Ai Weiwei’s latest large scale Lego artwork for Design Museum London asks us to question beauty and reality

Water Lilies #1, 2022, by Ai Weiwei. Lego bricks. Photo © Ela Bialkowska/OKNO studio. © Image courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua

‘In Water Lilies #1, I integrate Monet’s Impressionist painting, reminiscent of Zenism in the East, and concrete experiences of my father and me into a digitised and pixelated language,’ explains Ai Weiwei of his latest and largest Lego artwork based on the painter’s Water Lilies (1914-26) and created for Design Museum London to coincide with Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, the artist’s biggest UK show in eight years.

He continues, ‘Toy bricks as the material, with their qualities of solidity and potential for deconstruction, reflect the attributes of language in our rapidly developing era where human consciousness is constantly dividing.’

Depicting the lily pond and garden at his home in Giverny, Normandy, Water Lilies beautifully captures nature’s serene beauty. And by choosing Monet’s painting, but then working with cold plastics and standard colours, Ai wants us to challenge our notion of reality and beauty.

Ai Weiwei's latest large scale Lego artwork, based in Monet's Water Lilies for Design Museum London asks us to question beauty and reality.
Detail from Water Lilies #1, 2022,by Ai Weiwei. Lego bricks. Photo © Ela Bialkowska/OKNO studio. © Image courtesy of the artist and Galleria Continua

And to add to the disorientation, on the right-hand side sits a dark portal, representing the door to the underground dugout in Xinjiang province where the young artist and his father, one of China’s most renowned poets, Ai Qing, were forced to live in exile in the 1960s. It forms a stark contrast to the waterlily paradise that dominates the scene.

‘Our world is complex and collapsing towards an unpredictable future,’ says Ai. ‘It’s crucial for individuals to find a personalised language to express their experience of these challenging conditions. Personalized expression arises from identifying with history and memories while creating a new language and narrative. Without a personal narrative, artistic narration loses its quality.’

At over 15m long and made from nearly 650,000 studs of Lego bricks in 22 colours, Water Lilies #1 will span the entire length of one of the walls in the Design Museum gallery in London when it goes on exhibition next month.

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense is at the Design Museum London from April 7 to July 30, 2023.

What is the role of a design museum Today? Tim Marlow, Design Museum director discusses

Ahead of his exhibition this spring, artist Ai Weiwei poses outside London’s Design Museum
Photography © Rick Pushinsky/Design Museum

As the director of the Design Museum in London, Tim Marlow is on a mission to transform the institution into a lively space that examines and showcases all sorts of different idea, and from multiple perspectives.

I met up with Marlow at the west London museum to see what the former Royal Academy of Arts director has in mind for a museum dedicated to contemporary design.

During our long conversation he said: “I’d like to get to a position where I can raise enough funding so we can be the museum that examines and showcases all sorts of different ideas. We are the national design museum and should be doing this.”

Read the full interview here

Modernist icon: Charlotte Perriand at the Design Museum

Charlotte Perriand La Cascade residence, Arc 1600, 1967-1969 © AChP

‘There is 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.

‘Charlotte Perriand: The Modern’ at the Design Museum in London sheds a timely light on the life and work of one of the pioneers of modern design and architecture

‘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.’

Charlotte Perriand at the Design Museum

Images: Charlotte Perriand on her chaise longue basculante B306, 1929, perspective drawing of the dining room in the apartment-studio, bookcase for the Maison du Mexique, 1952 – all © AChP/ ADAGP; Perriand’s ball-bearing necklace 1927 and Fernand Léger’s Nature morte, le mouvement à billes 1926, cantilever bamboo chair 1940, chaise longue with pendant lamps 1958 by Isamu Noguchi © Design Museum; Perriand’s La Cascade residence, Arc 1600, 1967-1969 © AChP; exhibition installation © Design Museum