Brave new word: Reflections on 2019, predictions for 2020

Needless to say, it has been a turbulent introductory decade to the new millennium with so much profound change and so many challenges ahead. Yet, even as dark as it is politically around the world, and hopeless as it feels with our planet’s health and our people’s happiness, we may have climbed the steepest part. Joan Didion wrote, ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.’ Great words. I’ve been writing most of my life, and the decade gone has been the most challenging and possibly exciting. In particular, the last twelve months have pushed me to explore beyond my comfort zone and to stay focused despite the chaos that surrounds us. It is equally terrifying and thrilling visiting new people and places, discovering new ideas and worlds that shift the mindset – question the dogmas. 

So, what have I learned? Our lives may not look quite the dystopian vision pictured by the 1980s films ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘Running Man’. Many of us live in homes with doors and windows and refrigerators, and still, drive rectangular cars with four wheels and a conventional engine. But our homes and refrigerators and cars talk to one another and with bigger forces. And, in the way these plots predicted, corrupt elites around the world are gaining power over hopeless populations through media manipulation. The films all have happy endings though.

Extinction Rebellion at the V&A uses bold graphics that are universally understood

This year I met visionary artists, architects, designers, scientists, musicians who are collectively pushing their creative forces to find better solutions for how we live, drive, learn, wear, eat. I drove some conventional motor cars, relics of a bygone era, almost dinosaurs unwilling to give up pleasure when it is clearly killing our planet. I met self-congratulating architects and designers reluctant to part with their egos, still creating work with little social relevance. But then, I also experienced hugely progressive design – community-building, socially-engaged housing projects, and transport ideas envisaged and created by generations embracing change.

Lautre riveimpressions cyanotypes disparaissant progressivement à la lumière du soleil,Irak, Syrie, Turquie, Grèce, Allemagne, Danemark, France, 2011-2017.
Émeric Lhuisset’s ‘L’autre rive’ depicts scenes of the sea where many migrants vanish

Look beyond the headlines and there is much progress out these. Women in art and design are finally getting noticed – as was evident in the number of powerful exhibitions dedicated to lost females of creativity. Vehicles coming off production lines are cleaner, safer and smarter. They may not conjure up the immediate visceral joy of the motor car in its golden age, but why should that matter? Why can’t they instead have their own language to express the new era of clean transport – this brighter future ahead of us. There is huge visceral joy in that. Likewise, with the global population expected to increase to 9.8 billion by 2050, we have to rethink urban planning, architecture, and design, examine health (physical and mental), produce and food, work towards a green economy. And there is excitement in all this. We need to step outside the nostalgia lane and shift our attitudes.

Goldsmith-Street
Mikhail Riches Architects, Cathy Hawley’s RIBA Sterling Prize-winning social housing project

Which brings me to another subject which will increasingly shape the world in this coming decade: movement and migration. Kwame Anthony Appiah writes, ‘cultures are made of continuities and changes, and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without change aren’t authentic; they’re just dead.’ Towards the final days of the 2010s, I met with a visual artist concerned with the narrative given to the refugee. I am always amazed at how a term, a simple word, can alter the image of a displaced people: émigré, migrant, immigrant, refugee – the first carries such romantic notions, the last such demons. Émeric Lhuisset’s work is a critique of a global culture where facts and truths are in danger of losing all meaning. He offers an alternative story to media photography of war and migrants, with its immediate yet temporary digital age shock value. His is about the power of a photograph, of art to influence humanity’s collective consciousness.

Michael Anastassiades: A Fountain for London
Michael Anastassiades’s ‘A Fountain for London’ are site-specific drinking water fountains

My predictions for 2020? There are huge challenges ahead of us as we figure out how to balance the physical and digital world – how much of our privacy and freedom to give away for security, how to shift our attitude and lifestyle to help better this world, how to be more generous with ourselves and our skills, and towards our planet. And we all need to be involved and be held accountable. Too many rely on others to make things happen. And we need a certain amount of optimism. I am convinced more than ever that, to borrow from the words of another great female Louise bourgeois, ‘art is the guarantee of sanity’. Here’s to a new decade of possibilities.

Take a look at my articles in Forbes Life and Wallpaper*.

Insight: Paolo Pininfarina on the past and future of the famed Italian design studio

Pininfarina is responsible for some of the most enduring and exotic motor cars in design history. Founded by Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina in 1930, the carrozzeria has sketched products that have become icons for Ferrari, Fiat, and Alfa Romeo – to name a few. The studio works within the wider creative world too, designing jets, yachtstrains, buses, and other industrial products. It is also expanding its architecture practice with some outstanding projects. As the marque celebrates its 90th birthday, I used the opportunity to chat with the chair and grandson of the founder, Paolo Pininfarina, to see where he sees the company heading now and in the future. Read the full interview here

New books celebrate the Bauhaus centenary and its legacy

I attended an art and design foundation course much like the famous Vorkurs run by Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy, a year-long requirement for all new Bauhaus students before they could progress to study in a specific workshop. In a similar way to how the Bauhauslers ran the famous art school a century ago, mine was a place that taught experimentation and encouraged abstraction, tasking us to find our own unique solutions. And it happened to be the finest year of my formal education. The specialist art school that proceeded, failed entirely to capture my imagination, lacking the free spirit, the magical weirdness of that original school. So, I left my paints, clay, tools and camera, and took up writing.

‘To have the gift of imagination is more important than all technology,’ wrote Gropius, reflecting the spiritual origin of the school he founded. And as the Bauhaus celebrates 100, a series of publications aim to explore the enduring legacy of this modest art school founded in 1919 in the quiet town of Weimar. Some are assessing the impact of the Bauhaus post 1933, as Bauhauslers emigrated to England and America and beyond. Others have re-published some of the original Bauhaus journals and documents. Together they tell a compelling story of the most famous school of design – a place of collective dialogues, progressive ideology, imagination and creative madness.

The Bauhaus was formed in response to the crisis and devastation following the first world war. It represented a collective voice desperate to forge a new world order. It was and remains so much more than an art school – it represents a significant cultural movement. The Bauhauslers championed the power of imagination and freedom of expression. They believed strongly in bringing the art of craft to industry, embracing architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity. They explored utopian ideas, celebrated the avant-garde and encouraged free love and creative madness – sometimes to the extreme. And long after they were forced to shut down, pressured by the Nazis who saw the progressive ways a threat after assuming power in 1933, as émigrés in London and Paris and New York, their dissident voices continued to be heard.

The first of the series of books takes us back in time for insight into the teachings, ideas and philosophies of the Bauhaus when it was alive with discussion in Weimar, Dessau and then Berlin. Lars Müller has collaborated with Bauhaus-Archiv/Museum für Gestaltung for ‘Bauhaus Journals 1926-1931’ with edited voices of the key figures of the modern movement in art and design. Josef Albers, Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, László Moholy-Nagy, Oskar Schlemmer, Herbert Bayer, Marcel Breuer, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Gerrit Rietveld – all feature in this stimulating publication.

They address developments in and around the Bauhaus, the methods and focal points of their own teaching, and current projects of students and masters. The exact replica of all individual issues is accompanied by a commentary booklet including an overview of the content, an English translation of all texts, and a scholarly essay to place the journal in its historical context.

Accompanying this are four beautifully-republished journals from the ‘Bauhausbücher’ series, all in their original design. ‘International Architecture’ was the first to start the series with the school founder Gropius offering an illustrative lesson on the theories of the modern architecture movement of the mid-1920s. In ‘Pedagogical Sketchbook’ artist Klee expresses key aspects of the Bauhaus’ guiding philosophies, writing of his desire to reunite artistic design and craft in a tone that moves between the seeming objectivity of the diagram, the rhetoric of science and mathematics, and an abstract intuition.

Third in the series by Lars Müller is ‘New Design’ by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. He begins with a philosophical foray describing art as a figurative expression of human existence, questioning the prevailing hierarchy between painting and architecture, observing the future of his movement, neoplasticism – abstract painting which used only horizontal and vertical lines and primary colours. Lastly, ‘Painting, Photography, Film’ by Moholy-Nagy argues for photography and filmmaking to be recognised as a means of artistic design on the same level as painting. With some fascinating illustrations, the Hungarian makes the case for a functional transformation within the visual arts and for the further development of photographic design options.

All this was before 1933. With the closure of the Bauhaus school, most of its prominent members left Germany in search for new homes, and new schools to teach. They took with them their ideologies, which in turn evolved and changed with their new destinations. Two books explore this post-Bauhaus journey.

‘Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain’ by Batsford narrates the brilliant story of the giants of the international modern movement – Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, Breuer – and their brief émigré life in Hampstead, London before they moved to America. The story centres around the Isokon, the building by architect Wells Coats, where they lived and where they collectively pioneered concepts of minimal and shared living. Isokon’s apartments, restaurant and bar became a creative hub for writers and artists and designers in the 1930s and 40s. Authors Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund paint a colourful portrait of the notorious dinners here, as the Bauhauslers party and discuss advancing the world alongside local creatives – Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Peter and Alison Smithson, even Agatha Christie was a guest here.

Thames & Hudson’s ‘Bauhaus Goes West’ also explores the cultural exchange between these émigrés and their new adopted homelands. The general idea is that England wasn’t receptive to the avant-garde in 1933 – possibly a concept backed by the fact that there are few early projects of significance made here. Much like what we learn in the Isokon, author Alan Powers also challenges this notion, suggesting there was a provocative dialogue between the Bauhauslers and local young leaders of opinion here, namely Nicholas Pevsner and Herbert Read. The book follows their journey onto America, where the Bauhaus titans really flourish. Gropius prospers at the Harvard architecture school, Breuer gets to design great monumental buildings, Moholy-Nagy sets up a new Bauhaus school in Chicago, as husband and wife team Anni and Josef Albers shine at the brilliant liberal Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

We will never know if the Bauhaus would have such an ongoing impact on generations of creatives had the school not been forced to close in 1933. Yet what’s clear is that the discussions initiated in this small school of art and design in Weimar in 1919 evolved and enriched through a broader, international dialogue with artists and designers and philosophers and writers from London to Paris, New York, Tel Aviv and beyond. What is also clear is that the creative community could benefit from revisiting these journals, reading some of the ideas being weaved at a time that also was in the midst of crisis. As we navigate a new world, assessing how we can design for a more efficient and fairer world, we should tap into the spirit of this progressive movement – this school of thought.

Nargess Banks

All images are strictly © Lars Müller. From the  ‘Bauhaus Journals 1926 – 1931’, edited and published Lars Müller and Bauhaus-Archiv/Museum für Gestaltung; and the re-published journals from the ‘Bauhausbücher’ series (1926-1931)

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

 

Discover innovative, extreme, ingenious urban designs in ‘The Contemporary House’

The Bauhaus, 100 this year, has impacted tremendously on the creative world ideologically and aesthetically. It has transformed how we design our homes, the objects we choose to live with, and urban life. Yet, the 21st century is facing its own unique and hugely urgent challenges – globalisation, rapid urbanisation and rising environmental concerns. Cities are overcrowded, new buildings must meet stringent energy requirements and negotiate a myriad of planning regulations. They need to address their surroundings; form progressive narratives with history – hopefully. Contemporary urban architecture is, therefore, a complex jigsaw-puzzle with invention, innovation and imagination as critical as ever.

The Contemporary House’ takes on this very theme. Written by Jonathan Bell and Ellie Stathaki, both architectural critics and editors at Wallpaper* magazine, and published by Thames & Hudson, this is an insightful study of new city living. It is organised geographically as a way of understanding regional dialogues, and features seventy of the world’s most innovative, extreme and ingenious houses. The book reviews how modern residential design is integrated into the existing urban fabric for a fascinating insight into the variety of contemporary approaches to urban design.

Some of the traditional vernacular forms such as terraced homes, townhouses and isolated villas are being questioned today, as are the repercussions of the 20th century’s suburban sprawls and their poor land use. ‘The Contemporary House’ sees new philosophies of minimalism replacing some of the more indulgent structures of the past. For instance, it refers to a new shape called ‘the stack’ – one that is compact, space-conscious and insulated. Amidst the fear of homogenisation of cities, there is a tendency for more self-expression in the contemporary homes too. Most importantly, the 21st century is defined by the urgency for thinking sustainably and imaginatively in reusing resources.

As cities become ever-congested, as we face the challenges of an ageing population and mass migration, and as we work towards a sustainable future – architects, designers and urban planners will need to continue to expand on the principals laid out by the Bauhaus members one-hundred years ago. To quote the school’s founder, Walter Gropius, ‘To have the gift of imagination is more important than all technology.’

All images are under ©. In order of appearance: Lee-Chin Crystal at Royal Ontario Museum by Studio Daniel © Nikreates/Alamy Stock Photo; Amsterdam’s Inntel Hotel by WAM Architecten © Frans lemmens/Alamy Stock Photo; The Shard in London by Renzo Piano © CW Images/Alamy Stock Photo; Glenn Murcutt’s houses Sydney suburb © Paul Lovelace/Alamy Stock Photo; Via 57 West in Manhattan by BIG © imageBROKER/Alamy Stock Photo

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

 

Guido, the self-driving, self-mixing urban bar-on-demand

Guido is a self-driving robotics bar by the Italian design and research studio Carlo Ratti and robotics bartender experts Makr Shakr. It uses an autonomous vehicles platform and features two mechanical arms that can precisely prepare and serve any cocktail combination in a matter of seconds. Much like an Uber of the bar world, Guido offers an app-based on-demand system with wider ambitions to create social hubs in otherwise neglected urban areas. Sounds intriguing? Read the full story here.

Renderings © Gary di Silvio (CRA), Carlo Turati and Marco Conte (Makr Shakr)

Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©