the urban space they occupy – what he calls the core logic of the city. Airspeeder is another inventive idea by the Australian tech firm Alauda. This is an electric flying race car ready to take to the skies and compete with other speeders in a bid to help advance sustainable future transport.
Less grand but equally impressive are practical ideas for more ecological urban transport. The handful of electric cars presented by the traditional automakers have been adequate but largely underwhelming, leaving independent designers and makers to come up with the more radical ideas. London-based industrial design studio Seymourpowell’s Quarter Car is an interior-led design study of an electric autonomous ride-sharing vehicle for urban commutes, with physical partitions to allow for adaptable communal and private journeys.
Elsewhere, I was contacted by Arturo Tedeschi, an Italian architect and computational designer who uses algorithmic modelling, virtual reality and video games to make complex and exciting forms and shapes. While Swiss start-up Komma virtually showed me its Urban Mobility Vehicle. The work of a former Pininfarina designer, this inventive electric commuter sits somewhere between a motorbike and a conventional car, offering the agility of a two-wheeler, but with the comfort and safety of the latter.
On a more conceptual level, Royal College of Art Intelligent Mobility students offered some really exciting ideas to drive our future. I particularly like a proposal to create a megacity taxi for 2040 as a way of considering the various cultural and social aspects of our future smart cities. A couple offer some sophisticated critical design thinking too with ideas that may have seemed impossible dreams before the pandemic made all things impossible possible.
On the other side of the spectrum, in the midst of the darkest hours of pandemic lockdown, I got into a debate as to the future of luxury. It all started with a casual video call with Alex Innes, the designer in charge of Rolls-Royce Coachbuild, who had rightfully been questioning the validity of the traditional values of luxury. The pandemic had offered him clarity on the issues, and the term post-opulence was coined to represent the coming era where timeless objects will gain more value and customers will form deeper relations with luxury brands.
That week I happen to contact Dickie Bannenberg, one half of the celebrated London yacht design studio Bannenberg & Rowell. He was equally pensive, noting that the post-pandemic world should be one of post-hedonism – a concept that also chimes with our time. How much of this will be viable in the ultra-luxury, purely hedonistic superyacht world remains to be seen though.
More realistic perhaps are the restored classic Rolls-Royces, Jaguars and Land Rovers by the British restomod firm Lunaz. The 1961 Rolls-Royce Phantom V and Silver Cloud motors – completely re-imagined for modern driving with less wasteful battery-electric drive and sustainable luxury materials – seem to be the finest manifestation of a post-pandemic luxury landscape.
As is Arksen. Capturing the zeitgeist, the yacht business is on a mission to inject purpose into luxury travel and to facilitate philanthropic adventures. The portfolio is truly tempting, but what I like most about both these brands is that rather than make ecological luxury a lesser option, they have injected huge desire into their products and propositions. To me, this is the key.
Meanwhile, art and culture increasingly became a lifeline during the pandemic blues. With shuttered galleries and museums, doors closed to theatres and music halls, and with art fairs cancelled, the need to endorse the arts became ever-more apparent. Early in the pandemic, I had an uplifting conversation with a friend and colleague Thomas Girst who, in his role as head of BMW cultural engagement, is deeply involved with supporting artists and cultural establishments.
We talked of the benefits for corporate brands getting involved with creative sponsorships, but also of the momentum steered by the BLM movement urging us to rethink cultural memory – re-write the text to include those largely left out of the canon of art and design history. The pandemic has also proved something that I’ve long passionately believed: of the necessity of arts and ideas to be more than entertainment – to be the voice, the reviewer and the projector of change.
I signed off my 2020 writing assignments with a conversation with Chris Bangle – a creative I admire very much for his on-going questioning of mainstream car design, and for his true critical design thinking. Over an impassioned and animated video call, he made a compelling case for an urgent need to radically rethink and deconstruct design for the electric age.
Chris compared today to the 1960s – a similar period of fear, upheaval, complexity and contradictions – noting that cars have the potential to reflect the paradoxical nature of our society. He spoke of cars imagined to the theory of ‘form follows emotion’. I mused over the idea that cars could have the possibility of then sharing this emotion with society – maybe take it further and be part of nation-building, have civic duties. Later, discussing this with my father, he suggested replacing the word ’emotion’ with ‘human relations’ or ‘society’, so the argument extends to becoming one at the centre of progressive political thought.
Looking back, what I learnt most in the last nine months is that we have a collective responsibility to engage with the world and to make change happen. Change is possible, but it requires active involvement. And the pandemic has been polarising – separating us into those who see this as a call to action, and those who have retreated further inside their tribes. I’m transported to my childhood growing up in the Middle East, witnessing how in times of conflict and revolution friendships and families naturally drift apart over ideology and action. It is often in these critical times when you can re-evaluate who you wish to continue in your life story.
On a positive note, the pandemic unleashed a new wave of activists – well, Covid combined with Trump’s toxic reign. And it is encouraging to see some of my dear friends and colleagues stand up to racial and social injustice, defend the planet and environment, become involved in the making of a better world. There’s been a fantastic sense of camaraderie during the pandemic which I sincerely hope won’t vanish with the end of the virus.
Covid has brought with it much loss and sorrow. It has shown social disparities with the economically disadvantaged and immigrant groups largely bearing much of the heavy burden. The virus has exposed our fragility as humans. It has also revealed our spirit of resilience. Stuck at home with limited access to people and places, with social media’s frightening alternative truths in constant view, it is easy to get consumed in life’s dramas. Bad news shouts louder than good news. But look around and for every act of evil there will be a dozen selfless deeds of kindness.
On the day before the third London lockdown, I popped into a gallery which happened to have remained open. On entering I spotted the beautifully illustrated ‘Planting the Oudolf Gardens’ on the bookshelf and mentioned to the manager how I admire Piet Oudolf’s expressive and spirited landscape designs. She promptly offered me the book with a smile, saying that it clearly belongs to me. There is plenty to be hopeful for. To quote the author Isabel Allende, ‘the virus has invited us to design a new future’.
To 2021. In memory of Annie, who lived a full life and left us peacefully during the pandemic.