The imagined future of the automobile was once exhilarating. It involved Jean Bugatti’s Type 57SC Atlantic, conceived in 1936 and to this day a work of art on wheels. The future was Wifredo Ricart’s 1952 Pegaso Z-102 Cúpula and Franco Scaglione’s 1954 Alfa Romeo BAT Car 7 for Bertone. Most daring of all, the future could have belonged to a world where the architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, together with yacht designer Starling Burgess, imagined the painfully cool and to this day avant-garde 1933 Dymaxion.
These motor cars explore inventive aerodynamic shapes, they are nautical-informed feline beauties, have curvaceous, luxurious, customised bodies, and are inspired by science and the space age and rockets. They represent extraordinary ingenuity; many are lyrical designs, immersed in meaning. Their designers were looking to the future, and the automobile’s prospect was bright and exciting, bursting with optimism.
Crucially, all this creative work didn’t happen in car design studio isolation. Rather, automobile design lived within an expansive narrative arc that involved art and architecture, urbanism, critical theory, philosophy and intellectual discourse. The car was seen as a vehicle for progress, not just for profit.
‘Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture’ (8 April to 18 September 2022) firmly places the automobile in this context. And by doing so, is a timely show to enliven discussions around the future of motor cars as we edge towards the post-combustion age. Or at least I hopes so. Curated by the architect Norman Foster at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the exhibition is a spirited celebration of the artistic dimension of the automobile — visually and culturally linking it to parallel worlds of painting and sculpture, architecture, photography and film. And it is a thoroughly beautiful show.
See why Norman Foster believes looking at the work and ideas of these visionary creatives will help navigate a better future. Read my full article here.
‘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.’
In 1920 F Scott Fitzgerald took what turned out to be a rather rocky road trip from Connecticut to Alabama in a used Marmon so Zelda could rekindle with her childhood in the south. His upbeat account of the eight day adventure were later published in book form as The Cruise of the Rolling Junk. Zelda was less generous with the journey writing simply: ‘the joys of motoring are more-or-less fictional’. When building his 1924 Type 35, Ettore Bugatti modelled the engine first in wood to make sure the proportions were right for the car. In 1933 the racing driver Francis Turner was killed while testing Buckminster Fuller’s crazy-shaped three-wheeled Dymaxion since the architect and inventor didn’t bother too much with mastering aerodynamics and proper engineering so his prototype lifted at speed making it impossible to steer or brake as Turner was to tragically discover. The Fiat Lingotto Turin facility and its cinematic pista were the work of a naval architect by the name of Giacomo Matté-Trucco who was inspired by the theories of the Italian Futurists.
These are just some of the myriad of topics gathered from the car-besotted century by Stephen Bayley in his latest book The Age of Combustion – an edited selection of his Octane column, The Aesthete. This is a hugely engaging book and Bayley is a natural raconteur. His writing is erudite but also light and fun – forever weaving his immense pool of knowledge on architecture and design and cinema and literature and life into multiple narratives. Or to quote the industrial designer J Mays: ‘No one articulates the Theatre of Design like Stephen Bayley.’
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.’
‘Ultimate Collector Cars‘ is a lavish double-volume book by Charlotte and Peter Fiell documenting history’s one-hundred most collectable cars. It features the landmark 1903 Mercedes-Simplex 40-horsepower, the evocative 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC, iconic Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa of 1957, Bertone’s supremely glorious 1973 Lamborghini Countach and the present-day McLaren Speedtail and Aston Martin Valkyrie hypercars. Expertly researched and beautifully illustrated with archive and studio photography, Taschen’s latest book is a timely ode to the motor car as we enter the new age of the automobile. Read my interview with the authors who discuss their two-year research into this project here.