2020 in review: A year in design and rethinking the future

No One is an Island' by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i and dancers Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett- Graham (company Wayne McGregor). Photo Ravi Deepres © BMW AG
No One is an Island‘ by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor © BMW AG

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.

An image of the Pix Moving self-driving fleet
Pix Moving self-driving fleet © Pix Moving

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.

Rolls-Royce Phantom V by Lunaz
The electric 1861 Rolls-Royce Phantom by Lunaz © Lunaz

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.

Arksen 85 © The Boundary
Arksen 85 adventure yacht represent new luxury © The Boundary

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.

Covid may have accelerated life into the future, yet with limited access to places and people, it also brought clarity and the chance to rethink the future through design and innovation
Emeric Lhuisset ‘L’autre rive’ at 2019 Paris Photo concludes with a series of fading blue renderings through cyanotype © Emeric Lhuisset

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.

Chris Bangle and the creative team behind the 2018 REDS electric concept
Chris Bangle and the creative team behind REDS electric concept © CBA

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.

How ideas from RCA students for a megacity taxi in 2040 can impact on our future

Discussions on smart cities tend to miss the cultural side – the various social landscapes, which is why these designs by Royal College of Art Intelligent Mobility students – asked to imagine a taxi in a speculative megacity of 2040 – are worth looking into. 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. Take a closer look here

Russian Avant-Garde Theatre, War, Revolution, Design

It was a time of change. It was a time of hope. In those first thirty years or so of the twentieth-century the artistic world moved in tandem, and at times with the same pulse as the political movements that fought for radical change.

In painting Cézanne and then Picasso and Braque changed the way we looked at surfaces, Vlaminck and Signac, in the footsteps of Van Gogh and Gauguin revolutionised, in their own individual way, our perception of colour.

In music Schoenberg had taken Liszt and Mahler to their logical conclusion and torpedoed tonality, and with it melody as it was understood as well as harmony. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring did the same for rhythm.  All these artists and many more had overthrown the old order in art.

But only in Russia the dream of establishing a totally new society became a real possibility. And it was there, in those turbulent early years of the century, that the most radical artistic revolutions took place. And in particular they took place in precisely in that art form that required group co-operation and directly addressed the audience – theatre and later the cinema.

It was to be art of the people for the people. As the curators of Russian Avant-Guard Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913-1933 at London’s V&A point out, this was one of the characteristics distinguishing the Russian scene from all others.  Virtually all the artists, regardless of their other artistic fields of interest, worked in theatre.

Here we encounter the radical painter Kazimir Malevich, the photographer Alexander Rodchenko, constructivists Vladimir Tatlin, and Liubov Popova, film director Sergei Eisenstein, and composers Shostakovich and Gliere.

New types of theatre production required innovative design solutions and artists from a variety of mediums, painting, architecture, textiles, photography, painting, and design came together to create a rich tapestry in the theatres. These in turn influenced every art form not just in Russia but elsewhere in Europe and beyond.

Also, as the curators point out, at this time women had equal representation to men. In addition to Popova, the exhibition shows works by Alexandra Exter, Varvara Stepanova, and Tatiana Bruni. Moreover, the art and theatre world was not just confined to Russian artists, but the Georgian Irakill Gamrekeli, Belarusians, Latvians and Ukrainians.

Here, on walls painted the vermillion red of change, the red of revolution, you see the incredible variety of designs employed, the daring use of colour and line in the costumes, the bold designs, the application of industrial imagery in the scenery, indeed the totally new way of linking clothes, movement, music, and background as a totality.

Malevich is presented by sketches and lithographs for the futurist opera Victory Over the Sun, premiered in 1913 in St Petersburg, where the costumes are made of contrasting patches of colour, using the beautiful clashing of black, white and red in large patches –  and the backdrops of cloth sheets painted in monochrome graphic forms.

One such is a large black and white square divided diagonally, a forerunner of his iconoclastic Black Square of 1915, a work which embodies the aesthetics of the Suprematist movement. On show are also his voluminous creations in bold colours which reshape the human figure.

As a member of Malevich’s art group Supremus from 1914-1916, Liubov Popova contributed to a number of exhibitions. Her involvement in theatre design is presented by her amazingly dynamic costumes for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and a maquette for a set model for the The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922) performed at the radical Meyerhold Theatre.

Popova’s set design comprised a mechanical mill, wheels and conveyor belts, in front of which Meyerhold (the curators use the Russian spelling Meyerkhold – there is no ‘h’ in the Cyrillic alphabet) could present his acting theory of biomechanics, which favoured gesture and movement over the representation of emotions.

In Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata, with music by Glière, Isaak Rabinovich rejected the traditional set by installing a unified architectural installation to match the structure of the performance replacing the traditional crank-and-pulley system. Elsewhere, the Georgian Irakli Gamrekeli experimented with sets with multipurpose usage.

Artist and photographer Rodchenko collaborated with the innovative theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold on a number of productions attempting, successfully, to represent in costume and scenery Meyerhold’s system of making the actors body more physically expressive. He also worked with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky on the bed bug (1929) for which he designed radically futurist ensembles featuring wide silhouettes and breathing apparatus to convey men from later decades.

Nicolai Musatov working with choreographer Kasian Goleizovsky designed clothes using taut geometric forms and limited colour range that allowed the free movement required by free dance or danse plastique.

Sergei Eisenstein’s costume design for the 1921 comic operetta Being Nice to Horses is both funny and futuristic. Eisenstein’s creations appear again in the costume and stage design for Macbeth. Alexandra Exter’s stage and costume design for Salome (1917) and for the pioneering as well as entertaining 1924 science fiction film Aelita: Queen of Mars are also on display here.

This is a unique collection that has never before been shown in the UK and gives a wonderful insight into the amazingly creative and exciting years, the numerous collective efforts to radically change our perceptions, before Socialist Realism all but killed innovation.

Mohsen Shahmanesh

Works on display in Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913 – 1933 are drawn primarily from the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum (Moscow) and St. Petersburg State Museum of Theatre and Music. It will be on exhibition at the V&A museum in London until 25 January 2015.

Read more reviews by Mohsen Shahmanesh here

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Vertical cities and urban villages

Can the car be more than a vehicle that takes you from A to B? This has been a subject much discussed in recent years. I remember talking endlessly with Chris Bangle, the former design boss at BMW, on this very subject – something that has been at the core of his design thinking (remember GINA?) – at a time when few car companies dared or even cared to venture into anything that signified a real change from the conventional automobile. There is more urgency now to address these issues and we’re seeing some interesting ideas floating around, and a degree of commitment from some of the larger manufactures.

Still, we’re a long way off from truly shifting our mentality. It should be up to the emerging generation of car designers to look at the profession as more than merely refining surfaces and creating yet another metallic object for individual consumption. It all feels so tired. Thankfully there are some who are shifting the paradigm.

The other day I met a couple of students studying Vehicle Design at the Royal College of Art in London who have started some interesting discussions. Yuan Fang feels that the vehicle needs to evolve to fit into the high-rise, densely populated cities of today. Zishi Han is looking at how the car can feed something back to the shantytown communities. These are college projects, but raise interesting themes on the role of the car in our future lives.

Yuan was inspired by her hometown of Shenzhen, a dense vertical megacity north of Hong Kong that was a village until 1979. Now with 15 million inhabitants, and a population density higher than Guangzhou, Beijing and Hong Kong, Shenzhen is the most crowded city in China. ‘These tall buildings shape the city into different layers,’ she explains. People have adapted to this new vertical existence spending most of their time indoors. She wants to change the form and function of the vehicle to harmonise with its environment.

Zishi grew up in Beijing where rapid economic growth has created a vast urban village – or chéng zh?ng cún, the Chinese slum. These mostly former rural villages have been swallowed up by expanding cities and house the poor and transient that, he says, ‘tend to keep their original texture.’

His idea is for an open-source system based around vehicles that improve the living conditions of urban villagers, and take advantage of what the area can offer including local material, skills and labour. He explains: ‘The system will bring urban villagers, car manufactures and the government together using low-tech production methods and locally-sourced material to produce a vehicle and dwelling in the urban village by locals for locals.’ Zishi is now working towards formulating an instruction for design and manufacturing, as well as a vehicle prototype made in his urban village.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read about the Audi Urban Future Initiative here.

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